Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano is believed to be a top contender for pope. He is not. This version has been corrected.

In this Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, file photo, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, is congratulated by two unidentified prelates after being elevated in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. (Andrew Medichin/AP)

When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?

Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.

A U.S. pope has long been viewed as a highly unlikely possibility, partly due to the nation’s reputation as too informal in contrast with the heavily ritualized, even mystical Vatican culture. An even larger obstacle, experts on Catholicism say, is the image of the United States as a global superpower reputedly under the sway of Wall Street and the CIA and morally corrupted by Hollywood.

But this year, “it’s a whole new ballgame,” as O’Malley said at a news conference Thursday. The stage has been set, he and others say, by Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to eschew convention and retire.

Now, even as a U.S. pope remains a long shot, the fact that it’s such a subject of discussion points to dramatic changes both in the Catholic Church and in the perception of the United States’s place in the world.

From the moment Benedict XVI announced his retirement, speculation started to swirl over who will replace him as Pope. (The Fold/The Washington Post)

U.S. qualities long seen as disqualifiers suddenly look like selling points to some. Brash get-it-done cowboys? Perhaps that’s what’s needed to clean up Vatican corruption. Secularism and the collapse of the traditional family? Those are very familiar topics in the United States, as is clergy sex abuse.

“The American cardinals are very much in touch with the challenges facing the church,” said Monsignor Anthony Figueiredo, who was born in India, was raised in Britain and now runs continuing theological education at the Pontifical North American College of Rome, where U.S. seminarians are trained. “We have a very significant number of former Catholics; we have the challenge of bringing people back to the faith; we are facing the great moral questions head-on, from gay marriage to end-of-life issues. These are economic and social issues that concern every country.”

Yet others familiar with the mind-set of cardinals say it will be hard to overcome the perception that the United States already has enough power and that our perspectives on topics such as income inequality and religious freedom are sheltered ones because these aren’t life-and-death matters for us.

“We are viewed with more suspicion than we view ourselves. And you need two-thirds of the cardinals,” said Michael Sean Winters, a fellow at Catholic University who writes on Catholicism. “We’re seen as having a certain decadence in our culture that these [U.S. Catholic] leaders have not arrested. They haven’t beaten back cultural norms that others resent spreading to their own countries.”

The buzz in Rome about a possible U.S. pope has largely focused on Dolan, a historian and Twitterati who leads the U.S. bishops, and O’Malley, a brown-robe-wearing, Spanish-speaking Capuchin friar who has been sent to help straighten out several dioceses following clergy sex-abuse scandals. Dolan is 63; O’Malley is 68.

Other prominent Americans include former St. Louis archbishop Raymond Burke, who heads the Vatican’s supreme court; William Levada, a former San Francisco archbishop who followed Benedict as head of the Vatican’s doctrine-guarding office; and Washington’s Donald Wuerl, whom Benedict tapped as a leader of the church’s “new evangelization” outreach effort.

The world’s cardinals have been gathering in Rome, and on Monday they’ll begin a series of meetings called “congregations,” during which they will decide on a date for the conclave, or voting meeting, and become more familiar with one another. Dolan is scheduled to give daily updates on the Catholic Channel satellite radio station until the conclave starts. In all likelihood, a decision will come this month, perhaps before Palm Sunday on March 24.

Inside the conclave: How a pope is elected

Other contenders for pope include cardinals Angelo Scola of Italy, Peter Turkson of Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina and Marc Ouellet of Canada.

Dolan and O’Malley differ significantly in style and personality, although eight of the 11 Americans at the conclave were made cardinals by Benedict, so they share his goal of centering Catholicism — and its parishes, schools, hospitals, and followers — firmly on orthodoxy. The others were named by Pope John Paul II, who had a similar theology but put more effort into evangelizing, particularly the young. Dolan and O’Malley grew up under John Paul.

The fresh look at U.S. clergy comes from a church that is now truly global. Cardinals no longer hide out in Italy — they travel extensively and blog. They are more familiar with one another, and so less likely to base their vote for a new pope on geography. They are also aware, particularly with the crush of news — and scandal — that has followed the Vatican in recent weeks, that now isn’t a bad time to consider new ideas.

“The cardinals understand that these are particularly challenging times for the church,” said the Rev. Jonathan Morris, program director of Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel. “And I don’t just mean the more well-known recent controversies, but just a recognition that the world is changing very quickly.”

Some said the image of a swaggering United States has shifted in the Obama era. Our economy has its own long-term problems, leading many top workers and students from overseas to look elsewhere. Fears that a U.S. pope could be swept up in promoting U.S. geopolitical interests may have less basis.

These days, the U.S. church has two things that some believe Catholicism desperately needs: frank talk and a young culture in which things that are broken tend to get fixed.

Dolan is clearly someone who relishes talking, whether he’s walking down the street to Matt Lauer’s studio for a candid interview in the minutes after the pope announced his resignation or doing a chat for college students with funnyman Colbert or in making comments last month at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan after being asked about rumors that he might be chosen pope.

“I’d say those are only from people smoking marijuana,” said Dolan, prompting the next day’s headline in the New York Post newspaper: “Pope hope is dope.”

Dolan is seen as having a very personal touch, calling even average congregants to check in. His résumé includes a stint as dean at the North American College, where he established supporters in Rome. But even supporters note that his timing isn’t ideal: He was deposed just a few weeks ago in a huge clergy sex-abuse case in Wisconsin, where he was archbishop before going to New York in 2009. Survivors’ attorneys said the Milwaukee archdiocese under him transferred millions of dollars into a cemetery trust fund and a parish fund in an effort to shield it from being taken in a lawsuit by victims.

The American handling of clergy sexual abuse is viewed by some as an argument in favor of a U.S. pope.

After a decade, the U.S. church has the tightest controls in the world on whom it allows to work with children. They include education programs in parishes, background checks and a policy of removing any priest with substantiated claims against him.

“Americans have by far done more than any other church or religious group or any group in the world. . . . Americans have experience at this, ” said the Rev. John Zuhlsdorf, a Wisconsin priest who writes a popular Catholic blog.

The cardinal seen as having the most experience on the issue of clergy sexual abuse is O’Malley. Reporters who cover the Vatican have also focused on his image as a friar of the Capuchin order — rather than a priest based in a diocese — who wears a robe and sandals and took a vow of poverty. When he moved to the scandal-wracked Boston archdiocese in 2003, much was made of the fact that he sold the ornate, high-on-a-hill cardinal’s residence to pay survivors of sex abuse.

“If you go see him, you get a tuna salad sandwich,” said Winters, a reference to the event O’Malley held on a seminary lawn when he was installed in Boston. Bostonians noticed the contrast with the more upmarket previous installation parties.

In a profile a few days ago in the Italian newspaper La Stampa, prominent Vatican reporter Andrea Tornielli noted that O’Malley never did a stint in Rome.

“O’Malley is an outsider, a surprise candidate whom electors could pick if there is a vote gridlock,” wrote Tornielli, adding that if he is picked, he’ll be the first pope with a beard “since Innocence XII who died 213 years ago.”

O’Malley has a PhD in Spanish literature, and when he was based in Washington in the 1970s, he founded a Spanish-language bookstore and newspaper. He’s seen as strictly orthodox — he started seminary training when he was 13 — with a “sensitive soul,” wrote John Allen, another prominent Vatican reporter. Allen quoted a letter O’Malley sent to Boston Catholics in 2004 amid parish closings and continued fallout from the abuse scandal: “At times I ask God to call me home and let someone else finish this job.”

But to others, the sex-abuse scandals here would be viewed as a strike against the notion of a U.S. cardinal as pope.

Soledad Loaeza, an expert on church-state relations in Mexico, says Mexicans are suspicious of U.S. power and would remember the sex-abuse scandal for its failures.

“Mexicans would focus on the problem rather than the solution,” Loaeza said of one of the world’s largest Catholic populations. “Having an American pope would create problems for Latin Americans.”

Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the sensitivities surrounding American power are still too raw and don’t provide enough benefit to a church trying to attract people to its message.

“While an American pope could act on his convictions, there’s an awkwardness. It’s a strain for everyone, and it’s just as well that it not happen,” he said. “I don’t think any American has a chance.”

For some close to the church, it’s also hard to visualize the merger of a messy democracy that puts its presidents on late-night talk shows with what is essentially divine kingship.

“There are people who called Obama ‘Barack’ until . . . he became ‘Mr. President.’ Is it like that?” mused Winters. “I can’t let my head go there, or it might explode.”