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Opinion: Is Donald Trump Right? Is Pope Francis Too Political?

  • by: Raphael Sassower
  • (Sat, 13 Feb 2016 04:27:00 Z)

By Raphael Sassower and Jeffrey Scholes

Just like anything else outrageous that Donald Trump says, it always has a whiff of something intriguing, if not true. As Pope Francis prepares to visit the Russian Eastern Orthodox Patriarch in Cuba and then travel to Mexico, Trump couldn't help himself but declare the pope to be "too political."

What does this even mean?

What does this even mean? Is this in reference to the so-called wall of separation that should constitutionally exists between state and church? But if that were the reason for concern, then most other religious leaders in the United States would be guilty of such politicization. Moreover, the pope is not subject to our constitution's first amendment. His religious dominion ranges across the globe; most of which is quite comfortable to have the church be an integral part of the state (in different ways, of course).

Anyone familiar with the history of Christianity may recall that the schism between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches that dates back to the second century and was formalized in the 11th century. Though following the same scripture, the division has become linguistic, ritualistic, theological, and even political. The Roman Catholic Church used Latin while the Eastern Orthodox Greek; the former retained a hierarchical structure with the pope as its single leader, while the latter had patriarchs with national boundaries and linguistic diversity.

So, if what is meant by "too political" refers to the power-relations still in place in the Roman Catholic Church, then of course there may still be some truth to that. Or, instead, is the reference to the political (rather than theological) dimension of having the pope meet a Russian patriarch (after he invited the one from Constantinople to his own investiture)?

Perhaps the comment about the pope's political stance has to do with the rich history of the church insofar as it used to have its own armies, conquer states, and be involved politically with European affairs. But I doubt most supporters of Trump have any interest in the ancient, medieval, and renaissance history of the Roman Catholic Church. That history is long gone, and the only military presence in the Vatican is the Swiss Army Guards. As Stalin famously said to Churchill during their negotiations during World War II as a way to dismiss the pope who was among them: and how many divisions does he command?

What is at issue here?

What is at issue here? Perhaps the Trump campaign believes that the pope's travel to Cuba and Mexico lends these two countries certain political legitimacy they otherwise would not have. Especially after the normalization of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States, this is utter nonsense. Likewise, Mexico ranks among the top 15 economies in the world, so it doesn't need any legitimation from the pope or anyone else in terms of its global importance. It also has a majority of Catholics, just like Spain and France, so in this sense, too, it's not unique. But when Mexicans are castigated in negative terms by someone aspiring to be the next American president, perhaps any support or respect shown by the pope is an affront.

So where was this complaint about the pope being too political for the last 12 months when the pope came out and talked about socio-economic issues, decrying income and wealth inequality and the devastating effects of unfettered capitalism, or when he pleaded for global attention to the environmental disasters humans have brought upon themselves. Yes, when the pope speaks openly and honestly about the economy and the environment he's in fact noting the political features that bring about or at least do not legally prohibit poverty and ecological catastrophes.

But is it "political"?

But is it "political"? The pope and his supporters would argue that his issues should be moral and/or theological, not political per se; that his pleas are founded on religious doctrine and on an understanding of the role humans ought to play in God's creation based on an interpretation of divine revelation. As such, these are theological and moral appeals that may affect, directly or indirectly, the political behavior of leaders around the globe. If under democracy, the people may be steered to act and put pressure on their representatives that in turn will change laws and ensure that humanity and nature are protected.

If under a dictatorship, people may pray that their leaders will be enlightened by the pope's messages and change their course, as we can see in China (which is neither democratic nor Catholic). Finally, as the leader of more than one billion inhabitants of this globe, the pope speaks with the authority of a world leader and perhaps can become a role model to other world leaders, including our own.

Perhaps this is what is at stake for the Trump camp and those like him: they do not want to be embarrassed by a world leader! They don't want to have to respond to an agenda that he, an unelected official, sets in place. Who is he to tell Americans or Mexicans what is important and what they should do? If this is what is meant by too political, we wish the pope and others like him were more political!

We wish the pope were more political!

When the pope gets in the way of an ideology that Trump holds, the accusation is that he's outside of his proscribed jurisdiction. But despite the belief that the pope should stick to religious matters alone, Francis has already been existing outside this narrow, and implausible jurisdiction. Either Trump is in agreement with the pope's criticism of capitalism (very unlikely) or that it is Trump that has politicized the pope unnecessarily by making him an obstacle to some geopolitical strategy.

Theological (like the personal) is always already political.

Either way, it should be clear that the theological (like the personal) is always already political. Separating the two --constitutional dreams aside -- is impossible. Perhaps if Trump and others realized this, instead of charging Francis with overdoing the political, he could pick and choose which issues to side with the pope on and which to not. Then we could get a more nuanced opinion from Trump via Pope Francis. But that may be asking too much.

Raphael Sassower and Jeffrey Scholes both teach philosophy University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. They are the co-authors of Religion and Sports in American Culture (Routledge 2014)

About the author:

sassower.jpgRaphael Sassower is philosophy chair at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Prof. Sassower's latest books are Compromising the Ideals of Science (2015), The Price of Public Intellectuals (2014), and Sports and Religion in American Culture (2014, with Jeff Scholes). He grew up in Israel and moved to the United States as a young man after serving as an officer in the IDF.

Read more about or contact Raphael Sassower

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