Top U.S. Officials of All Faiths Welcome Pope Benedict

Catholic senators and representatives to participate in Pope's visit.

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Corrected on 4/17/2008: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated Rep. Linda Sanchez's district. Her district is within Los Angeles County.

There are more Roman Catholics in Congress than any single denomination: 1 in 4 senators and nearly 1 in 3 House members. But top officials of all faiths will take part in the pageantry and prayer that will mark Pope Benedict XVI's visit to Washington.

In the Senate, 25 of the 100 lawmakers are Roman Catholic, according to CQ.com, a number surprising to even some lawmakers. "That's incredible," says Sen. Susan Collins, a Catholic Republican from Maine. She'll be on hand Wednesday morning for an arrival ceremony on the White House's South Lawn to welcome the pope. The White House expects about 130 members of Congress and up to 12,000 people to attend.

Other well-known Catholic Republicans in the Senate include Sam Brownback of Kansas, Mel Martinez of Florida, and John Sununu of New Hampshire. High-profile Senate Democrats who are Catholic include Ted Kennedy and John Kerry of Massachusetts; Chris Dodd of Connecticut; Pat Leahy of Vermont; Joe Biden of Delaware; and Dick Durbin of Illinois, who as majority whip is the No. 3 Democrat in the chamber. In the House of Representatives, 128 lawmakers are Catholic, or nearly 30 percent, according to CQ.com. They include the top Democrat, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, and the highest-ranking Republican, Minority Leader John Boehner of Ohio. Both Pelosi and Boehner will be on hand at the White House, where President and Mrs. Bush, who are Methodists, will greet the pope and introduce him to a delegation including Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, also Methodists; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is Presbyterian; and Mary Ann Glendon, the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and a Catholic.

Collins, who attends mass weekly, says there's "extraordinary excitement" among her colleagues over the pope's visit, especially since his foreign travels are infrequent. And she, like other lawmakers, has been hit up for tickets to the public events, though Collins says "unfortunately, they're pretty limited." She says she'd rather meet a pope—and she also met John Paul II—than a movie star and is humbled by the chance. "There are many people... who have devoted their whole lives to the Catholic Church—so many priests and nuns—who will not have the opportunity that I will have this week, so I recognize how fortunate I am." A moderate Republican, Collins sometimes departs from Catholic teachings in her votes. She is pro-choice and favors embryonic stem cell research, for example. Her view on keeping abortion legal once saw her summoned to the bishop of Maine, a predecessor to today's prelate, for what she termed a "pastoral, not threatening" meeting.

Brownback converted to Catholicism in 2002 after having a melanoma removed several years earlier. He says his experience with a potentially fatal disease led him to a deeper faith. He, too, attends mass every Sunday. Brownback says he agrees with the pope on abortion and on marriage as being the union of a man and a woman. He says while he once favored a more expansive use of the death penalty, he now supports capital punishment only when it's necessary to ensure general safety, as in the case of a terrorist like Osama bin Laden. On going to war with Iraq—which Benedict, then a cardinal, opposed from the start—Brownback says he voted for the war based on the view that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Brownback says the issue very likely will emerge during the visit, but he expects the pontiff will focus on the safety of religious minorities in Iraq and the country's refugee population.

According to Collins and Brownback, there is no Catholic caucus for Senate lawmakers. But House Democrats, including Linda Sanchez of California, said they do have an informal Catholic caucus that meets from time to time on issues including social justice, health insurance for children, and the minimum wage. Caucus leaders are Reps. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut and Nick Lampson of Texas, she says. Talking about the large number of Catholic lawmakers, Sanchez says that while she is not inclined to overgeneralize, she believes that the Catholic doctrine of social justice may have drawn many to serve. Sanchez—"I won't say I go to mass weekly, but I go as often as I can"—saluted Benedict XVI as a "champion of peace" and is keen on hearing his message of resolving conflicts around the globe. Sanchez represents a district within Los Angeles County. She, like Collins, is pro-choice. "I do not like the idea of abortion," Sanchez says, "but I don't think it's the right of the government to take away a woman's right to make decisions about her body and her health." Her sister, House Democrat Loretta Sanchez, from Garden Grove, Calif., noted that the informal group of House Democrats who are Catholic takes in those on both sides of the abortion issue. "We support each other," she says.