It has been more than 50 years since John F. Kennedy, the first and so far only Catholic U.S. president, occupied the Oval Office. Since then, only one Catholic, John F. Kerry, has won a major-party nomination, but a couple of dozen others have made serious attempts. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the latest to make a run, hoping to avoid the fate of another Catholic Democrat who started the primary race ahead in the polls—Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, in 1972.
Not that long ago, any Catholic running for president was almost certain to be a Democrat (as was Al Smith in 1928, the only Catholic nominee before Kennedy). But in 2016, six of the 17 candidates who qualified for Republican presidential debates were Catholic. This year, Mr. Biden will face at least four other Catholics in the Democratic primaries.
Below are some of the most notable Catholic presidential candidates since Kennedy’s historic win, followed by more complete biographies for those who came closest to the White House.
NOTABLE CATHOLIC PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATES SINCE J.F.K.
1968: Robert F. Kennedy (D), U.S. senator from New York
Eugene McCarthy (D), U.S. senator from Minnesota
1972: Eugene McCarthy (D), former U.S. senator from Minnesota
Edmund Muskie (D), U.S. senator from Maine
1976: Jerry Brown (D), governor of California
Eugene McCarthy (independent), former U.S. senator from Minnesota
R. Sargent Shriver (D), former director of the Peace Corps and former U.S. ambassador to France
1980: Jerry Brown (D), governor of California
Edward Kennedy (D), U.S. senator from Massachusetts
1988: Bruce Babbitt (D), former governor of Arizona
1992: Jerry Brown (D), former governor of California
Patrick Buchanan (R), former White House assistant and director of communications
Tom Harkin (D), U.S. senator from Iowa
1996: Patrick Buchanan (R), former White House assistant and director of communications
Alan Keyes (R), former ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the U.N.
2000: Alan Keyes (R), former ambassador to the Economic and Social Council of the U.N.
2004: John Kerry (D), U.S. senator from Massachusetts
Dennis Kucinich (D), U.S. representative from Ohio
2008: Joe Biden (D), U.S. senator from Delaware
Mike Gravel (D), former U.S. senator from Alaska
Rudy Giuliani (R), former mayor of New York City
Dennis Kucinich (D), U.S. representative from Ohio
Bill Richardson (D), former governor of New Mexico
2012: Newt Gingrich (R), former U.S. House speaker, from Georgia
Rick Santorum (R), former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania
2016: Jeb Bush (R), former governor of Florida
Chris Christie (R), governor of New Jersey
Bobby Jindal (R), former governor of Louisiana
Martin O’Malley (D), former governor of Maryland
George Pataki (R), former governor of New York
Rick Santorum (R), former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania
Marco Rubio (R), U.S. senator from Florida
2020: Joseph Biden (D), former vice president, from Delaware
Steve Bullock (D), governor of Montana
Bill de Blasio (D), mayor of New York City
Julián Castro (D), former secretary of housing and urban development, from Texas
John Delaney (D), former U.S. representative from Maryland
Kirsten Gillibrand (D), U.S. senator from New York
Beto O’Rourke (D), former U.S. representative from Texas
Tim Ryan (D), U.S. representative from Ohio
Joe Sestak (D), former U.S. representative from Pennsylvania
MORE ABOUT THE MAJOR CATHOLIC CONTENDERS
Robert F. Kennedy (1925-68)
Education: Harvard University, University of Virginia
Major offices: U.S. attorney general (1961-64), U.S. senator from New York (1965-68)
1968 campaign: won 31% of Democratic primary vote (second place), assassinated during campaign. Primaries won: California, District of Columbia, Indiana, Nebraska, South Dakota.
Quote: “Even as my father grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, signs told him: ‘No Irish Need Apply.’ Two generations later President Kennedy became the first Irish Catholic, and the first Catholic, to head the nation; but how many men of ability had, before 1961, been denied the opportunity to contribute to the nation’s progress because they were Catholic or because they were of Irish extraction? How many sons of Italian or Jewish or Polish parents slumbered in the slums—untaught, unlearned, their potential lost forever to our nation and to the human race? Even today, what price will we pay before we have assured full opportunity to millions of Negro Americans?”—Speech at Cape Town University, South Africa, June 6, 1966
Further reading: “50 Years Later, What Can Americans Learn From Robert Kennedy?,” by Robert Schrum, America
“50 years ago: The Catholic Example of Cesar Chavez and Bobby Kennedy,” by Antonio De Loera-Brust, America
Eugene McCarthy (1916-2005)
Education: St. John’s University, University of Minnesota
Major offices: U.S. representative from Minnesota (1949-59), U.S. senator from Minnesota (1959-71)
1968 campaign: 39% of Democratic primary vote (first place), lost nomination to Hubert Humphrey at the Democratic convention. Primaries won: Illinois, Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin.
Quote: “I’m more liberal than Humphrey and more Catholic than [John F.] Kennedy.”—Remark to reporters in 1960, concerning federal education policy. In 1971, he told a reporter, “Most of my troubles with the Kennedys came as a result of my support of Humphrey in the 1956 and 1960 primaries.”
Further reading: “Looking back on a revolutionary year: 1968,” Joseph McAuley, America
Edmund Muskie (1914-96)
Education: Bates College, Cornell University
Major offices: governor of Maine (1955-59), U.S. senator from Maine (1959-80), Democratic vice-presidential nominee (1968), U.S. secretary of state (1980-81)
1972 campaign: 12% of Democratic primary vote (fourth place), lost nomination to George McGovern. Primaries won: Illinois, New Hampshire.
Quotes: “In the heat of our campaigns, we have all become accustomed to a little anger and exaggeration. Yet, on the whole, our political process has served us well, presenting for your judgment a range of answers to the country’s problems and a choice between men who seek the honor of public service…. But in these elections of 1970, something has gone wrong. There has been name calling and deception of almost unprecedented volume. Honorable men have been slandered. Faithful servants of the country have had their motives questioned and their patriotism doubted.”—nationally televised address on Nov. 3, 1970 (election eve)
“The fact is that on the day I was born, 58 years ago, a person like me didn't have a chance of becoming President—the son of a Polish immigrant, a Roman Catholic, from a tiny little state in the northeastern part of the country. That change has taken place in my lifetime. I seek the Presidency to make it possible for every child.”—campaigning in Milwaukee on April 3, 1972
Further reading: “The Taste of Defeat,” James M. Naughton, New York Times
Jerry Brown (1938- )
Education: Santa Clara University, Sacred Heart Novitiate (Jesuit house), University of California Berkeley, Yale University
Major offices: Governor of California (1975-83, 2011-19), mayor of Oakland, Calif. (1999-2007)
1976 campaign: 14% of Democratic primary vote (second place), lost nomination to Jimmy Carter. Primaries won: California, Maryland, Nevada.
1992 campaign: 20% of Democratic primary vote (second place), lost nomination to Bill Clinton. Primaries and caucuses won: Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Maine, Nevada, Vermont.
Quote: “I think the formation that I’ve undergone growing up in the Catholic faith, the Catholic religion, puts forth a world that’s orderly, that has purpose and that ultimately is a positive. And that’s very helpful when you look at a world that looks very much the opposite, in terms of the wars, the corruption and the breakdown. And so even though from an intellectual point of view it looks very dark, in another sense I have great faith and confidence that there is a way forward. And I would attribute that in some way to my Catholic upbringing and training.”—interview in Vatican City, July 22, 2015, reported by David Siders, Sacramento Bee
Further reading: “At the Front Lines: An Interview with California Governor Jerry Brown on ‘Laudato Si’,” Jim McDermott, America
Edward Kennedy (1932-2009)
Education: Harvard University, University of Virginia
Major offices: U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1962-2009)
1980 campaign: 38% of Democratic primary vote (second place), lost nomination to Jimmy Carter. Primaries and caucuses won: Arizona, California, Connecticut, District of Columbia, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota.
Quotes: “The commitment I seek is not to outworn views but to old values that will never wear out. Programs may sometimes become obsolete, but the ideal of fairness always endures. Circumstances may change, but the work of compassion must continue. It is surely correct that we cannot solve problems by throwing money at them, but it is also correct that we dare not throw out our national problems onto a scrap heap of inattention and indifference. The poor may be out of political fashion, but they are not without human needs. The middle class may be angry, but they have not lost the dream that all Americans can advance together.”—speech to Democratic National Convention on Aug. 12, 1980
“I don’t mind not being president, I just mind that someone else is.”—quip recalled by Kennedy’s son, Ted Jr., at the burial of the senator in Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 30, 2009
Further reading: “Camelot’s End,” the editors of America
Patrick Buchanan (1938- )
Education: Georgetown University, Columbia University
Major offices: White House advisor and speechwriter (1969-74), White House director of communications (1985-87)
1992 campaign: 23% of Republican primary vote (second place), lost nomination to incumbent President George H.W. Bush. Primaries and caucuses won: none.
1996 campaign: 21% of Republican primary vote (second place), lost nomination to Robert Dole. Primaries and caucuses won: Alaska, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Missouri.
Quote: “I think the Catholic faith is consistent with the kind of conservatism I believe in. You know, I’m a traditionalist, I’m a Latin Mass Catholic and I hold to traditional views of responsibility. I’m not a libertarian in the sense that I think all these social programs should be abolished in any sense. I’m familiar with ‘Rerum Novarum’ and ‘Quadragesimo Anno’ and all of those things that influenced me in Catholic school. I went through the nuns and the Jesuits. I mean, I had eight years of nuns and never had any other sort of teacher in my grammar school, and eight years of Jesuits in high school and college. These were pre-Vatican II orders and you could not escape that influence. It’s a part of who you are.”—“Remembering Nixon’s Catholic Coup: An Interview with Pat Buchanan,” Sean Salai, America, Aug. 5, 2014
Further reading: “Remembering Nixon’s Catholic Coup: An Interview with Pat Buchanan,” Sean Salai, America
John Kerry (1943- )
Education: Yale University, Boston College
Major offices: U.S. senator from Massachusetts (1985-2013), U.S. secretary of state (2013-17)
2004 campaign: 61% of Democratic primary vote, 48% of general election vote, lost general election to President George W. Bush. Primaries and caucuses won: all except the District of Columbia, Oklahoma, North Carolina, South Carolina, Vermont.
Quote: “I am a believing and practicing Catholic, married to another believing and practicing Catholic. And being an American Catholic at this particular moment in history has three particular implications for my own point of view as a candidate for the presidency. The first two follow directly from the two great commandments set forth in the Scriptures: our obligations to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds and to love our neighbors as ourselves….
There’s a third facet of being an American Catholic that I take very seriously. We’ve always been a minority in this country, and have sometimes suffered persecution. To a larger extent than Catholics elsewhere, we have supported and relied upon the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state to guarantee our right to worship and our liberty of conscience. That tradition, strongly advanced by John Kennedy in his quest to become our first Catholic president, helped make religious affiliation a non-issue in American politics. It should stay that way.”—from A Call to Service: My Vision for a Better America, by John Kerry, published July 6, 2004.
Further reading: “The Gospel According to John Kerry,” Mark Sullivan, America
Rick Santorum (1958- )
Education: Pennsylvania State University–University Park, University of Pittsburgh, Dickinson School of Law
Major offices: U.S. representative from Pennsylvania (1991-95), U.S. senator from Pennsylvania (1995-2007)
2012 campaign: 20% of Republican primary vote (second place), lost nomination to Mitt Romney. Primaries and caucuses won: Alabama, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Tennessee.
Quote: “I went to church, I could check all the boxes, but it wasn’t at the center of my life…. We ended up moving into a neighborhood and joining a parish where the priest was just amazing—an absolutely amazing pastor who just energized us and filled us with the Holy Spirit. Over the course of that time, I just saw changes in me and changes in [my wife,] Karen.”—speech to the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation in October 2011, as reported in The New York Times, March 3, 2012.
Further reading: “Santorum: Bishops Wrong on Immigration,” Michael O’Loughlin, America
Newt Gingrich (1943- )
Education: Emory University, Tulane University
Major offices: U.S. representative from Georgia (1979-99), speaker of U.S. House (1995-99)
2012 campaign: 14% of Republican primary vote (third place), lost nomination to Mitt Romney. Primaries and caucuses won: Georgia, South Carolina.
Quote: “Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States in April of 2008 was a turning point for me…. I was struck by the happiness and peacefulness he exuded. The joyful and radiating presence of the Holy Father was a moment of confirmation about the many things I had been thinking and experiencing for several years. That evening I told Msgr. [Walter] Rossi [rector of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.,] I wanted to be received into the Catholic Church, and he agreed to join [my wife] Callista as my sponsor. Under his tutelage, I studied the Catechism of the Church over the next year and was received into the Church in March of 2009 in a beautiful Mass at St. Joseph’s on Capitol Hill. After a decade-long—perhaps lifelong—faith journey, I was finally home.”—”Why I Became Catholic,” Newt Gingrich, National Catholic Register, April 26, 2011
Further reading: “Gingrich’s Catholic Journey Began With Third Wife,” Barbara Bradley Hegarty, NPR, Dec. 22, 2011
Marco Rubio (1971- )
Education: Tarkio College, Santa Fe College, University of Florida, University of Miami
Major offices: speaker of Florida House of Representatives (R), U.S. senator from Florida. (2011- )
2016 campaign: 11% of Republican primary vote (fourth place), lost nomination to Donald Trump. Primaries and caucuses won: District of Columbia, Minnesota, Puerto Rico.
Quote: “I’m a Roman Catholic. I’m theologically in line with the Roman Catholic Church. I believe in the authority of the church, but I also have tremendous respect for my brothers and sisters in other Christian faiths. I recognize, as the Catholic Church does, that there are excellent teachings of the Word throughout other denominations. The elements of salvation are found in these churches as well.”—interview with Christianity Today, June 19, 2012
Further reading: “Rubio: U.S. Foreign Policy Must Be ‘Infused’ With Religious Values,” Kurt Jensen, Catholic News Service
This article was last updated on June 25, 2019, to reflect Joe Sestak’s entry into the 2020 presidential race.