WASHINGTON – As Pope Francis arrives in the United States, three former US ambassadors to the Vatican, all of whom served under President George W. Bush, have endorsed Jeb Bush in the 2016 race for the White House.

The three are:

  • James Nicholson, a former chair of the Republican National Committee during the 2000 elections, who went on to serve as secretary for Veterans Affairs after his posting in Rome;
  • Francis Rooney, an Oklahoma businessman and major Republican donor;
  • Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, an Independent who has held several Vatican positions and currently serves on the board of the Vatican bank.

All three, along with two other former envoys to the Vatican – the late Thomas Melady, who served under the first President Bush, and former Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, a Democrat who served under President Bill Clinton – endorsed the candidacy of Mitt Romney in 2012, both for the Republican nomination and eventually for the presidency.

A Bush spokesman said the former Florida governor is “honored” by the endorsement, and that the ex-ambassadors will “provide critical leadership in our effort to gain the support of Catholic voters.”

Nicholson called Bush “a proven conservative leader with a genuine and deeply held Catholic faith.”

“His faith informs his commitment to protecting life, defending religious liberty, and ensuring that all Americans have opportunities to pursue the American Dream, he told Crux. “America needs his leadership at this critical time, and I’m proud to endorse his candidacy.”

Rooney told Crux via e-mail that he’s convinced the former Florida governor is the right man for the job.

“I am thankful to support and endorse Governor Jeb Bush for president because he has a clear track record of conservative leadership grounded in firm, resolute principles. He has the breadth of understanding of the challenges we face as a nation right now to be able to lead effectively and protect our national interests in the world from the first day on the job,” Rooney said.

“Moreover, the governor has a deep and abiding faith and strong family values which guide him,” Rooney said. “As such, uniquely among the others, he has the character and resolve to turn our country away from several years of spending and regulatory strangulation and back toward a government which nurtures individual and economic freedom.”

Bush, who converted to Catholicism 20 years ago, is generally seen as an ally of the Church on issues such as euthanasia and abortion. He also has taken an interest in the Vatican in the past, among other things leading the US delegation for the inaugural Mass of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.

Bush also joined Nicholson, Rooney, and Glendon in 2013 in protesting a decision by the Obama administration to transfer the Vatican embassy from a location near Rome’s Circus Maximus onto the compound that contains the main US embassy to Italy, seeing it as a downgrade of the Vatican embassy’s separate status.

Bush recently appeared to break with Pope Francis after the pontiff released an encyclical letter, Laudato Si’, calling for strong action to combat global warming and the impact of climate change.

“I think religion ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm,” Bush told Sean Hannity of Fox News in response to a question about the pope’s environmental stance.

Bush’s campaign has yet to catch fire with many Republican voters, as he lags behind in polls to both Donald Trump and Carly Fiorina. The most recent CNN/ORC poll puts him in fifth place, with just 9 percent support.

On the other hand, Bush is far ahead in terms of fund-raising and has also collected more endorsements than any other Republican contender.

It’s highly unlikely there will be any reaction from either Pope Francis or his Vatican team this week, since they steadfastly resist being drawn into local politics, especially when the pontiff is traveling.

The timing, however, is illustrative of the fact that American Catholics of all persuasions will likely be using the spotlight afforded by the pope’s presence over the next week to state their respective cases.