The US’s 12 Most Influential Catholics…

…as chosen by Stephen Prothero, a self-proclaimed “religiously confused” Catholic.  (Personally, I like my year-end-selected-by-the-readers polls better.)

So who is Stephen Prothero?  He’s a professor at Boston University, and he contributed a column to CNN’s Belief Blog.

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.”)

Imagine that – no one outside of the Washington/New York hub of whatsitpatootie.  It’s almost as if Prothero doesn’t believe there exists an America beyond the Eastern seaboard.  And here’s another ‘not a big surprise':  conservative Catholics are bad, liberal Catholics are good.  Boehner is a Catholic who says “no” to Obama’s compassion and outreach, while Biden sees the abuse of power as the worst sort of sin.  Bias much?  I’m surprised he didn’t include Sister Keehan or Kathleen Sibelius on this list – in fact, with the exception of Justice Sotomayor, there are no women on the list.  *Gasp!*  Not only is the Church misogynistic, but so are Boston University professors!!

And Andrew Sullivan is an influential Catholic?  Who in the world is Andrew Sullivan?  Who outside of Washington/New York cares?

We can do better than this guy, right?  Isn’t Cardinal Burke more influential than Boehner?  Isn’t Archbishop Chaput a bit more influential than Joe Biden?  With the exception of Cardinal Dolan, no one on his list has the power or ability to shape Catholic thought or protect Catholic identity or propose Catholic truths.   Eleven on this list do not have the power to ex-communicate (an influence I wished would be wielded more liberally) or the power to forgive sins.  That’s real influence.

No – the influence wielded by most on that list, to one degree or another,  is to affect religious liberty.  Maybe that’s Prothero’s point.

So who would you include on this list?  What changes would you suggest, or his analysis spot on?  I have a couple ideas, but I’m interested in what you have to say.

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11 responses

  1. I didn’t know Biden or Newt were Catholic. And I’m afraid Rick isn’t going to make it. We’ll probably be stuck with Romney, the Mormon. Oh, great.

    • Biden is “catholic” and Newt actually converted a few years ago. To my understanding, Newt’s faith is very important to him. He had a metanoia (change of heart), but of course the media just focuses on his past. Imagine if St. Augustine was a bishop in the US today – the media would have a field day with The Confessions and not see that his heart was changed by the mercy of God. He committed some terrible sins, but is one of the best theologians and saints we have in the Church.

  2. Is that list a joke? If it is, the jokes on us. One of my picks would have to be Michael Voris. And how about Patrick Madrid? We could also throw you on the stack. I’d listen to you way before any of the so-called “Catholics” on that silly list.

  3. I read that whole list, then wondered who Andrew Sullivan is. I went to his blog, and read his whole front page (which contains a lot of posts, by the way). Now, I only have one question. Who is Andrew Sullivan?

    I’m sure Scott Hahn could replace a couple people on that list quite nicely.

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  5. Tom Cruise is Catholic. Well, he’s technically a Scientologist – but I’m sure he can still receive communion if he went to a Catholic funeral in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C..

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  7. What, no Nancy Pelosi???? I guess now that she isn’t speaker she doesn’t count. For that matter where is Sibelius???
    Religiously confused is right. If he is just talking about the political sphere then I can think of a lot more influential people than Andrew Sullivan.
    & it is obvious he just parrotting the left’s attack on Santorum rather than what Santorum is actually saying.
    Now if he was looking for really influence Catholics, there are plenty already listed so I won’t add to it.

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