Providing some historical context for the Pope Francis-Donald Trump conflict

How many divisions does the pope have? This famous question, asked by Joseph Stalin in 1935, was perhaps the most blunt expression of an opinion held by many a practitioner of realpolitik through the centuries: that all things considered, the pope should not stick his nose into politics. Centuries before Stalin, Napoleon Bonaparte recognized that military might was not the only kind of influence, instructing his envoy to Pope Pius VII to “treat with His Holiness as if he had at his back one hundred thousand bayonets.” But Stalin’s question holds today: Why pay attention to a leader with no bayonets at all?

Our all-American version of this sentiment was best expressed recently by Jerry Falwell Jr., who defended his endorsement of Donald J. Trump in his recent war of words with Pope Francis by saying, “It’s not our job to choose the best Sunday school teacher.” Mr. Trump went further. Incensed that the pope suggested his call for walling off Mexico from the United States was “not Christian,” he called the pope’s remarks “disgraceful” and suggested Francis would be sorry when ISIS captured Rome. Take that, Swiss Guard!

Many reactions to this fight have been surprisingly ahistorical, with public figures suggesting that the brawl is a novelty, the result of two wild cards being played at once. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat actually claimed that Donald Trump and Francis had much in common, a belief that would surely horrify at least one of the pair. But, history tells us, this is not the first tangle between popes and politicians. On our side of the pond, it is usually a dog-whistle to evangelical Christians who fear popish plots. For some Vatican officials, historically it has resulted from a suspicion of democracy and/or American-style capitalism.

On their shores, it usually involves a suspicion of the pairing of democracy and wealth. And we do well to remember that one of the most dreaded heresies in the Vatican’s eyes a century ago was called Americanism.

The long papacy of John Paul II, and the extension and intensification of his policies under Pope Benedict XVI, have perhaps made us forget this fact. President Reagan and both President Bushes did not have much to fear from St. John Paul II. And even if Rome firmly rejected the latter Bush’s war in Iraq, there were those who threw him a huge assist by suggesting that John Kerry should not receive Communion because of his support of legal abortion (no such advice ever emerged around the issues of torture or just war). In those days in the United States, “good Catholic” more often than not meant “Republican.”

But it was not always thus.

In 1961, for example, the reactionary superhero William F. Buckley Jr. complained that Pope John XXIII’s encyclical on the economy, “Mater et Magistra,” was not only naïve but unfairly critical of capitalism (sound familiar?) and “a venture in triviality coming at this particular time in history.” A month later, Mr. Buckley doubled down, riffing off Fidel Castro’s famous rallying cry of “Cuba sí, Yanqui no!” with the following quip in the pages of National Review: “Going the rounds in conservative circles: ‘Mater sí, Magistra no.’” (“Mother yes, teacher no”). Years later, Garry Wills confessed he was the author of the quip, back when the former Jesuit seminarian was a committed distributionist. This ridicule of an encyclical, unthinkable a decade earlier, was a signal moment—a prefiguring of the widespread dissent against “Humanae Vitae” a few years later. Mr. Wills can tell you more about that.The editors of this magazine rallied to Good Pope John’s defense: “Lines spoken to the Pope just shouldn’t sound like lines pitched at the editors of The New York Post,” they noted. In a personal letter to Thurston N. Davis, S.J., the editor in chief of America, Mr. Buckley acknowledged his words may have been “in imperfect taste.” His memory failed him two decades later, however, when he claimed Father Davis had “tried to have me excommunicated.”

But back to today: Why so much drama over the opinions of a rascal pope in far-off Rome? Mr. Trump fears the same thing Napoleon feared two centuries ago: “Qui mange du Pape, en meurt” (“He who takes a bite out of the pope dies from it”). What Donald Trump is demanding is the same thing Mr. Buckley wanted half a century ago: an admission that faith has nothing to do with politics, that Jesus doesn’t care.

Like most of us, however, I have an alternative point of view. Frankly, I think Jesus does care. Jesus has much to say on topics dear to poor Donald Trump’s heart. Mater Sí! Magistra Sí!

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Vincent Gaglione
1 year 6 months ago
Thank you! Well said!

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