The Pope’s harsh words for Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump last February seem not to have hurt the candidate’s popularity among Catholics, which actually increased by more than 20% since the pontiff’s unfortunate remarks.
According to a new Reuters/Ipsos poll, during the 50 days prior to the Pope’s suggestion on Feb. 18 that Trump is “not a Christian,” his popularity among Catholic Republicans averaged just 39.8 percent, whereas in the 50 days since that date his support has shot up to an average of 47.9 percent, an increase of 20.4 percent.
On the plane trip home from Mexico to Rome last February, Reuters journalist Phil Pullella told Francis that Republican candidate Donald Trump had accused the Pope of being a “pawn” and a “politician,” and favored deporting 11 million immigrants, heartlessly splitting up families and building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Pulella then asked the Pope whether American Catholics can vote for “a person like this.”
The Pope responded to the reporter that anyone who thinks only of building walls and never of building bridges is no Christian, since this way of thinking is foreign to the gospel. But he also questioned the accuracy of the reporter’s depiction of Trump.
“I would only say: if he said these things, this man is no Christian,” Francis said. “But we’d have to see whether he said these things. And in this matter, I would give him the benefit of the doubt.”
The very next day, papal spokesman Father Federico Lombardi walked the Pope’s words back, insisting that Francis’ remarks were not meant as a “personal attack” on Trump, but merely reflected the Pope’s conviction that bridges are preferable to walls.
Lombardi said that Pope-watchers know that Francis is always repeating that we should not build walls but bridges. “He repeats this over and over, constantly, and he has also said it many times regarding the issue of migration in Europe,” he said. “So it is not a specific issue, limited to this case” but part of his general attitude, consistent with “following the Gospel directives of welcome and solidarity.”
The spokesman also declared that the Pope was not trying to tell Catholics how to vote at the upcoming election.
“This case drew a lot of attention,” Lombardi said, “but he never intended it to be in any way a personal attack or an instruction on how to vote. The Pope has made it clear that he would not meddle in the voting issues in the election campaign of the United States.”
Obviously, Catholics’ increased support for Trump cannot be considered a direct consequence of the Pope’s criticism of the Republican front-runner. Since January, the number of Republican White House candidates has dropped from 12 in January to three today, which evidently explains some of his greater support among Catholics.
On the other hand, the correlation does suggest that the Pope’s words did no damage to Trump’s popularity among Catholics, and if anything, helped him.
Though Francis enjoys a healthy 90 percent favorability rating among his flock in America, Catholic teaching attributes no special authority to the Pope in political matters.
Last Saturday Pope Francis briefly greeted Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders at the Vatican just before the Pope left for a meeting with migrants and refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.
Sanders had been invited to address a high-level Vatican meeting by a progressive Argentinian Bishop known for his open support of the Democratic Party.
Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, who scandalized many Catholics by accepting public honors from top abortion activists in New York last fall, gave Sanders top billing in a conference convened to discuss “changes in politics, economics and culture.”
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