In Rome We Trust
The Rise of Catholics in American Political Life
Manlio Graziano



For several decades there has been a quantitative and qualitative growth in the role Catholics play in American political life and, not coincidentally, in the role American prelates play in the life of the Catholic Church. My purpose here is to explore how and why this has come to pass.

This book is born of the merging of two themes on which my research has focused in recent years: the geopolitics of the Catholic Church and the geopolitics of the global shift of power—in other words, of a new international context that is less and less American and more and more multipolar.

Geopolitical analysis of the Catholic Church reveals that the particular dynamism of the world’s oldest institution allows it, at least potentially, to take the lead in a general process of desecularization. In other words, the Catholic Church’s vitality allows it to offer guidance and specific objectives for the return of religions to the public sphere after three centuries of secularization in the political realm.1

Among abundant evidence of the regained strength of the Catholic Church is a series of indisputable facts: the number of seminarians (which is to say, candidates for priesthood) in the world nearly doubled between 1978 (the year John Paul II was elected) and 2013, growing from 63,882 to 118,251. Consequently, the number of priests has risen as well, from 403,173 in 1990 to 415,348 by the end of 2013. And the number of permanent deacons has also soared, increasing from 7,654 in 1980 to more than 43,000 in 2013. Despite an equally indisputable decline in the number of nuns, the “forces of the apostolate” (bishops, priests, permanent deacons, monks, nuns, members of secular institutions, secular missionaries, and catechists) grew worldwide by almost 300,000 between just 2005 and 2013, for a total of 4,762,458 people. In this same period the number of Catholics in the world grew by 12 percent, a growth rate faster than that of the population in Asia and Africa, corresponding in pace to demographic growth in the Americas and declining growth in Europe.2

Along with its quantitative achievements, the Church has regained, to some extent, the authority and credibility that it had gradually lost beginning in 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia inaugurated the process of secularization in international politics. This is certainly true for the nearly two hundred countries that today have diplomatic relations with the Holy See and for most leaders of great and small powers that sooner or later find an opportunity to bow before the pope and secure his benevolent attention. Even for the most prominent personalities and the authorities of the other great world religions, the head of the Catholic Church is today a point of reference, and the Church itself is a channel of communication and collaboration.

To these proofs of dynamism we must add another specific and far from anodyne piece of evidence: personnel of Catholic origin occupy an increasingly important place in the political life of the United States. Particularly striking are not just the dimensions of this phenomenon but the fact that very few have noticed it or tried to account for it.

This is in itself a sufficient invitation to try to fill the existing gap. It is necessary, however, to add two significant motivations for my study here. The first has to do with the geopolitics of the Catholic Church. It is impossible not to notice the increasing presence of US personnel at the top of the Vatican’s hierarchical structure, in particular within the College of Cardinals, where prelates from the United States form the second largest national group after Italians. But, most important, it is impossible not to notice a progressive influence of the American Catholic experience on the universal Roman Catholic Church as a whole, beginning with the encyclical Rerum novarum (1891) and leading to the acceptance of the principle of religious freedom at the Second Vatican Council, as well as, of course, to the election of a “Pan-American” pope who was strongly backed by the US cardinals and who is the expounder of a pastoral teaching in which life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness seem to have become new mantras. This aspect has been generally overlooked as well, or treated in teleological terms, as a sort of parallel “Manifest Destiny” that might gradually dissipate harsh but futile mutual misunderstandings of the past and finally lead the Church and the United States to walk the same path toward the same objectives.

The second motivation, from the viewpoint of the geopolitics of shifting power, is that the influence of the Catholic Church—direct and indirect—is growing in many non-Catholic countries as well, including India, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. But in no other non-Catholic country is its influence growing the way it is in the United States. And this applies not only to the number of politicians, military, and judiciary personnel at the top levels but also to the growth of social services offered to the population. This is all the more remarkable given that the United States is today the main “loser,” in relative terms, in the global shift of power, doomed to see the vanishing of its hegemony, undisputed in the twentieth century, in international politics.

The hypothesis of a correlation between the relative decline of the United States and the increase of the Catholic presence in the ruling class of the country is therefore worth testing. It is also worthwhile to test the hypothesis of a correlation between increased American influence (and presence) within the universal Roman Catholic Church and its renewed dynamism.

The massive literature on the Catholic Church in the United States and on the history of American Catholics, as well as the scarce texts on the relationship between the United States and the universal Roman Catholic Church, have until now been almost exclusively written by Catholic scholars, almost all of whom have been American. This peculiarity has allowed for abundant firsthand information and for studies that come from as many different angles as there are sensitivities within Catholicism, particularly in the United States. Anyone who engages in the study of the Catholic Church must pay tribute to the deep, erudite, and well-documented work conducted from within, without which critical analysis would be virtually impossible.

What is lacking, then, is not material, nor is it specific knowledge of events, but rather a fresh approach. What is missing is an external point of view, one not directly affected by the discussions, at times refined and at times turbulent, between the various currents of American and non-American Catholicism. And what is particularly missing is a geopolitical approach.

This book attempts just that. It provides an explanation of the increased role of Catholics in American life and the role of Americans in the life of the Church through a geopolitical analysis of the relations between the United States and Catholicism. It is a geopolitical book both in subject and method. In subject it aims to provide tools for analyzing the impact that these relations have on American domestic policy, on the internal policy of the Church, and on the entire system of international relations. In method it proposes to look, albeit briefly, into the totality of circumstances that have led to the current state of affairs.

Geopolitics is a dynamic discipline. As Nicholas Spykman put it in 1938, its task consists in finding “in the enormous mass of historical material, correlations between conditioning factors and types of foreign policy.”3 Put another way, the aim of geopolitics is to study constraints that restrict, condition, and steer the will of political actors through history. Both measurable (geography, economics, demography, military power, alliances, institutions, and leadership) and nonmeasurable constraints (traditions, habits, ideologies, prejudices, and, of course, religions) deposit sediment throughout history and leave their marks across the centuries. At the same time, they evolve and change. Long-term phenomena (whether a river basin, economic supremacy, or cultural influence) are the grammar of international relations; their modifications are its syntax.

This is why a geopolitical approach to the relationship between the United States and Catholicism cannot overlook the Church’s historical development—not in order to repeat what can be found in dozens of other books but to review this history from a different perspective, a long-term perspective. Such a perspective proves, among other things, that geopolitics is not, as many believe, a flatly deterministic discipline in which certain premises necessarily give rise to certain conclusions. Throughout the history of American Catholicism, from the time of the thirteen colonies and beyond, there are almost no preconditions that would lead one to anticipate the decisive role of American prelates in the selection of a pope; no preconditions that would forecast a pope who speaks before Congress, received with the warm and abundant applause of American congressmen and congresswomen. Nor are there preconditions for more than a third of these congressmen and congresswomen being Catholic, or for the vice president, the speaker of the House, one-third of the cabinet, nineteen governors, all the military and defense leadership, and, in particular, two-thirds of the Supreme Court members also being practitioners of “Roman papolatry,” followers of the “whore of Babylon,” as Catholicism and the Catholic Church were long characterized in the United States.

The crises that broke the deterministic thread in the history of relations between the United States and Catholicism have mostly been “external,” that is, not directly determined by the relation itself. They include, with regard to the Church, its defeat—albeit temporary—on the secularization front, its loss of contact with urbanized and proletarianized peasant masses, the carnage among European Catholic powers during 1914 to 1918, and, last but not least, decolonization. For the United States the biggest crisis has been the awareness that “the age of America’s nearly total dominance of the world stage was drawing to a close.”4 Henry Kissinger dates this awareness to the end of the 1960s, while other specialists place it in the second half of the 1980s, concomitant with Japan’s spectacular economic growth.

Faced with the prospect of decline, the United States and the Catholic Church adopted countermeasures, trying, if not to reverse the pace, at least to slow it down. Two men in particular have successfully embodied this attempt: Ronald Reagan and Karol Wojtyła. Whatever their personal roles may have actually been, it is certain that Reagan and Wojtyła managed, with different means and objectives, to restore confidence and stability in the institutions they were responsible to. In the process, both adopted with resolute firmness a missionary attitude and an apocalyptic bent that corresponds to the very nature of both the United States and the Catholic Church.

For eight years Reagan and Wojtyła served in parallel as heads of their respective institutions at a time when the crisis of the Soviet Union gave them a weakened common enemy whom they could use to rescue their faltering identities. Thanks to the existence of this enemy, and to the spontaneous empathy between the two men, both of exceptional caliber, was born the legend of a “holy alliance” between the United States and the Vatican whose aim was to liquidate the “evil empire.” The myth arose along converging paths, leading in the same direction, to fight the same evil and assert the same purposes.

It could be said that this myth results from an excess of empiricism. But the mere accumulation of facts does not produce a theory. And sometimes it leads to a dead end. The United States needed to give spiritual depth to its recovered strength, and the will of the Roman Catholic Church required historical depth for its recent conversion to the principles of freedom of religion and conscience. Yet this myth does not stand up to historical, let alone geopolitical, analysis.

The Catholic Church and the United States, in fact, have different priorities, different goals, and, of course, different methods. Their current mutual cordiality is explained by the fact that, like all other geopolitical actors, they need allies in the pursuit of their goals; and since, generally speaking, the more powerful the ally, the broader the scope (at least potentially), it is understandable that they appreciate a rapprochement when one comes to pass.

But the two-centuries-long relationship between the United States and the Catholic Church has been essentially characterized by suspicion, sometimes by open hostility, and, since the end of World War I, by harsh competition on the field of universal values, that is to say, on the field of the moral leadership of the world. Both the Catholic Church and the United States are persuaded that God has blessed them with a manifest destiny; but it is hardly the same God, and it is certainly a different destiny.

The United States was born as a Protestant country or, more precisely, a puritanical one, and as such was anti-Catholic. Since the very beginning, however, there has been an overriding concern not to import the religious wars and persecutions of the Old World, from which the Mayflower’s passengers had fled, into the New. The most durable legacy of that concern is the First Amendment of the US Constitution, ratified in 1791, which prohibits the establishment of any religion. Yet long before the founding of the United States, the colonies were imbued with an implacable anti-Catholic sentiment. The first law banning Catholics was passed in Virginia in 1642, and other colonies followed suit. The hostility has known its violent moments, including the rise, in the nineteenth century, of tumultuous anti-Catholic movements. Such hostility was long present in the Protestant heart of the American nation, to the point that even during the Second World War, and again during the presidential campaign of 1960, pamphlets and caricatures circulated in which Catholics were depicted as the potential fifth column of a pope intent on “ruling America.”

For its part the Church was no less hostile to the United States, whose territorial growth came at the expense of Catholic powers—France, Spain, and Mexico—with a failed attempt to conquer also the mainly Catholic Quebec. Moreover, the values carved in the US Constitution, beginning with freedom of conscience, were irreconcilably opposed to those defended and propagated by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries. At the end of the nineteenth century Pope Leo XIII officially condemned the assimilationist tendency of many American bishops, that is, their tendency to absorb some American values, such as religious pluralism and even the principle of the separation of church and state.

The universal Catholic Church came into conflict very often with American foreign and domestic policies: on the issue of slavery, on the Civil War, on union activism, on the war against Spain in 1898, and on the Mexican Revolution. As with many other countries, a turning point came during World War I, when the local Church hierarchy was allowed, and even pushed, to show unconditional patriotism as soon as the United States declared war on Germany. But that realignment did not prevent the Church from jealously defending its autonomy over the years, taking clear distance from Washington time and time again. This was the case during World War II, when it contested the US alliance with the Soviet Union. It was also the case after World War II, when, despite the Cold War, Pope Pius XII reiterated the Church’s condemnation of the American way of life, which was often considered more “materialistic” than the Soviet way of life. And it was again the case at certain critical junctures, including the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, the arms race in the 1980s, and the Gulf wars of 1991 and 2003.

Indeed, the United States and the universal Catholic Church have very rarely found themselves on the same path. There was the thunderous clash about the war in Iraq in 2003, and even today, on the subjects of Palestine, Europe, and Latin America their positions collide. When it comes to other important international issues, such as relations with China and Southeast Asia, with the Indian subcontinent, with Russia, and with Africa, the strategies and the purposes of the Catholic Church and the United States differ strikingly. Similarly, their opinions differ considerably about some hot domestic American issues, such as immigration, education, the death penalty, gun control, abortion, contraception, stem-cell research, and even the climate issue.

The catholicization of the United States of America is a recent phenomenon. Some observers say that its emergence began under Ronald Reagan; others say that it was at the time of George W. Bush, a Protestant, whom Rick Santorum nonetheless called “the first Catholic president, much more Catholic than Kennedy.”5 What is certain is that, until February 2016, out of the six current Catholic justices in the Supreme Court, two were appointed by Ronald Reagan, one by George H. Bush, and two by George W. Bush.

The trend toward the overrepresentation of Catholics among America’s politically elite became patent, however, during Obama’s administration. Not only did he appoint the sixth Catholic justice of the Supreme Court, but, for six years, more than one-third of the members of his administration were Catholic, whereas nationwide only about one in four (or in three, depending on the sources) Americans is Catholic. In the same period, also Catholic were the vice president, Obama’s second-term chief of staff, his national security adviser, his homeland security adviser, the three successive speakers of the House of Representatives (Democratic from 2008–12, and Republican after November of 2012), the Democratic leader of the House, the director of the CIA, the director and the deputy director of the FBI, and the army chief of staff (a position that changes frequently, but Obama has appointed two chiefs of staff, both Catholics), the commandant of the Marine Corps, and the chief of staff of the US Air Force.

One can wonder if there will be another Catholic president. In this book I will explain why the Catholic Church itself does not seem keen on this possibility. Before the 2016 presidential election, however, many potential Catholic candidates were gathering, so we cannot simply dismiss this eventuality. Out of the sixteen Republican candidates listed in five or more major independent nationwide polls at the end of the summer in 2015, six were Catholics (Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, George Pataki, Bobby Jindal, and Rick Santorum). And the only potential Democratic candidate who seemed in a position to challenge Hillary Clinton’s nomination was the Catholic Joe Biden.

Here, too, we are witnessing a trend. In 2004, one candidate for the presidency was Catholic, and in the last three presidential elections, in 2008, 2012, and 2016, all the candidates (Republican and Democratic) for the vice presidency were Catholic (we will see why—from a Catholic point of view—Sarah Palin should be considered Catholic). The Democratic and Republican conventions of 2012 were opened by the speeches of two Catholics—Rubio and Castro, respectively—and concluded with a prayer led by the then president of the US Bishop’s Conference, the archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan. It is curious that only once before was the president of the American bishops invited to both conventions: this was in 1972, at the time of the first presidential election in which the Catholic vote massively shifted toward Republicans.

Speaking of shifts, I will conclude this overview by naming some high-ranking bipartisan conversions to Catholicism: from Jeb Bush to Newt Gingrich to the governors of Louisiana and Kansas, respectively, Bobby Jindal and Sam Brownback; from the mayor of Nashville, Karl Dean, to Representative Hansen H. Clarke (D-Michigan) to General Wesley Clark. For a while a rumor circulated that even George W. Bush was tempted to follow in the footsteps of his brother and of his former ally Tony Blair.

Surprisingly enough, this overabundance of Catholics at the forefront of the American political scene has gone almost unnoticed. The only case about which there has been a public debate is that of the Supreme Court. In this debate statistics were advanced to emphasize that, in the entire history of the Court, there have been only thirteen Catholic justices and that five of them sit there simultaneously today (before the death of Antonin Scalia there were six). Because the Supreme Court plays such an important role in American politics, it is more than understandable that this debate arose. But, since observers noticed the outsized role played by Catholics in the Supreme Court and failed to notice the outsized role played by Catholics in other key American institutions, we seem to have been blinded to the forest by the trees.


1. This analysis has been conducted in my Il secolo cattolico: La strategia geopolitica della Chiesa (Rome: Laterza, 2010).

2. These data are collected in “Annuarium Statisticum Ecclesiae 2013,” in Bollettino Sala stampa della Santa Sede, April 16, 2015.

3. Nicholas J. Spykman, “Geography and Foreign Policy,” American Political Science Review 32, no. 1 (1938): 28–50.

4. Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), 703.

5. See John Allen Jr., “Opus Dei Prestige on Display at Centenary Event,” National Catholic Reporter, Jan. 18, 2002.