Just days before last year’s presidential election, Pope Francis denounced politicians who speak about erecting “walls,” prompting Slate and other publications to run such headlines as, “It Sure Sounds Like Pope Francis Doesn’t Think Americans Should Vote For Trump.”
One couldn’t blame the headline writers. After all, Pope Francis had made no similarly voluble criticism of Hillary Clinton’s policies. Yet in the end the pope’s influence proved hollow. The “people’s pontiff” looked more like the liberal elite’s pontiff as Clinton went down to defeat, with Trump even winning the Catholic vote 52-45. According to the Italian press, many of Pope Francis’s aides viewed the election as a “bitter defeat.”
They still do, and Pope Francis has encouraged them to undercut Trump’s agenda. It is no coincidence that shortly before the November 2016 election, Pope Francis gave a red hat to a critic of Mike Pence — Archbishop Joseph Tobin of Indianapolis. At the time of Tobin’s elevation he was representing an archdiocese with less than 250,000 parishioners, an archdiocese that has never had a cardinal (He has since been moved to Newark, New Jersey.) The Associated Press called it a “surprise pick” and said that it sent a “political message” to his colleagues, given Tobin’s reputation for political liberalism: “Tobin has openly opposed efforts by Indiana Governor Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, to bar Syrian refugees from being resettled in the state.”
After Trump and Pence entered office, Tobin, with Pope Francis’s blessing, instructed his fellow bishops to ramp up their resistance, “given the possibility that the administration isn’t going to be very interested in the questions that Pope Francis is interested in.”
Ever since, Tobin has been hectoring the bishops to oppose Trump’s environmental, economic, and immigration policies. From Tobin on the East Coast to Cardinal Cupich (in Chicago) to Bishop McElroy (in San Diego), the bishops are operating like anti-Trump lobbyists. During the 2016 campaign — which featured a visit by Bernie Sanders to the Vatican (the only presidential candidate to receive an invitation, tellingly) — Francis’s aides and favorite bishops seethed with hatred for Trump. They were thrilled when Pope Francis declared Trump “not Christian” for proposing a “wall” between the United States and Mexico.
Indeed, several of the Francis-friendly bishops ran open interference for the Democrats. San Jose’s bishop, Patrick McGrath, wrote a letter to his flock in which he said that Donald Trump’s complaint of a rigged system “borders on the seditious.” Santa Fe Archbishop John Wester said that “I think some of the rhetoric coming out of [the Trump] campaign is deplorable.” He dismissed Trump’s position as “scapegoating and targeting people like the immigrant, the refugee and the poor.”
But in a measure of Pope Francis’s wilting support among conservatives, the pope’s criticism of Trump only enhanced Trump’s appeal in the Republican primaries. Mary Matalin, a Republican strategist who opposed Trump in the primaries, found the pope’s broadside unhelpful. “The pope should stay out of politics,” she said. “He gave Trump a big, fat, wet kiss, whether he meant to or not.” After Jeb Bush lost the South Carolina primary, he blamed his defeat in part on the pope’s open-borders activism. When asked by MSNBC what contributed to his loss, Bush replied, “The pope intervening in American politics.”
On Wednesday, Pope Francis and Trump will meet. The meeting is likely to proceed along polite lines. But beneath the surface the tensions continue to grow. Just listen to the insulting comments of the pope’s close Argentine friend, Archbshop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, who insists that Trump must defer to Francis’s climate-change activism. Sorondo, who invited Bernie Sanders to the Vatican (on the grounds that his socialism and the pope’s socialism are “analogous”), is the chancellor of the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences, which is so nutty that it is arguably to the left of the Center for American Progress.
“They will come to an agreement, since the president claims to be a Christian, and so he will listen to him,” the haughty Sorondo declared. Sorondo is given to windy and intemperate attacks on the “Tea Party” and “those whose income derives from oil.”
“When he was preparing the Laudato Si’, oil lobbies did everything in their power to prevent the Pope from saying what he did,” huffed Sorondo. “Perhaps the oil companies wanted a ‘light’ encyclical,’ a romantic one on nature that wouldn’t say anything at all. Instead, the Pope followed what the scientific community says. If the president does not follow science, then that is the president’s problem.”
Sorondo operates with the complete backing of the pope. As Sorondo put it once to a pro-lifer who asked why he keeps bringing abortion proponents such as Jeffrey Sachs to speak at the Vatican, “my superiors [have] authorized me” to invite them.
This article is adapted from George Neumayr’s new book The Political Pope: How Pope Francis Is Delighting the Liberal Left and Abandoning Conservatives.