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Will dispute with Pope Francis hurt Donald Trump’s campaign?

February 18, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
A heated battle of words has emerged between Pope Francis and Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump over the candidate’s immigration policy. Judy Woodruff discusses the controversy with Susan Page of USA Today and John Allen of The Boston Globe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now back to that rare exchange we saw play out today between the pope and presidential candidate Donald Trump.

John Allen covers the Vatican and the Catholic Church for The Boston Globe and its Web site, Crux. And Susan Page is the Washington bureau chief for USA Today.

And welcome to you both.

Susan, to you first, what did you make of the pope’s remarks? And is there any precedent for a pope injecting himself this way into a presidential race?

SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I have covered 10 campaigns. I have never seen anything like this, the pope talking very specifically about a particularly candidate, criticizing him, saying he’s behaving in a way that’s not Christian.

I have never seen anything like it, and the candidate immediately shooting back with very harsh language, saying the pope’s language was disgraceful. I think this is truly uncharted waters here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Allen, you have covered the Vatican for many years. Are you aware of any precedent? Has there been a situation like this where the pope has spoken to directly about an American election?

JOHN ALLEN, The Boston Globe: Well, Judy, I have covered the Vatican for about 20 years, covered three popes.

I am keenly aware that this is an institution that has an awful lot of history under its belt, so I am very reluctant to use the word unprecedented. As the late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago once artfully put it, in the Catholic Church, everything has happened at least once.

But I’m not sure this has ever happened before. I have certainly covered tensions between sitting presidents and popes. There were titanic battles between the Clinton administration and the Vatican over reproductive freedom in the 1990s.

Pope John Paul II, now St. John Paul, was very critical of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. We saw tensions between Pope Benedict and the Obama administration over the contraception mandates imposed by the White House as part of health care reform.

But for a pope to go after not a president, but a presidential candidate, by name, in quite so incendiary a fashion, no, I don’t think we have seen this before.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, John Allen, staying with you, how did you read it, though? Because it’s not just Donald Trump. There are a number of Republicans who have said there should be a wall, a big wall along the border with Mexico. How did you read the pope just addressing Trump?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, look, Judy, if you read the full transcript of the pope’s remarks, it is very clear that the pope does not in any level of detail actually know who Donald Trump is.

He said — the question was put to him by one of our colleagues, Phil Pullella from the Reuters news agency, about Trump. And the pope’s response basically was, well, listen, assuming Trump has said what you say he said, and he said that all has to be verified, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, but, assuming that, it is not a Christian attitude.

So, I think, basically, the pope’s point was that someone who wants to build walls, rather than bridges, who wants to try to separate themselves from people in need, rather than opening their hearts to them and trying to be of assistance to them, that that is not a Christian attitude in keeping with the Christian Gospel.

What makes this particularly saucy is that he said that in the context of Donald Trump and thereby, perhaps not deliberately, but thereby injecting himself into the 2016 campaign in the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susan, what is the effect likely to be on Donald Trump? Could it hurt him? Could it help him?

SUSAN PAGE: I think we have all learned not to predict that things are catastrophic for Donald Trump…


SUSAN PAGE: … because he’s said one outrageous thing after another, and it’s not really hurt him.

I actually think this could help in the short-term.


SUSAN PAGE: For one, he’s doing totally what he always does. Right? You hit him, he hits you back, even if you’re the pope.

He’s also talking about an issue that launched his presidential campaign, which is immigration, building a wall, stopping the flow of illegal immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere. So, in that way, it’s helpful.

I think it could be harmful to him in a general election against Hillary Clinton or a Democrat who is making big inroads among Hispanic voters, help her with Catholics. Catholics are one of the most crucial swing votes that we have in a general election. But when you talk about the Republican nomination, I’m not sure this hurts him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And as — and I was just discussing with John Allen, the pope is really taking on the entire Republican Party, in a way, because their position is, we need to shore up the border and stop Mexican and other Central American, South American immigrants from coming into the U.S.

SUSAN PAGE: And that’s one reason that his Republican rivals will not be able to go against Trump on this issue, and in fact chose not to today, because when Jeb Bush, for instance, who is himself Catholic, or John Kasich or Marco Rubio were asked about this today, they all reiterated the importance of a secure border and none of them really went after Trump on this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John Allen, the pope made more news today — it was not just on Donald Trump — when he said it may be acceptable for women who are dealing with the potential Zika virus, the mosquito bite that could lead to the Zika virus, for them to use artificial contraception.

How significant that he said that? This is not church doctrine, we know.

JOHN ALLEN: Well, Judy, I think it’s actually potentially far more consequential than his comments on Donald Trump, because let’s face it, Pope Francis himself is not in a position to directly control the outcome of the 2016 election in the United States, but he can control what the Catholic Church does and doesn’t approve.

Now, in this case, what the pope was taking was a fairly traditional position, actually. He actually cited a precedent from the early 1960s, when then Pope Paul VI allowed Catholic nuns in what was then the Belgian Congo to take contraception because they were in a situation with widespread sexual violence, and they were trying to protect themselves from pregnancy as the result of rape.

And, basically, the Vatican’s position was, OK, this is not an issue of using birth control to try to prevent the transmission of new life. It is trying to prevent an unjust harm.

By a similar logic, the Vatican has for years taken the position that in the context of Africa, in the context of HIV/AIDS, where you have a married couple where one couple — is HIV-positive and the other is not, and they wish to use contraception to try to prevent the other partner from being infected, the Vatican has consistently described that as an open question to which there is no definitive church dogma.

And that is essentially what Francis said again today in the context of the Zika virus. Now, we should be careful in saying, Judy, he didn’t directly say, I therefore approve the use of contraception to try to prevent infection with Zika, but he clearly left the door open to that, which is going to encourage pastors and moral theologians and church officials to continue to debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, John Allen, is that likely to be controversial inside the church?

JOHN ALLEN: Judy, pretty much everything is likely to be controversial inside the church.


JOHN ALLEN: So, yes, I think there will be a healthy debate. Some will say this is exactly the wrong time to be weakening our position on birth control. Others will say that this is a kind of commonsense adaptation that they welcome.

I think there is going to be a robust conversation about it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Allen, Susan Page, another extraordinary day in American politics and in covering religion around the world. Thank you both.

SUSAN PAGE: Thank you.

JOHN ALLEN: You’re welcome.