In the age of Pope Francis, can a good Republican be a good Catholic?

As any number of critics have pointed out in response to this statement, Jose Mario Bergoglio was, in fact, a scientist (a chemist) before he entered the seminary. But that’s a distraction from what’s really significant in Santorum’s claim — which is both that Republican Catholics can ignore what the pope says on anything that goes beyond the topics of theology and morality (narrowly defined) and that science is a topic with no significant theological or moral implications. I doubt Santorum would have said the same thing in the 1990s, when a pope more ideologically congenial to him powerfully pronounced on issues wrapped up with science.

Jeb Bush — an adult convert to the Catholic Church — has staked out a similar but possibly even more sweeping position as a Republican Catholic. According to The New York Times, Bush had this to say earlier this week in New Hampshire: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope… I think religion ought to be about making us better as people and less about things that end up getting in the political realm.”

Message: I’m free to ignore anything and everything the pope has to say about public matters, and that frees me up to put my Republican commitments ahead of my duties as a Catholic. John F. Kennedy once championed this apolitical vision of the church, and the theocons used to castigate him for it. (Here’s Rick Santorum saying three years ago that JFK’s 1960 speech defending this stance made him “want to throw up.”) But now GOP presidential candidates are staking out the same position.