Crucial missing 'a' in this debate: Did Pope Francis judge Trump's soul or his behavior?

If I was a headline writer in a major newsroom right now, looking at the tsunami of social media and news reports about the dynamic duo of Pope Francis and Billionaire Donald Trump, I would be very worried about writing something definitive that contained the article "a."

What am I talking about?

Let's take some of the early headlines on this showdown in the public square. The New York Times, in a very typical wording, offered: "Pope Francis Suggests Donald Trump Is ‘Not Christian’."

An early Reuters report offered this headline: "Pope says Trump 'not Christian' in views, plans over immigration."

Would it have been different if these early headlines -- with a telltale "a" -- had reported that the pope said "Trump is 'not A Christian' " because of his views on immigration and the Mexico-United States border?

In other words, was the pope making a judgment on the state of the GOP candidate's SOUL or stating that he believes Trump is not behaving like a Christian? This is picky, yes. But it's a crucial point.

That Reuters' report, for example offered this summary right up top:

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is "not Christian" because of his views on immigration, Pope Francis said on his way back to Rome from Mexico.
The pope said, however, he did not want to advise American Catholics on whether or not to vote for Trump.
In a freewheeling conversation with reporters on his flight back from a visit to Mexico, Francis was asked about Trump and some of his statements, such as vowing to build a wall between the United States and Mexico if he becomes president.
"A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," Francis said in answer to a specific question about Trump's views. "This is not in the gospel."

Once again, this is picky territory. Do you see that the "because of" statement in the lede doesn't help matters at all. Let me be specific. Do you see the difference between these two statements? Here is the language in the lede again:

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is "not Christian" because of his views on immigration, Pope Francis said. ...

Would the impact of that statement be greater if the lede -- and Pope Francis -- had actually said what many in the media seem to be assuming, which would be:

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is "not A Christian" because of his views on immigration, Pope Francis said. ...

To see how this is playing out in media, consider this tweet from Daniel Burke at CNN. See the line between passing judgement on the person and the actions of the person? Is Burke right in this point of view?

Over at the Washington Post, the early headline reflects the same tensions: "Pope: Donald Trump ‘is not Christian’ if he wants to build a border wall." Insert an "a" in front of the word "Christian" and you have a radically different situation.

However, note that the Post added another crucial bit of Francis language to the drama:

He added: "I'd just say that this man is not Christian if he said it this way."

So let's go to the English translation of what Pope Francis said (the link is to Whispers in the Loggia) in the latest of his freewheeling press conferences in the sky. Concerning previous Trump statements about the pope as a political activist"

Pope Francis: Well, thank God he said I’m political, because Aristotle defines the human person as “animal politicus”(“political animal”): at least I’m human! And that I’m a pawn… meh, maybe, I don’t know – I leave that to your judgment, that of the people. And then, a person who thinks only of making walls, wherever they might be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel. Then, what you told me, what I would advise, to vote for or not: I’m not getting into that. I only say: if he says these things, this man is not Christian. It needs to be seen that he has said these things. And for this I give the benefit of the doubt.

As you would expect, the Trump camp had quite a bit to say, including this tweet from its social-media strategy czar:

Trump himself, after lots of talk about the Mexican government feeding the pope bad information, added:

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.

At Whispers, Rocco Palmo notes that it would help if journalists noted that Trump's views on this topic have been drawing heavy fire from the conservative side of the American Catholic aisle, which tends to point to some major doctrinal issues at the heart of this debate. Does Trump really want to take on quite a few conservative Catholics, as well as the crowd that is usually defined by a more liberal political creed?

I think we can assume that this story has some legs, so stay tuned. And what was that the pope said about condoms?


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