12 Most Influential American Catholics

Who should make the list of “12 Most Influential American Catholics”? Stephen Prothero has compiled an interesting, but flawed, list.

Prothero is a professor at Boston University and a blogger for CNN’s Belief Blog. Here’s his list. I spoke about it on yesterday’s Drew Mariani show on Relevant Radio.

Stephen Prothero’s List of 12 Most Influential American Catholics
1-6. Chief Justice John Roberts and Associate Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Sonia Sotomayor
7. Speaker of the House John Boehner
8. Vice President Joe Biden
9. Rick Santorum, former U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania
10. Cardinal Timothy Dolan
11. Stephen Colbert
12. Andrew Sullivan

Come on! Really? This is the list?

I have several problems with it. Take a close look at the list and you’ll notice a few things. First, you’ll notice that the individuals are nearly all politicians (and one political writer), as if politics is the answer to everything. Politics isn’t the answer. Prayer is.

Second, you’ll notice that those who made the list are entirely located on the East coast, as if there are no influential Catholics in the rest of the vast United States. Finally, you’ll find only one member of a religious community on the list.

It might have been a good idea for Prothero to first outline what he means by the word “influential.” He views influence as meaning primarily political influence, with one entertainer and one prelate thrown in. What of all the Catholics in media, news, and the larger culture? Or better yet, what of all the Catholics who are quietly influencing the lives of those around them through lives of prayer and service?

As Christians, we believe in a supernatural world, a world we cannot see. I would argue that the most “influential” American Catholics are those who are people engaged in that world, not just this one. They are people of prayer, people of sanctity, people of self-sacrificial service. They are people who take up their Cross daily and are willing to die to self. That’s what it means to be Catholic. Being Catholic doesn’t mean getting the most notice by the news media. Anyone with enough money to hire a public relations firm can get noticed.

I would argue that the 12 most influential American Catholics are probably people whose names you or I wouldn’t recognize. They are faithful, holy individuals of prayer, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, and suffering known primarily only to those closest to them. They do their work largely unseen, and they are certainly not the types of people regularly covered by the headline-seeking media.

They are those who are engaged in prison ministry, who minister to those society has shut away. They’re like the woman who operates a food shelf out of her garage, serving those who cannot afford their next meal. They are the mothers who have given up lucrative careers to selflessly raise their children and prepare their souls for eternity. They are the priests who selflessly hear the confessions of their parishioners and ease their penances by taking some of it on themselves. They are like the husband lovingly tending to his dying wife, or the parents who are sacrificing their own wants and needs to provide care for their severely mentally handicapped child. They are the religious sister who is helping to support a young mother caught in an unexpected pregnancy. She is having an influence not only on the mother, but also on the life of that unborn child, an influence that will have a ripple effect into all eternity. The most influential Catholics are any Catholic who is reaching out to the lost, the forsaken, the disadvantaged, the forgotten.

We can even see this type of influence at work among some of the big names. It’s been argued that Mother Angelica, for example, could be having more “influence” in her prayerful, post-stroke condition, than she did in starting a religious order and beginning the world’s largest Catholic media organization. Who is to say? Prayer has far more power than we know.

Who would make your list of “12 Most Influential American Catholics”? I’d like to hear who you think should make the cut.