Did Pope Francis Get It Wrong?

Pope Francis is the spiritual leader to 1.2 billion Catholics across the globe. He recently made a visit to the U.S. and urged Congress to take action on issues including climate change, the death penalty, immigration and Christian persecution. He is the first Jesuit and Latin American Bishop of Rome and has centered his message on preaching compassion for the poor while asking the church to not focus solely on “issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptives.”

Pope Frances is one of the most respected and admired men walking the earth today. The irony? According to Gallup’s 2015 poll, he shares that spotlight with Donald Trump.

Barely three hours after celebrating mass to a crowd of more than 200,000 people in the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez, Pope Francis weighed in on the current presidential race with bold words towards front-runner Donald Trump:

“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel”

Very bold words indeed!

As much as I share the admiration for Pope Francis along with billions across the globe, on this occasion, I respectfully believe that Pope Francis got it wrong.

My disagreement is centered in a distinct flaw I see many in the church committing today: applying principles to government and governing authorities that are meant for the individual.

What do I mean by that? Here is an example:

In Matthew 22:39 Jesus tells the Pharisees to “love your neighbor as yourself.” This is a clear and positive command by Jesus himself telling us to love others as we love ourselves. The love of our neighbor springs from the love of God as its source. With this principle we are taught to love and forgive others, to rejoice in their happiness and to mourn in their sorrow, desire and delight in their success, instruct when they go astray, help in their weaknesses, and even risk our own life for their sake. We must do everything within our power for our neighbors that we wish they would do for us. This love of others is the outward response of our love for God. This is the gospel.

But, do governments have the biblical responsibility to love their neighbor? Are governments required to forgive those that do them harm? Are governments required to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth?

No.

This is the responsibility of the individual.

Government has the biblical responsibility to “punish evil and reward good” as 1 Peter 2:14 instructs.

Government has no such command to love its neighbor nor forgive its neighbor. Government has no such command to feed the hungry nor minister to the sick. Government has no responsibility to spread the gospel to the ends of the earth.

Government has the clear and distinct biblical responsibility to enact justice.

Government has the responsibility of executing God’s wrath on wrong doers and to carry out the task of retribution for evils committed. In Rom 13:4 Paul says the government is authorized by God to “bear the sword” against evildoers and to act as an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath” on the wrongdoer. The word avenger that Paul uses is the Greek word ekdikos meaning one who administers justice and is an agent of punishment.

Pope Francis rightly expressed that we as individuals are called to love our neighbor and to build bridges with others. We are called to love those in our communities, our neighborhoods, our places of work, everywhere our footsteps reach. As a Christian, if our neighbor is without food or clothes we should do everything within our means to provide for their need. As individuals, we should be willing to help our neighbor regardless of whether they are an American, a visitor, or an immigrant. We are called to feed them whether they own a passport or not. We are called to love them whether they speak our language, share or customs, or profess our faith.

But unfortunately, Pope Francis failed to make the distinction that government does not have that same calling. As Christians, we should strive for our government to display the very best of the gospel, but we should not erode or override the distinct responsibilities that God has given each social institution. Individuals and the government are two distinct spheres with two very different responsibilities.

Government has the responsibility to protect its citizens from those that would chose to do them harm. It has the obligation to enforce the laws its lawmakers swore an oath to God to uphold. It has the responsibility to enact revenge and punish those that commit evil. It has the power to enact justice and bear the full might of the sword on those that do wrong. If government failed to administer justice, it would be a government that is in violation of its biblical responsibility.

Building a strong army, a strong infrastructure or building a strong wall all fall under the rights and responsibilities given to government. All social institutions including government, marriage, family and the individual are not just a matter of cultural convention. Their roles in society are distinct and important and their shape, form, and function are determined by the “Natural Law” which is rooted in nature of who God is.

We should be careful to never give to the state the biblical responsibilities of the individual. Using history as our guide, we can see the devastating effects of good intentions gone wrong which have led governments to erode and ultimately consume the responsibilities of all other social institutions.

We cannot let this happen to our great nation. Pope Francis, I stand alongside you in compelling individuals to build bridges with our neighbors but I also expect our government to build a wall strong and high to separate justice from injustice.

This article has 2 comments

  1. Malaika Reply

    Dave the building of bridges was simply referring to diplomacy and collaboration with Mexico to solve the illegal trespassing problem, and not simply building a wall to shut people out. Governments do have a responsibility to seek a peaceful option before a hostile one in international relations, don’t you think? I would hope that the people of any country should be able to expect their government to take responsibility for establishing diplomacy in their region, and resorting to barriers and other hostile approaches as a last resort. Do I think a wall is needed? Probably. But not the kind of Berlin Wall that Trump would love to build.. Do I want illegal movement across that border to potentate terrorism and all the other drawbacks of side-swiping and draining the resources here? Of course not. But I do think that people should be more focused on rooting up the real problems in Mexico and the US.. The drug trade, the organized crime, and so much more.. Personally, I think that the Pope was just trying to make that point, the point that Trump should take a second to actually study the problem and propose some diplomatic solutions (building bridges) and not just the wall.. Those are challenges for governments, not individuals..If my interpretation is accurate, then don’t you think the Pope got it right?

    • David Nicholas Reply

      Malaiks, I agree with you. Governments should absolutely propose diplomatic solutions (building bridges) and not just resort to building walls. The reason for my response was that the Pope’s statement was actually a statement encompassing more of theology than public policy. “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the gospel” The phrase, “is not Christian” and “This is not the gospel” points to a theological question. The premise of my response is “Can you be a Christian in a position of governing authority and advocate for walls? My answer is unequivocally yes. The point is as individuals, Christians should spare no expense to help their neighbor in need, whomever they should be. But a government has no such biblical responsibility. Since the Pope proposed a theological question my response is coming from a biblical framework. Trump is running for a governing position. He is promoting his views on what government should do. He is not saying that individual Christians should get together and pool all their money to build a wall. Fundamental difference between the responsibility of individuals and the responsibility of government. It seems Pope Francis has meshed the two.

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