ROME — Reacting to widespread media coverage of a perceived war of words on Thursday between Pope Francis and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, a Vatican spokesman on Friday insisted the pope’s comments — that someone who would build a border wall is not Christian — were not a personal attack.
“The pope said what we all know when we follow his teaching and his positions: that we should not build walls, but bridges,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi said to Vatican Radio. “It is not a specific issue, limited to this case,” he said.
Lombardi was standing next to Francis aboard the papal plane Thursday as the pope told reporters traveling with him after a six-day trip to Mexico, which included a stop at the US-Mexico border, that if Trump had, in fact, promised to build a wall separating the two nations, then he’s “not a Christian.”
On Friday, Lombardi said the pope was simply being consistent with the Gospel’s call to offer welcome and solidarity.
“In no way was this a personal attack, nor a voting indication,” Lombardi said.
At first, Trump responded angrily, calling the pope’s remarks “disgraceful,” and saying no religious leader should question his faith.
But Thursday night, he also softened his tone, saying during a CNN town hall that he likes the pope and what he represents.
“I don’t think this is a fight,” Trump said. “I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media.”
The question about Trump was posed to the pope during a press conference on board the papal plane. Here is the Vatican’s official English-language translation provided by the Rev. Thomas Rosica, CSB, the English-language media attaché for the Holy See Press Office.
Q. Today you spoke a lot and eloquently about the problem of immigrants. On the other side of the border there is an electoral campaign that is rather hard. One of the candidates for the White House, Donald Trump, in a recent interview said that you are a political man, and indeed perhaps a pawn of the Mexican Government when it comes to the policy of immigration. He said that if he were elected president he would build a 2,500-km wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and, in that way separating families and so on. I would therefore like to ask, first of all, what you think of those charges against you, and if an American Catholic could vote for a person like this?
Pope Francis: Thank God he said I am a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as an ‘animal politicus’ [a political animal]. So at least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgement and that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. 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. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.
Lombardi said the transcript of the pope’s response makes it clear it was neither partisan nor personal.
“The pope clearly said he would not enter into the question of the vote in the electoral campaign in the United States,” he said, “and he also said, something that naturally wasn’t picked up [in media reports], that he had spoken on the assumption that what was quoted to him was exact and true, thus giving the benefit of the doubt with regard to what was quoted from the expressions of the Republican candidate.”
The brouhaha began last week when Trump said Pope Francis’ advocacy for migrants escaping persecution showed that he doesn’t understand US border issues.
In Mexico, Lombardi called Trump’s comments “very strange,” saying that “the pope always talks about migration problems all around the world, of the duties we have to solve these problems in a humane manner, of hosting those who come from other countries in search of a life of dignity and peace.”
The pope routinely makes similar comments to European leaders, he said, which “Trump would know if he came to Europe.”