Pope Francis’ visit to the United States later this month comes against the backdrop of the largest crop of Catholic candidates for president in history — most of them Republican.

It’s a startling development for a country not far removed from widespread anti-Catholic bias, and for a faith that traditionally has leaned Democratic but has become competitive in recent election cycles.

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“Catholics have finally made it in America for decades,” said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies at Catholic University. “There was, frankly, very profound discrimination against Catholics that really survived into the 1960s.”

Six Republican candidates are Catholic: Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush; Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; and former New York Gov. George Pataki.

If Joe Biden gets into the race, that would make a total of eight candidates from the two major parties, also a single-year record.

This is the largest list of Catholic candidates on the Republican side ever, and more than the total number of Catholic Republican candidates who sought the presidency in the previous three elections combined.

On the Democratic side, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is Catholic. If Vice President Joe Biden gets into the race, that would make a total of eight candidates from the two major parties, also a single-year record.

That so many Republican candidates are Catholic represents a promising change for the GOP.

For most of American history, the vast majority of Catholic politicians plied their trade in the Democratic Party. Three Catholics have run for president as nominee of a major party, and all were Democrats — John F. Kennedy, Al Smith in 1928 and John Kerry in 2004.

The emergence of Catholic Republicans in national politics is the result of church members moving right since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. 

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Christopher Hale, a senior fellow at Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, said that the emergence of Catholic Republicans in national politics is the result of church members moving right since Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Now, he said, both parties have to work for Catholic support.

“The Catholic vote is as diverse as the country itself,” he said.

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Hale, who led Catholic outreach efforts for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, noted the stark difference in the political environment today compared to the one faced by Kennedy when he was running in 1960 to become the first Catholic president.

“It’s interesting that 51 years ago, when John F. Kennedy was running for president, the one thing he had to say was he wouldn’t take orders from the pope,” Hale said. “Now it seems like everyone is saying they will take orders from the pope.”

That bit of hyperbole reflects that the pope is popular among some groups, and the stigma of being Catholic has disappeared.

An increase in Catholic candidates has followed a rise in Catholic voters, McDermott said.

“I think it’s solidified trends we have seen over the last two, two and a half decades,” she said. “That is filtering up to the candidate level.”

Exit polls compiled by the Pew Research Center show that the Catholic vote has shifted back and forth in recent elections, following overall voting trends. Democrat Al Gore edged Republican George W. Bush by 3 percentage points among the group in 2000. Protestant Bush beat Catholic Kerry among the group in 2004. Obama carried the Catholic vote twice.

Experts said there is no way effectively to appeal to the Catholic vote.

Catholic University’s Schneck said the shift has occurred because of assimilation. Earlier generations of Catholics were mostly working-class immigrants. Successive generations became wealthier and started voting Republican in higher numbers, he said.

As a voting bloc, Catholics are large — about a quarter of the electorate — and potentially can swing elections. Numbers suggest they are far more important than other subsets that draw more analysis, such as Hispanics. But experts said there is no way effectively to appeal to the Catholic vote.

“Catholics are not monolithic, not even close,” McDermott said. “They tend to be more of a bellwether group … Catholicism is not something that solidifies a bloc of people, because so many Catholics don’t vote on church doctrine.”

In analyzing the Catholic vote, Schneck said it is important to break it down into three groups: Regular churchgoers tend to vote Republican, while Hispanic Catholics overwhelmingly vote Democrat. He said “cultural conservatives” — those who identify Catholic but seldom attend church — are the third group, the true swing voters that lurch back and forth.

 It’s hard to find anything other than the religious label that unifies the Catholics running for president.

Divisions can be seen among the candidates themselves. It’s hard to find anything other than the religious label that unifies the Catholics running for president. Down the line, O’Malley takes far more liberal positions on issues than his Republican counterparts.

Even among the Republicans, the candidates are a mishmash of backgrounds and policy views.

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There are converts to the faith, Bush and Jindal. Most oppose allowing abortion, but Pataki supports it and Christie did at one time. Bush has cited his faith in explaining his support for a more welcoming immigration policy. At the same time, Santorum, a fierce critic of expanding immigration, appeals more to evangelical Christians than fellow Catholics.

Schneck said the dynamics in the presidential race are similar to politics in general. He pointed out that Catholics are over-represented in the Supreme Court, in Congress and many state legislatures. It would be quite a political force to be reckoned with if it translated into a unified ideology.

But it seldom does.

The House speaker, Ohio Republican John Boehner, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., both are Catholic. But they disagree on most issues. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic, but they were on both sides of decisions involving gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act.

On political issues, there is no unifying thread among Catholics, Schneck said.

Although the pope will likely not address the presidential race directly, Schneck said the candidates almost certainly will be watching.

“But I also think there is a very strong sense among Catholics being called to service,” he said, adding that it is the same impulse that led Catholics to stereotypically dominate police forces and fire departments in many cities in the early 20th century.

Hale, of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, agreed. He said Catholic candidates of different ideological stripes tend to reject “radical individualism” in favor of communal responses. That is true, he added, even if it manifests itself differently. Liberal candidates may view it through the prism of greater government action, while conservatives favor communities and private charity.

“Catholics believe, whether from the left or the right, that we’re all in this together,” he said.

Church doctrine does not fit neatly into either party. But the church’s teachings on marriage and abortion fit squarely with the Republican platform. Still, it’s views on poverty and immigration can be interpreted by some as more in line with Democrats. Schneck said he expects Francis to talk about those issues in his U.S. visit. Although the pope will likely not address the presidential race directly, Schneck said the candidates almost certainly will be watching.

“I think they’re all going to find something in him to make them excited about being Catholic,” he said.