ROME — When Pope Francis announced he would be holding a large Mass on the U.S.-Mexican border as part of his apostolic journey to the region, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump accused the holy man of playing politics and not fully understanding “the danger of the open border we have with Mexico.”
“I think Mexico got him to do it,” Trump said, “because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is—because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing.”
Well, Trump may have been right—at least about the Pope’s political intentions. During the flight back from Mexico on Wednesday night, Francis dabbled in the American presidential contest when he told reporters that Trump’s promised immigration policy makes him “un-Christian.”
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel,” Francis said, no doubt being fully aware of the headlines his comment would generate. “As far as … 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.”
It didn’t take long for Trump to fire back that the Pope had gone too far, calling the pontiff’s remarks “disgraceful.”
“No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith,” Trump said in statement on the campaign trail, adding, “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been president.”
The tit for tat may have ended there for now, even though reporters on the plane continued to prod Francis for more anti-Trump dirt. “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that,” the pope said, signaling an end to the discussion, according to reporters on the plane. “We must see if he said things in that way and I will give him the benefit of the doubt.”
Francis also touched on a number of hotbed issues during his in-flight press conference, including whether or not he would condone abortion or birth control given the fast spread of the Zika virus and its apparent effects on unborn children. He stood by the Catholic Church’s long-standing mantra that abortion is an “absolute evil” but appeared to soften on the use of birth control. “Avoiding pregnancy isn’t an absolute evil,” the pope said, referring to a precedent set by Pope Paul VI in 1968 when he wrote in the “Humanae Vitae” and said birth control could be used by nuns in certain areas where they were at risk of being raped.
The pope also appeased the many Italian journalists on board by entertaining a few questions about a divisive parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage making headlines in Italy, seemingly endorsing the idea that a same-sex union bill would be OK if it passes. The law, which is set to go to a vote next week, would make Italy the last major European nation to recognize same-sex unions if it passes, or keep Italy as the only one that doesn’t if it fails. “I do not know how things are in the Italian Parliament. The pope does not meddle in Italian politics,” he said, which raised eyebrows since no pope has ever taken that stand before. Instead he said that Catholic lawmakers had to vote with a “well-formed conscience.”
Aside from the comments on Trump, though, the most important thing Francis may have said during the mile-high press conference was on the church’s ongoing battle with clerical sex abuse, which has been making headlines in recent weeks after it came to light that a special Vatican commission wasn’t actually advising bishops on the topic and that many were told they didn’t have to report sex abuse.
Francis made it absolutely clear that, in fact, bishops have a moral obligation to do the right thing. “A bishop who moves a priest to another parish when a case of pedophilia is discovered is an irresponsible man, and the best thing he can do is to present his resignation,” the pope said—which certainly won’t be the last word on the matter.