Wall Street Journal
By Francis Rocca and Felicia Schwartz
February 18, 2016
An extraordinary dispute between Pope Francis and Donald Trump broke out Thursday after the pontiff said the Republican presidential candidate’s immigration stands make him “not Christian,” prompting Mr. Trump to retort that questioning his personal faith was “disgraceful.”
The exchange began when the pope, an outspoken supporter of immigrants’ rights, weighed in on a debate that is at the heart of the Republican primary.
In wide-ranging remarks during a news conference aboard his flight back to Rome after a visit to the U.S.-Mexico border, the pope also touched on the sensitive topics of birth control and gay marriage. He said the use of contraception could be justified in regions hit by the Zika virus. And when asked if Catholic politicians must vote against same-sex unions, he said they should “vote according to their well-formed conscience.”
In response to a question about Mr. Trump’s proposal to build a wall to keep illegal immigrants from entering the U.S., the pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.” He added, “We must see if he said things in that way, and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
Campaigning in South Carolina before Saturday’s primary, Mr. Trump said, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful.” He also suggested the pope had been manipulated by the Mexican government—a charge officials there denied.
Later, in a televised event Thursday night on CNN, Mr. Trump called Pope Francis a “wonderful guy” and said “I don’t think this is a fight.” Mr. Trump added he would meet with the Pope “anytime he wants.”
Immigration has been the subject of some of the most heated rhetoric of the Republican campaign and debates, with Mr. Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Marco Rubio all calling for stronger security on the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the 2012 general election, about 25% of U.S. voters identified themselves as Catholic, according to exit polls. President Barack Obama won 50% of Catholic voters, who included many Hispanics, and 48% backed Republican candidate Mitt Romney.
In South Carolina, the key GOP voting bloc is not Catholics but evangelicals, with about 65% of Republican voters identifying as born-again or evangelical in 2012 exit polls. This election cycle, Mr. Trump won the majority of evangelicals in New Hampshire and Mr. Cruz won them in Iowa.
Joanna Horres, a homemaker who led the crowd in pro-Trump chants at the event in Kiawah Island, S.C., said she has backed him since he declared he would run for president, and she still does.
“It makes my opinion of him even stronger,” she said. “He’s not afraid to speak up to anybody, even the pope. He’s obviously a Christian who is secure in his salvation; he doesn’t need the approval of the pope either.”
Mr. Trump’s opponents tried to steer clear of the controversy on the campaign trail on Thursday. “Listen, that’s between Donald and the pope. I’m not going to get in the middle of that,” Mr. Cruz said, declining to take questions about the matter.
Mr. Rubio said the U.S. has the right to control who comes into the U.S. and when and how people do that. “There’s a balance here between being compassionate and also being responsible, especially in a world where, today, radical jihadists are seeking to use the immigration laws of countries to infiltrate killers and fighters into foreign countries,” Mr. Rubio said on CNN.
Mr. Trump is no stranger to controversial comments, but his clash with the pope raises new stakes and moves both men into uncharted waters.
John C. Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron, said the moment is an unprecedented one. Religious leaders sometimes criticize policies and ideas put forth by politicians, but he said he couldn’t recall a time when a leader leveled a personal broadside.
“It’s not that uncommon for religious leaders to argue with politicians over politics, where a Catholic leader might say so-and-so’s position on abortion or climate change is not consistent with the church’s teachings. But I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said.
Conversely, he said, when a politician comes in for criticism from a religious leader, he or she typically simply acknowledges a disagreement. “It’s not a confrontational reaction,” said Mr. Green.
In his comments Thursday, Mr. Trump told the crowd that he is a Christian “and proud of it.” He suggested that the pope, whom he has previously called “political,” was unduly influenced by the Mexican government and saw only “one side” of the story. “He said negative things about me because the Mexican government convinced him that Trump is not a good guy,” Mr. Trump said.
A spokesman for Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said Mr. Trump’s proposal for a border wall was not a subject that came up in talks between the pontiff and Mr. Peña Nieto.
Mr. Trump, a Presbyterian, also re-aired a dire prediction he had made last year: that the Vatican is a top target for Islamic State terrorists, and he would be the best commander in chief to keep it safe.
“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which, as everyone knows, is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the pope would’ve only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would’ve been president,” he said Thursday.
Mr. Trump has drawn particular ire from critics over his call for deporting millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, and his labeling of Mexican immigrants as drug traffickers and rapists.
In interviews after the rally, about a dozen Trump supporters said the businessman’s forceful rebuke bolstered their support for him.
Larry DiCenzo, a retired school principal who lives in Charleston, said he was shocked the pope would criticize Mr. Trump’s religion. Mr. DiCenzo, a Catholic, said the feud wouldn’t change the way he voted on Saturday.
“I liked Trump’s response, it was to the point, which is the reason why I like Trump, because he says it as it is, and he is truthful,” Mr. DiCenzo said. “It astounds me that [the pope] would say that and I disagree with him.”
Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., a Trump supporter, told CNN on Thursday that the pope’s comments went too far. “Jesus never intended to give instructions to political leaders on how to run a country,” Mr. Falwell said.
Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez, an immigrant from Mexico who has publicly pushed for changes to U.S. immigration law, said Thursday that the pope doesn’t see immigration as a political issue. “It’s about people, not economics or politics,” Archbishop Gómez said, while waiting for his flight back to Los Angeles in the El Paso, Texas, airport. He had attended Mass the day before in Juarez, Mexico. “What the pope is saying is it’s a global issue, let’s find a solution,” he said.
Archbishop Gómez declined to comment specifically on the pope’s words or Mr. Trump’s reaction, because he hadn’t read the full transcript of the pope’s remarks. But he said: “If you follow the Bible, you have to be open to people migrating. The Bible says clearly you have to welcome the stranger.” He added that “security at the border is still important.”
Some Mexicans said they were grateful the pope spoke out. “Is there a more hated person in the world right now than Donald Trump?” asked Oscar Tello, 31, a tennis coach in Mexico City. “I’m glad the pope pointed out that Mr. Trump is not acting like a Christian.”
Mari Rojas, 37, who sells tacos on the street, said the dislike for Mr. Trump is not entirely about his proposal to build a wall between both nations—or even to have Mexico pay for it. “It was the way he described Mexicans as rapists and criminals. He is not a good man, and our pope is just saying that Jesus would not approve.”
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