Pope Francis and Donald Trump make little effort to conceal their disagreements. During the 2016 US presidential election, Francis suggested that Trump was “not Christian” for proposing to build a wall along the US-Mexico border – his campaign’s signature policy. Trump fired back by calling Francis’s comment “disgraceful,” adding: “No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” Francis was flying home from Mexico when he made the comments. Trump accused the Mexican government of turning the Holy Father against him, saying officials had “made disparaging remarks about me to the Pope”.
Francis was undeterred by Trump’s election. This past April, Peter’s Pence, the Holy See’s charitable fund, donated $500,000 (£401,000) to support South American migrants. The official press release made specific reference to Trump’s immigration policy. “Men and women, often with young children, flee poverty and violence, hoping for a better future in the United States,” it said. “However, the US border remains closed to them.”
Now Trump is up for re-election, and the Pope won’t let up. This past May, in a Mexican television interview, Francis compared the proposed US-Mexico barrier to the Berlin Wall. “I don’t know what’s happening with this new culture of defending territories by building walls,” he told the Mexican Vatican correspondent Valentina Alazraki. “We already knew one – that in Berlin – which brought so many headaches and so much suffering.”
Francis joined in the criticism of Trump’s policy of separating children from their parents when they attempt to cross the border illegally. The Pope said that this practice “goes against natural law”. “It is cruel,” he said. “It is among the greatest of cruelties. And to defend what? Territory, or the economy of a country, or who knows what.”
The Holy Father promised to confront President Trump directly if given the chance.
Then, in June, a photo from the US border went viral. It showed the dead bodies of two Salvadorian migrants – a father and his one-year-old daughter – washed up on the banks of the Rio Grande. A press release from the Vatican announced that the Pope was “profoundly saddened” by their deaths, and that he is “praying for them and for all migrants who have lost their lives while seeking to flee war and misery”.
Francis’s concern for the crisis on the US border is echoed by the leaders of the Catholic Church in the United States. On June 30, three prominent American bishops – Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, Archbishop José Gómez and Bishop Joe Vásquez of Austin, Texas – wrote an op-ed in The Hill laying the blame for migrant fatalities on the White House’s doorstep. “These deaths are occurring because the United States is closing off access to asylum protection through policies and enforcement that send the clear and strong signal that you are not welcome,” the bishops declared.
Two of the bishops hail from Texas, and one from California: states with a high population of Latin American immigrants. This fact appears significant to many of Trump’s Catholic supporters, who question the bishops’ credibility on this issue. Among their critics is Steve Bannon, the architect of Trump’s 2016 win, his first chief adviser as President and a staunch proponent of border security. In an interview with CBS this past September, Bannon claimed that the US bishops “need illegal aliens to fill the pews” and that they have an “economic interest in illegal immigration”. He argued that immigration is not addressed in any detail by the official teachings of the Church, “and in that regard” each individual bishop is “just another guy with an opinion”.
On that last point, at least, Bannon is right: immigration is a matter of prudential judgment. This means that while certain solutions to the border crisis are impermissible – the use of lethal force against border-jumpers, for instance – Catholics may differ on how to best confront the problem of mass illegal immigration. The bishops are allowed to suggest solutions, and American Catholics have a duty to consider them seriously; but laymen aren’t obliged to agree with the hierarchy.
What’s astonishing is how little Catholic voters appear to heed the bishops’ condemnations. A March 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center found that, while Trump’s support among white Catholics had slumped by eight points since February 2017 (about the same as the national average), it had doubled among non-white Catholics, most of whom are Hispanic.
Perhaps there was a time in US history when the hierarchy’s every pronouncement in the political arena would have been instantly accepted by huge swathes of Catholic voters. But a century of integration has left American Catholics thoroughly independent-minded in matters of politics.
Moreover, as Pope Francis and most of the American bishops stand accused of complacency in the ongoing sex abuse crisis, never have American Catholics been less inclined to trust Church leaders. Supporters of tougher immigration policies will question why, as new allegations of sexual misconduct against senior prelates continue to emerge, our leaders in Rome and America seem far more interested in talking about Trump’s wall.