VATICAN CITY – In the largest conclave ever, North American and Latin American cardinals have at least one advantage: Through years of regional meetings and joint projects, many developed personal relationships and discussed each others' concerns.
While no one expects these cardinals to vote in a regional bloc, their ties could be a factor in the coalition building that is part of any papal election (search).
"Often enough, when voting, they're not necessarily thinking about it in ideological terms — this man is liberal, this man is conservative. They're thinking, 'How well do I know this man?"' said James Hitchcock, an expert in church history at St. Louis University.
Together, cardinals from the Americas comprise 34 of the 115 men who will vote in the conclave, set to begin Monday.
No U.S. cardinals are considered candidates, but several Latin Americans are being mentioned as the potential first pope from the Third World. They include Brazilian Cardinal Claudio Hummes (search) and Honduran Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga (search).
"The real wild card here is Latin America," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America and an expert on the Vatican.
"There's no one that really is standing out as a possible candidate from Latin America but you don't know how things will develop as the days go by and they may coalesce around someone. If the Latin Americans were united behind someone it could be a very significant block of votes," he added.
The cardinals' connections across the Americas take on added significance in a conclave where few electors know each other well.
For years, representatives of the bishops' conferences from both continents have met annually, most recently two months ago in Colombia, to discuss issues ranging from ecumenism to immigration. And in 1997, Pope John Paul II convened a special synod of the Americas, which brought together cardinals, bishops and priests, to prod them to cooperate further.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had formed its special committee on Latin America long before it created similar panels on Eastern Europe and Africa. Also, several U.S. cardinals speak Spanish well, including Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and Chicago Cardinal Francis George.
This proficiency will be key in conclave maneuvering, since cardinals tend to group by language or nationality.
"There is a unique connection," said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, a spokesman for the U.S. bishops who attended the recent meeting in Bogota. "There's nothing like these face-to-face meetings and conversations for people to get to know each other."
The links between the two continents go beyond official gatherings.
More and more Latin American priests are serving in U.S. parishes, ministering to the surging number of Hispanic immigrants and shoring up the dwindling ranks of North American priests. It is also common for individual U.S. parishes to form partnerships with churches in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Cardinal Bernard Law (search), who resigned as archbishop of Boston in December 2002 over his role in the clergy sex abuse crisis, speaks Spanish fluently and has maintained close relations with Latin American church leaders despite his troubles.
"These people know each other already. They've talked about issues together, they mostly know what their concerns are," Reese said.
Yet, while the cardinals understand each other, they may disagree on what issues should be paramount in the next papacy. Reese said the Latin Americans, who have seen evangelicals lure away parishioners partly by condemning Catholicism, may have less enthusiasm for taking on the ecumenical work U.S. cardinals believe is required of a pope.
Of course, the North American-Latin American cardinals are not the only regional grouping in the conclave. European and African cardinals have regular meetings as well, and European cardinals, who comprise the largest bloc with 58 voters, see each other often.
Fernando Segovia, a Vanderbilt University theologian and past president of the Academy of Catholic Hispanic Theologians in the United States, is among those who doubt an alliance will form among cardinals from the Americas.
He noted that the cardinals have diverse views on Catholic teaching and he questioned whether the "heart of the institutional church" in the United States is in union with Latin America.
"If there is an alliance," he said, "it will be built on either a traditionalist or an innovative view of the future."