If Samuel A. Alito Jr. is confirmed to the Supreme Court, a majority of its nine justices for the first time will be Roman Catholics -- a fact that, depending on whom you ask, marks the acceptance of a once-persecuted minority, reflects the importance of conservative Catholics to the Republican Party or means practically nothing.
Four Catholics currently serve on the court: Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and the new chief justice, John G. Roberts Jr. From the moment that President Bush announced Alito's nomination, there has been an undercurrent of debate about the prospect of a five-member Catholic majority.
After Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said that women, Latinos and people of "other religions, not to mention nonbelievers" would be underrepresented on the court, William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, quickly fired back.
"Smeal didn't whine when Jewish nominee Stephen Breyer was slated to join Jewish Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court. No, it's only when we have too many practicing Catholics that people like her complain," he said.
To many scholars, however, what's most impressive about the rising number of Catholics on the court is that it's a nonissue, at least compared with the blatant anti-Catholicism that dogged Alfred E. Smith when he ran for president in 1928 and that still faced John F. Kennedy in 1960.
"At the very least, it's a victory over historic prejudice, and it shows that Catholics have come fully into their own in the United States," said M. Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of theology and law at the University of Notre Dame.