As 115 Roman Catholic cardinals from 48 countries begin their conclave Tuesday to choose a new pope, don’t place your bets on the final choice being one of eleven potential candidates from the United States or three from Canada. Logic and the odds are against it.
Give favorable consideration, instead, to an Italian.
Much attention has been given to three possible American candidates: Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston and Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C. Each, however, has individual points against him.
Dolan, Catholic clergy say, doesn’t speak the requisite Italian as well as any pope must and also may irritate some European cardinals because of his high-profile media presence.
O’Malley, who does speak Italian, is considered aloof by some and may be a bit too progressive to attract the church’s conservative core leadership.
Wuerl, the third possible North American candidate, was an early proponent of full disclosure on child abuse scandals in the church but, at 73, is older than O’Malley, who is 68, and Dolan, who's 63.
That may be a problem for a church that is seeking a vibrant new leader.
But the main stumbling block is that these and the other eight Americans have a basic problem: They are Americans.
European bishops, especially those at the Vatican, are still influenced by a centuries-old suspicion of all things American, expecting their American brethren to be too modern, too liberal and too willing to do away with tradition.
Even conservative priests, bishops and cardinals in the United States have been painted by the same brush of liberalism even as they protested they were not liberal at all.
One hundred years ago, Pope Pius X even threatened Catholic clergy with excommunication on charges of “Americanism.” That pope, who served from 1903 to 1914, issued charges of heresy against priests who were suspected of not following church teachings. Americanism also was seen to have spread to Western Europe, where it became known as “modernism,” a term that brought along negative connotations at the Vatican.
Under Pius X, the Vatican actually organized a spy operation within the church to track down wayward priests who might be too secular, who questioned whether the Bible was the literal word of God, who might be willing to change religious rituals to adapt to modern times, and, in some cases, whether priests rode bicycles or accepted modern technology and science.
Until 35 years ago, there had not been a non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI, who was Dutch, died in 1523. In 1978, 455 years later, Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul I, both Italians, died within months of one another. Then Cardinal Karol Wojtyła took the name John Paul II, the first Polish pope. When he died in 2005, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, a German, became Benedict XVI. With his resignation, there is every reason to think that after 35 years, Italians, the largest bloc in the conclave with 28 voting cardinals, will insist on one of their own.
Even if the Italian cardinals cannot attain the needed 77 of 115 votes for their potential choice, the odds would still be against a cardinal from the United States.
The cardinals voting for a new pontiff are by and large a conservative group with an average age of 72. All have been appointed either by John Paul II or Benedict XVI. Many of the U.S. cardinals – who are the second largest voting bloc after the Italians -- also would oppose modernism or “Americanism” and would consider themselves as traditionalists in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But an American cardinal will not likely have the chance to show just how conservative he is by being elevated to the papacy.
Cardinal O’Malley as much acknowledged that on Sunday at his assigned church in Rome, Santa Maria della Vittoria. When the church pastor, Rev. Stefano Guernelli, told parishioners that O’Malley was a papal contender, O’Malley said he disagreed.
I promise you I’ll return to this church after the conclave,” he said, adding he would not be returning as the pope, but as a cardinal, one of many.
Peter Eisner has been an editor and reporter at the Washington Post, Newsday and the Associated Press. He is the author of the new book "The Pope's Last Crusade: How an American Jesuit Helped Pope Pius XI's Campaign to Stop Hitler" (William Morrow 2013). For more visit his website: www.petereisner.com