Rick Santorum’s ugly Pope Francis bashing: Why the Catholic in the GOP field keeps maligning other Catholics

First he attacked JFK. Now Pope Francis. Is that the way to win in a party controlled by evangelical Protestants?

By Joan Walsh
Published June 3, 2015 1:43PM (EDT)
  (Reuters/Max Rossi/AP/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)
(Reuters/Max Rossi/AP/Nati Harnik/Photo montage by Salon)

In 2012, long-ago Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum got attention as the only Catholic in the GOP presidential primary race. It’s sadly noteworthy: our country has had only one Catholic president in its history (Joe Biden is our first Catholic vice president). Rather than looking out for Catholics, though, Santorum made a big splash when he attacked that first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and lied about Kennedy’s famous speech in defense of religious freedom.

The speech “makes me throw up and it should make every American,” Santorum told ABC in February 2012. “Now we’re going to turn around and say we’re going to impose our values from the government on people of faith, which of course is the next logical step when people of faith, at least according to John Kennedy, have no role in the public square.”

Of course Kennedy said no such thing. In a historic speech tailored to address anti-Catholic prejudice head on, he insisted the “public square” should be safe territory for people of all religions, including Catholics like him, and Rick Santorum. Santorum himself should have been shamed from the public square for telling such clumsy and ugly lies about our 35th president. But Republicans can’t be shamed.

Now it’s time for 2016, and Santorum’s back, but facing other Catholics in the primary field – including Marco Rubio and convert Jeb Bush, who took his wife’s faith when he got married. So Santorum apparently has to go one better, when it comes to insulting Catholics. This time, he’s going after the Pope.

And it’s hilarious. Except it’s also sad. Pope Francis plans a papal encyclical on the dangers of environmental degradation, including climate change. Santorum says condescendingly the Pope should stick to “theology and morality.”

At more length, Santorum said Pope Francis would be better off “leaving science to the scientists and focus on what we're really good on, which is theology and morality. When we get involved with political and controversial scientific theories, then I think the church is probably not as forceful and credible."

Interestingly, virtually every credible scientist validates the view of Pope Francis: that climate change is real, and it’s caused by humans. So science is on the side of the pope. It’s funny Santorum should stand up for science anyway, since he seems not to be a big fan of higher education, having already inveighed against the notion that Americans should have the chance to go to college if they so choose. “What a bunch of snobs,” he said in 2012, maligning President Obama.

The larger issue is that the pope is becoming a huge problem for Catholic Republicans. They want to obey the pope as their faith requires, but they don’t like his pronouncements on pretty much anything: not his tolerance for LGBT Catholics, or his thoughts on climate change, or his insistence that prosperity is a fiction if it doesn’t include the poor.

In 2013 it was Catholic Republican Paul Ryan who dissed the pope for his pronouncements on income inequality and global poverty, suggesting he doesn’t understand capitalism. “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina,” Ryan said (yeah, he called the pope “the guy”). “They have crony capitalism in Argentina. They don’t have a true free enterprise system.” Poor dumb pope.

Politico recently explored the GOP’s problems with the pope against the backdrop of the 2016 election. “In northwest Iowa, we are discussing this a great deal, and sometimes it’s hard for us to reconcile the pronouncements we read from the Holy Father with our conservative principles,” Sam Clovis, a Catholic GOP political activist told Politico last month.

In fact, Clovis suggested some Republican Catholics’ disdain for the pope could hurt Catholic-come-lately Jeb Bush. “It’s going to cause a lot of problems for Jeb Bush, because Republicans are simply not going to take him seriously,” he said.

Clovis didn’t mention Santorum, oddly, even though his 2016 calling card is having won the Iowa caucus (belatedly, after a recount).

Maybe Santorum thinks he’s got to bash the Pope to do well with Iowa’s large Protestant evangelical community.  Bash JFK? Check. Bash Pope Francis? Check. Proceed to a higher tier of candidates? Don’t check just yet.

Of course Santorum, covering all of his political bases, also insists he’s a “huge fan” of the Pope. “He’s someone who is as committed to the nuclear family as I am,” the fourth-tier 2016 wannabe said. But he isn’t having the pope’s campaign against environmental degradation.

Nowadays Republicans are “cafeteria Catholics,” under the leadership of the compassionate, curious Pope Francis. They loved the authoritarian Pope Benedict. Of course, liberals aren’t suggesting they be excommunicated or muzzled, the way Catholic conservatives have crusaded against Catholic liberals on issues of women’s rights. Santorum’s condescending attack on Pope Francis won’t hurt the pope. But it shows Santorum to be an irrelevant afterthought in a circus-tent race where Donald Trump has more support.

Joan Walsh

Joan Walsh is the author of "What's the Matter With White People: Finding Our Way in the Next America."

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