Score: Trump 1, Pope Francis 0.
In the latest jaw-dropping moment of Donald Trump’s jaw-dropping march to the White House . . . whoops, make that his protracted flash across the American political heavens, the New York real estate billionaire tussled with the wildly popular leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics on Thursday and came out the clear winner.
Back before presidential politics became a stumble through a hall of funhouse mirrors, the idea of a candidate talking trash at the pope would be impossible. But, if nothing else, the 2016 elections will go down in history as an epic expansion of the realm of the possible.
What made this episode unique was that it did not stem from a preemptive Trump attack. From his tarring Mexican immigrants as rapists to whack-a-moling war hero John McCain, then POWs in general, then Fox host Megyn Kelly, then mocking a handicapped reporter and suggesting that all Muslims should be barred at the border because, well, they’re Muslims, Trump likes to fire first.
Instead, this time it was the pope who, during his trip to Mexico and asked about Trump, unleashed this:
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel.”
Pressed as to whether that means American Catholics shouldn’t vote for Trump, Francis demurred.
“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 says things like that.”
Once upon a time, having your Christianity declared void by the Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Jesus Christ, Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church, Primate of Italy, Archbishop and Metropolitan of the Roman Province, Sovereign of the State of Vatican City, Servant of the Servants of God — his official title, “pope” is informal, the way Chicagoans call Cloud Gate “The Bean” — would at least give pause to a candidate for president, not that it ever happened before.
Not Donald Trump. He fired back, both barrels, calling the pope’s remarks “disgraceful” and “unbelievable,” claiming he had become the “pawn” of his Mexican hosts, who obviously skewed his thinking. Meanwhile, the public rallied behind . . . Trump, who else? Photos of the stone wall around the Vatican were flashing across Twitter, ignoring the “only” in the pope’s comments and implying hypocrisy.
Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents, handed a golden opportunity by His Holiness, coughed into their fists.
“Listen, that’s between Donald and the pope,” Ted Cruz said. “I’m not going to get in the middle of that. I’ll leave it to the two of them to work it out.”
And work it out they did, both quickly settling on a Satanic figure of evil they could blame for the whole misunderstanding: the media. The pope suggested that perhaps the unquestionable documentation of Trump’s oft-repeated remarks were at fault.
“We must see if he said things in that way, and in this I give the benefit of the doubt,” Pope Francis said.
Trump called the pope “a wonderful guy,” denied they were fighting and also gave him the benefit of the doubt.
“I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media.”
Even America Magazine / the National Catholic Review, itself a publication, joined in the skepticism toward those reporting what Trump always says, noting that the pope “never mentioned Trump by name and even said he gives him the benefit of the doubt as to whether he actually said such things regarding the immigration measures mentioned.”
So what’s the bottom line here? The trouble isn’t that what Pope Francis said — that setting stumbling blocks in front of the poor is un-Christian — is untrue, in that that it is directly contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Just the opposite. It’s both true and such a general condition among the supposed faithful.
Trump isn’t alone in his view of religion as a club to be used to bludgeon others. Trump gets a pass because he’s venting an ugliness common to so many.
Short of Trump’s being riven by a lightning bolt at one of his jammed rallies, it’s hard to imagine a higher authority than Pope Francis who is going to dull his claws trying to take a swipe at Trump. Whatever fugue state the nation has sunk into, whatever tulip-mania has gripped the Republican Party, shows no sign of abating, and there seems a growing chance that the but-the-emperor-has-no-clothes moment of head-slapping national regret won’t come before sometime early in Trump’s first term.