The GOP’s Catholic Presidential Candidates Are the Real Cafeteria Catholics

10 excuses they use to ignore the pope’s teachings.

Pope Francis waves while riding through Santiago de Cuba, on Sept. 22, 2015.

Photo by Enrique De La Osa/Reuters

Six of the 15 Republicans running for president are Catholic. Five of them (the exception is former New York Gov. George Pataki) have often invoked their faith to justify their positions on abortion, homosexuality, and terminating life support. They’ve also chastised Catholics who dissent from the Vatican on these issues. Three months ago, speaking to a Christian audience, Jeb Bush derided the type of politician “whose moral convictions are so private, so deeply personal, that he refuses even to impose them on himself.” Sen. Marco Rubio mocked liberals who “ignore multiple pronouncements of this pope on the definition of marriage and on the sanctity of life.”

But now these Republicans have a problem. Pope Francis, who has just arrived in the United States from Cuba, has pushed other issues to the front of the church’s agenda. He talks about destructive capitalism and peace through diplomacy. His first encyclical focuses on climate change and environmental protection. These are awkward subjects for Republicans. How have they responded? With the same evasive tactics they previously attributed to Democrats.

1. Silence. In the past, when bishops have denounced John Kerry, Joe Biden, or other Catholic supporters of abortion rights, these politicians have tried to lie low and let the controversy pass. Now conservative Catholics are doing the same thing. Gov. Chris Christie, when asked about the pope’s critique of trickle-down economics, said, “I have no reaction.” Bush, when asked about the pope’s call to address climate change, shrugged, “He has every right to have a view on it.” Gov. Bobby Jindal, when asked about the pope’s affirmations of evolution and the Big Bang, refused to comment.

2. It’s just PR. Rick Santorum claims that Francis’ gestures of tolerance on family issues are “in the context of trying to reach out to people who may not agree with him on a whole lot of other issues, in order to try to open up some doors and open up a conversation.” The pope’s strategy, according to Santorum, is “to reach out and bring some other people in” so that they’ll be exposed to the church’s more “conservative positions.” Jindal takes the same view: The pope’s friendly tone on family values is just bait.

3. The pope doesn’t understand science. Santorum parrots the Vatican-backed myth that hormonal contraceptives are “abortifacient.” But when the conversation shifts to climate change, Santorum says the pope is out of his depth. “The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think we’re probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we’re really good on, which is theology and morality,” Santorum argues. “When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible.” (Santorum has previously described evolution as a controversial theory and has criticized it as flawed, though Francis has endorsed it.) Actually, Francis was trained in chemistry, but Santorum doesn’t care. According to Santorum, even scientists can’t be trusted on climate change: “Any time you hear a scientist say the science is settled,” he says, that’s “not real science, because no scientists in their right mind would say ever the science is settled.”

4. The pope doesn’t understand policy. Santorum says bishops shouldn’t “get involved with agriculture policy or things like that that are really outside the scope of what the church’s main message is.” Christie, in the same vein, rejects the pope’s case for U.S.-Cuba reconciliation because “his infallibility is on religious matters, not on political ones.” For these politicians, the church’s moral teaching against abortion translates directly into defunding Planned Parenthood, even though this would lead to more abortions. But when other Catholic teachings threaten Republican economic or foreign policies, suddenly religious edicts are dismissed as naive.

5. The pope’s views are purely personal. In his commencement address at Liberty University on May 9, Bush ridiculed politicians who claimed their moral convictions were personal. But a month later, after Francis issued his encyclical on the environment, Bush pleaded, “I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope. … Religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.” When the pope’s comments in interviews align with social conservatism, Santorum defends them. When they don’t, he dismisses them as unofficial. That’s how Santorum treated Francis’ remark that Catholics don’t have to breed like rabbits. “When he speaks as the leader of the Catholic Church, I’ll certainly pay attention,” Santorum said of the pope’s statement. “But when he speaks in interviews, he’s giving his own opinions.”

6. Trust the Vatican, not the pope. On economic issues, Republicans brush aside the pope’s statements as the work of bureaucrats. “Contrary to the arguments of certain economists that work at the Vatican,” says Rep. Tim Huelskamp, Republican of Kansas, there’s no agreed-upon Catholic solution to poverty. But on family issues, Republicans who don’t trust the pope are happy to rely on the bureaucrats instead. Santorum promises that Francis won’t change the church’s teaching on contraception, because “the pope has a lot of other people around him who advise him.”

7. I disagree with the pope’s interpretation. On abortion, politicians who look for loopholes in the church’s prohibition are denounced as heretics and weasels. But on the death penalty, Republicans assert the right to nobly dissent. Every Catholic Republican running for president supports capital punishment, even though Francis declared last year that “all Christians” must work for the “abolition of the death penalty, whether it be legal or illegal, and in all its forms.” Jindal claims an exemption for child rapists: The Catholic Church and many churches teach that the death penalty should be reserved for the most serious crimes, and I agree.” Bush, as governor of Florida, invoked the self-defense loophole. Although “many spiritual leaders, including the Pope, have called for the abolition of the death penalty,” Bush argued, “according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, preserving the common good of society requires rendering the aggressor unable to inflict harm.”

8. The pope is missing the big picture. Rubio concedes that Francis “is reminding us of our obligation to be good caretakers to the planet.” But the senator adds that policymakers must also recognize “it’s in the common good to protect our economy.” On Cuba, Rubio goes further. Recently, when he was asked about his differences with the pope, the senator replied: “I would also ask His Holiness to take up the cause of freedom and democracy.” That’s a pretty strong insinuation that Francis hasn’t taken the sins of the Castro regime seriously enough.

9. The pope’s message is for other countries. When Francis talks “about the exploitation of the underprivileged,” says Jindal, “we’ve got to understand that he’s speaking to a global audience.” It doesn’t mean he’s “against charter schools” or “against my tax package,” the governor argues. Every country is a sinner, except us.

10. The pope threatens American interests. Four months ago, speaking at the Council on Foreign Relations, Rubio explained the pope’s Cuba initiative this way:

There are many Roman Catholics on the island of Cuba. … And anything he [Francis] can do to open up more opportunities for them, he’s going to pursue. My interest as an elected official is the national security of the United States. And embedded in that is the belief that it is not good for our country nor the people of Cuba to have an anti-American dictatorship 90 miles from our shores. A nation that harbors terrorists. A nation that harbors fugitives from American justice. A nation that harbors advanced intelligence gathering facilities for China and Russia.

In other words, the pope represents foreigners. On social issues, where the church’s teachings suit Republicans, Catholicism is a strict, universally applicable list of rules. On economics, where the church’s teachings challenge Republican faith in free markets, Catholicism is a set of vague principles the pope is incompetent to apply. On foreign affairs, the pope is a moral hero when he aligns with Republican ideology, and an agent of Latin American socialists when he doesn’t.

The next time you hear a Republican complain about “cafeteria Catholics,” ask him which one he’s voting for.

See more of Slate’s coverage of Pope Francis’ U.S. visit.