NEW YORK — Conventional wisdom holds that no one from the United States could be elected pope because 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 apply, including whether the idea of a U.S. pontiff remains off the table.
Benedict 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 last two pontificates had 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,” New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan said, discussing Benedict’s decision last week.
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According to church rules, the conclave could begin March 15, but the Vatican spokesman said Saturday that it might start earlier. The 117 cardinals who will elect the next leader of the Roman Catholic Church, eager to finish the process by Palm Sunday, March 24, could reinterpret the mandatory 15-day waiting period, the spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said.
The waiting period was intended to allow time for cardinals to gather after the death of a pope, but because Benedict’s resignation has been announced, the cardinals have advance notice and many have already begun discussions by phone and email.
There is no formal nominating process for pope, but the cardinals have been quietly sizing up potential candidates for years. They were impressed when the soon-to-be-cardinal of Manila, Luis Antonio Tagle, told bishops gathered for a momentous synod in Rome last October that the church should listen more and admit its mistakes. They took note a year ago when Dolan delivered a winning address on evangelization to the College of Cardinals. They deemed Cardinal Marc Ouellet, a Canadian, a gracious host on their visits to the Vatican, where he guides the selection of bishops, but some said he practically put the crowd to sleep during his talk at the International Eucharistic Congress last June in Dublin.
Americans hold key Vatican 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 church’s response to clergy sex-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 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.
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 speaks only halting Italian and a little Spanish, but no French or Latin.
The cardinals also take church history into account. The church has tried to keep the papacy separate from a reigning 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.”
The role of the United States in the world 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,” said Brother Charles Hilken, a historian at Saint Mary’s College of California, who has studied the papacy.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.