Nor did U.S. social trends inspire confidence among the men who would elect the next pope. They were not alone, of course, in deploring the values celebrated in American popular culture and exported across the planet by Hollywood and Wall Street. But the cardinals appointed during the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II shared a more pointed diagnosis of the American soul: U.S. constitutional guarantees of individual freedoms, distorted by the materialism and hedonism of unbridled capitalism, had produced a climate of moral license — to have abortions, use birth control and eschew marriage.
The cardinals traced their concern about the denigration of the sanctity of human life to this American source. Would not the selection of an American prelate as pope signal an implicit endorsement of “the culture of death” described and decried by John Paul II?
And just when the church needed all the moral authority it could muster, the sexual abuse scandal was bringing disgrace, in particular on the American hierarchy. Several U.S. cardinals were implicated in the coverup. Viable American candidates for the papacy were nowhere on the horizon. So the conclave went with a German, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI.
But now, after Benedict’s stunning announcement of his impending “renunciation” of the papacy, the notion of a made-in-the-U.S.A. pontiff seems less outlandish. The papabili-watchers are looking at Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, as a credible contender. Indeed, Las Vegas oddsmakers are giving Dolan 25-to-1 odds on becoming the first American Holy Father.
Why? First, the key players have changed. George W. Bush has been succeeded by President Obama, who has softened America’s international image. And domestically, Obama has conveniently provided the U.S. Catholic bishops a common enemy and a new moral platform, which they desperately needed: The president’s support of same-sex marriage and his health-care law’s mandate for contraception coverage solidified the episcopal suspicion that the Democrat is bad news. Obama’s supposedly deplorable attitude toward religious freedom even had the bishop of Peoria, Ill., comparing his policies to those of Stalin and Hitler.
The other new player is Dolan, who towers above his colleagues in the U.S. Catholic hierarchy both physically and telegenically, even as he has helped unify them and focus their restless energies. Nicknamed “the American pope” after his election to the presidency of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Dolan projects vigor and regular-guy charisma, making his unwavering support of Vatican orthodoxy on sexual ethics and other doctrinal matters more palatable to the broad Catholic middle.