Donald Trump and Pope Francis

Is the Pope Catholic?

"ABOARD THE PAPAL AIRLINER -- Inserting himself into the Republican presidential race, Pope Francis on Wednesday suggested that Donald J. Trump 'is not Christian' because of the harshness of his campaign promises to deport more immigrants and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the border."
-- Jim Yardley, New York Times

Is the Pope Catholic?

This is, of course, a colloquial and rhetorical question, in response to a question where the answer is an obvious yes. I could imagine Wm. F. Buckley, Jr., a serious if not devout Catholic, posing this question, in jest, only partly, to open a dialogue. The godfather of American conservatism, Bill would likely opine that the answer to whether Francis should intrude into an America political campaign is, sorry, an emphatic no.

Like many, I admire the inspiration and passion of Pope Francis. He is truly concerned for the poor and the suffering and speaks eloquently to the dignity of each person. In reaching out to the impoverished and the forgotten, he is humble and caring and -- in the most personal and intimate way -- sets an inspired example. But in matters of economics and politics, he is, at best, uninformed.

The greatest uplifting from the deprivation and despair of poverty has come not from Church-dominated economies or from medieval feudalism, or from the serfdom of the Czars and authoritarian governments, or from socialism or communism, or from other variations of collectivism, and certainly not from interventionist economies with heavy taxation and regulation. And we certainly don't see in some of the primitive economies of Africa, or in the traditional Muslim Arab nations in the Mideast, the kind of dynamic free market economies that can help the poor. The most significant movement of large numbers of people from subsistence and extreme poverty to greater material well being and the emergence of a middle class was through the liberated free market.

South America and Central America had a long tradition of oligarchies and what we now call crony capitalism, in which government bestowed favoritism and franchises, grants and subsidies, to the politically favored. The Pontiff's primary acquaintance with capitalism was within his native Argentina, bearing little resemblance to a classic free market. Francis routinely attributes income inequality to greed, because he does not understand how a free market can uplift the poor. Instead, he seems to ally himself with Marxists who would coerce income redistribution. He does not grasp that extreme income inequality in which people move downward from the middle class and regress toward poverty is empowered by the crony capitalism of mixed government economies which favor the wealthy who are politically connected. The counter is a limited government which operates under the full of law, the same rule of law that applies, for example, toward immigration policies.

Within his paradigm, the pontiff has now intervened in an American election. The Vatican has issued a statement of clarification about what happened yesterday. But while the statement attempts to mitigate the damage, it is not sufficiently forthright. It is almost Trump-like in its gray-area ambiguity. The damage was done. The Pope knew precisely what he was doing.

On CNN yesterday, Rev. James Martin, S.J., editor at large of America magazine, defended Francis for his criticism of Donald Trump. The pontiff was, Martin said, only expressing that the Christian view is to "care for the stranger," because Christianity is "not an us and a them." But Martin's true agenda emerged when he talked about "trying to help the poor" through an open borders policy. And if the Pope was not attacking Trump, why was Martin defending this nonexistent attack?

Martin agreed with CNN's Wolf Blitzer that the Pope "must have known" the impact of his words. Blitzer noted that while the six-day Mexican trip was long planned, the visit to the Mexican border was added. But by whom and why? Martin could not say, before he dismissed the whole matter as the Pope simply "going to people on the periphery." But if the Pope were not a pawn, as Trump said, did he orchestrate his own political gambit? Are there political operatives around the Pope who work with their counterparts In Mexico and at the border? The pope's border visit was staged, just as a politician would do.

The border visit, Martin asserted, reflected a priority of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Blitzer did not press the political implications. We already know that Big Business wants immigrants for cheap labor and to keep the wages of others down. Also, for years Catholic clerics have colluded with politicians in the Democratic Party. The Church gains new parishioners, and the Democrats, who demonize Republicans, gain bloc voters. This has happened in Southern California, where I live. Former Cardinal Roger Mahony allied himself with power brokers in the Democratic Party to support a massive influx of Hispanics, overwhelmingly Catholic, to repopulate the Catholic parishes.

It is not a non sequitur to this discussion to point out: under Mahony, priests engaged in predatory sexual attacks against young children. I am acquainted with those in law enforcement who investigated Mahony. As in the Boston archdiocese scandal popularized in the Academy Award nominated film Spotlight, the most enraged detectives and empowered prosecutors and dedicated investigative reporters were themselves Catholic. Due to the statute of limitations, the "progressive" Mahony narrowly escaped prosecution for repeatedly covering up these horrific crimes. Many of the victims were children from the poor Mexican families that Mahony supposedly championed.

Pope Francis this week did not confront the realities of a corrupt Mexican government at the highest levels, though he did address the nation's rampant violence and drug trafficking. He could have said even more about the terrorism of the drug czars, the intimidation of farmers forced to pay protection, the wave of kidnappings, and especially the exploitation of workers by crony capitalists with government franchises. Did he consider how a real free market and economic development could help the people in Mexico, so they would not leave? Did he express the need for the rule of law, in Mexico and at the border?

Instead the Pope focused on a nonexistent wall, a contentious issue in an ongoing American election.

"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," the Pope observed on the Papal aircraft, departing Mexico. "This is not in the gospel." The Pope's defenders suggest his words be judged in context, that he was only answering a question. This is Trump-like, as when Trump will say someone merely asked a question, and he answered it (with something inflammatory). But will the Pope next lectures us on, say, Donald Trump's views on free trade and tariffs?

The Pope effectively allowed Trump to occupy the high ground. "For a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful," Trump, now seemingly a victim of the Pope's excess, read from a statement he then released. "I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked...."

I am not a theologian, not even a Catholic. Those two disqualifications aside, I observe: (1) countries have legitimate and legally traversable borders, the integrity of which is not fair game for Francis; (2) there are reasonable arguments for and against this particular wall, about which arguments Francis appears unknowing, and not curious; (3) allegory aside, the Pope's observation thus is not metaphorical, but specific, and political: his invocation of the gospel is disheartening, implausible.

Donald Trump's proposed wall should be debated on its merits in the political realm, but it is not "not Christian." Note that "walls" are things that Francis cannot condemn "wherever they may be." A wall protects Vatican City. Walls protect monasteries and convents. To keep people in? To keep people out? for other purposes? Are there bridges?

The Communists built the Berlin Wall to enslave people in totalitarianism. President Ronald Reagan, not as part of a religious revival, helped bring it down. Israel built a wall to keep terrorists out. Bibi Netanyahu, not as part of religious bigotry, champions that barrier against barbarians.

And barbarians abound in the neighborhood of the Middle East. It is peculiar that in this day and age, when Christians, especially there, suffer discrimination and persecution, assault and rape, torture and murder, as part of an ethnic -- shall we more accurately say, religious -- cleansing, that the world is apathetic. For example, the United Nations refugee camps discriminate against Christians, in favor of Muslims, though many Arab countries will not even accept their fellow Muslims. And yet the U.S. under President Obama has accepted refugees in this ratio, 97 percent Muslim, 3 percent Christian.

President Obama and others casually compare Muslim refugees to Jews fleeing the Holocaust. Jews were being killed solely because they were Jews. They had nowhere to go. They were not violent and had no agenda to convert others, and certainly not by force. They wanted to flee and assimilate elsewhere. In many cases they had relatives or private organizations that wanted to help them.

The Muslim refugees in recent years and months are quite different than Muslims who came to the United States years ago. Many of them from decades ago did not want to impose their religion on others and assimilated. In recent years and the current wave include Muslims who are not persecuted because of their religion. They often are in internecine warfare, even between competing Muslims. They have many Arab nations that could be a source of refuge. Coming to the West, many do not want to assimilate but to transform the host nation in their image. And we have government welfare programs for them.

A humanitarian program would help these folks resettle in the Middle East, not in Europe or the United States. An American President would show leadership, as would the Pope. Call upon Arab nations to help their brothers in need. Look toward resettlement back in their native lands when peace is restored.

Where is the Pope on this? Should the West accept masses of Muslims, a significant portion of whom believe in forced conversion of Christians?

It's wise that we should not inflame or exacerbate religious wars, or play to the Islamist caricature of "crusaders." But ISIS and other extremists in the name of Islam are brutalizing girls and women and beheading Christians, as Trump points out regularly, and what he says resonates. Is it moral for us to obsess, instead, about the need to accommodate the West to Muslims, many of whom repudiate Western values and the Judeo-Christian ethos? This same Pope has made only limited calls for Arab nations to help their Muslim brethren. Does the Pope think he's going to convert Muslims to Catholicism?

In short, is it "Christian" to turn the other cheek and not confront Islamo-Fascists?

No wonder Trump scored points, turning the table against the Pope. "When the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS's ultimate trophy," the extemporaneous Trump said, reading directly from a rare written statement, "I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now..."

Yet, amidst all this, Francis, like brother Obama, seems more concerned with, for example, the unsettled but alleged certainty of presumed catastrophic global warming. (Yesterday, CNN commentator Father Charles Beck observed that Donald Trump was alienating liberal Catholics because he did not recognize "climate change.") Outside of almost every aspect of long-held Church doctrine (abortion perhaps the most prominent example) in which Francis and President Obama disagree, the transformational Pope and transformational president seem to be in the same political caucus.

Like progressive Christians, like reform Jews, like fallen away Catholics, and like secular humanists, the two egalitarians -- the pontiff and the president -- believe that government must violate the commandment of "thou shall not steal" to redistribute income. Neither man understands how to nurture economic growth to ameliorate poverty. Francis fails to grasp that nation-states have borders that are part of that dreaded secular world. And President Obama, we already know, believes American exceptionalism is a heresy.

In that universalism, the Pope's trip to the line separating the United States and Mexico for a cross-border Mass was not an exercise in spirituality. It was a political act. The United States is a generous nation open to immigrants, but when it comes to what the laws and procedures should be, and how they should be addressed politically, the Pope is a foreigner interfering in our sovereignty and in our election. Yet the Pope, returning from Mexico, was like a candidate on a campaign plane holding a media availability. One hope he will have the wisdom to reflect and move beyond the fray, and not return to it. The Vatican's clarification statement today was a beginning, but not much of one.

The Pope is a man of prodigious intelligence. So he was disingenuous when he said, "...about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that." Francis knew he had attacked a candidate in an election in the United States. Worse, Francis added: "I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that."

Donald Trump is not humble. But the spiritual leader of 1.2 billion Catholics has now assumed a Trump-like stance. Instead of walking back his presumption, Francis defended himself with a sound bite: "Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' So at least I am a human person." This is not a game of soundbites.

Clearly the pontiff is not a political strategist. He has taken one of Trump's main issues -- open borders and illegal immigration -- and drawn more attention to it. And in doing so, the Pope has opened a dialogue on Trump's terms, because he has offended not Trump,but many of his supporters or would-be supporters who happen to be people of faith, and Catholics.

His outburst is a gift to Trump that will keep giving. The pope's words will help Trump, not because, as implied by some mainstream media, South Carolina evangelical voters are anti-Catholic bigots. However, many Protestant voters there will not take kindly to the Pope passing judgment on whether someone is or is not a good Christian. This is not the language of unity.

Many Catholics do not follow the Church on doctrinal matters involving such issues as abortion and marriage and divorce; does the Pope expect them to follow him on politics? Catholics are about one-fifth of the American electorate and some Catholics will now opt for Trump to show their independence. You will now see some prominent Catholics endorse Trump. As for Catholics, consider that many -- including the "ethnics" the American Catholics descended from Polish and Eastern European families -- feel an affinity for Trump. These are the people who -- or their relatives who -- were once employed as steelworkers or in the auto industry or in the factories of the Rust Belt. Now they are unemployed or underemployed, or in low paying jobs. Perhaps the Pope doesn't understand Buffalo or Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Detroit. These people see themselves as victims of globalization and trade wars, and bad trade deals and, fairly or not, victims of illegal immigration.

I could also discuss many Catholics of Irish and Italian descent who feel disenfranchised. These are hard-working people who have faith in their Catholic Church. Many kept their faith and remained loyal to the Catholic Church despite scandals of financial irregularities and sexual abuse. These people are not racially or religiously prejudiced. They are not bigoted against immigrants or Mexicans or Muslims. These Catholics are good people. But they are not looking to the Pope for political endorsements and recommendations. And they probably do not seek his guidance on matters like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Meanwhile, the overall electorate (including Trump's targeted Republican voters) sees another Establishment figure, no less than the Pope, in hyperbolic mode against the politically incorrect Trump. Independent voters see another reason to coalesce around Trump.

"As to whether I am a pawn [of the Mexican government], well, maybe, I don't know," Francis continued in response to Trump "I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people." Here is the Pope as polemicist a few days before the South Carolina primary. This is not a dialogue that benefits Francis, only Donald. The Pope did become a prop among those who believe not in immigration in way consonant with the rule of law, but who believe in the anarchy of porous borders. The "them vs. us" that the Pontiff laments -- that is borne out of failed government economic policies on both sides of the border that inhibit economic growth and job creation.

Trump was wrong to question the faith of Seventh Day Adventist Ben Carson and Southern Baptist Ted Cruz. But that's Trump. Carson has made his religious faith an integral part of who he is. And even the detractors of Cruz acknowledge his faith; indeed, his liberal critics feel he is too religious for their taste. Trump was out of line. But he is, whether he admits it or not, a politician.

The Holy Father is held, shall we say, to a higher standard.

When you have mainstream media and even Trump's opponents leaning toward Trump in this controversy, it's clear the Pope got it wrong. Trump's reaction and statement were uncharacteristically moderate and quite calibrated. The Pope had the effect of moderating Trump.

Mario Rubio is a Catholic from birth, but he pointed out the border is not just about immigrants but also about terrorism. Rubio said, "We are a sovereign country and we control who comes in, just like Vatican City controls who comes into the Vatican." Jeb Bush is a convert to Catholicism. In this controversy, Jeb has taken the high road, which is the right thing for him (and anyone else) to do. "Christianity is between him and his creator," Jeb said about Trump. Showing class, Jeb continued, "I don't question anybody's Christianity."

An earlier version of this article appeared in The American Spectator.