A new Louisville landmark could be named for one of US Catholicism’s most intriguing figures, someone so close to Pope Francis’ heart that he singled him out during a speech to Congress in September.

But if that doesn’t work out, the bridge could carry the name of Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

Four Louisville city councilors have signed onto a campaign to name the Ohio River Bridge, set to open in December, after the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the prolific author and peace activist who was born in France but chose to live his monastic life at Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky.

Paul Pearson, who moved to Kentucky from England 15 years ago to lead The Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University, which is spearheading the campaign to name the bridge after Merton, said he’s not sure Kentuckians understand the magnitude of Merton’s global impact — and Louisville’s central place in his life.

“There will be images that future generations will use from Merton, certainly that experience at Fourth and Walnut in Louisville,” he said.

Pearson was referring to a moment in 1958, described by Merton in his book “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander,” in which the monk began to see the world as worthy of embrace, rather than a mess to avoid through monastic seclusion.

“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers,” Merton wrote.

The city council named that square after Merton in 2008.

The thirst for Merton’s writing hasn’t diminished nearly 50 years after his death — helped, no doubt, by September’s papal plug — but he nonetheless remains a fairly controversial figure in US Catholicism.

Before he entered the abbey, Merton is said to have fathered a child out of wedlock, and he was known as a womanizer who loved drinking during his years as a student at Columbia University.

Long after converting to Catholicism and becoming a monk, Merton fell in love with a nursing student, and he expressed doubts about being able to keep his vows.

His writings demonstrate a willingness to take on established truths and political struggles, including nuclear arms and civil rights, and he dabbled in Eastern religions, raising the eyebrows of some conservatives. During a visit to Thailand in 1968, he met several times with the Dalai Lama. He later died during that visit, after being electrocuted by a fan while getting out of a bath.

The Ohio River Bridge is part of the largest public works project in the city’s history. Although there appears to be strong support for naming it after Merton, it’s no sure bet: Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear has just about a month left in office, and he hasn’t said if his administration will name the bridge before he leaves.

Plus, there are other contenders for the honor.

According to The Courier Journal, a Kentucky state representative filed a bill last year to name the span after former President Ronald Reagan, and there is also strong support to give the honor to native son Muhammad Ali.

Then there’s Yum! Brands, which turned to social media to drum up support for naming the bridge after Col. Harland Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken who was born and raised in Indiana.

But the campaign to name the bridge for Merton is enjoying some high profile support.

Bellarmine University launched an online petition to support the idea, gaining more than 1,500 signers — including the former chairman of another iconic Kentucky company, Maker’s Mark.

“Louisville and Kentucky are known around the world thanks to Merton’s work,” the petition states.

It says that Merton’s writings “on peace, racial unity, ecology, and dialogue” lead naturally to dedicating a bridge in his honor.

“Dialogue builds bridges,” it continues. “Surely now is the moment for Louisville to embrace this great American by naming a prominent structure in Merton’s honor.”

Merton’s fans say naming the bridge is fitting because of the monk’s efforts at connecting different cultures, beliefs, and peoples.

“He also tried to bridge a dialogue still sadly needed between starkly different faiths in the world, and between believers and non-believers,” Louisville native Michael Lindenberger wrote in The New Republic.

Pearson, the director of The Merton Center, said Merton’s thoughts on peace, race, the environment, and technology “are in some ways more relevant now than during his lifetime, which is astounding.”

And he thinks naming the bridge for Merton is good for the long term.

“In 100 years time, most people won’t know who Ali is, but people will still be reading Thomas Merton,” he said.

“Almost 50 years after his death, we’ve got so much that we can learn from him,” he said. “But we’re still catching up with him, and we have a long way to go, I’m afraid.”