Political agitator Ann Coulter took to Twitter a few days ago to share these sterling thoughts. The typography is hers.
Jeb!, an AMERICAN Catholic, defends Trump, disapproves of Pope bossing around U.S. on wall. Rubio, a ROMAN Catholic, beholden to the Pope.
At the time I write this, that post has received 1,143 favorites and 656 retweets. (In another missive on Twitter, she contrasted Trump’s blameless business dealings with the Church’s toleration of pedophilia. Even though the pope had some very harsh words to say about such priests in the very same interview. But I digress.) Coulter was not at all alone; on his radio show (transcript and audio here), Sean Hannity (who is Catholic) accused the pope of “insert[ing] himself into this election.” Even the New York Times, not known for its conservative leanings, proclaimed that the pope was “inserting himself into the Republican presidential race.”
Really? Does no one—no one—know how to check a transcript anymore? To suggest the pope is inserting himself and bossing the U.S., if he is not in fact doing that, is bearing false witness. Is it not?
So once more this is an opportunity to show how far the pope’s actual words are from what the media is reporting them to be. Let us go to the official transcript provided by Catholic News Agency and look at the exchange. It starts with a question by Phil Pullella of Reuters:
Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle.
Ah, so it is the reporter who brings up the American election. So whatever the pope says, it is in response to the reporter having introduced the topic.
And by the way, do you think the pope is following the primaries and gets reports about all the scuttlebutt and visits the blogs every day to keep track of the twists and turns like a soap opera? I don’t know, but somehow I doubt this occupies quite so much of the pope’s time and thought as it does ours. The reason I point this out is because it is very likely that the only information the pope has to go on is what the guy from Reuters gives him as context for the question.
Pullella went on.
One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics.
This may be a shock for some people to hear, but I do not think Pope Francis, prior to this question, had any idea at all who Donald Trump is. I really don’t. Here is a man who has given his life to service of the poor; he is not keeping track of the lifestyles of the rich and famous. And so his first introduction to the name Donald Trump is in the context of bait from a reporter who is trying to generate a headline: Hey, Frank, there’s this guy Trump who has said not nice things about you. What do you have to say about that, huh?
Pullella went on.
Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera.
Talk about leading the witness on a policy proposal he likely has heard nothing about, not to mention read!
I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?
Again, note that it is the reporter who invites Pope Francis to comment upon the election, tries to corner him into telling American Catholics how to vote, and tries to start a war of words between a presidential candidate and the pope. It is not as though the pope addresses these topics on his own initiative, as though he were handing out a motu proprio about who to vote for. The pope does not wake up and say to himself, Let me interfere in American politics today, insult Donald Trump, and drive Coulter and Hannity wild, because, you know, those two clowns really have it coming. Limbaugh too. I’ve always hated Limbaugh.
Here is how the pope answers:
Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.
Hmm. Okay, so the pope is self-effacing. He turns Trump’s words into an opportunity to joke about Aristotle, and does not show the least impulse toward defensiveness or self-justification. He says: I will let people make their own judgments.
Here is the rest of the pope’s answer.
And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. 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. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
A couple things are going on here, so let’s take them one at a time.
First, right in the middle of all that, the pope specifically refuses to “insert himself” into the election. “I am not going to get involved in that,” he says. He is not going to tell people how to vote. That means that the claims of Sean Hannity and the New York Times are just flat-out false.
Second, the pope’s first statement (1) is phrased generically. He does not address Trump specifically here, but just “a person.” He is making a general observation. And (2) it contains an important, qualifying adverb. “A person who thinks only about building walls … is not Christian,” the pope says. He does not say a border wall is bad of itself. Nor does he address the complexities of national security concerns. Instead he criticizes only an inordinate obsession with keeping people out and not welcoming people in.
That is “not in the Gospel,” he says, and the pope is right. In fact, Leviticus 19:34 says:
The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
A person who thinks only about building walls, and not welcoming people in, is not heeding this command of Scripture, which is nowhere done away with by the Gospel. And the Catechism of the Catholic Church, §2241, tells us this:
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.
It is also important to note that the pope only has the reporter’s description of Trump’s policy to go on. Remember what Pullella said: Trump proposes to separate families by his immigration plan! The pope is responding to the way the reporter characterized the issue, and is doing so as a general observation.
Third, when the pope does turn to Trump at the end of his answer, he phrases his response in the conditional, “if.” “If this man said these things,” etc. He is careful to admit the possibility that the reporter’s characterization is false. (The fact that the pope refers to Trump as “this man” suggests to me that he has no idea who he is, let alone what his actual policy and words are.) “We must see,” the pope says, “if he said things in this way, and in this I give him the benefit of the doubt.” Interesting: The pope gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, but he does not give Pullella the benefit of the doubt that he is characterizing Trump’s words accurately. Did you catch that?
If only we would treat the pope the way the pope treats Donald Trump: giving him the benefit of the doubt, not accepting a reporter’s characterization at face value, and going to see whether he actually said these things.
Finally, as to the pope’s words “this man is not Christian,” a Facebook friend, native Spanish speaker, and Catholic priest explains the sense of the original Spanish. (It is in this thread from February 18.)
The words would be translated to say one’s ideas and attitude are antithetical to the Gospel. The meaning is not that one is outside the membership of the baptized.
The equivalent in English would be when we say that a person is “unAmerican” but we do not mean they are an illegal alien.
In Spanish, to say a person is not a baptized Christian or that they have left Christianity, you would use another phrase, such as, “es de otra religion” or “no es miembro de la Iglesia.”
Such nuances do not always neatly carry over when words are translated into another language, and one has to always keep that in mind when trying to discern the right sense of what someone is saying. We particularly owe that courtesy to the Vicar of Christ.
As for Ann Coulter, she has this sense that it is all well and good to be Catholic, as long as your first loyalty is to America (by which she means a particularly crude form of nationalism). If your loyalty is to Church teaching and the Vicar of Christ, then you are a “ROMAN Catholic” as opposed to an “AMERICAN” one. You may even be a traitor!
She mixes this with good old-fashioned Know Nothingism, a form of American anti-Catholicism that fears the pope will reach his arm across the Atlantic and meddle in American politics. Remember 1960, when people feared that John F. Kennedy would take orders from the pope if elected? I am sorry to see that Sean Hannity, a Catholic, has himself succumbed to this brand of Know Nothingism.
When you look at the pope’s actual words, they do not support any of these fears. The pope specifically refuses to address national security questions or tell people how to vote. What he does say, about welcoming strangers and not just building walls to keep people out, is what the Scripture and the Catechism have long told us. And it is the pope’s job to tell us about those things.