Pope Francis Creates Strange Bedfellows Among Presidential Candidates

Politicians attempt to use the pontiff's historic visit for their own gain.

ByBen Gittleson
September 23, 2015, 8:00 AM

— -- Congressional leaders have warned their flock about slowing down Pope Francis when he addresses them in Washington this week -- no fist bumps or selfies, please -- but that hasn’t prevented campaigners of all stripes from attempting to use the historic visit for their own political gain.

Presidential contenders on both sides of the aisle have for days been criticizing and lauding the pope on his views on climate change, foreign affairs and economic justice, among others. Francis’ views have created strange bedfellows: His image as a progressive pontiff -- he speaks out often against capitalism and in support of immigrants -- mixes incongruously, at least in U.S. terms, with his staunch conservatism on social issues like abortion and contraception.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Catholic who is running for the Republican nomination, Sunday said he thought the pope was “wrong” on pushing the United States and Cuba closer together. “The fact is his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones,” Christie told CNN.

Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida who is also Catholic, disagrees with the pope on Cuba, too. But on ABC News’ “The Week” Sunday, he drew a distinction between doctrinal and theological matters, on which he said he agreed with Francis “100 percent,” and the Pope’s political opinions, which he said "we are free to disagree with.”

Several Republican candidates have taken issue with an encyclical the pope released in June calling global warming largely manmade, a view that bucks a popular belief in the party that minimizes humans’ role in climate change. Former Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said then Francis should leave "science to the scientists.”

Presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said Tuesday he hoped the pope isn’t “overly critical of our country or the systems that made us the richest country in the world and also the most humanitarian.”

Pope Francis does not fit onto the left-right spectrum of U.S. politics, analysts said. Instead, they said, he tries to rise above the fray with a message that brings the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings to those it has not traditionally reached.

“The Pope is not coming to play booster to one side or another in political debates,” Stephen White, a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank, told ABC News. “He’s coming as a pastor … meeting his large American flock.”

But in a presidential race with a large field of candidates striving to differentiate themselves from one another, some vied to make their mark ahead of the pope’s six-day, three-city visit to the United States, which began Tuesday.

After a report last week that the Vatican was concerned about transgender activists, a gay bishop and an activist nun invited to a White House ceremony with the pope Wednesday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican presidential candidate, accused President Obama of creating a potentially "embarrassing" situation and trying to lecture the pope.

In defending the pope, Huckabee has found himself on the same side as Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent and Democratic presidential candidate typically opposed to the socially conservative Baptist minister on most issues.

“Pope Francis has forcefully reminded us that greed, and the worship of money, is not what human existence should be about,” Sanders, who was raised Jewish, tweeted.

Sanders and others who have praised the pope have sometimes overlooked disagreements on hot-button topics like abortion and gay marriage, both of which Francis opposes.

For seven of the candidates who are Catholic -- six Republicans and one Democrat -- the pope’s visit perhaps means more to their religious than political creed.

Vice President Joe Biden, who is contemplating a run for the Democratic nomination, said in an interview released this week that he was “excited, quite frankly, as a practicing Catholic.”

Others shared that sentiment.

“I think he’ll restart the conversation,” Christopher Hale, the executive director of the left-leaning Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, told ABC News as he waited to greet the pope Tuesday at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

Francis hopes preaching the gospel will encourage political leaders to get to the dirty work of finding solutions, according to observers.

“He rises above the politics, but he doesn’t want to be separate from the politics,” Hale said. “Pope Francis has said before, ‘A good Catholic meddles in politics.’”

The pope may be the rare figure who can transcend the vitriol of D.C. politics, analysts said.

“There’s almost a disarming spontaneity in which he doesn't care about managing perception,” Chad Pecknold, an associate professor of systematic theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, told ABC News. “There’s no spin.”

ABC News’ Jessica Hopper and Adam Desiderio contributed reporting to this article.

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