Pope Francis warned against the rising tide of populism in an interview with German paper Die Zeit this week, reigniting an ongoing search for subliminal criticism of President Trump in the pope’s words.
“Pope Francis issues veiled warning about Donald Trump,” proclaimed the headline on British news site the Independent about the interview, though Francis had not mentioned Trump.
His statement, however, that “populism is evil and ends badly as the past century showed,” marks at least the second time in recent months that the pope has warned against the dangers of growing populist movements in the U.S. as well as Europe. His latest words echo similar pontifications made during an interview with Spanish-language paper El Pais on the day of Trump’s inauguration.
In that case, Francis cited Nazi Germany as the “most obvious example of populism in the European sense of the word,” pointing to the fact that “Hitler didn’t steal power, his people voted for him” as proof that “in times of crisis we lack judgment.” He further urged people to resist the tendency to “look for a savior who gives us back our identity and [lets] us defend ourselves with walls, barbed-wire, whatever, from other people who may rob us of our identity.”
In his Inauguration Day interview with El Pais, the pope once again refrained from commenting on the new president directly, choosing instead to wait and “see how he acts, what he does” before forming an opinion. But his general warning against politicians who emphasize the need for strong border enforcement and other travel restrictions falls in line with other comments the pope has made about arguably Trumpian policies before and after the brash real estate mogul entered the White House.
In a weekly address at the Vatican early last month, the pope reportedly issued an appeal “to not raise walls but bridges.” Though his comments were relatively generic on their own, Francis went on to insist, “A Christian can never say: ‘I’ll make you pay for that.’” Many interpreted the statement as a veiled critique of Trump’s pledge to not only build a wall along the southern border of the U.S. but also make Mexico pay for it.
In February of last year, the pope offered a more direct assessment of Trump’s core campaign promise following a trip to Cuba and Mexico, which included a noteworthy stop in Juarez, a Mexican city near the U.S. border.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian,” Francis told reporters when asked about then-candidate Trump.
At the time, Trump fired back at Francis, calling the comments “disgraceful.” In a lengthy statement, Trump said in part, “If and when the Vatican is attacked by ISIS, which as everyone knows is ISIS’s ultimate trophy, I can promise you that the Pope would have only wished and prayed that Donald Trump would have been President because this would not have happened. ISIS would have been eradicated unlike what is happening now with our all talk, no action politicians.”
Both sides soon backed down, insisting that the pope’s initial words had been misinterpreted as an attack on Trump.
Pope Francis celebrates Ash Wednesday Mass at Santa Sabina church in Rome on March 1. (Photo: Vatican Pool/Getty Images)
Not entirely unlike the president himself, Francis has developed a penchant for expressing his views on Twitter. A number of observers read his recent posts about embracing migrants and foreigners as a subtle rejection of the restrictive immigration policies of both Trump and right-wing parties in Europe.
Despite the fact that Francis has yet to make an explicit statement regarding his views on the U.S. president, experts are also eager to connect the dots.
In a piece for the New Yorker earlier last month, former Catholic priest-turned-novelist James Carroll deemed Francis “the anti-Trump,” arguing that “Pope Francis is, at this point, the world’s staunchest defender of migrants, and of Muslim migrants.”
British journalist and papal biographer Austen Ivereigh offered a similar analysis at the New York Times on March 4, pointing to the pope’s expressed support for Muslim immigrants and refugees as the biggest conflict between “the world’s two most compelling populists.”
Without having technically derided the president by name, Ivereigh argued, “Pope Francis has become the flag-bearer of the global anti-Trump resistance.”