The exchange between Pope Francis and Donald Trump was the biggest much-ado-about-nothing political story of the campaign.
The headlines blared about the pope denouncing Trump and Trump firing back at the pope. It was all nonsense. A tempest in a fuselage.
Pope Francis was returning to the Vatican after a wildly successful visit to Mexico when he was asked a question by a reporter. Can an American vote for a man like Donald Trump who wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico?
Right away, the pope said, “As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that.”
The line that was twisted and pulled out of context was this from the mouth of the Holy Father: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”
To be fair to Donald Trump, that is not his position. He is not proposing the building of a wall to keep out Mexicans and others. He wants to build a wall so that the U.S. can have some control over who comes into this country. Mexicans who meet the requirements to enter the U.S. are welcome.
Such a wall also would put the U.S. on a better track toward controlling the flow of illegal drugs into our country. Lives are being ruined on this side and that side of the border because of illegal drugs. It has to be stopped. And to be blunt, a lot of that responsibility is on this side of the border that is creating the desire for more drugs as a solution to deep societal problems.
The pope is not a politician and he doesn’t offer political solutions to societal problems. He is a religious leader and part of his job is to remind us of the highest ideals of what it means to be a human being. When the pope says Christians should be building bridges and not walls to keep people apart, he is right. But he is not saying that a wall cannot be used to bring people together in a rational and sane way.
Even the pope in his response said, “We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give him the benefit of the doubt.” You didn’t read that line anywhere.
The turmoil caused by the headlines didn’t seem to affect Trump’s popularity. He went on to receive the amount of votes and margin of victory that he was supposed to achieve in the South Carolina Primary.
And the media was quick to surmise that Trump had survived a fracas with the pope. One headline claimed the Vatican had to walk back the statements of the pope. The Vatican spokesman did nothing of the sort. He simply put Pope Francis’ words into a proper context.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio that Pope Francis’ statement on the importance of building bridges instead of walls “in no way was meant as a personal attack or an indication of how to vote.”
“The pope said what we know well from following his teaching and his positions: that one must not build walls, but bridges,” the spokesman said. “He always has said this, including many times in reference to questions of migration in Europe.”
Father Lombardi also pointed out that the pope, in answering the question, said, “If he says this,” which was “giving the benefit of the doubt” to Trump in case he did not say what the reporter attributed to him.
It’s too bad that this is the story the media told on a week that had seen Pope Francis make an historic and pastoral visit to Mexico. The headlines should have been about the pope asking parents to find more time for their children, the pope asking the Mexican bishops to walk closer to their people, the pope denouncing the drug cartels and the pope explaining to prisoners that they could use their time in prison to change their ways and rebuild their lives. These were the stories of the week, not a pope chiding a politician.