It's pretty extraordinary that a leading contender for the American presidency has just effectively threatened the Pope with terrorism. But then, Donald J. Trump is no ordinary Republican frontrunner. Everything about his campaign is outrageous -- and that's why he is winning.
Today, the Pope, returning home from Mexico, told reporters that he thought Trump's intention to build a wall between America and Mexico was unChristian. Rather than doing what all politicians do, and paying due reverence to the Holy Father, the Donald's press office decided to reply with the following (Italics mine, to emphasise how Trump would have said it)
'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 because this would not have happened.'
As the journalist Dave Weigel has noted, what is perhaps most interesting is that, in his opening sentence, Donald Trump appears to be conceding defeat in the election. How very unTrump. But nevermind that; what matters is that this row will dominate the headlines in the build up to South Carolina primary.
Trump vs Pope is a perfect media clash. On the Mexican side of the border, Pope Francis, the austere man of God, appealing for social justice for migrants. On the American side, Donald J. Trump, the bloated billionaire egomaniac, calling for barriers between peoples. Two visions for the world. Only one, ultimately, can win.
The Pope went to the fence between the border cities of Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, in Texas. He prayed for asylum seekers -- for the victims of what he calls the ‘globalisation of indifference’. It was an implicit appeal to the USA to be more generous; more accommodating to millions of Latin Americans. Pope Francis has lectured America about immigrants before. In September, he told the American Congress not to be ‘fearful of foreigners’ and reminded them that they were descended from immigrants.
Donald Trump, on the other hand, wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out. 'Walls work — just ask Israel,’ he says. He wants to tell the Pope to get stuffed. 'I think that the Pope is a very political person,' he says, echoing Rupert Murdoch’s famous remark about the Dalai Lama.
'I think he doesn’t understand the problems that our country has,’ Trump added. 'I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico. I think Mexico got him to do it because they want to keep the border just the way it is. They’re making a fortune and we’re losing.'
The Vatican has responded to Trump’s attack by defending the Pope’s right to speak on behalf of the poor. Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See press office, said: 'The Pope always talks about migration problems all around the world, of the duties we have to solve these problems in a humane manner, of hosting those who come from other countries in search of a life of dignity and peace.'
Trump should be careful picking a fight with the Catholic Church. The Catholic vote tends to reflect the American consensus. In the past three American presidential elections, the candidate who won the majority of Catholic votes went on to win the White House. In Republican primaries, too, from Reagan to Romney, candidates who wooed the most Catholic voters have won.
It's notable that, in his statement today, he was quite keen to blame the Mexican government for brainwashing the Pontiff, rather than direct his ire at the Pope himself. The thrice-married egomaniac did, however, say that 'for a religious leader to question a person's faith is disgraceful.' (Well, Donald, he is the Pope, and he didn't hedge his criticisms in doubt.) As the brilliantly informed Vatican correspondent John L. Allen wrote today, Trump is in danger of losing the Catholic vote, both because of his wobbliness on the abortion issue, and now his major spat with the Servant of the servants of God.
But when it comes to Trump, none of the normal rules of politics apply. And anyway, 'the Catholic vote' is broad and maddeningly complicated. It doesn’t automatically side with the Holy See. While Trump is, in moral terms, a much less attractive figure than Francis, he has a more effective point on immigration. So far at least, a majority of American Catholics seem to support him.
It’s all very well for Pope Francis to tell the US it must welcome more migrants — and, on an individual or family level, no doubt they should. But does he fully understand what is happening in America? Does he appreciate how mass immigration has affected the lower-middle class, stagnating their wages and upending their communities? Or does he just think America rich, Mexico poor? Francis deplores the violence that drug trafficking is inflicting on Mexico, but does he fully recognise the damage that Latin American drugs have done to American society? New Hampshire, where Trump just won so convincingly, is riddled with heroin abuse (although, it should be added, its immigrant population is relatively low).
Trump’s phenomenal success this year can largely be attributed to the fact that he, more than any other politician, has been ‘saying the unsayable’ on immigration. It’s what American voters — including Catholics, want to hear. Trump may appeal to our lesser instincts, but he’s touched on a problem that politicians and popes have ignored for too long.