- By Molly O’TooleMolly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian.
“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.”
So said Donald Trump, pushing back Thursday on a new and unexpected challenger to the businessman and born-again-Republican presidential front-runner’s platform: Pope Francis.
Francis, the leader of more than 1 billion Catholics worldwide and one in five Americans, suggested Trump is un-Christian because of his stance on immigrants and border security policy. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said when a reporter asked him about Trump during his return from a six-day trip to Mexico.
Trump’s response to Francis’s comments came quickly. “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful,” Trump said in a statement. “I am proud to be a Christian and as president I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current president. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith.”
Even before his push-back on the pope, Trump was problematic with American Catholics. Last September, a Gallup poll found that just 21 percent of Catholics had a favorable view of the real estate mogul, compared to 30 percent of Protestants.
On Thursday, Trump implied the pope is “only getting one side of the story,” fed to him by the Mexican government, “because they want to continue to rip off the United States, both on trade and at the border, and they understand I am totally wise to them.”
At contrast was the Argentine pope’s visit to Mexico, intended to spark conversation about resolving a global migrant crisis. On Wednesday, he celebrated Mass in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city on the Texas border and at the epicenter of drug-fueled violence that has ravaged the United States’s southern neighbor. In a powerful gesture that repudiated the heated anti-immigrant rhetoric of the slash-and-burn Republican primary, the pope lay flowers at the foot of a cross on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Trump, for his part, kicked off his campaign last June by saying of Mexico, “They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” His border security policy consists largely of building an even larger wall on the border, which he says he’ll get Mexico to pay for.
Francis has become increasingly vocal in politics, including on national security issues. He has urged closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and called out the United States for being the No. 1 supplier in the global arms trade during his September address to Congress.
The Trump vs. Francis narrative has already overshadowed another controversy to come out of the same press conference in which the pope spoke about the U.S. presidential candidate. The pontiff also suggested the Catholic Church could consider contraception in countries ravaged by the Zika virus as an exception to its position against all forms of birth control and abortion.
Zika has prompted a public health crisis in Latin and South America, where much of the world’s Catholic population lives. On Thursday, the World Health Organization issued guidance recommending sexual partners of pregnant women to use condoms or abstain from sex altogether if they live in, or have travelled to, areas that Zika has impacted. Researchers consider pregnant women especially at risk following a spike in birth defects in Zika-affected areas.
“Avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil,” Francis said. “In certain cases, as in this one, as in that one I mentioned of Blessed Paul VI, it was clear. I would also urge doctors to do their utmost to find vaccines against these mosquitoes that carry this disease.”
Trump didn’t touch the Zika issue in his three-paragraph statement. But he made clear, as in calling the pope a “pawn,” that no target is untouchable for his political ambitions — even if it means disparaging the religious leader of more than a billion people worldwide.