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Story highlights

New: Vatican spokesman says Pope's remarks not "a personal attack"

Donald Trump at CNN town hall: Pope is a "wonderful guy"

Trump's GOP rivals largely stayed away from the brouhaha

(CNN) —  

Nobody wants to tangle with the Pope – not even Donald Trump.

One of the more unlikely battles to jolt a presidential campaign emerged Thursday when Pope Francis said Trump is “not Christian” if he wants to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. Trump, true to form, shot back that the pontiff’s comments were “disgraceful.”

But by Thursday evening, the GOP front-runner was doing something unusual: de-escalating a fight.

“I don’t like fighting with the Pope,” Trump said at a GOP town hall in South Carolina hosted by CNN. “I like his personality; I like what he represents.”

Trump called the Pope a “wonderful guy” and blamed the day’s drama on the press.

“I don’t think this is a fight,” Trump said. “I think he said something much softer than was originally reported by the media.”

Trump added he would meet with the Pope “anytime he wants.”

On Friday, a Vatican spokesman said that, although the reporter at the papal press conference asked Francis specifically about Trump, the Pope’s answer should be interpreted more generally.

“It didn’t intend to be in any way neither a personal attack nor an indication in how to vote,” the Rev. Federico Lombardi told Vatican Radio.

Lombardi also noted that the Pope said he was not sure exactly what Trump had said about illegal immigration and “would give him the benefit of the doubt” until he did.

Pope suggests Trump ‘is not Christian’

Trump has built his campaign around confrontations with everyone from Fox News’ Megyn Kelly to GOP opponent Jeb Bush, so the change in tone was striking. What accounts for the shift?

The obvious answer is that he doesn’t want to alienate Catholic voters, who make up about 20% of the American electorate and likely don’t want to see politicians pontificating about their Pope. Catholics consider the Pope not only the vicar of Christ but also the successor to St. Peter, who legendarily holds the keys to the Pearly Gates.

But, like most popes throughout history, Francis is also a political leader.

He heads a sovereign state – Vatican City – and meets regularly with world powers. When Francis made his comments about Trump’s stance on illegal immigration, he was returning from Mexico, where he met with government leaders, including President Enrique Peña Nieto.

And the Roman Catholic Church, most especially through its bishops, takes policy positions on a wide range of issues, from abortion to combatting the Zika virus.

In that sense, the Pope’s remarks on Trump’s proposal to deport undocumented immigrants and build a big wall between the United States and Mexico weren’t terribly surprising.

Trump challengers react to Pope’s comments

Trump’s rivals at Thursday night’s town hall largely stayed away from the brouhaha.

When asked about the controversy, Ohio Gov. John Kasich simply said he was “pro-Pope.”

“This man has brought more sense of hope and more about the do’s in life than the don’ts,” Kasich said, referring to Francis. “This guy has been so humble.”

Bush, who is a devout Catholic, didn’t criticize the Pope’s comments. But he said he personally wouldn’t “question people’s Christianity.”

“I think that’s a relationship they have with their Lord and savior and themselves. So I just don’t think it’s appropriate to question Donald Trump’s faith,” Bush said at the town hall. “He knows what his faith is.”

The Pope, ‘The Donald’ and the wall between them