My Take: America's 12 Most Influential Catholics
Author Stephen Prothero gives his list for the 12 most influential Catholics in America.
March 2nd, 2012
01:06 PM ET

My Take: America's 12 Most Influential Catholics

Editor's note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Anyone who is old enough to remember Sen. John F. Kennedy’s run for president in 1960 knows that this used to be not just a Christian country, but a Protestant one. Admittedly, the Constitution makes the United States secular by law, but for most of our history, we have been Protestant by choice.

All that has changed in recent years. We now have a Catholic speaker of the House (John Boehner), a Catholic House minority leader (Nancy Pelosi) and a Catholic vice president (Joe Biden). Six of the nine justices on the Supreme Court are Catholics. And that guy duking it out with Mitt Romney for the GOP nomination? Rick Santorum is Catholic, too.

It wasn’t so long ago that U.S. Protestants were burning down Catholic convents to protest efforts by the Vatican to infiltrate American society and take it over from within. Today, you don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see that Catholics now occupy some of the most powerful positions in the land.

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Which leads me to today’s top 12 list of America’s most influential Catholics:

1-6: Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor

I know that justices are supposed to stick to interpreting the law rather than making it, especially if they adhere to the judicial philosophy of “original intent,” but I’m not buying it. When it comes to “judicial activism,” there are really only two kinds of judges: those who know they are acting and those who wrongly imagine they are not.

Throughout U.S. history, the Supreme Court has played nearly as important a role as the presidency on the race question, and a more important role than the U.S. Congress. Women seeking abortions do so under a regime written and enforced by the courts.

In a 2011 speech at Duquesne University School of Law, Scalia denied that his Catholicism affected his legal decisions. I’m not buying that either, which is why he and the five other Catholics on the Supreme Court occupy half of this list.

7: Speaker of the House John Boehner

As any child (or parent) can attest, the word “no” is powerful indeed, and as the leader of the House Republicans, John Boehner wields that power today. Before he gave the commencement address at Catholic University last spring, more than 80 professors at that university wrote an open letter to Boehner saying that the budget he pushed through the House contradicted Catholic social teachings by neglecting the poor. But Boehner continues to say “no” to the Obama administration, most recently on its decision to require Catholic-affiliated employers to cover birth control services in their health plans.

8. Vice President Joe Biden

The first Catholic vice president of the United States, Joe Biden wields by most accounts more power than many vice presidents in American history. (Remember Spiro Agnew?) And though Biden has ruffled the feathers of church authorities on the abortion question, he is an observant Catholic who attends church regularly and met with Pope John Paul II four times. “The animating principle of my faith, as taught to me by church and home,” Biden told the Christian Science Monitor in 2007, “was that the cardinal sin was abuse of power.”

9. Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania

For a while, Newt Gingrich was the Catholic Republican front-runner, but that title has been seized by Rick Santorum. Unlike Gingrich, who converted in 2009, Santorum is a cradle Catholic, and he's a more convincing fellow traveler in Christ to the religious right.

Everyone thought this election was going to be about the economy, but Santorum's mantra seems to be, "It's the culture, stupid." Santorum has grabbed headlines in recent weeks by calling President Obama a purveyor of a "phony theology" and otherwise keeping questions of faith not just on the front burner, but at a rolling boil. This weekend, Santorum said that John F. Kennedy's famous church/state speech, in Houston in 1960, made him want to "throw up" when he first read it. "I don’t believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute," he told ABC News on Sunday.

10. Archbishop Timothy Dolan

It says something about Catholic authority today that it is hard to think of a member of the Catholic hierarchy who stands among the most influential U.S. Catholics. But Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan is the most likely person for this honor. A theological conservative, Dolan was elected president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2010, and he was elevated to cardinal in Rome last month. In 2008, Dolan took on Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi for their views on abortion, and in 2009, he criticized the University of Notre Dame for inviting President Obama to speak at its commencement.

11. Stephen Colbert

The man behind the Super PAC Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow will not be happy to learn that he fell outside the top 10 here, but he is still one of the most influential Catholics in the United States today. Colbert makes his political jabs with a smile, but they sting nonetheless.

Last year, The Washington Post asked whether Colbert was “Catholicism’s best pitch man,” and he does put a very different face on a church that has been best known in recent years for sex scandals. Both Colbert and the character he plays on “The Colbert Report” are committed Catholics. In fact, Colbert (the character) loves his Catholicism so much that he gave it up last year for Lent.

Colbert (the real person) regularly books Catholics on his show and has appointed Father James Martin, S.J., as the show’s official chaplain. With Martin and other theists (and atheists), Colbert regularly discusses matters of faith. In fact, his character often gives guests discussing such questions wider berth than his more political guests.

12. Blogger Andrew Sullivan

In another era, this final slot might have gone to Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and public intellectual whose writing regularly addresses the intersection of faith and politics in the United States. But we now live in a digital age, so the nod goes to Andrew Sullivan, the Brit behind “The Dish,” a popular blog now hosted by The Daily Beast.

The thumbnail bio is that Sullivan is gay, Catholic and conservative, but his blog is far more nuanced (and coherent) than readers might imagine from that trifecta. In part because of his unpredictability, his site is the go-to blog for all things political and cultural. And the reading is easy because of Sullivan’s refusal to pull his punches. (Obama’s “uninspiring” state of the union was, in his words, a litany of “cramped, tedious, mediocre micro-policies.”)

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

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Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Church and state • Joe Biden • John Boehner • Newt Gingrich • Opinion • Politics • United States

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  5. GADEL

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    March 26, 2012 at 8:20 am |
  6. Jeannon Kralj

    A true Catholic is not influential in any way that a mainstream media journalist would or could acknowledge, though true Catholics ARE indeed profoundly influential in God's economy. There is such a thing as Catholic in name only.

    March 12, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
  7. stupid people believe what they don't understand because they don't read, or don't know how - which is worse?

    I may be cruel, but you shall love me as God. In the word of God. Praise be to God. And all that mumbo jumbo. Thanks be to me for reminding you that even God hates you. So smile and remember, under his tyranny you will never be free! Quote any part of the Bible you like, it will make no difference. If you believe in God then the history of God is your basis for belief. How can one make claims to without full knowledge of? With full knowledge how is it that any believe unless they already harbor hatred for a great many? Answer – most have never read the Bible. Those who have made one of two choices – ratiionalize it and believe based on interpretations or deny it and not believe. What do you get from this?

    March 5, 2012 at 7:31 pm |
  8. Mary Rothschild

    You would really have to expand this list, it seems to me, or in some other way acknowledge the power of the other 5 catholics who sit on the supreme court – 6 out of 9.

    March 5, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  9. Mike

    Lately comments have been posted about how Catholic's vote. Do they vote as a group or do they vote their individual preferences. I am a practicing Catholic; sometimes I miss Mass, sometimes if an election seems too trivial I miss it.

    Catholics tend to vote with their concience rather than by party affiliation. Catholic's pay attention to the issues and reflect before voting. For me the voting booth is a lonely place. I am there to try and do ultimately whats best for my family above all.

    Since we were raised in the church we have become used to the Holy Father's beliefs being proclaimed as the
    dogma of the Church. In our hearts we may not always agree with it,

    When our government steps over the line and isues regulations and executive orders that run counter to our hearts and concience we literally, "smell the rat", and raise hell about where and how the government has gone too far.

    Roe vs Wade may be the law of the land. But 50 million abortions later most everyone agrees it is a lousy method of birth control. It is a perfect example of where the government won the battle but lost the war. Catholic's and other Christians are both wary of the Obama Administrations health care initative. It started out to end discrimination and control rising health care costs. Now they are talking Contraception. What is next, Euthanasia?
    dogma ofthe Church. In our hearts we may not always agree with it.

    March 5, 2012 at 8:43 am |
  10. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    March 5, 2012 at 7:10 am |
    • Jesus

      ~The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs.~~

      March 5, 2012 at 8:28 am |
  11. tom s.

    This story was meant to be funny wasn't it ? Biden ? I live just above the poverty line as a DAV and donate more (to a homeless shelter) in a yr than he does, and he makes ten times more just in base pay not counting all the extra graft he collects!
    Does anyone remember what "JESUS" said about the rich and the eye of a needle ? Then tell me again how the supreme court members stand an ice cubes chance in hell of getting into heaven ? These are all people whose only GOD is the dollar bill and the college their kids get to go to while they keep their jack boot on the neck of the poor and middle class !
    These are not humble people living a meager live so that others with no resources could live better with their help!
    Just like the protestant preachers with their $20 million $ churchs that stand as monuments to themselves while not a mile away people starve everyday and live in cardboard boxes and the dumb sheep keep giving to these conmen.
    The biggest fool in this story is the person who penned it !

    March 5, 2012 at 2:54 am |
  12. robert m. simon

    How you can call characters like Pelosi and Biden "Catholic" is apalling.These are the same self-loathing idiots who would like to force Catholics to pay for their own prejudice against unborn children.

    March 4, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.