NEW YORK – Conventional wisdom holds that no one from the United States could be elected pope, that the superpower has more than enough worldly influence without an American in the seat of St. Peter.
But after Pope Benedict XVI’s extraordinary abdication, church analysts are wondering whether old assumptions still apply, including whether the idea of a U.S. pontiff remains off the table.
Benedict himself has set a tone for change with his dramatic personal example. He is the first pontiff in six centuries to step down. Church leaders and canon lawyers are scrambling to resolve a litany of dilemmas they had never anticipated, such as scheduling a conclave without a funeral first and choosing a title for a former pope.
The conclaves that created the past two pontificates had already upended one tradition: Polish-born Pope John Paul II ended 455 years of Italian papacies with his surprise selection in 1978. Benedict was the first German pope since the 11th century.
“With the election of John Paul, with the election of Benedict, one wonders if the former boundaries seem not to have any more credibility,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, discussing Benedict’s decision this week at SiriusXM’s “The Catholic Channel.”
The election also follows a pontificate that featured Americans in unusually prominent roles.
Cardinal William Levada, the former San Francisco archbishop, was the first U.S. prelate to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s powerful guardian of doctrine. Cardinal Raymond Burke, the former St. Louis archbishop, is the first American to lead the Vatican supreme court. And Benedict appointed others from the U.S. to handle some of his most pressing concerns, including rebuilding ties with breakaway Catholic traditionalists and overseeing the response to clergy abuse cases worldwide.
But as Christopher Bellitto, a historian at Kean University in New Jersey who studies the papacy, said, “There’s a big difference between letting somebody borrow the car and handing them the keys.”
“The American church,” he said, “comes with a lot of baggage.”
Among the negatives is the clergy sex abuse scandal, which has affected every U.S. diocese and bishop.
The 11 U.S. cardinals expected to vote in the conclave will include Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Los Angeles archbishop who was recently stripped of public duties by his successor over his record on handling abuse cases.
The cardinals are also struggling against the perception, held particularly by Europeans, that most Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to handle the papacy. In a faith 2,000 years old, the United States is considered relatively new ground.
Popes are also expected to be multilingual, or to at minimum speak Italian fluently. Dolan, considered to have one of the highest profiles in the U.S. church, speaks only halting Italian and a little Spanish. He led the North American Seminary in Rome, a kind of West Point for American priests, but has never worked in a Vatican office.
“There really never has been any American who rises above his American-ness and holds the esteem of the international group of cardinals because of his service, because of what he’s done for the church,” said Brother Charles Hilken, a historian at Saint Mary’s College of California, who has studied the papacy.
Beyond the qualities of candidates, the cardinals take history into account.
The church has tried to keep the papacy separate from a superpower for centuries, whether the Holy Roman Empire, France or Spain, according to the Rev. Thomas Reese, author of “Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.”
But the role of the United States in the world today is what weighs most heavily against an American pope. The Vatican navigates complex diplomatic relations within the Muslim world, in China over the state-backed church, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and beyond. An American pope could be perceived as acting in the interests of the United States instead of Catholics.
“That would be enough of a concern for enough cardinals to make them leery about voting for an otherwise good American candidate,” Hilken said.
Despite all these factors, Dolan is mentioned in some circles as a potential – albeit long shot – choice. Round and quick to joke about his size, he is an ebullient and approachable representative of the church, a strong speaker, and known in Rome. “He’s the bear-hug bishop,” Bellitto said.