As former Florida governor Jeb Bush was making a swing through Europe in June, he and his wife, Columba, made a stop to lay flowers at a 50-foot cross in Warsaw’s Victory Square, where Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass before a million people in 1979.
“You and him,” he quietly told Columba. “The pope and my wife converted me to Catholicism.”
So the couple were understandably eager to see the hugely popular Pope Francis celebrate Mass in the United States. “We asked to see if we could get tickets to the cathedral Mass in Washington. And the cardinal kindly let us do it,” Bush said.
Bush is not the only presidential contender taking a break from his campaign schedule to be part of the pomp and majesty that will surround the papal visit.
Indeed, the politically outspoken pope’s visit to the United States will inevitably be seen against the backdrop of the intense 2016 presidential race, despite the fact that many of those who are running have distanced themselves from the pontiff’s policies.
Seven of the 15 candidates for the Republican nomination are or have been practicing Catholics, which is more than ever.
The Democratic field includes a Catholic, too — former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who also plans to attend the Mass in Washington on Wednesday. And there will be another Catholic Democrat in the race should Vice President Biden decide to jump in.
Meanwhile, the campaign is being roiled by issues that touch on tenets of Catholic doctrine and recent papal pronouncements.
In some of those areas — including climate change, economic inequality, immigration and relations with Cuba — the Democrats have an ally in Francis.
“I am not a Catholic, but I am a great admirer of the pope, because I think what he’s trying to do is to take the venerable institution, the Roman Catholic Church, and really once again place it on a firm foundation of the scriptures — Christ’s words,” Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Methodist, told ABC News this month.
On other policy questions, including the debate over defunding Planned Parenthood and the protection of religious freedom, the teachings of the church remain aligned more with Republicans — albeit with Francis giving them a softer tone.
“He speaks with such elegance and simplicity about things that are really important,” Bush said. “I think the decisions he’s made as it relates to providing, showing mercy for people — women that have had abortions, or divorce — is making it easier for people to absolve themselves from that and, you know, in a traditional Catholic way — is fantastic.”
The difficulty in putting an ideological label on the pontiff explains why Francis’s visit has gotten relatively little discussion on the campaign trail — usually coming up only when the candidates are asked about it by reporters.
Every election cycle brings another discussion of the “Catholic vote.” It is often noted that no candidate in modern history has won a popular majority for president without carrying most of the nation’s Catholics.
But it is incorrect to think of Catholics, who make up one-fifth of the nation’s population, as a bloc, said John C. Green, a leading scholar of the intersection of religion and politics.
“The Catholic community is deeply divided along the lines of the rest of the electorate,” said Green, who heads the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.
About one-third of all Catholics are nonwhite — primarily Hispanic — and they vote heavily Democratic, Green said. The remaining two-thirds, he estimates, are about evenly divided among Republican-leaning traditional Catholics, progressives who are inclined to vote for Democrats and moderates who are “the quintessential swing voters.”
What that segmentation means is that “if you are a politician, you have to appeal to the Catholic vote retail, rather than wholesale,” Green said.
The candidates are offering Francis a warm welcome — and a cautious embrace. Although they have expressed admiration for him and his inclusive style, they have emphasized that they do not agree with many of his policies.
“I don’t go to Mass for economic policy or for things in politics,” Bush said in June after the publication of the pope’s 192-page encyclical blaming the burning of fossil fuels and human activity for climate change.
That came on top of Francis’s denunciations of inequality as “the root of social evil.” He said the problems of the poor should be “radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation” — a statement widely read as a rebuke of capitalism.
Some conservatives also have been critical of the pope for his role in brokering the resumption of U.S. diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Even as Francis was in Havana on Sunday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), a practicing Catholic, told CNN: “I just think the pope was wrong. And so the fact is that his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also a Catholic, expressed a similar view on ABC. While he follows the pope “100 percent” on spiritual matters, including teachings on the sanctity of life, Rubio said, “the pope, as an individual, an important figure in the world, also has political opinions. And those, of course, we are free to disagree with.”
In past election cycles — and under past popes — it has more often been the Democrats who have been put on the defensive by pronouncements from the Vatican and Catholic officials in the United States.
In 1960, as John F. Kennedy was seeking to become the nation’s first Catholic president, he went before a hostile audience of Protestant ministers in Houston to say: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute; where no Catholic prelate would tell the president — should he be Catholic — how to act.”
When then-Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) was the front-runner for the Democratic nomination in 2004, the archbishop of St. Louis warned the candidate, who supported abortion rights, “not to present himself for Communion” there. Denial of Communion is a sanction that canon law reserves for “those who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.” Kerry said he would continue to go to Mass and to take Communion.
There is no sign that Catholic officials are threatening any such showdown with politicians of either party this time.
And the pageantry and excitement that surround the visit are hard for any politician to resist. Even Republicans who disagree with some of Francis’s pronouncements are planning to attend some of his appearances.
At least three GOP contenders — Rubio and Republican senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky — will be in the audience when Francis addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who was raised Catholic but became a Protestant, said during a recent swing through New Hampshire that he had considered attending some of Francis’s appearances.
“I’ve never met a pope,” Kasich said. “But I don’t think I can make it.
“What I like about Francis is he’s a guy who’s into the do’s of faith, and not so much into the don’ts — the things we need to do to be better people,” he added.
Although Francis’s visit is unlikely to have an immediate impact on the presidential race, it may continue to reverberate over the longer term — especially as the country moves into a general-election campaign.
That will come by virtue of the issues Francis raises during his visit, said David Campbell, chair of the political science department at the University of Notre Dame.
“It’s not so much that he’s going to tell us what to think,” Campbell said. “He’s going to tell us what to think about.”
David Weigel contributed to this report.