SANTEE, S.C. — In a remarkable dispute just two days before a pivotal Republican primary, Pope Francis said Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is un-Christian, prompting Trump to respond that it was "disgraceful" for the pope to question his religion.
“A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian," Francis told reporters Wednesday aboard the papal plane. "This is not in the Gospel." The pope's comments were first made public on Thursday.
Trump, speaking with supporters at Kiawah Island, S.C., Thursday said the pontiff received bad information about him during a recent trip to Mexico, and that government officials used the pope for political purposes.
"They obviously got to the pope," Trump said. "He doesn't know me ... the Pope heard only one side of the story."
The Republican front-runner, who is the favorite to win the South Carolina primary on Saturday, told his supporters that "I am a Christian and I am proud of it," and also attacked the Mexican government for "using the pope as a pawn."
Francis told reporters he is not trying to get involved in the U.S. presidential campaign, but objected to some of the things Trump has said about immigrants, including claims that the Mexican government is sending rapists and other criminals over the U.S. border.
“I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that,” Francis said. “We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”
Trump has previously said the pope is a pawn of Mexico's government. Regarding that comment, Francis told reporters: "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."
On the stump and in a written statement, Trump said the pope appears to be unaware that a leaky U.S. border is leading to crime, drug trafficking, and economic problems by undercutting the wages of U.S. workers, arguments he has frequently made on the campaign trail. He also noted that the Islamic State terror group, also known as ISIS, has targeted the Vatican.
"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," Trump said in his written statement.
The statement also said: "For a religious leader to question a person’s faith is disgraceful."
Some of Trump's opponents in Saturday's South Carolina primary steered clear of the flap between the billionaire and the pontiff but did say the United States had the right to defend its borders.
“Listen, that’s between Donald and the pope,” said Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, running second to Trump in most national and South Carolina polls. “I’m not going to get in the middle of that. I’ll leave it to the two of them to work it out.”
Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said he has "tremendous respect and admiration" for the pope, but added that "I'm an elected official of the United States in the federal government, and our number one obligation is to keep our people safe and our immigration system is a part of that." Rubio also noted that "Vatican City controls who comes in and how they come in as a sovereign state."
Jeb Bush also declined to weigh in on the Trump-Francis dispute, telling reporters regarding his primary rival: “His Christianity is between him and his Creator.” The former Florida governor also said that it is "not an un-Christian thing to do to make sure people don't come across our border illegally." Both Bush and Rubio are Catholic.
Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, meanwhile, told Fox Business Network of the uproar that it "would be hilarious if it weren’t so sad."
Ohio Gov. John Kasich went the furthest of any of GOP candidate in addressing the pope’s comment. After a campaign event at Clemson University, he repeatedly said he was unsure of the context or exact words the pope had used. Then a reporter read part of the pope’s comment questioning Trump’s faith.
“The pope’s made a lot of controversial comments, like ‘Who am I to judge?’ ” Kasich said, referencing the pope’s 2013 comment about the sexual orientation of Catholic priests. “He’s Pope Francis is "not a guy who’s been running around wondering who’s pure and who’s not. So if he said that, I’m sure he would regret having said that. Because it’s not up to any of us to judge who’s good and who’s bad. …
“Look, I’m not the pope’s PR guy, but I like the pope,” said Kasich, who was raised Catholic and became a born-again Protestant as an adult. “He has given people all across the globe a new look at what it means to have Christian faith. He is not a judgmental man. He has never been that way. So I admire what he’s done.”
Kasich also defended his belief that the U.S. should somehow secure the border with Mexico, including with a wall or fence, so that people aren’t “waltzing in or out.”
“I not only believe in building a wall … but I also believe in building bridges,” Kasich said, referencing the pope’s comment.
Contributing: Chrissie Thompson, The Cincinnati Enquirer