On Doors, Windows, Fences, Bridges, and Walls

The recent spat of words between Pope Francis and Donald Trump over the relative merits of bridges and walls deserves some further comment. Both words, “bridge” and “wall,” have their precise meanings. As such, though they are not the same thing, they are not opposed to each other. We need them both. If we try to build a house without a wall, we quickly find that it does not stand. If we come to a river or chasm without a bridge over it (or a tunnel under it), our choices—if we want to get to the other side—are to swim, wade, jump, find a boat, fly, or forget it.

When Pope Francis mentioned Trump’s Mexican wall, about a hundred people quickly pointed out that a huge wall surrounds some of the Vatican. And it would not surprise me if one of Trump’s investments were in a company that built bridges. One of my nephews works for a company that builds bridges, and probably walls also. Today in America, walls enclose many freeways to discourage unwelcome intruders and noise from entering the neighborhoods along the roadways, while discouraging wildlife from wandering into oncoming traffic. The case for owning a gun is often premised precisely on the ability of robbers and other criminals to get through the walls and doors of our houses to threaten our families.

It might be a useful, even amusing exercise, then, to take a look at this issue of walls and bridges. But to do so, we would also do well also to examine doors, windows, vents, dams, fences, chimneys, tunnels, gates, and tollbooths. I will omit here the problem of protecting our cyberspace. Our computers, radios, and TV sets receive electronic messages in a manner that is invisible to us. Such beams or rays pass through almost everything we own, including our very bodies. We have “firewalls” to prevent the electronic intrusions we do not want. Not a few think that there is much more danger to our personal integrity from such sophisticated tools than ever we had to fear from felons and thieves.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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Consider for a moment a dam. I remember reading the scenes in Boys in a Boat about building the great dams on the Columbia River in the 1930s. A dam, after all, is basically a huge wall built across two natural embankments. California in the past fifty years has failed to build dams, usually for political/ecological reasons, so that today it has a perennial water crisis. Some people like to keep the usual California drought conditions to keep people out. So they oppose dams. Others are wondering why they cannot water their lawns and do their laundry like they do in the wet states, so they want dams. The greatest agricultural valley in the world is in Central California. Without it, we get fewer vegetables and higher prices; California exports lots of bottled water, and the number of wineries is astounding. Thus, the story of Cana would have to be rewritten if Mary and Jesus were here today. She would have to ask him not to turn the water into wine, but wine into water.

Often we find many small ponds in the Midwest that are the results of small earthen dams built on creeks and streams. The ponds provide some fishing, minnows, lily pads, algae, water storage, duck landings, mosquitos, perhaps swimming, frogs, and irrigation when needed. The larger dams in the country provide some of our best recreation areas, not to mention electrical power. Some people want to tear them all down to restore nature. The restoration of nature in this mentality is opposed to the improvement of nature. And dams are often quite beautiful artifacts, besides being electricity producers. The dam led to the invention of the fish ladder and other such devices like locks, so that boats and barges could proceed up and down stream.


An old saying went “good fences build good neighbors.” It meant that it is important, as Aristotle said, that we know what property belongs to us and what property does not. It can be argued that the possibility and protection of private property is the heart of the civilizing enterprise. Without it, civilization and its growth are almost impossible. Common property is usually not well taken care of. Doors and gates indicate that we can enter and exit places, but only at a known location. It is usually the thief who enters by the back window, and it is Santa who comes down the chimney. Yet windows are parts of the wall, as are vents—perhaps it is better to say they are “holes in the wall.” They provide light and air, but in a controlled way. With screens, they keep out gnats, and wind, and sometimes smells. The town in Iowa next to the one in which I grew up was called Pella. It is the seat of one of the biggest makers of windows of all sorts. The windows and doors on houses, their locks, the ease of opening and shutting them, are central to a house.

There used to be a song that went something like “Oh, if I had the wings of an angel, over these prison walls I would fly.” The walls of prisons, of course, are intended, like most walls, both to keep in and keep out. St. Paul was let down in a basket from the wall of Damascus, a city that could well be destroyed in today’s Syrian civil war. Of course, walls as a means of defense became largely obsolete with the invention of gunpowder, and later tanks and aircraft. But bridges can suffer the same fate. The last bridge standing over the Rhine River in 1945 was the Ludendorff Bridge at Remagen. Had it been destroyed, the end of World War II would have been different. The Battle of the Milvian Bridge in Rome in 312 A.D. is generally said to have been at the root of the Christianization of the Roman Empire.

Walls both keep in and keep out. Bridges both allow entrance and exit over obstacles. If everyone can get into every place, no place can be itself or unique. Multiculturalism could well be described as a place with only bridges and no tollbooths. But if no one can get into a place, it is isolated. The great number of Muslims flowing into Europe from the Middle East and Africa usually had to find boats at some point. Large-scale legal immigration into the States was mostly by boat, though today it is probably mostly by plane.

In Europe today, no bridges or walls prevented the influx. Once in, the borders were open. But there were soon fences. A fence is really just another form of a wall in many ways, sometimes with barbed wire, sometimes with nets, or iron rods. Wooden fences have their uses. In the Midwest, there used to be fences everywhere. They define boundaries, but also keep in animals: cattle, horses, goats, sheep, or even dogs and cats. But fences are not too much help with chickens, ducks, rabbits, and geese, unless you put fences on the top of their enclosures, in which case we call them cages.

Probably the Great Wall of China should be mentioned. It definitely seems to have been built with the intended purpose of keeping the unwanted out. Mr. Trump did not ask the Chinese to advise him, but they could have. They say the Great Wall turned the tide of tribes across the Asian plains and caused many of the barbarian invasions of Europe. That is another story. But China intended to keep China Chinese, as it were. Up until recently, they seem to have had no problem with population growth. But they have killed so many of their babies, especially baby girls, that the need for outside labor is not unheard of. Europe and America are already classic examples of this little quirk of history. If you do not have your own children, you will soon need other people’s children to help you out.

Perhaps I should mention tunnels. The history of railroads is also a history of tunnel construction. Going over the Alps or the Sierras is a matter of going through tunnels. I recall a small tunnel even outside the Baltimore train station on the way to Washington. When they built the tunnel under the English Channel from Britain to France, there was discussion about invasion routes. The tunnel was evidently built because a bridge could not be built. There are some pretty long bridges in the world. The one over the Chesapeake from Annapolis to the Eastern Shore of Maryland is a pretty good one. Someday someone may figure out how to make a bridge over the English Channel. New York City exists because of tunnels and bridges.


So, again, the bridge is both a way in and a way out. A wall keeps people in as in a prison, or protects them from attack, as a walled city. It keeps others from coming in, except by invitation or permission. We do not have walls between Canada and the United States. Yet, because we did not have one between Mexico and the United States, we have problems. Without walls or entrance control, a nation cannot remain what it is. Refugees are not citizens.

During the Muslim invasions of Italy, they had to build fortresses and walls along the sea coast. Some remnants still exist. New Zealand does not have to build such walls. No one is close enough, or desirous enough, to invade it. When it comes right down to it, the wall and the bridge, however we want to employ them as symbols of openness or exclusion, do pretty much the same thing. It all depends on the situation. A bridge can be an escape route, a symbol of getting away from a problem—a fire, a war, a depression. A wall can be a place of peace where, because of internal security, people can live in peace and live a normal life.

A bridge can be a way to enter a place more easily or to leave it. We do not build bridges over land across which we can walk or drive our vehicles. Invaders also use bridges. The Bridge over the River Kwai was destroyed after it was heroically built because its existence helped the enemy. Bridges are not always good things. Walls are not always bad things. Bridges can be good things. Walls can be bad things.

Nature builds its own walls and bridges. Probably, the American Indian came to this continent from a bridge or frozen area over the Bering Straits. There are stories of some coming by boat across the South Pacific to Latin America. A mountain range is a natural wall. A river in its own way is a wall or a fence. But there are fjords in some rivers that enable us to cross them. Rivers, oceans, and mountains can define boundaries. But sometimes as in the Western United States, boundaries are simply lines drawn by a surveyor.

What is the point of all of this consideration of dams, tunnels, doors, windows, walls, bridges, mountains, rivers, fences, cages, and gates? It is that human artifacts have their purposes. In themselves, they are usually good things. That is why they were designed and put into effect. They can be used for evil purposes. The criminal thinks the prison walls are unjust. The Great Wall of China enabled China to develop as China, but it almost ruined Europe. The Bridge over the River Kwai was destroyed because it helped advance the war aims of Imperial Japan. Manhattan without bridges and tunnels would be just an island visited by ferryboats and swimmers.

The Holy Door at St. Peter’s was opened for the Year of Mercy. It is closed the rest of the time, though mercy remains. When a door is closed, we cannot enter it. After the resurrection, Christ entered several rooms but he evidently did not use the doors. Jerusalem, the City of Zion, is built as a walled city. When the Hebrews left Egypt, there was no bridge over the Red Sea, or tunnel under it. To conclude, a bridge is to enter and to leave, a wall is to keep out and keep in. The real issue is who comes in, and who goes out. If everyone comes in, and everyone goes out, we have no civilized polity, only the replacement of one barbarian tribe by another.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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