Should the Pope Talk Politics?

President Barack Obama bids farewell to Pope Francis following a private audience at the Vatican, March 27, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Pope Francis’ recent and unexpected foray into U.S. presidential politics was met with an unsurprising variety of reactions.

Some applauded his denouncement of Donald J. Trump’s desire to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. Others, while not necessarily sympathetic to Mr. Trump, thought it inappropriate for Pope Francis to say that a person with these views is “not Christian.”

Still others, like Mr. Trump, seemed to think it distasteful for a religious figure to enter discussions on a topic as unholy as politics. After suggesting he was a pawn of the Mexican government, Mr. Trump said, “I think that the pope is a very political person.”

Even Mr. Trump’s ex-rival, former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, apparently feels this way. After the pope released his environmental encyclical, “Laudato Si,” last summer, Mr. Bush said, “I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

This argument is obviously specious. American politicians have a historic habit of citing popes as allies, trying to prove to a nation of 69.5 million Catholics that their spiritual leader also happens to be on a particular candidate’s team. As a case in point, I once watched a Newt Gingrich-produced documentary that had a fairly awkward, several-minute segment effectively portraying Ronald Reagan and Pope St. John Paul II as kindred spirits. It never mentioned John Paul II’s critiques of capitalism.

I doubt this was simply wishful thinking; preparing to run for president at the time, Mr. Gingrich was wise to publicly tie a beloved pope to a former president revered by Republicans.

The difference now, of course, is that Democrats respect Pope Francis in a way they have not appreciated another pope in recent memory. Pope Francis may not be all that different from Pope Benedict XVI, whose focus on the environment earned him the title “The Green Pope,” or John Paul II, who combined his criticism of capitalism with disapproval of the death penalty and, like pretty much all popes, condemnation of global poverty.

Accurate or not, though, public impression is that the current pope is more focused on issues the Democrats champion — e.g. global warming and fighting income inequality — than Republican favorites like opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

Democrats have waved away previous popes’ political pronouncements when they found them disagreeable, and Republicans are doing so now. Both parties should be more forthcoming about their objection, because it is not that a particular pope would talk about political matters; it is that the pope is not beholden to their side.

But to the person who genuinely believes that no matter what the issue is, a religious leader should not speak on political matters, Pope Francis has this to say:

“Thank God he [Mr. Trump] said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ At least I am a human person.”

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