The case for picking an American pope

Video: When he became Pope, many considered Benedict to be much more conservative than his predecessor John Paul II. Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. interviewed Benedict — then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — nearly 30 years ago and now reflects on the Pope’s legacy.

R. Scott Appleby, a historian, is director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is a co-editor of “Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History” and the author of “The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation.”

An American pope? No chance.

That was the consensus a mere eight years ago — a blip in church time — upon the death of Pope John Paul II. Both Europe, the institutional epicenter of the Catholic Church, and the developing world, its demographic stronghold, were too resentful of America’s global footprint: its ostentatious wealth, its ubiquitous military presence and its saber-rattling, diplomacy-scorning president bent on prosecuting two unpopular wars. Big Brother hardly needed a partner in the Vatican.

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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.

In a memorable 2011 appearance on CBS News’s “60 Minutes,” for example, Dolan amply demonstrated what anchor Morley Safer described as “that indefinable quality called charm.” Pressed on how he might translate his openness to dialogue into reform of the church’s conservative views on lifestyle issues, the cardinal was quietly forceful: “I don’t want to see changes in the church when it comes to celibacy or women priests or our clear teaching about the sanctity of human life and the unity of marriage between one man and one woman forever.”

This inflexible stance does not play well with broad swaths of practicing American Catholics, much less the disaffected. Yet Dolan’s self-deprecating humor and warm personal presence can be disarming. When asked recently, again on national television, if he would vote for himself in the upcoming papal election, he replied cheerfully: “No. Crazy people cannot enter the conclave.”

Before becoming archbishop of Milwaukee and then cardinal archbishop of New York, Dolan served as secretary to the papal nuncio in Washington and as rector of the Pontifical North American College, the American seminary in Rome. Along the way he honed his skills as a Vatican insider and became one of the current pope’s favorites. His fellow electors in the College of Cardinals have probably taken note of the new solidarity among conservative priests and laity in the U.S. church and no doubt give him credit for their renewed sense of mission.

But the rationale for an American sensibility at the helm of the universal church goes deeper. The church desperately needs an infusion of modernity — and where better to find the spirit of entrepreneurship, the corporate agility and the technical capacity to project influence than in modernity’s global capital?

Big word, “modernity.” Here, let it invoke a “modern” leader who is not overwhelmed by, but takes instinctive advantage of, an ever more rapidly globalizing world in which the Gospel must be proclaimed. One who would draw around him advisers capable of planning and implementing an institutional “aggiornamento” — updating — so that Rome could again shape attitudes and events rather than react (slowly) to them. One who understands the alienation of younger Catholics, and of young people in general, and can speak plainly and compassionately to their concerns. One who can get the creaky gears of the Vatican moving again, perhaps with the assistance of money and expertise from affluent and well-placed donors. Hmm, where might those types reside?

In his resignation statement, Pope Benedict hinted at this need for adapting Catholic institutions and initiatives to a global milieu in constant flux. “In today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith,” he acknowledged, “in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary.”

And, he might have added, a dose of good old American know-how.

Benedict’s brief romance with Twitter was one attempt to usher in a new era at St. Peter’s. But it will take more than hashtags for the church to regain cultural capital and influence over the millions of young adults who are abandoning institutional affiliation and commitment, not to mention those who consider themselves “nones” — as in “none of the above” — on religion. Effective campaigns to (re)evangelize and (re)catechize these masses will require a “holy entrepreneur” up to the task.

Imagine, then, an English-speaking pontiff with something like John Paul II’s charisma and energy, traversing the globe with the human touch and ebullient confidence of a Midwesterner transplanted to New York and then whisked off to the Eternal City. Now give him the stern resolve of a no-nonsense leader with a keen sense of the historic importance of this moment in church history and the obligations that come with it. Add a background in the study of history, that ennobling profession, and make it the history of Christianity.

Presto: an American pope!

While the election of Dolan or any other American would still be a surprise — a long shot comparable in its impact to the elevation of a Polish pontiff in 1978 — so too would be the selection of a Catholic from the global south. The land where Catholicism is thriving and growing most rapidly is Africa, which has produced its own savvy and approachable leaders, such as Peter Turkson, the cardinal archbishopfrom Ghana who heads the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. And the most populous Catholic continent is South America, where the church is facing a serious challenge from Pentecostals. Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, an Argentinian with impressive experience as a Vatican diplomat, is most often mentioned as a leading candidate.

But while Turkson and his episcopal colleagues in Africa face an impending challenge from Islam, and Sandri and his fellow Latin American churchmen try to fend off further encroachments from Protestant evangelists, Dolan and company are experienced in facing down the social and cultural force that Pope Benedict seems to fear most: a creeping secularism, a marginalization of religion, now appearing not only in the West but also in the far reaches of the developing world. For Benedict and his many followers among the cardinal-electors, to be secular means, at best, to be indifferent to religion and spirituality, to neglect God, to flatten the moral and philosophical landscape so that there is no Truth but only individualized, relative, contingent and changing truths. This threat eclipses all others, Benedict has warned, for it erodes the foundations of belief itself.

An American pope would be familiar with this particular enemy and would have a nuanced appreciation of its many manifestations — some of which are potential allies to religion.

And, not least, having one of our own honored and burdened with the papacy could be a game-changing boost for American Catholicism, whose waning wealth and power nonetheless remain vital to the universal church. Another surprising conclave could be in store.

Yes, I know, the medium is not the message. And yes, the world has had more than enough of American “can-do,” thank you. The Italians who hold the pluralityin the conclave may never elect a son of these United States — even one who loves gnocchi.

More to the point: The doubters will ask substantive questions. Would the rich tradition of Catholic theological and ethical teaching be preserved intact if delivered in an Americanized version?

Would the U.S. style — direct, forceful, active rather than contemplative — be doomed to fail in the corridors of the Vatican, where discretion, deliberation and misdirection are the time-honored modes of doing business? Could a leader, however charismatic, from our still-divisive nation hope to unify the disparate ethnic, racial, material, social and theological interests of this truly global church?

Would an American pope help save America’s soul?

The odds are improving that we’ll soon find out.

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