Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Pope Vs. Trump. Let The One Who Is Without Walls Throw The First Stone

We heard lots about the two walls earlier this week: the wall of Trump's dreams, which would protect the United States from illegal immigrants, and the wall that contains and protects the sovereign nation that is Vatican City. Pope Francis finds Trump's wall-erecting aspirations disappointing. I agree with the sentiments, but I don't think the pontiff has much standing in criticizing Trump. Not only does Francis live in a walled city, but also he heads up an organization that uses its power and obscene wealth to erect and maintain metaphorical walls. 
My politics are to the left of those of Bernie Sanders and I am an active, practicing Roman Catholic. It pains me to defend Trump. But Donald Trump is right to characterize Pope Francis's criticisms as "disgraceful." No one Christian has the moral authority to decide who the real Christians are, not even the pope. 
A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," Francis said when a reporter asked him about Mr. Trump on the papal airliner as he returned to Rome after his six-day visit to Mexico. 
By this definition, one could question whether the pope is Christian. What happened to "Who am I to judge?" 
Francis lives in a sovereign state surrounded by a wall. He is the Supreme Pontiff of a church that excludes many of its faithful from the sacraments on a daily basis. He upholds the misogynistic and theologically unsound doctrine that bars women from ordination. These are walls of a kind. Francis did not build them, and anyone paying any attention at all to the pope notices that often the pontiff uses his words to chip away at those walls he inherited. The walls, however, are still standing. 
Francis continues to uphold the exclusion of married LGBTQ Catholics from the sacraments. His hierarchy's animosity toward LGBTQ Catholics is no less hateful than Donald Trump's enmity for Mexican immigrants and Muslims. Are the pope's determination not to take part in the conversation about women's ordination or the Roman Catholic Curia's misogyny any less disgraceful than Trump's penchant for calling women "pigs"? I don't think they are. Both behaviors are misogynistic and exclusionary. Exclusion is a wall. When it comes to walls, the Vatican is the capo wall-builder of tutti wall-builders.
I don't doubt that the pontiff's objection to Trump's dream of building a wall high enough to keep Mexican immigrants out of the U.S. is in part sincere and deeply felt. He's a Latin American man. He clearly loves people and his own Christian feeling appears to move him to a "Christ-like" respect for the poor, the persecuted, the imprisoned. However Francis's condemnation of Trump is in strong keeping with the hopes the Vatican has for Latin Americans in North, Central and South America. Latin American Catholics are the Vatican's last hope in the Americas. North Americans are abandoning the Church. Protestant sects are flourishing in Latin America and their campaigns to convert disaffected Catholics have been immensely successful. Latin American immigrants are the Vatican's great (not quite white) hope in the U.S. The Church may want to honor the dignity of Mexican and Central American refugees in the United States, but the U.S. Bishops and the College of Cardinals want more; they want those new arrivals working, breeding, baptizing their children into the Roman Catholic Church and, most of all, tithing. 
The College of Cardinals and U.S. Bishops are in a tough spot with 2016's presidential campaign.
The U.S. bishops are progressive on immigration, but conservative on most social issues. Martin O'Malley would have been their guy on the immigration front (alone. On all other fronts he is technically self-excommunicated, as he publicly supports a woman's right to choose.) The Bishops are probably sorry to see Jeb Bush go. Not only is Bush soft(er) on undocumented immigrants, he's a Roman Catholic with a convert's fervor. 
The pontiff was not going rogue when he lashed out at Trump. Trump has been the Vatican's least favorite candidate from the start. There's nothing in it for the Vatican if Trump wins. Pope Francis may have been speaking from his heart when he characterized Trump as a poor Christian, but he was also exhibiting his readiness to stump for the Vatican's 'to be determined' GOP candidate of choice. 
The Catholic hierarchy's most pressing desire is to see a man in the Oval Office who will strain to overturn Roe v. Wade. They also want to see the defense of marriage effort revitalized and they want (and need) a president who will look kindly upon Roman Catholic immigrants. 
Trump doesn't fit the bill. he's not Catholic. He was ardently pro-choice until his presidential ambitions demanded that he ...experience an epiphany. It's an understatement to note that the sanctity of marriage hardly seems a focus for him, and my guess is that on the matter of same-sex marriage, Trump doesn't care who marries whom. The Vatican and U.S. Bishops fervently any Republican but Trump to win, and I think we will soon begin to see the Bishops engage in a carefully-coded campaign against Trump. The cornerstone for this effort is now in place. Trump insulted the pope. It's Onward Catholic Soldiers time. 
It will be interesting to see how the U.S. Bishops decide. Cruz and Rubio are both of Cuban heritage. Traditionally, politically conservative Cubans have exhibited less solidarity with fellow Latinos than have other Latino groups. Then there's religion. Ted Cruz is a wealthy evangelical who has been stiffing the collection plate. Marco Rubio is a faith-hopping (Catholic, to Mormon, to Evangelical Protestant to Catholic) as a sign of vibrant religious exploration, but it is hard to imagine the bishops seeing it that way. I think the Vatican will wind up blowing on Ted Cruz's dice. 
I think Trump is a spiritually empty sleaze, but Christianity doesn't demand perfection of anyone. Christians are sometimes mentally unbalanced. Christians fall in and out of grace. Christians sin. An atheist friend, a scientist, asked me who I thought the most "Christian" person in the presidential race was. I answered with a joke--and with all appropriate respect for the fact that he is not by any means a Christian--"Bernie Sanders." But the bandying about of the word "Christian" itself troubles me deeply. 
"Christian" should never be used as a synonym for "morally good." This exchange between Trump and the pope with its tossing about of the word "Christian" concerns me. It brings to the surface some very backwards notions about the moral fitness non-Christian presidential candidates (We saw plenty of this in 2008 with President Obama's candidacy.) In the (I believe) unlikely even that Hillary Clinton does not win the Democratic nomination, I believe Michael Bloomberg may enter the race. Were this to happen, we'd have two Jews running. Whether by design or by accident, the pope, in choosing to single out one candidate for a Christianity quotient assessment, adds his voice to the voice of the many who feel that being Christian is a de facto requirement for an American president. This offends my Christian sensibilities deeply. 
Does the pope have more moral authority than Donald Trump? Most human beings in the universe probably do. It was irresponsible for the pope to say what he said, and Trump was correct (though not wise) to call the pope's attack "disgraceful." The pontiff has the charisma needed to pull off this show of indignation. Jorge Bergoglio was chosen for 'Good Cop, Bad Cop' moments like these, but he and the Vatican are in no position to object to walls. Let the one who is without walls throw that stone.