Pope Francis drives a wedge between Catholic Church, GOP

Pope Francis is increasingly driving a wedge between conservatives and the Catholic Church.


The magnetic pope has sparked new enthusiasm around the world for the church and has flexed his political muscles internationally, most recently by helping to engineer a new relationship between the United States and Cuba.



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But Francis’s agenda, which also includes calls to address income inequality and limit climate change, is putting him at odds with Republicans, including GOP Catholics in the United States.


Hours after President Obama announced moves to ease trade and travel restrictions to Cuba, Sen. Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Senate passes 0B defense bill Trump bets base will stick with him on immigration MORE (R-Fla.), a practicing Catholic and potential 2016 presidential candidate, criticized the deal and Francis's role in it.

“I would also ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy, which is critical for a free people, for a people to truly be free,” Rubio told reporters.

Rubio said that Cubans “deserve the same chances to have democracy as the people of Argentina have had, where he comes from, as the people of Italy have, where he now lives.”

His office declined additional comment for this story.

Fellow Catholic Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said he wished Francis would stand up for the Cuban people "rather than their oppressors."

“Sadly, in the case of Cuba, the Catholic Church has not always applied its basic principles of human dignity and reverence for the God-given freedoms that belong to every soul. I was supremely disappointed by press reports that the Pope had a hand in urging President Obama to cede crucial leverage that could have been used to help the Cuban people become free,” Diaz-Balart said.



It's not the first time Francis has clashed with conservatives.

Since his papal inauguration in March 2013, the pontiff has publicly made policy remarks about income inequality and the environment that many American Catholics weren't used to hearing coming from the Vatican, and not just from the pulpit.

“Inequality is the root of social evil,” Francis tweeted in March, after months earlier slamming “trickle-down” economics as a “crude and naïve” theory.

Next year, as part of a speech he’ll give to the United Nations General Assembly, Francis will issue an edict urging the world's 1.2 billion Catholics to do what they can to fight climate change.


“He's modeling the church as a place for open disagreement,” said Vincent J. Miller, who chairs the University of Dayton's Catholic theology program. “In that sense, one of the most important changes he's making is that conservative politicians are now openly disagreeing with him,” Miller said.

Catholics have long been considered an important voting block in American politics and have turned out for the winning presidential candidate in the last three cycles.

A closer look at the Catholic vote reveals that white Catholics have supported the Republican candidate in each of those elections, while Hispanic Catholics have supported the Democratic candidate, according to Pew Research polling.

According to Pew, Catholics made up 24 percent of the electorate in the 2014 cycle, voting for GOP House candidates over Democratic ones 54 percent to 45 percent.

Francis himself enjoys a high favorability rating of 78 percent among all Americans, with only 11 percent disapproving of him and the remaining having no opinion, according to a Dec. 11 poll from Pew. Among Catholics, his favorability spikes to 93 percent.

Miller said Republicans are no longer able to use issues like abortion and gay marriage as the defining issues for American Catholics.



But Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the conservative U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, said that by injecting his beliefs, Francis has alienated Cuban-Americans who are deeply opposed to the communist Castro regime in Cuba.



“I don't want the pope running the foreign policy of the United States, just as I don't think the president wants the pope running the social policy of the United States,” said Claver-Carone, referencing the pope’s anti-abortion rights views.

Progressive Catholics, however, such as Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice organization, are cheering Francis on as he calls for the world's elite to do more to help the poor. 



“Oh my gloria, this is a definite change in tone from being a 'scolder-in-chief' to being the one who identifies with the pain in our world,” said Simone, who organized the “Nuns on a Bus” cross-country tours.

“Pope Francis's message and tone are making Catholic Republicans a little uncomfortable,” Simone said. “He's stirring the concern on issues like poverty and the economy.”