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Pope Francis on Trump: Who Is He to Judge?

Pope Francis addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, September 24, 2015.  (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)
Pope Francis addresses a Joint Meeting of Congress in the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, September 24, 2015.  (Photo By Al Drago/CQ Roll Call)

Anyone who finds Donald Trump’s scorching rhetoric about immigrants regrettable might be tempted to cheer Pope Francis’s recent comments calling out the billionaire presidential candidate.  

But then, as Francis also reminded us to ask ourselves, “Who am I to judge?” Sorry, Padre Jorge, but that goes for you, too.  

To recap, Francis visited Mexico this week, and on the papal plane where he likes to mix it up with reporters, wound up questioning whether Trump really is the Christian he says he is. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said, denouncing both the Republican front-runner and his signature plan to build a bigger, more impregnable wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.  

Asked if that means American Catholics shouldn’t vote for such a person, Francis took a big step back: “I am not going to get involved in that.” But, he added, “I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”  

Now, it isn’t unheard of for him or any other pope to weigh in on American politics. And the importance of ‘welcoming the stranger’ is not only Biblical but has been a constant theme of this pope.  

Questioning the faith of any individual Christian, on the other hand, is highly unusual.  

Francis J. Beckwith, author of “Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics and the Reasonableness of Faith ” and professor of philosophy and church-state studies at Baylor University, noted that “although popes — and ecumenical councils — have always issued pronouncements as to what counts as correct Christian doctrine or practice, I can’t recall any popes, including recent ones, singling out individuals for the particular judgment of not being a Christian.’’  

In fact, said Beckwith, who is Catholic, “it’s doubly odd, since Francis has said that in this Holy Year, ‘We have to put mercy before judgment.’’’  

Charles Camosy, an associate theology professor at Fordham University and author of “The Abortion Wars ,” said the papal smackdown “harkens back to those times” before Vatican II “when Popes felt more comfortable saying ‘this is a non-negotiable for the faith, and, if you don’t accept it, you aren’t part of the faith.’ We normally think of this as coming from conservatives, about conservative issues, but this isn’t correct historically; bankers have been called out in this way for usury.”  

Now there’s a word that tells its age — and reveals how long it’s been since a pope effectively said, “You, over there, are not really a follower of Christ.”  

The Jesuit author James Martin said he very much agrees with what Francis said: “The Pope is absolutely right. You cannot spew hatred and show contempt for the poor and at the same time claim that you are a Christian.”  

Certainly it’s the pope’s duty — and his job — to instruct both the sheep and the goats .  

Robert P. George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton, thinks Francis was trying to teach by example — and signaling to Catholic bishops around the world that in the face of injustice, there’s no reason to stand apart from politics, even in the heat of a campaign.  

(Wasn’t it right for Archbishop Joseph F. Rummel, George asks, to excommunicate three prominent New Orleans Catholics for opposing desegregation back in 1962? Today, no one would say otherwise. And if that action, supported by Pope John XXIII, was right, then Francis is right, too.)  

Even if, George said, “I certainly worry about helping this guy [the pope is] trying to wave people away from.”  

Casting stones at anyone else’s Christianity is definitely tricky territory, even for the pope. Yes, and even if it is laughable for Trump to respond that “no leader … should have the right to question another man’s religion.”  

Including the religion practiced by Muslims around the world, Mr. Trump? Or that of Seventh-Day Adventists such as Ben Carson, whose faith Trump has also questioned ?  

Meanwhile, other Christians who support a wall along our southern border include Ted Cruz , Marco Rubio, and even the Republican favored by Democrats, John Kasich. And other candidates who support positions at odds with Catholic teaching? All of them, in both parties.  

Melinda Henneberger is editor-in-chief of Roll Call. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

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