News & Politics

About Those Vatican 'Walls'

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

In his short pontificate, Pope Francis has become the Catholic primate non-Catholics love to hate. Whatever you think of the Pope’s very Jesuitical mind and his near-Franciscan notions about humanity, however, the most recent flap about “walls and bridges” once against illustrates several truths:

  • The Pope is not an American politician.
  • The Pope’s remarks are best read in their original language; wire-service translations should never be trusted.
  • Reporters tend to have imperfect understandings of Catholic theology.
  • Nobody knows history any more.

Case in point:

Supporters of Donald J. Trump were quick to suggest on Thursday thatPope Francis was being hypocritical to criticize as un-Christian Mr. Trump’s proposal to build a wall between the United States and Mexicobecause the pontiff himself lives in Vatican City, a small state with sturdy walls of its own.

“Amazing comments from the pope — considering Vatican City is 100% surrounded by massive walls,” Dan Scavino, Mr. Trump’s social media director and senior adviser, said on Twitter after the pope suggested Mr. Trump, a Republican presidential candidate, was “not Christian.”

But scholars who study Medieval Italy and the history of the Roman Catholic Churchdismissed those criticisms as the product of a basic misunderstanding of both the geography and the history of Vatican City, a roughly 100-acre enclave in Rome that is the seat of the Holy See.

“The rhetoric from Trump’s team is misinformation, and it is not true,” said Gerard Mannion, a professor of Catholic Studies at Georgetown University in Washington.

“It isn’t all surrounded by walls, and it’s not like you need a separate visa or a passport to enter,” he said. “You wouldn’t know, almost, when you even entered Vatican City. There is a white line painted on the ground in St. Peter’s Square, but that kind of thing is not obvious everywhere.”

There are, to be sure, formidable walls in Vatican City, and much of of the site, including the gardens and the modest guesthouse that is home to Francis, is set behind them. But the walls do not entirely enclose the city-state, and in the modern era they are not meant to, historians said.

I myself have strolled into St. Peter’s Square on several occasions and attest that this is, amazingly, true! Who knew? Anybody with a modicum of understanding of history, that’s who:

Walls like those found in some parts of the Vatican were a fixture in almost every significant city of the medieval period, including London, Paris and Jerusalem, said Professor Apostolos-Cappadona.

“The walls are a fortification, there is no question, but they were a fortification built at a time when armed invasions by barbarians and other forces were happening,” she said. “And that is not the same thing we are talking about with a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.”

One could easily dispute that statement, and most Americans would. What’s happening on the southern border and all across Europe is an unarmed invasion by barbarians and others, and the U.S. has both a right and a duty to stop it. But trying to shame the Pope for a) being Catholic and b) living in a city built centuries before he was born just shows the depths of the anti-Catholic animus among people who should know better.