Politics & Policy

In This Vale of Tears, the Politician Trumps the Pope

(Tiziana Fabi/AFP/Getty)

In the war between Pope Francis and Donald Trump, both sides seem to have sued for peace before the fighting really got under way. On the morning after Father Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, “clarified” that the pope was neither intending a general judgment on Trump nor intervening in American politics when he said that “this man is not a Christian.” He was simply repeating one of the familiar themes of his papacy — namely, that we should build bridges rather than walls between people, in obedience to our Christian obligations of welcome and charity. And if Trump had been accurately quoted as wanting to build walls and divide families, then that wouldn’t be very Christian of him. But Trump might have been misquoted.

On the same day Trump said almost exactly the same thing. He felt the pope’s original attack on him, which he had first said was “disgraceful,” had itself been misquoted.

“I don’t think this is a fight,” he told a Republican town-hall meeting in South Carolina. “I think he said something much softer than was originally reported in the media.” He also produced quotes to establish that he had called for families to stay together but, as far as I can establish, not that he never called for building a wall.

And he went further, calling Pope Francis a wonderful guy, saying ,“I don’t like fighting with the pope. I like his personality, I like what he represents.”

The referee then rang the bell and both contestants returned to their corners. That was extremely prudent of both men. Prudence is a Christian virtue as well as a political necessity. While being grateful that peace has broken out (and agreeing almost totally with what my colleague Kathryn Lopez has written on the deeper questions), what practical lessons should we learn?

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If you are going to cast doubt on someone else’s faith, especially if you happen to be the pope, you should probably not do so at an airline press conference nor cast it in terms of, well, I wouldn’t really know, but if what you say is true, then the fellow probably isn’t a Christian. On this occasion “Who am I to judge?” might have been a better response.

And if you happen to be a GOP presidential candidate, you probably shouldn’t embark on a spat with a Christian prelate who has managed the difficult trick of being popular with some of the most anti-Christian elements in American society, notably the media, who will enjoy writing headlines such as “Pope Condemns Trump, Threatens Excommunication.” 

I realize that the pope can’t excommunicate someone who isn’t a Catholic. But the media have a very infirm grasp of these details.

No, I realize that the pope can’t excommunicate someone who isn’t a Catholic. But the media have a very infirm grasp of these details. That is why these on-the-hoof press conferences on Vatican Air are so dangerous for the pope. He wants to give a general picture of the Church as believing in mercy toward sinners or in refuge for the oppressed or in ecumenical reconciliation between Christian churches — and the headlines the next day read, “Pope to ‘Soften’ Burning of Heretics, Traditionalist Catholics Angered.”

If it’s prudent for Christian and national leaders to avoid casting doubt on the faith of others, the rest of us can do so without too many qualms, as Kevin Williamson argues with his usual vigor. We shouldn’t complain if people who disagree about fundamentals express their disagreements strongly, provided that they do so without breaking bones. Experience in America’s multi-faith society suggests that vigorous debate leads to tolerance far more effectively than suppression.

RELATED: Why Not Question Trump’s Faith?

Mr. Trump, incidentally, has never struck me as America’s most devout Christian. But the record of those who present themselves as such is not always reassuring. Given a choice between a carnival barker and a televangelist, I would stick with the carnival man. At least I would get to see Little Egypt. And since we can’t know what is in another’s heart, we should probably concentrate on debating what someone says rather than asking what he really believes. Mr. Trump is quite vulnerable enough on that score. And despite my charitableness up to this point, it’s just possible that the logical positivists are right and that “what does Donald Trump believe” is a meaningless question.

He is, incidentally, perhaps the last person who can complain if he’s the target of doubt-casting, since he has shown a very shrewd line in that himself. Few who saw it will forget his fatherly interest in the Seventh-day Adventist faith of Dr. Carson, along the lines of “Hey, they’re not the snake handlers, are they? . . . Not that there’s anything wrong with that . . . Some fine God-fearing people handle snakes . . . Well, once, anyway . . . but I wouldn’t know much about that, being a good Republican cloth-coat Presbyterian myself.”

#share#All that said, there are serious matters raised by this small episode — mainly, it seems to me for Catholics and other Christians.

The first one is that, as a Catholic, I would wish that the pope’s first little venture in questioning someone’s faith (however obliquely) had been directed at a Catholic. Goodness knows, there is no shortage of distinguished Catholic public figures who are almost competing to receive a papal putdown of that kind. And the bishops seem reluctant to oblige. Moreover, a rebuke within the faith would be less likely to reawaken ill-natured feelings across Christian denominations or other religious lines. And within the faith it might even have some effect.

RELATED: The Pope Was Wrong: Fences Do Not Define Faith

Outside it, not so much. If one looks at the mainstream Protestant religions today, entire churches could be plausibly accused of not being Christian on matters far more fundamental to Christianity than illegal immigration without giving their congregations the slightest offense. Questioning a faith is effective only if there is some common ground on what the faith is. We don’t have as much common ground on matters of faith as in the past. As a result, not only is it hard to question another’s faith but also, when it happens, it tends to be a political question rather than a religious one — which in practice means a topic in which religion and politics are mixed.

If a Christian policy produces a collapse into ruins, we can be pretty sure that it’s not a Christian policy.

That brings me to my second point, which is that these are the thorniest questions for the Church; namely, questions in which Christian morality is inextricably mixed with prudential judgments of a secular kind. For Catholics the pope speaks with authority on Christian faith and morals (as do other prelates in other denominations); but it is the laity which enjoys authority on practical questions arising when Christian morality is applied to such questions as migrant policy. Economists know more than priests about how economic policies work, and so on. Moreover, sometimes there is a clash of moral principles that has to be reconciled by balancing one with another. As John Zmirak points out, Catholic Christianity in particular has always emphasized the importance of reason in Christian teaching. If a Christian policy produces a collapse into ruins, we can be pretty sure that it’s not a Christian policy. And as Mr. Zmirak notes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church balances the right of migration with the right of societies to protect their well-being. Here are the two balancing paragraphs;

The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.

Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.

Who would raise greater objections to that balance of judgments? Donald Trump and Ted Cruz or Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders? I think that question answers itself.

#related#And the third point is that this balance of judgments is almost never raised in political and religious debate, especially on “hot button” issues such as immigration. That is a pity on many grounds, of which the most important is that the driving passion among many advocates of mass immigration is not Christian benevolence but hostility to the nation-state in America and Europe. They see mass migration as a way of undermining the existing nation-states in both continents either by eroding their common culture or by making their borders meaningless. I think we can acquit the pope of these intentions, but the Catholic Church as a universalist body has always been suspicious of nationality as an organizing principle for statehood. But that’s a topic for another day and article.

In general, when discussing these thorny questions of religion and politics, we should bear in mind the practical gospel of Saint Thomas Babington Macaulay: “A man may be a very good Christian and a very bad Chancellor of the Exchequer.” And in this vale of tears, the second consideration, er, trumps the first.

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