Politics & Policy

On the 20th Anniversary of His Conversion, Jeb Bush Talks Pope Francis and How to Win on Social Issues

What does Jeb Bush think of Pope Francis? The pope must be “the envy of a lot of people in public life,” Bush says. He has a “remarkable” way of “saying the simplest things that draws people towards his beliefs.”

Twenty years ago this Easter, at a vigil Mass in 1995, Bush was received into the Catholic Church. We talked by phone briefly on Easter Monday afternoon about the anniversary of his conversion to Catholicism — which had actually slipped his mind. In the busy-ness of my “new work,” he says, “I had totally forgotten it was the 20th anniversary last Saturday. It brought back fond memories.”

When I ask him how he celebrated the Resurrection of Christ, his mind turned immediately to family, with whom he was grateful to spend a few days off, and specifically to his grandchildren. “Our little munchkins” got them to a 7:30 a.m. Mass, he says, “normal church-service time” being naptime for his 14-month-old granddaughter. There was no music or “little kids dressed up in pretty dresses, which I always like — everybody in their Sunday best,” he says. “But my granddaughters were, so that was enough for me.”

Asked if he’s experienced change in the Church in the 20 years since his conversion, he points to the stability of Catholicism, but then immediately notes the “obvious” change in the Church the “tone and emphasis” of Pope Francis has brought.

He notes that the media may be missing the whole story when the pope gets into “specifics.” Bush predicts that there might “turn out to be a real disappointment” for people, especially non-Catholics, “who think this guy is really cool” and expect “big changes” in terms of doctrine.

We talk a little bit about the pope’s upcoming visit to the United States this fall. The mere fact that Philadelphia could be expecting in the range of 2 million people, he says, is “a powerful statement in and of itself — that this many people would want to come and hear the pope and participate in communion with him.”

Can an attitude like Pope Francis’s help Catholics in public life, especially in situations like last week’s unpleasant upheaval over religious-freedom laws? “Absolutely,” says Governor Bush.

“I do think he can help change the conversation. Because right now, it’s just full of landmines.”

On the topic of Indiana and related controversies, he adds: “It’s hard to imagine a country with our tradition of tolerance where now it’s ‘either/or.’ . . . A country as big and noble as our country doesn’t have space to be able to allow people of conscience to act on their faith and people not be discriminated against? I think we can figure this out.”

Making clear he’s not mistaking himself for pope or pastor, Bush suggests that “in politics, we really need to focus on language that cuts through that gets beyond them vs. us, the divide that always seems to prevail.”

He readily admits he doesn’t get it right all the time. “I think about . . . how I can improve how I express my views,” he says. People’s beliefs on a lot of hot-button issues like religious liberty, life, among others, may be “informed by faith, your life’s journey, the thousands of interactions you have with people,” and are matters “way beyond politics,” he says. At the same time, discussing them is not only unavoidable, but necessary. So how to do so compellingly, convincingly, in such a way as to invite collaboration and even conversion (of the political sort)?

Pope Francis’s lesson may just be, Bush suggests, “Where you say it, how you say, it is important.”

“You’ve got to figure out a way that gets beyond being pushed into a position where you sound like you’re intolerant of people who may not agree,” he says. “But you have to say what you believe as well,” surmising that in the case of Francis the media, in search of sound bites, may have glossed over some of the pope’s more inconvenient underlying beliefs.

And “common ground” on difficult — sometimes seemingly intractable — debates does exist in America today, he says, especially on the so-called life issues. He runs off a quick list of questions:

“Do you think a 13-year-old should have an abortion without a parent’s consent, or being notified?”

“Do you think there should be much more resources for adoption?”

“Should there be counseling for women who are in a precarious position of having to make a decision like [abortion] that is life-changing?”

On “all these things,” Bush suggests, “there is more consensus than where the political world says. The challenge is how do you get to that — we have to get to that.”

“That’s a little bit harder, from my own experience, than it might appear,” Bush adds, but he says he has the experience that gives him an advantage in making headway, especially on life issues.

When I ask about Terri Schiavo, there’s an obvious pain there. He puts it this way: “I regret that she was starved to death when she had loving parents who wanted to take care of her — that I’ll live with the rest of my life.”

When I bring up the ongoing push to legalize assisted suicide in nearly 20 states (and the District of Columbia), he notes with similar sadness: “This is what has been predicted by a lot of people: As we depreciate life in general, these are the consequences.”

Pope Francis talks about prayer a lot, in addition to his urgent calls for action, and Bush says it’s “an integral part of his life.” “ Prayer is powerful,” he says. In his life, as a governor, now weighing a run for the presidency, he says he’s found “it gives you a serenity to get clearer thinking.” “It’s comforting to me,” Bush says, and it’s “especially so for my wife, which is one of the bonds we share together.”

Speaking of Columba,  whom he has been married to for 41 years, he says “in some ways,” he set out in becoming Catholic 20 years ago “to honor my wife and my soulmate.” He wanted “to make official what I had been doing most of my married life,” he says. Their children had been raised Catholic, and he attended Mass with his family. “ I attended Catholic church before I converted, like a lot of people, I bet. They don’t ask for your card when you show up in the pews on Sunday.”

But the process of becoming Catholic revealed more than he expected: “What I found when I went through the RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] classes was that the sacraments of the Church are beautiful.” The seven sacraments, he found, are “the key, . . . the essence” of the Catholic Church, allowing him to “grow to respect and appreciate and love” the Church in a whole new way. “The more I learned, the more I appreciated,” he says.  

Time for the Easter chat is up, but he seems grateful for a few questions about eternity during a pre-campaign workday. It is, after all, the point of all the rest. You get the sense he might often have the munchkins in mind, his soul, and that of our nation, too.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review Online.

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