Pope Francis may have picked a fight with the wrong bully.
After months of taking subtle swipes at Republican politicians, the pontiff went for a direct punch at Donald Trump on Thursday, suggesting the GOP poll leader is “not Christian” because of his desire to build a massive wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
And Trump, practically pre-programmed to counterpunch, fired off a withering retort. He not only called the pope’s comments “disgraceful,” but he also suggested that the Islamic State would find the Vatican to be a mighty fine target.
The back-and-forth between the spiritual leader and the crass candidate was stunning, even for this rule-breaking presidential cycle, and once again thrust Trump to the fore of the news cycle as the GOP field scrambles to make its last impressions before Saturday’s South Carolina primary.
The bishop of Rome set off the tiff aboard the papal plane as he was flying home from Mexico, the country whose government Trump has made a scapegoat for all that ails the United States. And as Pope Francis found himself answering questions from reporters about Trump, he did not mince words.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis told reporters in response to a specific question about the presidential candidate, according to Reuters’ account. “This is not in the gospel.”
Asked by a reporter whether an American Catholic could vote for him, the pope demurred.
“As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that,” he said, before referring to Trump directly: “We must see if he said things in that way, and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
At a campaign rally in South Carolina, Trump fired back, remarking that “if and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS,” the pope will wish he were president.
Moments later, Trump’s campaign issued a full statement in which he called the pope’s questioning of his faith “disgraceful.”
“If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians,” he said in the statement.
“For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful. I am proud to be a Christian and as President I will not allow Christianity to be consistently attacked and weakened, unlike what is happening now, with our current President. No leader, especially a religious leader, should have the right to question another man’s religion or faith. They are using the Pope as a pawn and they should be ashamed of themselves for doing so, especially when so many lives are involved and when illegal immigration is so rampant,” the statement concluded.
Pope Francis has shown a willingness in the past to engage on matters of political contention. During a visit to the United States last year, he delivered a message to Congress on the importance of addressing the role of humans in environmental changes. And he has urged Catholics to intervene in political affairs where they saw the right. “Ask the Lord to help you not sin, but if you get your hands dirty, ask for forgiveness and keep going,” he told a group last May.
But the decision to directly take on Trump is in a whole other league.
Trump has, in the past, called the pope “political,” and last week he slammed the pope’s visit to Mexico’s border this week as showing a lack of understanding of the situation there.
“I think that he doesn’t understand the problems our country has. I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico,” Trump told Fox Business on Feb. 11. “Mexico got him to do it because Mexico wants to keep the border just the way it is because they’re making a fortune and we’re losing.”
Asked by reporters on Thursday about being called “political,” the pope said, “Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ So at least I am a human person.”
The White House weighed in on Thursday afternoon, with press secretary Josh Earnest delivering a cutting comment during the daily briefing.
“I will, however, though, extend to Mr. Trump the courtesy that he has not extended to the president and not use this opportunity to call into question the kind of private, personal conversations that he’s having with his god,” Earnest said.
Trump’s rivals, meanwhile, tread carefully around the explosive fight.
Ben Carson said it seemed like “a little bit of a stretch” for the pope to comment so directly on U.S. politics, but he said it was within his rights. “As far as the pope is concerned, he, like everybody else in the world, is entitled to his opinion. I would not weigh in on deciding whether Donald Trump is a Christian or not,” he said.
Marco Rubio, who is Catholic, declined to comment specifically on the pope’s remarks on Trump. He did, however, defend his, and other Republicans’, proposals to build a wall on America’s southern border.
“This country has not just a right but an obligation to control the process by which people enter the United States,” Rubio told reporters in Anderson, South Carolina. “There’s no nation on earth that’s more compassionate on immigration than we are. We accept a million people per year in the United States legally.”
In a rare showing of restraint, Ted Cruz also refused to take a swipe at Trump. “Listen, that’s between Donald and the pope,” he told reporters. “I’m not going to get in the middle of that. I’ll leave it to the two of them to work it out.”
And Jeb Bush told CNN that the pope opened up an unnecessary debate. “I don’t question anybody’s Christianity, because I honestly believe that’s a relationship you have with your creator, and it only enables bad behavior when someone from outside our country talks about Donald Trump,” he said.
The Manhattan businessman has sought to shore up religious voters in the Republican primary, capturing the coveted endorsement of evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. and leading the demographic in most national and state polls, including in South Carolina, which holds its GOP primary on Saturday.
Trump’s religiosity was an initial stumbling block for the candidate, an avowed Presbyterian who has made casual references to the taking of communion.
“When I drink my little wine — which is about the only wine I drink — and have my little cracker, I guess that is a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed,” he said at a faith summit in Iowa last July. That statement came after he admitted that he had never asked God for forgiveness, and it did little damage to him in the polls.
At other times in the campaign, Trump has struggled to name his favorite Bible verse and drew criticism for his pronunciation of the name of a book of Scripture as “Two Corinthians” rather than “Second Corinthians” in January. For his part, Trump pointed to his Scottish mother’s upbringing as a potential explanation, as that pronunciation is more common across the Atlantic.
Roman Catholics will likely make up small fractions of the electorates in the next two states on the Republican calendar. According to 2012 exit polls, just 13 percent of South Carolina GOP primary voters were Catholic. The Catholic share of the electorate is a little higher in Nevada, where Republicans will caucus next week: 21 percent in 2012, according to the exit polls.
“I think it’ll hurt the pope more than it’ll hurt Donald Trump. I just don’t think people in this country take statements like that seriously,” Falwell told CNN.
The Liberty University president added that he does not “think they look to religious leaders to tell them who is the best Christian.”
“And if they understand politics, then they’re not choosing a political leader based on who is the best Christian, who says all the right things, who uses evangelical lingo; that’s not who will make the best president, I’m sorry,” he said.
The bigger impact could be the amount of attention that Trump will receive, courtesy of the pope. David Axelrod, who advised President Barack Obama on both of his campaigns, offered advice to Trump’s Republican rivals ahead of Saturday’s primary.
“Memo 2 @tedcruz, @marcorubio & @jebbush,” he tweeted. “Forget about making news before SC. 4 better or worse, @realDonaldTrump just stole show. Again.”
Social media was also lighting up with Trump’s past tweets about the pope, which were much more magnanimous.
“The new Pope is a humble man, very much like me, which probably explains why I like him so much!” he tweeted on Christmas Day in 2013.
Even earlier Thursday, Trump indicated his approval for the pope.
“I heard the pope, and I respect the pope and I love the pope in many ways. I love what he stands for, and I like his attitude. He’s very independent, and he’s very different. He’s sort of a modern-day pope if you think about it,” he told Sirius XM’s Breitbart News Daily.
But by midday Thursday, Trump and his allies were in attack mode, seemingly relishing the pope’s sharp words.
Dan Scavino, Trump’s social media director and senior adviser, almost gleefully pointed out what he presented as some sweet irony on the pope’s part.