After John Paul published his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae decrying abortion and calling for a "new culture of life," he was astonished to learn that paperback copies were on sale in some U.S. supermarkets, according to his biographer, George Weigel.
That fact "amazed and pleased" the pope, who had thought of the United States as a very secular society but gradually "came to understand that the United States was a modern, robust, developed democracy that was also intensely religious," Weigel said.
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)
Yet Vatican officials are also painfully aware that the United States accounts for nearly 70 percent of all the requests for marriage annulments in the Catholic Church each year. Of the 67 million Roman Catholics in the United States, more than 6 million have obtained civil divorces and remarried without an annulment, making them ineligible to take Holy Communion.
Polls have shown that a majority of U.S. Catholics disagree with the church's teachings on sexuality, particularly its ban on birth control. And the United States is failing to produce enough priests to serve its flock.
Few issues in recent years have generated as many misunderstandings and recriminations as the scandal over child sex abuse by U.S. priests. Vatican officials at first suggested that the scandal was exaggerated, and some still think that the U.S. bishops overreacted to public pressure in 2002 by instituting a "one strike, you're out" policy toward child sex abusers in the priesthood.
"The pedophile scandal suggested to the Vatican that the American bishops were not capable of leading their church," said Alberto Melloni, a historian of the Catholic Church.
American cardinals contend that the sex abuse scandal, the priest shortage, rising divorce rates and declining church attendance are problems afflicting all developed countries. But they also accept some criticism for their own performance.
Rather than arguing that the Vatican bureaucracy has exerted too much control over local affairs, "you could argue that there wasn't enough control, enough oversight," said George, the archbishop of Chicago.
Underlying some of the arm's-length attitudes toward the American church is a longtime European opinion that the United States has no culture and is given over to fads. "America has not given a major intellectual contribution to the universal church," argued Vittorio Messori, an Italian journalist who interviewed the pontiff for a book on his teachings.
Moreover, the aggressiveness of U.S. liberal movements scares Vatican officials -- whether they are campaigns inside the church for the promotion of priestly marriage and equal rights for gay men and lesbians, or campaigns outside the church in favor of abortion.
"There are so many groups with perverse ideas," said Karl Romer, secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, the Vatican department in charge of promoting traditional families.
On the flip side, the Vatican admires the vibrancy of parish life and the practice of faith at large in the United States. Because the United States lacks a history of anti-clericalism, it is more fertile ground for Catholic teaching than is Europe.
"I am always impressed by the spirituality of the people," Romer said.
According to McCarrick, the near impossibility of an American pope is not a reflection of the quality of the 11 U.S. cardinals who are under age 80 and therefore eligible to vote in the conclave -- and, in theory, eligible to become pope. Four live in Rome, and seven are archbishops of major cities.
"You look at the seven American cardinals, and six of them -- I exclude myself, and not just for humility -- six of them are very high-class guys. They are wonderful leaders, they are holy men, they've done great things," McCarrick said.
John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of "All the Pope's Men," a book on the Vatican's mind-set, sees just one way an American could become the next pope: if the electors choose Cardinal Lubomyr Husar of Ukraine, who holds a U.S. passport but is not widely considered an American.
If the next pope is friendly to the United States, he might change some of the Vatican's attitudes toward the country. But don't bet on it, said the Rev. Andrew Greeley, a Chicago priest, sociologist and novelist. "If the next pope is Latin American, they are even less sympathetic to North America than John Paul was," he said.