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James T. KeaneDecember 30, 2020
Amy Coney Barrett, Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Anthony Fauci were among the top Catholic newsmakers in 2020.

This year has been, no doubt, 12 months of a lot of bad news. Amid the endless barrage of reports of the Covid-19 pandemic and the ensuing economic and social devastation, however, life still went on—and other figures took the headlines on occasion. As always at America, we keep an eye out for the papists in the lot, and so we present our top five U.S. Catholic newsmakers of 2020. Not necessarily our five favorite U.S. Catholic newsmakers of 2020, mind you, but the ones who garnered the most heat and light.

Anthony Fauci

Who couldn’t fall at least a bit in love with America’s favorite doctor this past year? (Well, not the sitting president, but his enemies list makes Richard Nixon look like a Quaker...wait, Richard Nixon actually was a Quaker?) Dr. Fauci, a 1958 graduate of Regis High School in New York City and a 1962 graduate of the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. (a classics major!), is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health and a member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. He became the public face of Covid-19 prevention efforts this year, offering sage advice and caution during the early days of the pandemic, and never backed down when other figures in and out of government tried to water down his wisdom or contradict the medical realities of Covid-19. Sometimes that meant voicing unpopular opinions, including advising U.S. Catholics to forgo receiving the Eucharist for the time being.

Dr. Fauci also offered encouragement to graduating students at Jesuit high schools around the country in a pre-recorded address to the students at Regis High School in May. “Currently our lives have been upended by a truly historic global pandemic. I am profoundly aware that graduating during this time—and virtually, without your friends, classmates and teachers close by—is extremely difficult,” he said. “However, please hang in there. We need you to be smart, strong and resilient. With discipline and empathy, we will all get through this together.”

Anthony Fauci became the public face of Covid-19 prevention efforts this year, offering sage advice and caution during the early days of the pandemic.

William Barr

President Trump appointed William Barr to his second stint as attorney general of the United States in 2019 (he was also attorney general under President George H. W. Bush), but his tenure didn’t last long: Earlier this month, Mr. Trump announced that Mr. Barr would be departing the administration in its final days, having fallen out of favor with the president for saying publicly he found no evidence of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election.

But Mr. Barr gained a fair amount of notoriety among his fellow Catholics on a different issue: his enthusiasm for the death penalty. Despite repeated clarifications from the Vatican that modern societies have no justification for recourse to executions, Mr. Barr instructed the Bureau of Prisons in July 2019 to resume executing prisoners sentenced to death in federal court. Recent months have seen a flurry of legal activity seemingly designed to facilitate executions before the incoming Biden administration presumably suspends the practice again. It hasn’t won Mr. Barr many friends among Catholic bishops.

William Barr gained a fair amount of notoriety among his fellow Catholics for his enthusiasm for the death penalty.

Kobe Bryant

Among the tattoos Kobe Bryant sported on his right bicep was one featuring the name of his wife Vanessa, a crown, a pair of angel wings and the words “Psalm XXVII.” The opening lines of Psalm 27 are “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? /The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”

It was the responsorial psalm on Jan. 26, 2020, the day Mr. Bryant died in a helicopter crash just hours after attending Mass. His death shocked the basketball world and saddened millions of fans, including the Los Angeles Laker fans who saw him play all 20 of his seasons with the team, winning five N.B.A. championships and finishing an all-time fourth in points scored.

While he was not often forthcoming about his Catholic faith (perhaps he felt it would detract from his intimidating persona as “the Black Mamba”), Mr. Bryant was described by Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles as “a very good Catholic, a faithful Catholic,” and one with whom Archbishop Gomez discussed issues of faith on numerous occasions. Mr. Bryant became a notorious figure in 2003 when he was accused of rape; though criminal charges were dropped, he reached an out-of-court settlement with the alleged victim. He credited a priest with helping him through the process.

“The one thing that really helped me during that process—I’m Catholic, I grew up Catholic, my kids are Catholic—was talking to a priest,” Mr. Bryant told the magazine GQ in 2015. “It was actually kind of funny: He looks at me and says, ‘Did you do it?’ And I say, ‘Of course not.’ Then he asks, ‘Do you have a good lawyer?’ And I’m like ‘'Uh, yeah, he’s phenomenal.’ So then he just said, ‘Let it go. Move on. God’s not going to give you anything you can’t handle, and it’s in his hands now. This is something you can’t control. So let it go.’ And that was the turning point.”

The iconography of snakes isn’t usually a positive one in the Catholic imagination, but in 2020 perhaps an exception can be made for the Black Mamba.

The iconography of snakes isn’t usually a positive one in the Catholic imagination, but in 2020 perhaps an exception can be made for the Black Mamba, Kobe Bryant.

Amy Coney Barrett

A Supreme Court already dominated by Catholics got another one this year, as President Trump pushed through the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett as the sixth Catholic justice just days before the November presidential election. Justice Barrett earned her own meme during the hearings for her nomination to a lower court in 2017, when U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, referred to Justice Barrett’s religious beliefs by saying, “the dogma lives loudly within you.” (In case you thought anti-Catholicism had been relegated to the dustbin of history.)

Justice Barrett won praise from many Catholics for her strong views against legal abortion, but she also garnered some negative publicity because of her background in a charismatic Christian community, People of Praise, that several news outlets incorrectly equated with the oppressive and sexist community depicted in Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale. Because she took the seat vacated by the death of liberal scion Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Justice Barrett’s politically conservative bona fides were cast in an even starker light during her October confirmation hearings.

Justice Barrett earned her own meme in 2017, when U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said "the dogma lives loudly within you." 

Joseph R. Biden Jr.

Six decades after John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic president of the United States, 2020 finally saw a second one: Joseph R. Biden Jr., who will take the oath of office and become our 46th president on Jan. 21, 2021. His very public faith (He quoted “On Eagles’ Wings” in his acceptance speech! He talks about Alfred Delp, S.J.!) was not always a help in his campaign, however, as he faced intense criticism for his pro-choice position on abortion, including from Catholic bishops, and was even denied Communion by one zealous pastor with a creative take on canon law.

Ultimately, however, a majority of American voters saw “Uncle Joe” as a better option than four more years of Mr. Trump, though American Catholics were almost evenly split in their support for the two candidates. So now the important question arises: Which parish will President Biden choose to attend Sunday Mass?

Picking only five U.S. Catholic newsmakers means depriving many more of their rightful recognition, of course, but there’s always another year—preferably one filled with much better news.

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