Pope Francis has made a habit of garnering headlines since being named the Vicar of Christ back in 2013. His latest trip to Mexico, and especially his visit to the border, has resulted in much the same. However, his comments about Republican frontrunner Donald Trump have gained the most attention. On the flight back from Mexico, Pope Francis told reporters “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 . . . I say only that this man [Trump] 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.” He went on to clarify that his comments did not amount to telling American Catholics not to vote for Trump, saying, “I am not going to get involved in that,” but his personal feelings on the subject seem clear.
Trump, who famously made the building of a wall along the U.S./Mexico border one of the first platforms of his campaign, understandably disagrees with the Pope’s thoughts on the subject. He told a group of supporters in South Carolina, “For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful . . . No leader, especially a religious leader, has the right to question another man’s religion or faith.” He went on to suggest that the leader of the Roman Catholic Church had been misinformed on the subject and was being used “as a pawn” by the Mexican government.
Discussions around this debate are likely to pop up throughout the election cycle given that two of Trump’s rivals for the nomination, Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, are Catholic. But today I’d like to focus on Trump’s belief that it is “disgraceful” for a religious leader to question someone’s faith. It is an important topic for all believers, regardless of what you may think about Pope Francis or his views on immigration.
To begin, we must distinguish between God’s warning that it is dangerous to judge another person’s relationship with God and a command to never do so. Scripture provides numerous examples of the former (Matthew 7:1–5, Luke 6:37), but the vast majority of such passages are primarily intended to caution against the kind of prideful judgment that one offers without recognition that we are all sinful, fallen creatures in need of God’s mercy and grace. All of us are prone to errors, including the Pope, who, according to Vatican II, is only considered infallible while defining doctrine rather than passing individual judgment as he did here. As a result, judging others is dangerous business that should not be undertaken without both a great deal of prayer and the humble recognition that we do so as equal sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.
However, those warnings do not mean that we are forbidden from looking at another person’s life and recognizing when the fruit that should result from a vibrant relationship with the Lord is missing. Shortly after Jesus’ warning about the dangers of judging others in Matthew 7, we find his statement that “every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit . . . Thus you will recognize them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:17, 20). If someone is truly a Christian, that faith should be reflected in his or her life.
While we cannot know a person’s heart and thus can never fully understand their relationship with God as our heavenly Father can, that should not prevent us from recognizing the sin in others and, in the humility and grace of God, bringing it to their attention. I fear that there are far too many people in our communities of faith today who believe they are Christians because they think God exists, occasionally go to church, and know that they aren’t Muslims, Jews, or members of some other faith. In such cases, we are not helping if we fail to address the lack of good fruit in their lives.
Again, and this cannot be emphasized enough, that should only be done when we have fervently prayed about it and are ready to do so in the grace, mercy, and genuine concern of Christ. But allowing someone to think they are saved when there is a chance they might be among those to whom Jesus will say “I never knew you” is neither loving nor compassionate (Matthew 7:21-23).
God desperately wants a personal, saving relationship with everyone he created. Tragically, far too many people go through life with the mistaken belief that they either don’t need or already have such a relationship when that is simply not the case.
I don’t know if Donald Trump would fall into that category and it does seem like the Pope’s statement was overly definitive when a person’s salvation is about so much more than their beliefs on immigration. However, the Republican frontrunner was wrong in saying that the Pope, or any Christian, does not have the right to question another person’s religion or faith. If God leads us to ask that question, we not only have the right but the obligation to do so as long as we ask it with his words and heart. It could be the most important conversation we ever have.