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The pope is about to issue a declaration that could give Republicans a huge headache in 2016

Colin Campbell

(Reuters/Stringer Shanghai) Pope Francis waves from the Popemobile.

A top political analyst thinks the pope could pose a major problem for the Republican Party as its candidates seek to reclaim the White House in 2016.

Greg Valliere, the chief political strategist at the nonpartisan Potomac Research Group, wrote in his Wednesday morning newsletter that "the GOP versus the Pope" would be "a big story in the next year."

"Republicans have to tread carefully," Valliere said.

As The New York Times documented the day before, Pope Francis' "highly anticipated, highly controversial encyclical on the environment" is set to be released Thursday and could challenge Republican candidates who reject the science of human-caused climate change.

The Times' Coral Davenport reported that two of the most prominent GOP presidential contenders — former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida — attend a Catholic church in Miami that plans to heavily focus on the pope's environmental message. Both candidates have reportedly "questioned or denied the established science" on the issue.

Several other Catholic presidential candidates have announced their campaigns for the Republican nomination or are expected to do so, including Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, former Gov. George Pataki of New York, and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

According to Valliere and The Times, these candidates and others could be in a quandary in how they deal with one of the most outspoken popes in modern history. Pope Francis has enthralled liberals by championing several of their issues, including denouncing trickle-down economics and striking a softer tone on homosexuality.

"This story has been brewing for weeks, as Pope Francis prepares to issue an encyclical tomorrow that will focus on climate change," Valliere wrote. "The pontiff embraces Latin American 'liberation theology' that is militantly anti-capitalist, and that poses a big problem for most GOP presidential candidates. Should they criticize him?"


(AP/Charlie Neibergall) Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R).

Davenport reported that Rubio had not yet commented on the encyclical, which "is among the strongest and most authoritative statements made by the Catholic Church." Bush, however, has repeatedly discussed the coming church document.

Speaking in Washington, Iowa, on Wednesday, Bush stressed that his hometown of Miami was going to be heavily affected by climate change. But he argued that the government needed to be careful and make sure its environmental policies did not result in job losses or damage the economy.

Bush also said he didn't look to his church when it came to policymaking.

"I'm not denying that the climate's changing," he said. "Look, I go to church to have my faith nourished, to have my faith challenged. I think Pope Francis is an extraordinary leader of the church. It doesn't need to get any more complicated than that. That's why I go to mass. I don't go to mass for economic policy or for things in politics. I've got another people helping me along the way with that."

Santorum, who heavily emphasizes his Catholic faith, has made more aggressive statements than Bush on the issue. The Christian Science Monitor reported earlier this month that Santorum said Pope Francis should leave "science to the scientists."

"I would just say this: The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science, and I think that we probably are better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we're really good at, which is theology and morality," the former senator said.

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