Is Trump versus pope a matter of right and wrong?

As the media weigh whether Trump has gone too far this time ahead of the South Carolina primary, there is another more pressing question about his exchange with the Pope.

Matt Rourke/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gestures during a campaign stop in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Friday, Feb. 19, 2016.

In a thinly veiled reference to Donald Trump, Pope Francis on Thursday said that anyone pushing for a wall on the US-Mexico border is “not Christian.”

In response, Mr. Trump issued a statement saying that the Pope had only heard the Mexican government’s side of this issue, and that “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”

Uproar ensued.

The natural first question discussed in the US media was immediate, and political: What does this mean for Saturday’s South Carolina GOP primary? Will Trump’s intemperate reaction (he invoked ISIS attacking the Vatican) snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? Or will it have little effect on the Palmetto State’s largely Protestant evangelical voters?

But a second obvious issue is perhaps more difficult to weigh: Who is right here? Anyone? Both? Neither?

A cop-out pundit point might be that the two men are speaking about completely different aspects of human experience. It was clear from the context of the pope’s remarks that he was referring to motivations of the heart as opposed to specific proposals. He also said he was not fully aware of what Trump has said.

“I give the benefit of the doubt,” Pope Francis said.

Trump, in contrast, is living in a world of specific actions. Few presidential hopefuls muse openly about the morality of their 10-point papers. Introspection is for losers. Trump’s response to the pope depicted the latter as a pawn, the Mexican government as bad people, and ISIS an enemy eager to storm the Vatican gates.

“So many lives are involved and ... illegal immigration is so rampant,” Trump’s statement concluded.

That said, at some level these points of view intersect. To Trump’s most vigorous defenders, the pope is simply hypocritical, because the Catholic Church has its own history of physical exclusion. Many pointed out on social media that the Vatican is surrounded by what appear to be ancient walls. The underlying charge: the pope is telling America to leave itself undefended.

“Maybe if Christians had more walls the Muslims wouldn’t have conquered the Middle East & large parts of Europe from the 7th -10th C,” tweeted the provocative conservative author Dinesh D’Souza on Thursday.

But perhaps the pope was not speaking quite so literally. Others pointed out that the “walls” referred to in this case might not be physical. They might not be at the border. They might not be barriers to entry, but barriers to acceptance.

We’re talking about the pope here, after all. He might not be superficial.

In fact Pope Francis demonstrated a light touch and the heart of a teacher with his comments, writes Kathryn Jean Lopez in the right-leaning National Review.

Here are (some of) the pope’s exact words: “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.”

That’s open to lots of interpretations. The pope is saying that it’s wrong to think every day in every way about how to divide people. But he didn’t really go much beyond that, according to Lopez.

“Let’s be clear: The Pope didn’t say nations can’t defend their borders or protect their people. He did urgently implore us to always keep the human faces and struggles behind headlines and rhetorical points in mind,” she writes.

However, there’s another thing to be clear about: Donald Trump did not respond as if he was involved in a Sunday School discussion about the Gospel’s fine points. He hit back as if the pope’s words had come from a secular rival like Jeb Bush.

“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened,” reads the first sentence of Trump’s Thursday statement.

That invokes fear, and some would say it spreads divisiveness. To his harshest critics, Trump’s reaction to the pope’s words only proved the pope’s point.

Writing in The Washington Post, Jesuit priest James Martin calls this ISIS reference a “hateful comment” made in response to Pope Francis’s “nuanced, even reluctant, comments.”

The pope did not directly address Trump’s presidential candidacy, Father Martin writes. But the Jesuit adds that Trump has directed hatred against a great many people – migrants, Mexicans, fellow presidential candidates, women, and more.

“This too is not of God. The kind of hatred that issues from Trump’s mouth – from anyone’s mouth – is not motivated by God,” writes Martin.

At this point Trump himself seems to be rethinking his position. At Thursday night’s GOP town hall, he all but apologized. “The Pope is a wonderful guy,” Trump said.

“I think he said something much softer than it was originally reported by the media. I think he heard one side of the story, which was probably by the Mexican government,” the billionaire added.

“I like his personality, I like what he represents, and I certainly have great respect for the position,” Trump concluded.

On Friday, the Vatican also made it clear it was not interested in engaging in a war of words. A spokesman for the pope said his comments needed to be taken in context, and they were "in no way a personal attack or an indication on how to vote."

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