VATICAN CITY — There’s increasing chatter in Rome that an American cardinal could become the next pope, but would such a choice be prudent, given the nation’s superpower status?
Ever since the French Pope Clement V became a tool of the monarchy of France, then the world’s most powerful nation, and transferred the entire papacy to Avignon in 1309, the Church has been reluctant to elect a pope from a ruling superpower.
This conventional wisdom has become embedded in the Church’s thinking; even U.S. Cardinal Donald Wuerl recently argued against having an American pope on the grounds that it might present a “conflicting spiritual challenge.”
“A pope from a superpower would probably have a lot going against him when he’s trying to present a spiritual message to the rest of the world,” the archbishop of Washington told ABC News Feb. 27.
“The pope has to be able at times to speak a spiritual challenge, even to the United States,” he added. “So I’m not sure that it would be the wisest thing to have an American pope.”
Furthermore, some wonder whether an American pope would be able to keep a separate position from the United States government over such issues as relations with the Muslim world, China, Iran and the Holy Land. Would he truly be able to represent the interests of the Church in the realm of international affairs?
Many Catholics feel that the United States as a superpower already exerts more than enough worldly influence on the Church in the field of culture, politics and economics. An American as the successor of Peter, they say, risks simply magnifying that influence further.
Moreover, such observers feel a pope from across the Atlantic would bring plenty of baggage — most notably the extent of clerical sex abuse in the U.S. Church and the deficiencies of its bishops in addressing the issue prior to 2002 — as well as culture clashes with a Europe that leans even more towards socialism than does the Obama administration.
And the Roman Curia, despite concerted efforts by Blessed Pope John Paul II and to some extent Benedict XVI to internationalize the Vatican, remains largely Eurocentric and therefore resistant to a non-European leader who could introduce a completely different culture and ethic to centuries-old practices.
Furthermore, it’s worth noting that only relatively recently, in 1984, did the Holy See establish diplomatic relations with the United States; and even now, it views the American Church as sometimes reflecting Protestant and Calvinistic tendencies.
Cardinals are also said to struggle with the perception that an American pope wouldn’t be sophisticated enough to lead the 2,000-year-old Church. The United States is still considered by some to be too young, both in its history and in its culture, and therefore unsuited to running such an ancient institution. The American Church, a few observers will point out, was still being formed by missionaries right up to the beginning of the last century.
The Case for an American
And yet many of these arguments against an American pope can in fact be turned on their head.
As differences between the Obama administration and the Church widen, so it becomes increasing unlikely there will be split loyalties and conflicting spiritual challenges between Church and state. On the contrary, as an increasingly secular state emerges in a countrythat influences so much of the world, it can be reasonably argued that there is the need for a more vocal Church, one that would be helped by being led by an American pope who already has experience in standing firm in the face of aggressive U.S. secularism.
Also, the United States is, in the words of Cardinal Wuerl, “a grand and glorious and great country” that has retained many Christian values. It remains a country of faith, something that an American pope could help export, especially to an “old Europe” suffering from what John Paul II called a “silent apostasy.”
A U.S. supreme pontiff could also bring a number of other advantages, generated by a more modern style of governance that could inject greater efficiency into the Curia and finally reform its structure in a way no other pope has been able to do. An American pope would be better able, some argue, to root out some of the Vatican’s turf wars and replace dated management methods, which together have cramped the Church’s efforts to evangelize.
And as the regular briefings by American cardinals during this interregnum also indicated, an American pope would likely be someone well versed in handling the media. He’d probably come across as confident, enthusiastic, convey a sense of strength and purpose and thereby bring some much-needed media savvy to the Vatican.
A further and by no means minor advantage is that he would speak English, the modern world’s lingua franca, and so potentially would be able to improve the Holy See’s communications in an unprecedented way.
Moreover, if someone such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York were elected, he would bring much needed dynamism to the role — the “vigor of both body and mind,” which Benedict XVI “recognized he had lost and defined as necessary for his successor,” as veteran Vatican watcher Sandro Magister recently pointed out.
Since Benedict XVI’s abdication, which broke with a 600-year tradition in the Church, overcoming the “superpower conventional wisdom” suddenly doesn’t seem so far-fetched. And, of course, it wasn’t the first such long tradition to come to an end relatively recently — the last two popes have been anomalies, men of the Church who, for the first time in over 400 years, have hailed from beyond Italy.
That’s a reality not lost on Cardinal Dolan.
“With the election of John Paul, with the election of Benedict,” he told SiriusXM radio recently, “one wonders if the former boundaries seem not to have any more credibility.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.