TALES FROM THE VATICAN

How Popes Play Politics in the U.S.

The Constitution calls for the separation of church and state, but pontiffs often have other ideas.

02.21.16 5:15 AM ET

ROME — Donald Trump’s feelings may have been momentarily hurt by comments Pope Francis made about how his promise to build a wall on the border with Mexico is “not Christian.” But one might recall that prelates and politics have always shared an uneasy space in American society, where more than 20 percent of the population is Catholic. 

Some may remember stories of Father Coughlin, a Catholic priest from the Detroit diocese who rattled the airwaves with his controversial endorsements of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini under the banner of social justice back in the 1930s. He was eventually silenced, but not before he had managed to attract tens of millions of faithful listeners who felt he was channeling the pope in Rome.

The Kennedys were, of course, the most famous sons of the Catholic Church, even though John F. Kennedy adamantly distanced himself from his religious beliefs while on the campaign trail in 1960. 

“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act,” he said. “For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.”

That didn’t and doesn’t mean, of course, that the Church agrees to stay silent. All of the recent popes have made their voices heard on almost every major American policy decision and social phenomenon touching on Catholic dogma. Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae was essentially a cold shower poured on the American sexual revolution of the 1960s. 

Pope John Paul II warned against war in Iraq. “War is not always inevitable,” he said on the eve of the American invasion of Iraq. “It is always a defeat for humanity.”

Pope Benedict XVI was especially hard on America’s reliance on the death penalty, taking every opportunity to lecture American policy-makers for allowing it to continue, and applauding those countries that abolished it, but his admonitions fell on deaf ears.

The Vatican has also remained firm in the United Nations, where the permanent observer for the Holy See often voices formal “reservations” about its policies, most recently on assisted reproduction. 

Archbishop Bernardito Auza, the Vatican’s man in Geneva, said last year, “Various modern techniques of human reproduction do not respect this full dignity of the woman. They regard fertility and pregnancy as diseases rather than normal states of a woman.”

“They reduce or reject, rather than reverence, the motherly aspects of a woman’s body and personality,” he said. “They try to convince us that it is consistent with a woman’s dignity for her to become pregnant in a hospital by a doctor with a pipette in his gloved hands [rather] than as the fruit of an act of loving union with her husband and the father of their child.”

Even before he trampled on Trump, Pope Francis, just shy of his third anniversary as Pontiff, had certainly made his share of headlines with his views on American issues. 

Who can forget last fall when he met anti-gay marriage activist Kim Davis, which was the most confusing he-said she-said handshake of his papacy. While someone surely knew that meeting Davis would look like an endorsement of her personal policy not to carry out her state duties by issuing same-sex marriage licenses, it is still unclear if the pope actually knew. 

“The Pope did not enter into the details of the situation of Mrs. Davis and his meeting with her should not be considered a form of support of her position in all of its particular and complex aspects,” the Vatican spokesman said as a way of not saying anything about the matter. 

Trump wasn’t the only American-slanted topic at hand on the papal press conference en route back to Rome from Mexico. When asked if women infected with the Zika virus could justify getting an abortion to avoid giving birth to a severely disabled child, he said no, leaving no room for argument. “Abortion is not the lesser of two evils. It is a crime. It is to kill someone in order to save another. This is what the Mafia does. It is a crime, an absolute evil,” he said.

Then he did what he has done countless times before on a variety of issues from giving communion to divorced and remarried Catholics to accepting same-sex couples in Catholicism by giving a less-than-straight answer. 

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“On the lesser evil, avoiding pregnancy, we are speaking in terms of the conflict between the fifth and sixth commandments. The great Paul VI, in a difficult situation in Africa, permitted nuns to use contraceptives in cases of rape,” he said, according to the official transcript given out by the Vatican press office. “Don’t confuse the evil of avoiding pregnancy by itself, with abortion. Abortion is not a theological problem, it is a human problem, it is a medical problem. You kill one person to save another, in the best-case scenario. Or to live comfortably, no? How many Hippocratic Oaths must doctors take? It is an evil in and of itself, but it is not a religious evil at its root, no, it’s a human evil. Then obviously, as with every human evil, each killing is condemned.” 

Then he added: “On the other hand, avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil. In certain cases, as in this one, such as the one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear,” he said, which almost implies that birth control is OK in areas where the Zika virus is a threat without quite saying that, really, at all, before giving a comment sure to rile up anti-vaxxers.  

“I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease,” he said.  “This needs to be worked on.”

Francis, more than any other pope, has been able to kill two birds with one stone on many issues. He is at once lambasting any global policies, in this case American policies, he does not agree with, like Trump’s call for a wall or the abortion issue. But he does it masterfully while undermining the shrill stance of the Church, which is still stuck in the past, and which he is trying to reform. And all the while he provides a sugar coating for the orthodoxy that remains in place.

Francis may be a man of God, but he is also, truly, a masterful politician.