Last Word

What Pope Francis Really Said about Trump Not Being Christian

Conservatives are questioning the translation, Vatican spinmeisters are trying to calm the waters, but Francis was quite clear: Trump’s call for a wall is un-Christian.

Alessandro Di Meo/AFP/Getty

ROME—The pope’s plane had barely touched down in Rome last week before the world was abuzz about his harsh words about American presidential candidate Donald Trump. What the world heard was that the pope had called Trump “un-Christian” for his promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.

Was the pope’s meaning lost in translation, as many conservative pundits have argued? Or was he just being cryptic?

Political columnist John Leo argues that the pope’s words were misconstrued. “When a pope says something startling, check the translation,” he says. “These are men trained to think in Latin and Italian. And the English version can be a bit off.”

But let’s look at what the Pope Francis really said. According to the English language translation put out by the Vatican press office, which is the official word on the pope’s words, the pope did answer a question specifically about Donald Trump, but did not actually say the words “Trump is not a Christian.”

The question asked by Phil Pullella of Reuters was, “Today you spoke a lot and eloquently about the problem of immigrants. On the other side of the border there is an electoral campaign that is rather hard. One of the candidates for the White House, Donald Trump, in a recent interview said that you are a political man, and indeed perhaps a pawn of the Mexican Government when it comes to the policy of immigration. He said that if he were elected president he would build a 2,500-km wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants and, in that way separating families and so on. I would therefore like to ask, first of all, what you think of those charges against you, and if an American Catholic could vote for a person like this?”

The Pope responded, “Thank God he said I am a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as an 'animal politicus' [a political animal]. So at least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.”

He then went on to say, “And then, 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. As far as what you said about 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 says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

As we know, Trump did say “things in that way,” so the benefit of the doubt won’t take him very far. But, still, the pope’s remarks are a far cry from many of the headlines, and they probably were meant to focus on the call for a wall rather than the man making it.

The Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, on Friday, also offered his own clarification during an interview on Vatican Radio which was, of course, in Italian.

The official English language translation from the Vatican of that comment is as follows. “But the Pope said what we all know, when we follow his teaching and his position: that we should not build walls but bridges. He [the Pope] has always said this, continuously, and he has said this about the issues of migration in Europe, many times. So it is not a specific issue, limited to this case. This is one of [the Pope’s] general attitudes, very consistent with what is a courageous following of the Gospel of welcome and solidarity. Of course, this was then raised, but it is not that the Pope wishes to be, in any way, a personal attack nor an indication of voting.”

Lombardi then went on to say, “The Pope has made it clear that he would not enter into the [Presidential] election campaign in the United States and he has also said— which was not reported by many—if it were correct and true what he was told—he would give the benefit of the doubt over what had been reported about the Republican candidate’s expressions.”

“Therefore the key point is welcome—the building of bridges instead of walls – that is characteristic of this Pontificate. It must be interpreted and understood in this way.”