Mourning the pope
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Posted April 7, 2005 at 4:19 p.m. CDT

An American pope is not likely, but

By John L. Allen Jr.

When it comes to the election of a pope, there are very few things that can be predicted with much confidence. Indeed, the trash heaps of history are littered with the reputations of pundits and so-called "experts" who have tried to divine the next pope.

In analyzing the selection of John Paul's successor, therefore, there are only a handful of things that can be said with certainty. For one thing, it's a pretty safe bet that there will be another pope; there are 263 precedents, after all, and anyway, in the Basilica of St. John Lateran where the images of all the popes are displayed, there are seven more spaces, suggesting the line will continue at least that long.

It's also overwhelmingly likely, though not certain, that the conclave will not reach outside the ranks of the cardinals to elect the pope, though as a technical matter they could elect any baptized male. For one thing, the electors simply don't have the time to sift through all the possible candidates, even if they restricted themselves just to the over 4,500 bishops in the Roman Catholic church. For another, the last non-cardinal to be elected was Urban VI in 1378. His election was the proximate cause of the Western Schism, so it's hardly the most promising precedent in history.

(CNS/Gregory L. Tracy)
U.S. Cardinals Justin Rigali, Roger M. Mahony, Theodore E. McCarrick and Francis E. George speak outside the North American College in Rome April 7. The cardinals will meet in a conclave April 18 to elect a new pope.
To this list, we can add one other point: it is overwhelmingly likely that the next pope will not be American.

In part, this is because senior officials in the Catholic church share the same ambivalence about the United States as the rest of the world. That is, they are endlessly awed by the size, sophistication and financial wherewithal of the country, but at the same time they don't like being told what to do by the Americans. This is the same reason, by the way, that the American cardinals are not in a position to determine the outcome of the election. A candidate opposed by the Americans would struggle to be elected, since there's general agreement that the pope has to be able to forge positive relations with the United States. A candidate backed by the Americans, however, would also have problems, because many cardinals would object to what they would likely see as another form of American diktat.

(All this assumes that the American cardinals could act as a unified block, which is probably a remote hypothesis given the differences in style, temperament and outlook among them).

The fundamental impediment to an American papacy, however, is that the Vatican prizes its diplomatic independence far too seriously to elevate a superpower pope. The "Holy See" is a sovereign entity that exchanges ambassadors with 174 nations and international organizations. Regardless of what that pope himself thought or felt, many people around the world would be tempted to see his decisions as somehow skewed by virtue of his citizenship. That would be especially ominous in the Middle East; it would be difficult for many people not to conclude that the pope's policies are influenced by virtue of his nationality, no matter what he did. It would probably also be the end of Vatican attempts to improve things for Christian communities in Cuba, Vietnam, China, and across the Islamic world.

Having said that, is there an American cardinal who might be a formidable candidate if not for his nationality?

The quick answer is "yes": Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. George, who spent years in Rome as the superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, knows the inner world of the Vatican, and yet he is not a creature of it. He also speaks Italian with ease. He's led a complex archdiocese for years, and by most accounts handled it rather well. One indication of the esteem in which he's held is that he is widely sought after as a guest speaker at Vatican events, a distinction that few cardinals enjoy. George is by universal consensus the intellectual leader among the Americans, someone who devours two newspapers and a theological work before breakfast.

A few years ago, one of those supermarket tabloids quoted me as predicting George will be pope, even though I never spoke to a reporter for the piece and had absolutely nothing to do with it. If I would have been contacted, I would never have been foolish enough to make a prediction.

On the other hand, if you want to get an idea of the kind of qualities many cardinals are looking for, there are worse models than Francis George.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is

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