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The debate over Pope Francis's Donald Trump comments, explained

Pope Francis.
Pope Francis.
Oli Scarff/Getty Images News

The headlines were everywhere Thursday: Pope Francis said that Donald Trump is "not Christian" because of his views on immigration. That's how NPR, Yahoo News, and many other outlets, including Vox, reported it.

But there was quickly was some pushback. Some commentators argued the pope's comments had been taken out of context by the media, and that if you looked closely at what he said, Francis didn't intend to impugn Trump personally.

Which narrative is right?

It's an important question. Trump's call for a wall at the Mexico-US border may be controversial, but it's hardly unique. Millions of conservatives, most Republican presidential candidates, and close to 50 percent of Americans support a barrier across the entire width of the border. Does the pope doubt their Christianity as well?

On Friday, a Vatican spokesperson told Italian press that Pope Francis had not meant to question Trump's personal faith, but was instead affirming his "long-standing belief that migrants should be helped rather than shut off," according to Reuters. "In no way was this a personal attack," Vatican spokesperson Father Federico Lombardi said.

What the pope said about Trump

The exchange began when a reporter aboard the papal plane asked Francis for his thoughts on Trump's immigration proposal.

Here's what the reporter said, according to the Catholic News Agency's transcript:

One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border.

He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?

And here's Francis's response:

Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don't know. I'll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.

And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. As far as what you said 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 has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt

The first "not Christian" comment — that "a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian" — is pretty clearly not a judgment about Trump's personal religiosity.

For one, the pope makes clear that he's speaking in the abstract — about a potential candidate who "thinks only" in terms of building walls and burning bridges. And he includes several qualifiers, noting that such a person, "wherever they may be," is not Christian.

The second one — that "this man is not Christian if he says things like that" — is more difficult to parse. The pope is speaking about a hypothetical set of views and says he doesn't know what Trump has truly said, but the reporter's question does seem to be an accurate representation of Trump's actual proposals.

Given that Trump does say "things like that" — and much worse — doesn't that mean the pope is questioning Trump's personal faith?

Religious experts don't think Francis meant to impugn Trump's Christianity

In an interview, professor R. Scott Appleby, a scholar of global religion at Notre Dame, said he didn't think Francis was intending to pass judgment on Trump's Christianity.

"[Francis] is not saying, 'Trump is not a Christian and he's going to hell,'" Appleby said. "He is saying: 'That does not strike me as a Christian response to anyone who would say that.'"

Vincent Miller, professor of Catholic theology and culture at the University of Dayton, agreed. Miller said the pope was responding to a specific categorization of Trump's views from a reporter aboard the papal airliner. If you read the transcript from the exchange, Miller said, it's clear the pope thinks he's reacting to a set of views as framed by a reporter.

Shortly after the papal remarks, Trump released a statement calling it "disgraceful" for the pope to "question a person's faith." That's misinterpreting what Francis was actually saying, according to Miller.

"[The pope is] saying, 'If he says things like that,' then it's not Christian to do so," Miller said. "Trump wants to make this into a clash of the titans, where the pope judged him and insulted him. But the pope is very clear: He's insulting the policy."

The Vatican clarified the pope's remarks

Still, the Vatican felt the need to react to the uproar over the pope's remarks on Friday by clarifying that Francis wasn't questioning Trump's Christianity.

"The pope said what we well know, when we follow his teaching and his positions: that one mustn't build walls, but bridges," a Vatican spokesperson said on Vatican Radio on Friday, according to NBC News. "He has always said this, continuously. And he has said it also about migration issues in Europe, very many times. Thus, it's not at all a specific question, limited to this case."

Needless to say, not every press outlet had the most sympathetic interpretation on the Vatican's statement. The Guardian's headline said the pope "walks back" his Trump comments, and the Daily Mail wrote, "Trump Triumphs Over the Pope." "Trump Stares Down Pope as Vatican Back Peddles [sic]," added the Huffington Post.

A more charitable way of understanding it: Yes, the pope may have slightly garbled a few words, but he's overall more interested in focusing attention on the humanitarian crisis facing millions of migrants than in getting involved in the circus of America's presidential election.