In Search of Catholic Leaders

Where have the Catholic leaders gone, long time passing? Sound familiar? It should. I’ve borrowed and adapted it from an old ballad by Peter, Paul and Mary, folk singers who had several hits in the 1960s.

The lyric came to me as I was recently reading a wonderful book on the life of the great Polish king and warrior Jan Sobieski. I highly recommend it: he was the man most responsible for saving Europe at the gates of Vienna from the hordes of the Ottoman Empire. If the Christian West had lost in that confrontation, we might today be under Islamic control, living at best under a form of sharia law.

Who can save what is left of the West today? Not the pope or cardinals or bishops or priests or pastors. Rather, it is lay people, and particularly Catholic statesmen. Consider the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the role of the laity:

898 By reason of their special vocation it belongs to the laity to seek the kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and directing them according to God’s will. . . .It pertains to them in a special way so to illuminate and order all temporal things with which they are closely associated that these may always be affected and grow according to Christ and may be to the glory of the Creator and Redeemer.

899 The initiative of lay Christians is necessary especially when the matter involves discovering or inventing the means for permeating social, political, and economic realities with the demands of Christian doctrine and life. This initiative is a normal element of the life of the Church: Lay believers are in the front line of Church life; for them the Church is the animating principle of human society. Therefore, they in particular ought to have an ever-clearer consciousness not only of belonging to the Church, but of being the Church, that is to say, the community of the faithful on earth under the leadership of the Pope, the common Head, and of the bishops in communion with him. They are the Church.

So where are today’s Catholic leaders in the mold of the 20th-century’s de Gaulle of France or De Gasperi of Italy or Adenauer of post-war Germany, not to mention 17th-century Sobieski?

Out of curiosity, I Googled Catholic political leaders recently and found only the great Al Smith, the governor of New York who ran for president in 1928 (and lost, alas!). Happily the search did not turn up JFK – may he rest in peace, but he was certainly no model of a Catholic leader.

“Alexis de Tocqueville” by Théodore Chassériau, 1850
Alexis de Tocqueville by Théodore Chassériau, 1850

The United States has never been a Catholic country, of course, and today we are not even truly a Christian country, given the ongoing collapse of traditional Protestantism – graphically demonstrated by the legalization of abortion and the breakdown of marriage. In addition, there is the presence of pornography in the culture at all levels, degrading women and destroying families by the millions, not to speak of the pill, which both poisons the woman and prevents new life.

But do not be dismayed at this parade of horribles. It should energize you to either become a Catholic leader or support real Catholics who will bring the faith to the public square as legislators or congressional representatives or governors or members of the Supreme Court.

This is your job, not mine. My business is the care of souls.

There are currently twenty-six Catholics in the Senate, although many are Catholics in name only. The House of Representatives lists 142 members who claim to be Catholic – the greatest number in our history, and at a crucial period of moral peril. But where is their witness to natural law, religious freedom, and enduring moral truths?

Happily, several (faithful) Catholics are considering a run for the presidency. We should hope that would include both parties. What a wonderful moment it would be if our once-great country were to produce a number of great Catholic statesmen ready and able to confront the great crises, moral and civilizational, threatening our nation (and the world) today.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s shrewd observation about Americans in the first half of the 19th century applies just as well to our own times:

At the present time, more than in any preceding age, Roman Catholics are seen to lapse into infidelity, and Protestants to be converted to Roman Catholicism. If you consider Catholicism within its own organization, it seems to be losing; if you consider it from outside, it seems to be gaining. Nor is this difficult to expxplain. The men of our days are naturally little disposed to believe; but as soon as they have any religion, they immediately find in themselves a latent instinct that urges them unconsciously towards Catholicism. Many of the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church astonish them, but they feel a secret admiration for its discipline, and its great unity attracts them. If Catholicism could at length withdraw itself from the political animosities to which it has given rise, I have hardly any doubt but that the same spirit of the age which appears to be so opposed to it would become so favorable as to admit of its great and sudden advancement.

The Church is interested in the application of truth based on natural law. It has little interest, as Tocqueville noted, in political parties. Pray and get involved. It’s up to you.


Fr. C. John McCloskey (1953-2023) was a Church historian and Non-Resident Research Fellow at the Faith and Reason Institute.