Sunday, February 21, 2016

Trumping the Pope

Pope Francis

In a recent dust up, Republican presidential front runner Donald Trump traded words with Pope.  Trump wants to build a wall to deter immigrants; Francis disagreed with that approach.

The discussion was odd since The Roman Catholic Church has no dogmatic views on immigration. Since Francis started the discussion, he must have been speaking as an individual and not as a representative of the Church.  However, he brought religion into the mix by saying that "any person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian."

Later, the pope said he was referring to any person, not just Trump.  Still, there’s no doubt Trump, who is Presbyterian, was the target.

The comments seem a bit stunning.  Churches in this country are tax-exempt provided that they do not get involved in politics.  Clergy commonly ignore such limitations.  Many religious leaders have given sermons that encourage parishioners to support candidates who have endorsed desired religious standards.  I have attended services where acceptable political candidates spoke in lieu of their opponents in the guise of a political forum.

The pope apparently decided to involve his church in an election.  Not that it makes any difference.  Popes have shown to have little impact on American voters over the years, regardless of their opinions.  Repeated polls demonstrate that American Catholics oppose tradition church teachings anyway in such areas as birth control, gay rights and the role of women.  Based on history, all a pope's comments have really done is bring attention to a political leader.

Pope Benedict XV and Woodrow Wilson
The first meeting between a president and a pope took place in 1919, when Woodrow Wilson, then in Europe for a peace conference, stopped by the Vatican to greet Pope Benedict XV.  The two men had many disagreements.  For example, Wilson, pushing his 14-point peace plan, was upset that the pope had offered his own 10-point plan for peace. 

Benedict XV also hoped to find a way to end the suffering and hunger caused by the war., Wilson, in contrast, was looking to the future with expectation of creating a new system.  Benedict XV had assumed office in 1914 as the war began and tried to bring about an end; Wilson led his country into war and helped force the German surrender.  The two world leaders parted after a brief discussion that led nowhere and included a misunderstand about the traditional papal blessing.

Both failed to achieve their goals.  Benedict XV, who died in 1922, did not live long enough to witness World War II.  Wilson died in 1924 after a failed effort to remake the world.

Eisenhower and Pope John XXIII
President Dwight Eisenhower, a career military man, came to the Vatican in 1959 as part of a “goodwill tour.”  He and Pope John XXIII had a good laugh as the president mangled a greeting in Italian.  They parted without discussing anything significant.

Ronald Reagan also met with John Paul II, but for more substantial talks.  The first time, in 1982, they talked in the Vatican library.  John Paul II spoke English, which definitely helped communication.  They met again in 1987 in Miami.

In their meetings, Reagan and John Paul II, both of whom had survived assassination attempts a year early, discussed ways to counter communism.  "Reagan and the pope agreed to undertake a clandestine campaign to hasten the dissolution of the communist empire," wrote Carl Bernstein, the former Watergate reporter who studied the high-level relationship.

John Paul II and Reagan
Their alliance was not broadcast and is credited for helping dismantle the Soviet Union.

In contrast, and more in keeping with Trump’s brouhaha with Francis, Pope John Paul II and Bill Clinton disagreed openly about abortion.  The pope even stood next to the president in a 1993 White House ceremony and criticized Clinton for his support of abortion rights.

"If you want equal justice for all and true freedom and lasting peace, then, America, defend life," John Paul II said. "All the great causes that are yours today will have meaning only to the extent that you guarantee the right to life and protect the human person."

Clinton and John Paul II
That led to another open disagreement a year later after a United Nations meeting in Cairo that dealt with abortion and the availability of birth control.

The argument grew so heated that Clinton refused to take a call from the pope, who wanted the president to oppose the U.N. conference’s support for abortion worldwide.  Ray Flynn, the former mayor of Boston who served as Clinton’s ambassador to the Vatican, flew the 16 hours from Rome to Washington, D.C., to convince Clinton to talk to the pope.  Clinton agreed and then called John Paul II.

Clinton was still easily re-elected.

John Paul II also called out other world leaders, such as Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. Other popes have also denounced political leaders through world history.  None lost their position because of the angry words.

Trump then is in good company.  He called the pope's comments "unbelievable" and "disgraceful."  He actually should have thanked Francis for the publicity. 

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His most recent book is Passover in Prison, which details abuse of Jewish inmates in American prisons.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at

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