The Pope speaks and almost inevitably there is controversy. But amid all the responses, analysis and photos of the wall that surrounds Vatican City posted to Twitter, one should take a moment to ask … what did the Pope actually say and is it really all that controversial? Let’s take a look.
What he actually said was:
A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian.
Of course, this statement was made in a larger context (which we will examine below). However, the statement, on its face, is really not that controversial at all. The statement is not talking about the legitimate right of a nation to protect its borders. It is not talking about the legitimate discussion during a political campaign of the pros and cons of the policy behind building a wall. The statement plainly says that a person, “who thinks only about” building walls is taking an un-Christian approach. How so?
Intent is always relevant to the moral character of an act. This has always been Catholic teaching on any subject that touches on morality. A man who kills someone out of jealousy or anger likely committed a mortal sin. A man who kills someone in self-defense likely bears no moral culpability. A woman who undergoes sterilization to prevent future pregnancies is likely culpable. A similarly situated woman who has a procedure that results in sterilization because she is sick with cancer is not. Intent always informs the moral character of an act.
It follows then that the words you choose to use to convey your proposals also matter because those words convey your intent. Those words influence the feelings and thoughts of those that hear you. The Pope’s message is simple, if you’re going to be a public figure don’t only use words that convey the negative also use words that speak of how we will improve the situation in the future. In other words, build a wall if you have to but also explain you plan to build a bridge in the future.
This message is clearly conveyed in the fuller context of the Pope’s statement:
“A person who thinks only about building walls — wherever they may be — and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis said Thursday, according to a translation from the Associated Press. “This is not in the Gospel.”
He added: “I’d just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way.”
The Pope’s criticism of Trump was prompted by a reporter who asked: “Can a good Catholic vote for this man?” ABC’s account notes that the Pope demurred on that aspect of the question, by saying:
“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 said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
(As reported by the Washington Post, Greg Sargent, February 18, 2016)
Again, note that that Pope is not saying anything about whether a country can or cannot build a wall. He’s talking about the language you use in the discussion about building the wall. A leader’s job, particularly a Christian leader’s job, is to cool the passion for divisions and to grow the desire for community and charity. This is done primarily through language and how a leader presents his policies to the community.
Finally, it strikes me how very Christ like is Pope Francis’ statement. The reporters come to him asking him practical questions about immigration policy, building walls and who people can and should vote for. How does he answer? He doesn’t answer with specific policy yes’ or no’s but with pastoral answer. It’s an answer about the heart, about how your words reflect your inner self and the need to keep the inner self on the path of the Gospel.