On Wednesday morning, President Donald Trump met with Pope Francis. Francis gave the president three gifts: a sculpture of an olive tree, his message “Nonviolence: a Style of Politics for Peace,” and a copy of his encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si, Reuters reported. Trump promised to read them.
But American Catholics expressed skepticism about just how well these messages represent a Catholic approach to governance.
“Pope Francis’ peace message, like so much of what he says, is one-sided and misleading,” John Zmirak, senior editor of The Stream and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism, told PJ Media in an interview Wednesday. “It’s a failure of Christian charity, even of courage, to blather about non-violence with ISIS, al Qaeda, or others who believe that murder can land them in Paradise.”
Before the Trump-Francis meeting, Zmirak penned a defense of President Trump’s immigration policy, correcting common misconceptions about Catholic social teaching. In that article, he quoted the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says, “Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to insist in carrying civic burdens.”
Zmirak called Pope Francis out for a June 2015 speech in which the pontiff claimed that arms manufacturers aren’t really Christians and then went on to denounce the Allies in World War II for not bombing Nazi death camps. “Where were they supposed to get the bombs? From all the wicked non-Christians who risked their souls by making them?” Zmirak asked.
“As I show at length in The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism, it’s incoherent, utopian blather. So is the pope’s demand for open borders to Islam. Suicide by virtue-signaling,” the Stream editor added.
“My father served in Germany during World War II. That was not an occasion for non-violence, not in the face of genocide. Today, Christians in Syria fight alongside the Kurds to conquer ISIS.” Zmirak also insisted that “Jesus didn’t negotiate with demons. He drove them out.”
The Stream editor also addressed Pope Francis’ climate change encyclical. “That addled document takes at face value the apocalyptic scenarios crafted by globalists and socialists, who want to seize control of the world economy,” he argued. Zmirak even noted that Pope Francis invited the “discredited population crank” Paul Ehrlich — who supported forced sterilization and even abortion — to speak at the Vatican.
As Jeffrey Tucker, director of content for the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE), agreed with Zmirak. “The matter of climate change pertains to highly technical issues of science and also political economy and its implications,” Tucker told PJ Media. “I don’t see why the pope should be speaking on that subject.”
The FEE director argued that “Laudato Si is a serious departure from traditional Catholic social teaching, which has always focused primarily on human well-being. More regulation of fossil fuels is not the path toward bettering the lot of the poor in developing nations.”
But Tucker disagreed with Zmirak on the importance of peace. “Like many sincere leftists, the pope is good on peace issues but not so much on economics issues,” the FEE director argued. He supported Francis’ emphasis on peace, but insisted that it “has to be about universal human dignity and rights inherent to the life of every individual — regardless of race, nation, gender or religion.”
Powerfully, Tucker declared that issues of government and politics must be secondary in the discussion of well-being. “Nation states, much less their leaders, are not the source of our happiness; that is found in having high aspirations to live good lives in service to others and to God,” he said.
Both Tucker and Zmirak attacked previous U.S. interventions in the Middle East. “You only need to look at Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya before and after U.S. attempts to remake them,” Tucker argued, emphasizing that U.S. attempts at nation-building have stoked anger and been rightly condemned by the Vatican.
“Part of Just War theory is that it is never permissible to kill innocents,” Tucker said. “Adhering to Just War theory would diminish terrorism by reducing the anger toward perceived American imperialism.”
Zmirak agreed that Trump should listen to Just War teaching. “We have a duty to spare non-combatants as much as possible; not to launch wars on light or dubious pretexts; not to start wars where we don’t have a realistic chance of prevailing and a real exit strategy,” the Stream editor said. He argued that this kind of undisciplined invasion was what happened in Iraq.
The Stream editor praised President Trump’s willingness to admit error in Iraq, and added, “I think he’s being very Christian, very Catholic in his handling of Syria right now.” Rather than “flooding the place with the Indiana National Guard and pretending we can turn it into Wisconsin,” Trump is “backing the Kurds and their Christian allies, in fighting ISIS and striving for autonomy in a decentralized Syria with religious freedom.”
Tucker argued that Trump has not addressed “the underlying causes of these conflicts.” The Islamic State “was the creation of war; it can only be uncreated through a clear strategy for peace.”
Perhaps it should not be a surprise that while Tucker and Zmirak disagreed on Trump, they agreed in attacking Laudato Si. A poll last October revealed that the climate change encyclical hurt Pope Francis’ credibility among American Catholics.
Trump should learn from his meeting with Francis and apply Just War theory in the battle against terrorism. However the president chooses to handle complex issues like Syria, he should prioritize long-term peace and justice, and so far as Pope Francis’s writings encourage that, they will help America and the world.
But climate change should not be considered a religious issue, and Trump should not assume that just because Pope Francis emphasized it, American Catholics agree. Many, like Tucker, think it is outside Francis’ domain. Others, like Zmirak, think Francis is being manipulated into supporting people the Catholic Church would normally condemn.
The pope may be Catholic, but that doesn’t make his word law — and many American Catholics think he has weakened Church teaching in service of a liberal agenda. When it comes to meetings with the president of the United States, that can be dangerous. Trump should take Francis’ words with a grain of salt.