Could there be an American Pope?

There is a school of thought that exists that it is impossible to contemplate the election of an American Pope. And it’s not because people think of Americans as brash and arrogant, though some people have that false impression of Americans. Nor because it’s a country with a Catholic population of only about 25 per cent. Nor because it’s never happened before.

The conventional “wisdom” is that because the US is still seen as the world’s greatest political (and military) superpower, there will be a great reluctance to have the world’s greatest religious superpower, the Pope, also hailing from the States.

Now, putting aside the fact that the Church says that the Holy Spirit, through the people of the College of Cardinals, chooses the Pope, I think it’s an odd claim. I believe it is time (previous sentence notwithstanding) for the intellectual side of the College of Cardinals to look outside of Europe in their consideration of who the next Pope might be. (And I’m in no hurry to replace the current one, by the way.)

The simple fact is that the Church is struggling in Europe and even the Americas, though Christianity retains a strong hold in the Americas in a way that is no longer evident in Europe for the most part. It is in Asia and Africa that the Church is having its greatest “success” in terms of spreading the Faith, with many critics saying that’s because of the poverty in those parts of the world and poor people need religion more.

As a result, a number of African and Asian bishops and cardinals are starting to pop up on the radar of those who pay attention to these things. Cardinal Francis Arinze of Nigeria was considered a credible candidate in 2005 when Pope John Paul II died, but his age is now counting against him. In his place, seemingly, Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana is now seen as the “rising star” of the Church in Africa.

His equivalent in Asia, according to the experts, might be the new Archbishop of Manila, Luis Tagle. He’s young — by episcopal standards — and charismatic and engages well with people of all kinds, according to those who know him.

But what about the prospect of an American Pope? Many, even the highly regarded Vatican-watcher John Allen, didn’t think it was possible. He’s starting to wonder, though, now that he’s been able to get to know Cardinal Timothy Dolan a little better and seen the way he engaged with his fellow cardinals at last month’s consistory.

Cardinal Dolan is Archbishop of New York, being “promoted” from Milwaukee a couple of years back. He is a man who has impressed me for a number of years, and I tried to bring him to New Zealand back in 2007 or 2008 to give the NZ Catholic Lecture. His schedule didn’t allow it, unfortunately.

Now that he’s in New York, he has become the Catholic equivalent of a rock star. He is well liked by people inside and outside the Church, evidenced by the coverage I watched of US news when he was elevated to the College of Cardinals. Granted, I was watching Christian-friendly Fox News on that day, but he was referred to in news bulletins as the “much-loved” and “beloved” Archbishop of New York. High praise, indeed.

John Allen has interviewed Cardinal Dolan for a new book, so he has a good sense of what the man is about. And he is probably the best-connected English speaking journalist covering Catholic affairs, so he is a good judge of where the cardinal sits in the world order.

Allen had this to say in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel recently:

Author and veteran Vatican reporter John Allen, who has consistently downplayed the hype around New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan as a possible papal contender, is now hedging his bets after seeing the overwhelmingly positive response of church leaders to the American prelate in Rome.

“I’m leaving myself some wiggle room,” said Allen, who called Dolan “the closest thing to an American papabile – papal candidate – that we have ever seen.

“We’re probably at a point in the papal elections where . . . the next pope could come from anywhere,” he said in an interview in advance of his Milwaukee appearance Tuesday. “People will be much more interested in who he is rather than what passport he holds.”

And, just to prove that it’s not an Americo-centric sentiment, even Italian Vaticanista Andrea Tornielli thinks Dolan is emerging as papabile, and alludes to that perception that an American can’t be Pope.

After his arrival in the Big Apple and his surprising election as President of the U.S. bishops, newspapers and TV have begun to call him “the American Pope”.  Now that the Cardinals have heard him talk of evangelization during the summit that preceded the consistory, Timothy Michael Dolan would have a good chance of becoming the next Pope, if only he had not been born in the U.S.: Americans, they say, cannot be candidates because their country is already a superpower in the world, although certain past geopolitical analyses are no longer that obvious.


On the day of reflection that preceded the consistory in Rome, the newly elected cardinal impressed and surprised his fellow cardinals with his approach: “The new evangelization is accomplished with a smile, not with the frowning face” he said, politely disputing the idea that was suggested to consider New York the “capital of the secular culture”.  He showed that he did not see the world as an abyss of perdition, but as a field to harvest, speaking of  “an undeniable openness to transcendence” ‘also found in places that “are usually classified as “materialistic” – such as mass media, the world of entertainment, finance, politics and art.”


Dolan seems perfectly happy with being photographed in a baseball cap and tracksuit. He meets the boys from the Big Apple in pubs, answering their questions. He keeps a blog which he also updated during his stay in Rome, in which he described his mornings in the Eternal City, which involved confession, Mass and, inevitably, pasta. He invited readers to follow in his footsteps in terms of frequent confession. The food, however, remains a sore point for him: last year he started a diet and lost 55 pounds. However, it looks like the cardinal’s ring, which the Pope placed on his finger, will need to be resized. “The Lent fasting will give me a helping hand,” said the “American Pope” with his ever-present smile.

So, here we have two of the most highly regarded Catholic journalists — one from the US, one from Italy — saying that an American Pope, in the form of Timothy Dolan, is a possibility.

So I guess the answer to my headline question is “maybe”.

PS Cardinal Dolan has his own blog. You can read it here.

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2 Responses to Could there be an American Pope?

  1. Brilliant!! Cardinal Timothy Dolan is just GREAT – heard him speak at WYD in Madrid, we love him :)