It was the top story on the PBS Newshour. Now, how often does that happen? How often does any religion story get that kind of priority? But, then again, how often does a pope appear to inject himself so personally and directly into an American political debate in an election year?
First of all, the context. This was during the Pope's in-flight interview, while on the plane flying home from Mexico, right after his dramatic Mass at the Rio Grande.
On the plane Phil Pullella of Reuters asked the Pope: "Today, you spoke very eloquently about the problems of immigration. On the other side of the border, there is a very tough electoral battle. One of the candidates for the White House, Republican Donald Trump, in an interview recently said that you are a political man and he even said that you are a pawn, an instrument of the Mexican government for migration politics. Trump said that if he’s elected, he wants to build 2,500 kilometers of wall along the border. He wants to deport 11 million illegal immigrants, separating families, etcetera. I would like to ask you, what do you think of these accusations against you and if a North American Catholic can vote for a person like this?"
So the question itself, as posed to the Pope, was a response to Trump's earlier criticism of the Pope as a "pawn" of Mexico on the issue of immigration. Pope Francis' response to that was: "Thank God he said I was a politician because Aristotle defined the human person as 'animal politicus.' At least I am a human person. 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."
Having dealt with that, then, the Pope continued: "And then, 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. 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. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt."
Clearly, whatever Pope Francis does or doesn't actually know about Trump the individual candidate, his response was specific to the question he was asked. If Trump's position is in fact what you, reporter, say it is, then that is not a Christian position.
The problem, of course, is that, while Trump's language may be more incendiary, his position on immigration, extreme as it may be, is in its fundamentals widely shared by other candidates - and voters - in his party as well. Some of Trump's Republican rivals have expressed discomfort with the extremism of Trump's proposals, but they have increasingly gravitated in practice to an anti-immigrant stance. For example, not that many years ago Marco Rubio was one of the Senators leading the effort for comprehensive immigration reform - a position he is now distancing himself from. So, while the question the Pope was asked was only about Trump the individual candidate and Trump's very extreme statements, the deeper religious and moral problem is way bigger than any one candidate and goes to the heart of his party's increasingly exclusivist and polarizing approach to American society as it has evolved for some time now.
That is the real religious and moral challenge embedded in this in-flight Q and A.