(CNN) — Thrusting himself into the combative 2016 presidential campaign, Pope Francis said Thursday that GOP frontrunner Donald Trump “is not Christian” if he calls for the deportation of undocumented immigrants and pledges to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
The Pope, who was traveling back to Rome from Mexico, where he urged the United States to address the “humanitarian crisis” on its southern border, declined to say whether American Catholics should vote for Trump.
But Francis left little doubt where he stood on the polarizing issue of immigration reform.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel,” the Pope told journalists.
Trump responded to the Pope’s comments by saying it was disgraceful to question his faith.
During the wide-ranging press conference, Francis also seemed to suggest that contraception may be used to prevent the transmission of the Zika virus and praised Saint John Paul II’s “holy friendship” with a Polish woman.
But it was his comments on Trump that seem sure to dominate the political conversation, handing a gift to Trump’s GOP opponents and opening Francis to criticism that his papacy is too partisan and his policies too liberal. Polls indicate that while Democrats adore the Pope, Republicans view him a little less favorably.
Asked if American Catholics should vote for Trump, Francis demurred.
“As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that.”
The Pope appeared somewhat unaware of Trump’s stance on people who come into the United States illegally, though, saying that he would give him “the benefit of the doubt” until he had heard exactly what the billionaire businessman had said.
Trump told CNN’s Jake Tapper last June, “You have people coming in, and I’m not just saying Mexicans — I’m talking about people that are from all over that are killers and rapists, and they’re coming into this country.” He has pledged to build an $8 billion wall along the United States’ southern border. He says he will force Mexico to pay the tab. Trump has also said that, if elected president, he would eject some 11 million undocumented immigrants from the country.
The tussle between Trump and Francis — two outsized personalities who seldom shy from speaking their minds — seem to have been building for weeks.
Before the Pope left for Mexico, Trump called Francis “a very political person.” He added, “I think that he doesn’t understand the problems our country has. I don’t think he understands the danger of the open border that we have with Mexico.”
Trump also suggested that the Pope, who celebrated Mass Wednesday near the U.S.-Mexican border, was a pawn of the Mexican government.
In response, the Pope made light of Trump’s accusations.
“Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as ‘animal politicus.’ So at least I am a human person,” he said. “As to whether I am a pawn, well, maybe, I don’t know. I’ll leave that up to your judgment and that of the people.”