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.
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.
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, 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 outlandish. The papabili-watchers are looking at Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, as a credible contender.
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. bishops a common enemy and a new moral platform, which they desperately needed.
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.
Dolan’s self-deprecating humor and warm personal presence can be disarming. When asked recently on national television whether he would vote for himself in the upcoming papal election, he replied cheerfully: No. Crazy people cannot enter the conclave.
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 have probably 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. Big word, modernity. Here, let it invoke a modern leader who is not overwhelmed by, but takes instinctive advantage of, an ever more rapidly globalizing world in which the Gospel must be proclaimed. One who would draw around him advisers capable of planning and implementing an institutional aggiornamento – updating – so that Rome could again shape attitudes and events rather than react (slowly) to them. One who understands the alienation of younger Catholics, and of young people in general, and can speak plainly and compassionately to their concerns. One who can get the creaky gears of the Vatican moving again, perhaps with the assistance of money and expertise from affluent and well-placed donors.
In his resignation statement, Benedict hinted at this need for adapting Catholic institutions and initiatives to a global milieu in constant flux. Benedict’s brief romance with Twitter was one attempt to usher in a new era at St. Peter’s. But it will take more than hashtags for the church to regain cultural capital and influence over the millions of young adults who are abandoning institutional affiliation and commitment, not to mention those who consider themselves none of the above on religion. Effective campaigns to (re)evangelize and (re)catechize these masses will require a holy entrepreneur up to the task.
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!
While the election of Dolan or any other American would still be a surprise – a long shot comparable in its impact to the elevation of a Polish pontiff in 1978 – so too would be the selection of a Catholic from the global south. The land where Catholicism is thriving and growing most rapidly is Africa, which has produced its own savvy and approachable leaders, such as Peter Turkson, the cardinal archbishop from Ghana who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. And the most populous Catholic continent is South America, where the church is facing a serious challenge from Pentecostals. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, an Argentinean with experience as a Vatican diplomat, is most often mentioned as a leading candidate.
But while Turkson and his episcopal colleagues in Africa face an impending challenge from Islam, and Sandri and his fellow Latin American churchmen try to fend off further encroachments from Protestant evangelists, Dolan and company are experienced in facing down the social and cultural force that Pope Benedict seems to fear most: a creeping secularism, a marginalization of religion, now appearing not only in the West but also in the far reaches of the developing world.
An American pope would be familiar with this particular enemy and would have a nuanced appreciation of its many manifestations – some of which are potential allies to religion.
And, not least, having one of our own honored and burdened with the papacy could be a game-changing boost for American Catholicism, whose waning wealth and power nonetheless remain vital to the universal church. Another surprising conclave could be in store.
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? 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.