Pope Francis takes wait-and-see approach to Trump

'We'll see what Trump does,' before judging him, said the pope in an interview published Saturday.

Giorgio Onorati/ANSA/AP
Pope Francis greets faithful during the traditional Sunday's Angelus prayer, in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican City, Sunday.

Pope Francis and Donald Trump may have clashed in the past, but the pontiff says he is willing to give the newly inaugurated president a chance. 

In an interview published Saturday evening by Spanish newspaper El País, Francis said he would wait to form an opinion on President Trump, as he doesn't like "judging people early. We'll see what Trump does."

At the same time, he warned against the rise of populist-style leaders in the United States and Europe, lamenting that "we look for a savior to give us back identity, and we defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire fences, from other peoples" and citing the rise of Adolf Hitler. 

The comments followed a rocky relationship between Mr. Trump and Pope Francis throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. In February, the pope suggested to reporters that Trump "is not a Christian" because of his tough approach to illegal immigration; the then-candidate responded first by asserting in a statement that "for a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful," and later by asking, more candidly, at a rally: "Who the hell cares?" 

Debate ensued over how Catholic Trump supporters could reconcile their religious views with their political ones and whether the two perspectives could ever find common ground, as Peter Grier wrote for The Christian Science Monitor at the time: 

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....

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....

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.

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.

Some political experts warned at the time that the clash could have a negative long-term effect on Trump's popularity down the road. 

"[T]here could be a downstream effect to this that could come back to haunt [Trump]," David Woodard, a political scientist at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., told the Monitor at the time.

Even people who aren't Catholic "have a lot of reverence for the pope and the church and what he stands for," he added. "I don’t think they’d want him picked on by a politician." 

But Pope Francis appears willing to approach the Trump presidency with an open mind. Shortly after Trump's inaugural ceremony on Friday, the pope sent a congratulatory message to the new president, urging him to take care of the country's poor and outcast during his time in office. 

"At a time when our human family is beset by grave humanitarian crises demanding farsighted and united political responses, I pray that your decisions will be guided by the rich spiritual and ethical values that have shaped the history of the American people and your nation's commitment to the advancement of human dignity and freedom worldwide," the pope said in the statement. "Under your leadership, may America's stature continue to be measured above all by its concern for the poor, the outcast and those in need who, like Lazarus, stand before our door." 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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