NEW YORK – Conventional wisdom holds that no one from the United States could be elected pope because, as the remaining superpower, it has more than enough worldly influence without an American in the seat of St. Peter.
But after Pope Benedict XVIs 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 personal example. He is the first pontiff in six centuries to step down. Church leaders and canon lawyers are scrambling to resolve questions they had never anticipated, like scheduling a conclave without a funeral first and choosing a title for a former pope.
The conclaves that created the last 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, born in Bavaria, 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, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York said, discussing Benedicts decision this week at SiriusXMs 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 Vaticans 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 church response to clergy abuse reports worldwide.
But as Christopher Bellitto, a historian at Kean University in New Jersey who studies the papacy, said, Theres 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.
Also attending will be Cardinal Justin Rigali, who stepped down as Philadelphia archbishop after a landmark indictment of priests revealed he had kept several clergy on assignment despite claims they molested children.
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, but no French or Latin. 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 hes done for the church, said Brother Charles Hilken, a historian at Saint Marys College of California, who has studied the papacy.
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.
These men come from places. Theyre citizens of other countries of the world.
Despite all these factors, Dolan is being mentioned in some church circles as a potential – but long shot – choice. Round and quick to joke about his size, he is an ebullient and approachable representative of the church who is a strong speaker and is known in Rome. Hes the bear-hug bishop, Bellitto said.
Dolan already was part of one upset election: In a surprise 2010 vote, his fellow church leaders chose him over the expected victor as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was the first time in the history of the conference that the man serving as sitting vice president was on the ballot for president, and lost.
AlsoConclave could start earlier than March 15
The Vatican is raising the possibility that the conclave to elect the next pope might start earlier than March 15, the earliest date possible under current rules that require a 15-20 day waiting period after the papacy becomes vacant.
Vatican spokesman The Rev. Federico Lombardi said top officials can study the Holy Sees constitution to determine whether such a rule change is possible. The 15-20 day rule is in place to allow time for the arrival in Rome of all those (cardinals) who are absent.
But Lombardi noted that the cardinals already know that this pontificate will end on Feb. 28 and can get to Rome in plenty of time.