VATICAN CITY, April 5 -- American cardinals come to Rome representing an enthusiastic home church, one widely admired for its spirit and for its generosity in giving to Catholic causes.
But even before the 11 voting U.S. cardinals enter the Sistine Chapel to take part in electing a new pope, they know he will not be an American.
Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington pays his respects to the pope at St. Peter's Basilica. McCarrick said at times he had defended the American church to the pontiff.
(Andrea Bruce Woodall -- The Washington Post)
"You have to ask what's best for the mission of the universal church. It may well be at this time it's not best that there be an American pope," said Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. "We've done some good things and some not-so-good things -- and good or bad, we're resented by a lot of people and we're suspect in a lot of quarters."
Such comments are not heard about any other nationality. Catholic leaders are actively discussing the possibility of choosing a pope from Europe, Latin America, Africa or Asia. The central notion is that the United States is too powerful an actor on the world stage to supply the head of the world's 1 billion Roman Catholics.
The bias stems from conflicting views of the United States in Europe in general and in the Vatican in particular. The United States is regarded with derision for its coarse consumerism, with admiration for its spirituality, with fear for its power and with envy for its clout in world affairs.
Moreover, the American church often baffles the Vatican, which regards it as something of a maverick, U.S. church leaders say. American Catholicism has been in the vanguard of interfaith dialogue and feminism within the church, and it has a highly educated and sometimes disobedient laity.
"In the lingo, 'the American church' has become the description of a church that is not necessarily right with you. The American church has become synonymous with a church that is more independent" than the Holy See would like, said Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington.
As a result, the American cardinals stand at an awkward intersection. They represent a dynamic but restive flock to the Vatican and an opaque, ponderous Vatican bureaucracy to their flock.
"I think that many people in Europe -- and that would mean, therefore, many people in the church -- see the United States as the center of materialism in the world and consumerism generally," McCarrick said in an interview Tuesday at the North American College, the U.S. seminary in Rome where he is staying until the conclave to select the next pope begins.
But he added that he often defended the American church by telling Pope John Paul II about the U.S. response to a group of European Catholics, called "We Are Church," who began circulating a petition in 1995 calling for the ordination of women, an end to mandatory celibacy in the priesthood and other radical changes in the church.
"They collected a million signatures in Austria. Then they went to Germany and collected more than a million signatures there," McCarrick said. But in the United States, after a major publicity campaign, "they got 38,000 signatures in a church that is obviously much larger than the church in Germany and Austria."
"I told the Holy Father that story many times. I said, 'That's how much the American church loves you and is faithful to you and to your vision,' " he said.
Cardinal Edmund Szoka, a former archbishop of Detroit who is now in charge of Vatican City finances, said U.S. Catholics send more money than any other nationality -- close to $100 million -- to defray the Holy See's expenses, support its charities and sponsor its missions.
The United States also boasts more Catholic colleges and universities than any other country. Catholic Charities USA is the largest Catholic-run charity in the world. And some U.S. church leaders maintain that on any given Sunday, there are more Catholics in the pews in the United States than in all of Western Europe.