As aftershocks from the crossfire between Pope Francis and Donald Trump continue to be felt, part of the debate it has unleashed centers on whether it’s legitimate for a pope, this one or any other, to “insert” himself into politics.
In a nutshell, phrasing the question that way is a category mistake. Popes are, by definition, injected in politics, though in a fairly unique fashion.
Before unpacking why, let’s set aside two potential red herrings.
First is the hypocrisy of some people who make this charge, since often what they really mean is that popes shouldn’t take political positions with which they disagree.
Many of those upset at Francis for calling out Trump on immigration, for instance, don’t get outraged when popes back conservative positions in the culture wars.
Meanwhile, many on the left complain about popes and Catholic bishops being overly “political” on abortion and gay rights, and in the same breath demand that they invest the same energy on social justice questions.
The question here is not which political positions a pope should take, but whether he’s entitled to voice any at all.
Second, there’s a reasonable debate to be had about whether it was smart for the pontiff to comment directly on a specific political candidate, rather than making a broad observation and allowing people to draw their own conclusions.
Whether Francis crossed a partisan line depends on how you read the full text of what he said, since he also refused to be drawn into how American Catholics should vote.
Nevertheless, to say that someone has a right to issue political commentary is not the same as endorsing the particular way they choose to do it every time.
That said, it won’t hold water to suggest that popes should “stay out” of politics, for three reasons.
1. Popes are ministers of the Christian Gospel.
And that ministry inevitably has a political edge. Yes, Jesus Christ said “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and God what is God’s,” which is a charter for church/state separation. However, Christ also said we will be judged for how we treat the least among us, which is a standard with a clearly political dimension.
Popes represent a tradition rooted in prophetic denunciations of injustice and abuses of power, and a Lord who chose to be born into a poor family in an occupied corner of the world’s leading empire of its day.
To insist, therefore, that popes remain apolitical would be to demand that they betray their office.
2. Popes are carriers of a universal tradition.
That tradition spans nations and cultures, which is a living reminder of the ties that bind the entire human family. Inevitably, that reminder raises questions about how various global players exercise their obligations to one another, which takes us by a short path into politics.
For the record, popes have been preaching the human dignity of immigrants all over the world long before Trump burst onto the American political scene, and to suggest that every time he does so from here on out he must have “The Donald” on his mind is just silly.
Americans should not suggest that a pope put his obligations on mute during our political season. It’s always campaign season some place, and if a pope were to go quiet until everyone sorted out their electoral decisions, he’d never say anything.
3. Popes are supposed to guide their flock.
With specific regard to the American political scene, a pope is already “inserted” into the political mix by the fact that Catholics represent almost 21 percent of the American population, according to a 2014 Pew Forum study.
It’s a bedrock principle of a vibrant democracy that citizens ought to be able to bring their values into public life, wherever those values come from, and many American Catholics want to hear from their spiritual leader to inform their thinking about the questions facing the country.
Logically speaking, a pope cannot “insert” himself into the affairs of a country where his own flock is a sizable portion of the electorate — in this case, the fourth largest Catholic country in the world by population, after Brazil, Mexico, and the Philippines.
(How closely American Catholics actually follow the pope’s advice when they vote is an entirely different question.)
So by all means, debate whether Francis’ commentary on the plane on the way back to Rome was or wasn’t consistent with the traditional aspiration of popes to be supra partes, meaning non-partisan, without sacrificing their obligation to preach the Gospel.
But don’t premise the debate on whether a pope should comment on politics in the first place, because it’s like debating the desirability of the seasons changing. It’s coming, whether you like it or not.