It's stronger than most think
An American pope? No chance.
That was the consensus a mere eight years ago — a blip in church time — upon the death of Pope John Paul II. Both Europe, the institutional epicenter of the Catholic Church, and the developing world, its demographic stronghold, were too resentful of America's global footprint: its ostentatious wealth, its ubiquitous military presence and its saber-rattling, diplomacy-scorning president bent on prosecuting two unpopular wars. Big Brother hardly needed a partner in the Vatican.
Nor did U.S. social trends inspire confidence among the men who would elect the next pope. They were not alone, of course, in deploring the values celebrated in American popular culture and exported across the planet by Hollywood and Wall Street. But the cardinals appointed during the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II shared a more pointed diagnosis of the American soul: U.S. constitutional guarantees of individual freedoms, distorted by the materialism and hedonism of unbridled capitalism, had produced a climate of moral license — to have abortions, use birth control and eschew marriage.
The cardinals traced their concern about the denigration of the sanctity of human life to this American source. Would not the selection of an American prelate as pope signal an implicit endorsement of “the culture of death” described and decried by John Paul II?
And just when the church needed all the moral authority it could muster, the sexual abuse scandal was bringing disgrace, in particular on the American hierarchy. Several U.S. cardinals were implicated in the cover-up. Viable American candidates for the papacy were nowhere on the horizon. So the conclave went with a German, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI.
But now, after Benedict's stunning announcement of his impending “renunciation” of the papacy, the notion of a made-in-the-U.S.A. pontiff seems less out landish. The papabili-watchers are looking at Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, as a credible contender. Indeed, Las Vegas oddsmakers are giving Dolan 25-to-1 odds on becoming the first American Holy Father.
Why? First, the key players have changed. George W. Bush has been succeeded by President Obama, who has softened America's international image. And domestically, Obama has conveniently provided the U.S. Catholic bishops a common enemy and a new moral platform, which they desperately needed: The president's support of same-sex marriage and his health care law's mandate for contraception coverage solidified the episcopal suspicion that the Democrat is bad news. Obama's supposedly deplorable attitude toward religious freedom even had the bishop of Peoria, Ill., comparing his policies to those of Stalin and Hitler.
The other new player is Dolan, who towers above his colleagues in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy both physically and telegenically, even as he has helped unify them and focus their restless energies. Nicknamed “the American pope” after his election to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan projects vigor and regular-guy charisma, making his unwavering support of Vatican orthodoxy on sexual ethics and other doctrinal matters more palatable to the broad Catholic middle.
Before becoming archbishop of Milwaukee and then cardinal archbishop of New York, Dolan served as secretary to the papal nuncio in Washington and as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the American seminary in Rome. Along the way, he honed his skills as a Vatican insider and became one of the current pope's favorites. His fellow electors in the College of Cardinals probably have taken note of the new solidarity among conservative priests and laity in the U.S. church and no doubt give him credit for their renewed sense of mission.
But the rationale for an American sensibility at the helm of the universal church goes deeper. The church desperately needs an infusion of modernity — and where better to find the spirit of entrepreneurship, the corporate agility and the technical capacity to project influence than in modernity's global capital?
Imagine, then, an English-speaking pontiff with something like John Paul II's charisma and energy, traversing the globe with the human touch and ebullient confidence of a Midwesterner transplanted to New York and then whisked off to the Eternal City.
Now give him the stern resolve of a no-nonsense leader with a keen sense of the historic importance of this moment in church history and the obligations that come with it. Add a background in the study of history, that ennobling profession, and make it the history of Christianity.
Presto: an American pope!
The doubters will ask substantive questions:
Would the rich tradition of Catholic theological and ethical teaching be preserved intact if delivered in an Americanized version?
Would the U.S. style — direct, forceful, active rather than contemplative — be doomed to fail in the corridors of the Vatican, where discretion, deliberation and misdirection are the time-honored modes of doing business?
Could a leader, however charismatic, from our still-divisive nation hope to unify the disparate ethnic, racial, material, social and theological interests of this truly global church?
Would an American pope help save America's soul?
The odds are improving that we'll soon find out.
R. Scott Appleby, a historian and director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame, is co-editor of “Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History” and the author of “The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation.”