What are the prospects of an American being elected pope when 115 cardinals from around the world solemnly enter the frescoed splendor of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel on Tuesday to begin the voting process known as the conclave?
Until recently, the received wisdom was that the Roman Catholic Church would never accept a pontiff from the world’s only superpower on the grounds that the United States already had quite enough temporal power.
There has also been concern that having an American pope could give the impression that the Vatican had embraced a pro-Washington bias, hindering the Catholic Church’s efforts to engage in tangled international issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the spread of militant Islam, and poverty alleviation.
But with the end of the cold war and US hegemony declining, those concerns appear to have diminished, because the buzz in Rome is that at least two American cardinals have a fighting chance of being elected the successor to Benedict XVI this week.
They are Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the charismatic Archbishop of New York, and Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, the Archbishop of Boston.
When Corriere della Sera, one of Italy’s leading daily newspapers, canvassed eight Vatican analysts and asked them to nominate their top three papal contenders, Cardinal O’Malley was by far the most popular choice.
He comfortably beat Odilo Pedro Scherer of Brazil and Angelo Scola of Italy, widely perceived to be two of the strongest candidates for the top job.
He has won high praise for dealing with the fallout from pedophile sex abuse scandals and cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor, Cardinal Bernard Law, who was accused of covering up the molestation of children by priests.
The Italian press has speculated that if elected, O’Malley might call himself Francis I – the Capuchin Order is an offshoot of the Franciscans.
Cardinal Dolan also seems to have captured the popular vote. Each of the cardinals has a titular parish church in Rome and when the archbishop turned up at his on Sunday to hold mass, he was feted almost like a rock star.
On seeing a plate piled with Easter offerings of wine and food, he joked to the congregation at Our Lady of Guadalupe that he might take a bag of candy with him into the conclave, “where I hear the food is not so great.”
To laughter from the congregation, he added: “Maybe I’ll be able to sneak a candy every now and then.” He joked that the church was so packed that “maybe we should do two collections.”
No clear favorite
Aside from their charisma, there are several factors working in the Americans’ favor.
This is one of the most open papal races in decades, Vatican observers say, and there is no clear favorite to succeed Benedict XVI, now known as pope emeritus, who etched his place into the history books by becoming the first pontiff to voluntarily resign since the 13th century.
Since arriving in Rome to attend last week’s pre-conclave discussions, the Americans have impressed with their informal ways and efforts at transparency, all of which contrasts with the stuffiness and reserve associated with the church in Rome.
The Americans were the only group of cardinals to organize daily press briefings, until the initiative was summarily quashed after a few days, apparently under pressure from traditionalists within the Vatican, who were aghast at the prospect of such openness.
The gagging of the Americans could in fact work in their favor, making them more attractive to other non-Italian cardinals who have been frustrated by Benedict XVI’s inability to clean up the Curia, the church’s secretive governing body.
The stealing and leaking of papal documents by the pope’s butler, Paolo Gabriele, in a scandal last year that was dubbed Vatileaks, shed light on the Curia as being out of touch, unaccountable, and mired in Byzantine intrigue.
The already strong US presence in the Holy See also helps to make the prospect of an American pope not entirely beyond the bounds of possibility.
Cardinal William Levada, a former archbishop of San Francisco, was the first US prelate to lead the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican's powerful guardian of doctrine, while Cardinal Raymond Burke, a former Archbishop of St. Louis, is the first American to lead the Vatican supreme court.
Allen: all 'long shots'
Vatican analysts warn, however, against putting too much stock in an American papacy, saying that the chances of the US electors are probably slim.
“Historically the church has tried to keep the papacy out of the hands of the superpower of the day, whether it was France or Spain or the Holy Roman Empire,” says Father Thomas Reese, a Vatican expert at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington. “Today we have the additional problem that in many parts of the third world, America is looked upon with suspicion. I think if a US cardinal was elected a lot of people in the third world would say that the CIA had fixed the election, or that Wall Street bought off the cardinals.
“On the other hand," he says, "the Americans certainly have credibility in terms of dealing with the sex abuse crisis, and they have good management experience – some dioceses in the States employ more people than the Vatican.”
“The big problem that O’Malley has is that governance is not seen as his strong suit. He is an extremely kind man, but he sometimes has difficulty making tough decisions.
“Dolan’s problems are that he’s a complete Vatican outsider; he doesn’t really have the language skills required and he’s just too American – he’s too brash, too swashbuckling.”
Dolan has never served in a Vatican office and he has been heavily criticized by the victims of pedophile priests for allegedly covering up cases – he was named as one of a “dirty dozen” of potential papal candidates by the US-based Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests last week.
In fact, the Catholic Church in the US as a whole comes with a lot of baggage, given the clergy sex abuse scandals that erupted across almost every diocese in the last decade and the millions of dollars that had to be paid out to victims of predatory priests.
If an American pope proves too much to stomach, the chances of a Canadian pontiff may be a good deal stronger.
One of the most frequently mentioned “papabile” is Cardinal Marc Ouellet of Quebec, who ticks many of the boxes required of a future pope.
A conservative French Canadian who is head of the Congregation for Bishops, he is intimate with the workings of the Holy See, is regarded as a conservative in the mold of Benedict XVI and worked for years in Latin America, home to the world’s largest Catholic population.
“He’s got the conservative theology that would appeal to many cardinals. He has the languages, and he has connections to Latin America,” says Father Reese. “As head of the Congregation for Bishops, he is well informed about the state of the church in the world.”
Cardinal Ouellet did, however, once say that being pope "would be a nightmare,” a remark that may not exactly enhance his chances as his fellow cardinals line up to cast their secret ballots in front of Michelangelo’s fresco of The Last Judgment, above the altar in the Sistine Chapel.
As for the length of the conclave, it is anyone’s guess.
In the 20th century, most conclaves lasted for between two and four days before white smoke was seen billowing from the chimney on the roof of the Sistine Chapel and the world was told “Habemus Papam” (we have a pope).
An exception was in 1922, when it took five days to elect Pius XI. With such an open field, and so much at stake for a church rocked by scandals over governance, sex abuse scandals, and the Vatican bank, this conclave could be at the longer end of the spectrum.