Trump vs. Pope Francis: Immigration, Compassion, and National Legitimacy

Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard the flight from Mexico to Italy, on February 18, 2016.
Alessandro Di Meo/AFP/Getty Images

The feud between Donald Trump and Pope Francis has many political and cultural dimensions.

The personalities of the two men obviously shaped how each of them responded… and both of them were responding to how the media characterized each of their words. The basic questions at hand are secular and political – U.S. immigration policy, and the 2016 presidential election – which don’t mix well with religious authority. Underneath everything else is a primal, and very important, debate about the very legitimacy of the American nation: Do the American people have an inviolable right to control their own borders and set requirements for citizenship?

Let’s do what almost no major media outlet has done, and read the full text of the question and answer that set off the feud.  

The Catholic News Agency has a full transcript of the interview Pope Francis gave, while in flight between Mexico and Rome.  Phil Pullella of Reuters asked the Pope a question about immigration that specifically mentioned Trump and described his immigration stance, followed by a direct question about whether Catholics can vote for such a candidate:

Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?

The Pope’s response, in full:

Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ 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 judgment 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 has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

The first part of this exchange involves the Pope responding to Trump saying he is a “very political person,” on the day before the Pope arrived in Mexico.

“I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico,” Trump said during a Fox Business Network interview. “I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They’re making a fortune and we’re losing.”

The Pope was good-natured in his response to this accusation, humorously conceding that he is indeed a political person, as are we all, and even humbly conceding that he might be a “pawn” of the Mexican government. That’s not quite how Trump put it, but the basic point is that the Pope has enormous political influence, and other political instruments could exploit his philosophy to use them for their own ends. It was wise and gracious of the Pope to invite all observers to judge the question for themselves, instead of thundering about the impudence of suggesting his authority could be exploited for cynical ends.  

Of course, that’s not really why the world was set on fire by this interview question.  

It’s the part where Pope Francis weighed in on Christian faith and immigration policy, which virtually every major media organization characterized as “Pope Francis says Donald Trump is not Christian,” or “Pope Francis says Trump’s plan for a border wall is not Christian.”

What he actually said is that building walls without bridges is not Christian, by which he means closing off the United States to all refugees and immigrants. Donald Trump has suggested no such thing, and neither has anyone else.  

Granted, Trump’s comments on the nature of his immigration policy have varied quite a bit, but even when he first began talking about building a wall along the border, he famously declared it would have a “big beautiful door” for legal immigrants.  

When he first advocated the mass deportation of immigration lawbreakers, he added, “they will come back… they are going to have to go out and hopefully they get back.”  There is much room for debate over the exact details of what he means – his rival Ted Cruz, for example, has described it as “touchback amnesty,” meaning most of the illegal aliens would be marched to Mexico, and then marched right back into the United States. The basic idea is that immigration lawbreakers would be deported, and then given the same opportunity as all other aspiring immigrants to enter the country legally, which means some of them would probably be refused.

Even Trump’s controversial call for a moratorium on Muslim immigration was explicitly described as temporary. He later went on to say that what he envisioned might last only a matter of weeks. Of course, a 90-day moratorium would be rough on a sincere refugee who legitimately fears he could be killed in less than 90 days… but Trump’s entire point was that our system is exceptionally poor at identifying and vetting such people.

To return to the Pope’s metaphor about walls and bridges, what he and Trump are really arguing about is not the existence of bridges, but how wide and well-guarded they should be.

The Pope is advancing a version of the absolutist argument routinely deployed by far more cynical and dishonest political actors: it’s either all or nothing. Either we have wide-open borders and generous indulgence for immigration scofflaws, or we turn into Fortress America – isolated, cruel, and xenophobic. That’s nonsense, and it doesn’t become any less nonsensical when the Pope says it. Almost no one in favor of unrestricted immigration is capable of describing the other side’s position honestly… or admitting they have a moral right to hold it.

Do the people of a nation have an inherent right to control their own borders and set immigration policy, or are there moral imperatives that override practical considerations, such as the rule of law? If insisting on the rule of law is immoral, then the law will not survive – it will be replaced by whatever political, cultural, and religious elites decide morality demands.  

Long years of argument about the “separation of church and state” were based on the idea that religious believers had to work within the framework of secular law. It doesn’t mean that religious people can’t vote – or must, impossibly, discard their religious convictions before voting. It means they must work on changing the law through the appropriate, often time-consuming and frustrating, methods. Those methods usually involve persuading other people with different religious backgrounds and moral convictions to agree.

Our elites are quite willing to abandon that “separation of church and state” ideal when the church agrees with them, and they find its moral authority useful. On the matter of immigration, we’re supposed to abandon the law because enforcing it would be cruel, or excessively difficult, or unfair to people from other countries who have some intrinsic right to live in the United States, if they can get both feet upon its soil.  

We aren’t really being asked to change the law, which would be fair enough.  

We’re being told to ignore it, to indulge lawbreaking, while still enforcing those laws, at great expense and inconvenience, against many other foreigners wishing to immigrate to the United States. It’s more of a game than a rational process, in which the express wishes of the American people, and their security and economic needs, would be respected. The needs of non-citizens are explicitly elevated above ours, and we are told we have no moral standing to impose our duly-constituted laws against people who knowingly broke them.  

Having allowed this state of affairs to endure for decades, the elite now tells us that enforcing the law would be such a massive, callous undertaking that we dare not attempt it. A nation with an exceptionally generous immigration policy is therefore made to feel guilty about enforcing any limits whatsoever. We’re not even doing a very good job of deporting illegal aliens who break our other laws, including violent criminals, and the government scarcely bothers to monitor visa abuse… but we’re still supposed to think of ourselves as greedy xenophobes who are too eager to get rid of the foreign-born.  

If we have no moral standing to build a border wall, then we have no right to deny entry or limit citizenship, which means we’re not really a “nation” at all. The very definition of nationhood demands the ability to distinguish between citizens and foreigners, and define the ways in which they are treated differently, including a recognition of the additional privileges and obligations of citizenship. That process doesn’t require foreigners to be treated badly, of course, but they are different.

If we don’t have moral standing to limit immigration from certain areas, why aren’t we sending planes and buses to go get them? Isn’t it incredibly cruel to put migrants, including many unaccompanied children, at the mercy of human smugglers, or force them to make dangerous journeys across Mexico and the southern U.S. border? Many are abused on this journey, and some die. It seems like many of the people who think a border wall is immoral are happy to have a less discriminating and effective, but occasionally lethal, obstacle course as the limiting factor on illegal immigration.

We should at least settle the question of who will determine American immigration law – the people, through their votes and representation; the elite, in defiance of what they judge to be immoral demands from the people; or foreign citizens, whose moral imperative trumps whatever American voters or bureaucrats think. The answer would tell us a great deal about the legitimacy of America as a nation, and from where rightful authority flows.