Pope Francis makes little effort to conceal his distaste for President Trump. One policy especially, that of the border wall, causes pontifical ire that often spins out of control.
Back in 2016, the pope said: “A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not the Gospel.”
And a couple of months ago, His Holiness repeated the message in slightly different words: “Builders of walls, be they made of razor wire or bricks, will end up becoming prisoners of the walls they build.”
However, Francis graciously allowed that migration presents a problem: “I realise that with this problem, a government has a hot potato in its hands, but it must be resolved differently, humanely, not with razor wire.”
Allow me to sum up. Since the Gospel says nothing about the porous US-Mexican border, for Trump to be considered a Christian he must abandon the wall and solve the problem in some unspecified humane way, for example by building bridges over the Rio Grande.
This sounds a bit off the wall if you ask me. Yet His Holiness made some nostalgic memories stir in my mind. For back in the mid-70s I wrote an article on this very problem for a local Texas paper, in which I tried to find a solution but failed miserably.
I must admit that the idea of spanning the border river with bridges didn’t occur to me then, or if it did I must have dismissed it out of hand for being ever so slightly counterproductive.
More than 40 years later the problem still hasn’t been solved, humanely or otherwise. And, as it ever did, it still defies simplistic solutions – as does the problem of any mass migration.
Let’s just say that, for as long as a huge disparity in living conditions among countries persists (which means for ever), populations will shift and drift. All Western governments struggle to control illegal migration; none has succeeded in stopping it altogether.
Yet simple arithmetic shows that some control is essential to the survival of the host nation. If, for example, the UK opted for unlimited, rather than merely promiscuous, immigration, the country would be turned into a caliphate within one generation, which few this side of Jeremy Corbyn would see as a welcome development.
The US is a different country from Britain, and the problem of Mexican immigration isn’t the same as what we face here. Still, about a third of the population in the four border states is Mexican already, and some demographers predict that this proportion will reach half by mid-century.
History buffs will point out that the border states were parts of Mexico two centuries ago and were then brutally conquered by the Americans – the Alamo can be remembered in different ways.
That is as true as it’s irrelevant: taking such a broad historical sweep would deny legitimate present ownership of just about every territory in the world. When Texas and California were parts of Mexico, India was in the British empire, Hungary and Austria were the same country, and Alaska belonged to Russia. So what?
How serious is the problem of specifically Mexican migration to the US? Serious enough, especially if you don’t own a construction company there.
Surveys show that only about half of all Mexicans speak English well, and the importance of language as a cultural and social adhesive can’t be overestimated. Realising this, Miriam A. Ferguson, prewar governor of Texas, vetoed a bilingual education bill, saying: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.”
Things have changed since then: Texans may or may not have figured out what language Jesus actually spoke, but bilingual education has been introduced, which can’t do much good for social cohesion.
The problem isn’t only cultural but also financial since about a third of all Mexicans receive at least some welfare payments. Yet, by the looks of it, almost all bricklayers in Texas are Mexican, which shows that, when migrants do work, they often do the jobs that the indigenous population shuns (just think about working on a building site in 95 degrees and 95 per cent humidity).
This is about as far as my balanced approach can take me. There would be no point going further anyway: if a country’s government feels that immigration presents a problem, it does. Every nation, naturally unless an EU member, has a right to control its borders.
How it’s done is predicated on many specific factors, including those of geography. Since no European country has 2,000 miles of border with any other country, perhaps we don’t appreciate the magnitude of the problem facing Americans.
We may regard it as a hot potato, as the pope does, but some may see it as a delayed action bomb ticking away. So how can it be diffused in a Christian way to the pontiff’s satisfaction?
The short answer is, it can’t – for the simple reason that it’s not the purpose of Christian doctrine to offer nitty-gritty solutions to the quotidian problems of this world.
When Christ specified the exact location of his kingdom, he absolved the church of any day-to-day responsibility to ponder the practical details of government – as Pope Francis has done. It is, however, within the church’s remit to comment on the morality of world politics from the standpoint of Christian morality and eschatology.
However, applying Christian doctrine to politics is a risky endeavour – not because no overlap exists, but because it’s hard to find.
Much as we’d like to see this world run according to the Sermon on the Mount, it never was, never is and never will be. Even Christendom wasn’t exactly Christian in that sense: the Gospel never issued any specific instructions on how, say, to check Islamic expansion or to overcome the fallout of the Black Death.
Yet both warriors like Charles Martel and all those monks and nuns who ministered to the dying were inspired by the general spirit of their faith and of their church, militant one day, self-sacrificially merciful the next.
Thus His Holiness would be justified in delivering a homily along the lines of “neither Jew nor Greek…: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” A reminder wouldn’t go amiss either that, because all men are brothers in Christ, it’s a Christian duty to feed the hungry and take in the homeless.
However, to be sound, such a homily would have to include a disclaimer that it shouldn’t be taken as a how-to guide to government immigration policy, much less as a blessing or anathemising of specific steps.
The moment a prelate descends from the kingdom that is not of this world and starts talking practicalities, he is inviting the question in the title above, possibly accompanied by ridicule. That does no good for either the church or the state – or, for that matter, public morality.