Thousands of people begin to line the parade route that Pope Francis will follow along the National Mall September 23, 2015 in Washington, DC (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)(WASHINGTON) — 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.
Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, the senator from Florida who is a Catholic, disagrees with the pope on pushing the U.S. and Cuba together. But on ABC News’ This 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.