Six of the nine United States Supreme Court members are Catholic, including the Chief Justice John Roberts, Vice President of the United States Joe Biden, and the House Speaker John Boehner.
Pope Francis has become a superstar, even in non-Catholic circles in America, and the next president could very well be the second-ever Catholic, after John F. Kennedy.
After a decade or so of bad tidings when it came to Catholicism, during a period when sex abuse cases overwhelmed the narrative about the Church, there is light at the end of the tunnel.
The shock election of Pope Francis has transformed the image of the Church in a remarkably short time, giving even the faithful departed a reason for a second look at the Church they were nurtured in.
As the New York Times recently noted, “From 4,500 miles away at the Vatican, Pope Francis, who has captivated the world with a message of economic justice and tolerance, has become a presence in Washington’s policy debate.”
Catholics will play a massive role in the outcome of the next presidential election. Catholics make up 24 percent of the voters in American presidential elections. No other religious group comes close. No president since 1972, with the exception of George Bush in the disputed election of 2000, has won without winning the Catholic vote.
Francis will likely have a role in the next presidential election. As much as the conservative bishops barely hid their pro-Republican leanings, especially on issues such as abortion in past elections, this liberal pope speaks far more to the Democratic side of the House.
Pope John Paul II with his anti-communist bent and Benedict XVI with his conservative ethos and focus on social issues spoke to Republicans, now roles are reversed.
As liberal Jewish senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently noted in a debate about income inequality: “You know, we have a strong ally on our side in this issue – and that is the pope.”
“There are currently seven Catholics among the top contenders for president in 2016…It could even end up as a Catholic versus Catholic fight."Former Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it even more cogently, “the pope is starting to sound like the nuns”.
Not to be outdone when it comes to pope praise, former Speaker and presidential candidate and a convert to Catholicism, Newt Gingrich stated, “I think every Republican should embrace the pope’s core critique that you do not want to live on a planet with billionaires and people who do not have any food.
“I think the pope may, in fact, be starting a conversation at the exact moment the Republican Party itself needs to have that conversation.”
Elsewhere in America, Catholics, a once discriminated against minority, is finally finding they are totally accepted, so much so that there is a case that they are the new WASPS, the new natural ruling class.
The presidency itself has been out of reach since 1960, well over a half-century. That may be about to change.
When the 2016 election comes around it will be a fascinating contest on many levels, but will also feature more Catholics than ever running for office.
On the Republican side the early front-runner is Congressman Paul Ryan, leading in the polls in Iowa and winning or second or third in almost every other state that has been polled. As Mitt Romney’s Vice Presidential pick he has experience in a national campaign and his youth and vigor stand out.
An Irish Catholic from Wisconsin, Ryan speaks forthrightly about his faith and often uses bible quotes, especially on the need to reach the poor.
Ryan is a member of St. John Vianney parish in Janesville, WI, where he was also an altar boy.
After his father died when he was only 16, Ryan developed a strong attraction to his faith. His brother Tobin Ryan said, "I could see he had very much developed and matured in his faith, We were able to communicate and share quite openly our own beliefs – versions of faith. Paul has certainly chosen his beliefs and a very, very strong value system. It's an important part of his life."
One of his main opponents will be Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida, a man who flirted with several religions including Mormonism, but who has come back to his childhood faith.
"I'm a Roman Catholic. I'm theologically in line with the Roman Catholic Church. I believe in the authority of the church, but I also have tremendous respect for my brothers and sisters in other Christian faiths. I recognize, as the Catholic Church does, that there are excellent teachings of the Word throughout other denominations. The elements of salvation are found in these churches as well,” he stated in 2012.
Rubio, with his Cuban heritage and Florida base, represents the Hispanic outreach for the GOP though Cubans are often considered very separate from other Hispanic tribes. He is also running strongly in early states and would likely sweep Florida.
Another key Republican candidate is fellow Floridian and former governor Jeb Bush, who converted to Catholicism in 1995. He is now a fourth degree Knight of Columbus and by all accounts, a devout Catholic.
Then, of course, there is Chris Christie, an ethnic Italian Catholic from New Jersey who sends his kids to Catholic school, was an altar boy and continues to display his faith and talk about it even when he said he disagreed with its findings about gays.
Newt Gingrich, if he runs again, would round up a strong and determined field of Catholic candidates.
Irish bookmaker Paddy Power rates Christie, Rubio, Bush, and Ryan as four of the top five favorites. Only Rand Paul, the senator from Kentucky, who is Presbyterian, makes the top five as a non-Catholic.
Similarly on the Democratic side three of the top five are Catholic, but there is one major difference.
Methodist Hillary Clinton is the overwhelming favorite but she was in 2008 also and came crashing down. One of those who might wound her running from the left is Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Methodist.
Among the other candidates Vice President Joe Biden is a deeply religious man, never more evident when he was clutching his mother’s rosary beads in the Situation Room during the Osama Bin Laden operation.
Biden has always leaned on his Catholic faith, especially after the family tragedy that saw him lose his first wife and baby daughter in a car crash.
Another potential candidate, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is the definition of a white ethnic Catholic. "This is a very traditional Catholic family,” the Rev. Edward Beck told The New York Times when discussing the Cuomos.
Then there is Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, who was educated at the Catholic University of America, the only university in America which received a papal charter.
O’Malley has been deeply impacted by the Catholic Church, beginning with his days in high school at Gonzaga, in Washington, where he was exposed to the good work of the Jesuits.
He described that experience thus: "So you'd come in from the lily-white suburbs, and you’d see the nation's Capitol looming up in front of you, and then when we took that left onto I Street, you'd walk by the morning line of homeless and poor and jobless men who were waiting in line at Father Horace McKenna’s [a Jesuit priest who ministered to the poor from the church next to the school]. That was not lost to many of us walking into school by that line every day, how lucky we were, how much we had."
There are currently seven Catholics among the top contenders for president in 2016, the most by far in memory. It could even end up as a Catholic versus Catholic fight especially if Hillary Clinton were not to run.
America has changed profoundly since the “Know-Nothing” anti-Catholic heyday in the 19th century, when an infamous 1871 Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast depicted Catholic bishops coming ashore in America their mitres split in half to resemble crocodile’s teeth as helpless children cowered waiting to be swallowed up on the beach.
The measure of that change may be fully seen in 2016.
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