It was terrific that Pope Francis responded to Donald Trump’s charge that he’s “a very political person” by embracing the Aristotelian dictum that man is a political animal — though the pedant in me wishes he’d gotten the Latin right. “Thank God he said I am a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as an ‘animal politicus,'” Francis declared. “So at least I am a human person.”
It’s animal politicum, Your Holiness, as Aquinas put it in his commentary on the Nichomachean Ethics: “Politicum animal est homo, politicum, id est sociale et communicativum.” And certainly you’re the most social and communicative of popes — eating with the Vatican troops, making cold calls to the faithful, and chatting with the press after trips abroad.
As for Francis’ smack back at Trump, there was something sly about that too. “And then, a person who thinks only about making walls, wherever they may be, and not making bridges [fare ponti], is not a Christian,” said the pontiff, punning on that most ancient title of his. The top priest in ancient Rome was the pontifex maximus, which means “greatest bridge-maker” in a possible reference to a priestly responsibility to make bridges [facere pontes] over the Tiber.
Francis, whose Twitter feed is @pontifex, was clueing the press in to his understanding of his role as top Christian, though the message doesn’t seem to have gotten through to the New York Times‘ Ross Douthat. In yesterday’s column, Douthat was much taken with a supposed populist similarity between Francis and Trump, each of whom “downplays the value of rules, customs, and traditions in protecting people from the rule of novelty and whim.”
The column equates the insults Trump directs at individuals (“low energy,” “liar,” “loser”) with Francis’ generic characterizations (“Pharisee,” “self-absorbed Promethean neo-Pelagian,” “whiner,” “sourpuss”). I’d say Francis picked up his style from his Master, who was not above denouncing certain classes of people as “whited sepulchres,” and had a certain proclivity for downplaying rules, customs, and traditions.
As regards Trump’s exclusive interest in walls, Francis actually declined to render a final judgment. “We must see if he said things in that way,” he said, “and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.” Trump, once he’d been apprised of this, pulled back as well.
“I don’t like fighting with the Pope,” he said at a GOP town hall in South Carolina hosted by CNN. “I like his personality; I like what he represents…I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media.”
Let’s hope Francis has made a bridge that takes the GOP front-runner in the right direction.