Let me begin with a necessary admission of ignorance: I have no earthly idea who will be crowned the next pope sometime next week. But then, most of the experts who are providing commentary about the closed-door, burnt-ballot papal elections that begin in the Sistine Chapel next Monday, don't either.
Not a few of the men who emerged as pope caught the world largely unawares. John Paul II was the first non-Italian pope in over 450 years. The Polish pontiff's shock election was made possible because his predecessor died after only a little over a month in the Vatican. When John Paul I was chosen, the princes of the church collectively gave themselves a big pat on the back. His unexpected death seemed a sign from above that they needed to reconsider.
Pope Benedict XVI was well known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. But he had a small army of difficulties pressing up against his chances as well. He was too old; too tied to the papacy of John Paul II; too German; and he seemed, in his speech to the College of Cardinals before the voting began, to be begging them not to elect him. A lot of people then, as now, were rooting for an African pope. Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze stood at the ready.
In compiling their lists of popefuls this time, speculators have added a few Americans. Most prominent is New York's boisterous, New York Times-hating Cardinal Timothy Dolan. Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley is also generating considerable buzz in the Italian press. Buzz is one thing, you might say, but what kind of realistic chances do either of these priests have of becoming pontiff?
Hard to figure. There is no obvious candidate to replace Benedict after his shock resignation. John Allen, perhaps the best English language writer on all things Vatican, explains, "For a long time, conventional wisdom held that an American could not be elected to the Throne of Peter because you can't have a 'superpower pope.'" Yet, Allen says, that negative perception is fast eroding. In fact, "for the first time an American seems thinkable."
There is a distance, a gulf even, between "thinkable" and "likely." Still, I devoutly hope Allen is wrong. Nothing against Bishops Dolan and O'Malley, but an American pope would be a horrible idea for the foreseeable future. It would be bad for the Catholic Church worldwide and it would be excruciating for American Catholics, including yours truly.
Anglo-Catholic writer Hillaire Belloc famously said of Catholicism's heart that "Europe is the faith." As a demographic fact, that is no longer true and as a legacy it is, well, petering out. Europeans still have a majority in the College of Cardinals but that is owing mostly to the fact that the bureaucratic center of the church, the Vatican, is in Italy. Most of the world's estimated 1.2 billion Catholics are elsewhere.
In terms of demographics, belief, and practice, we can put away any idea that "America is the faith." Over the last 60-plus years, Catholicism has been treading water here, in spite of wave after wave of immigrants from majority-Catholic countries. Researchers from Catholic University of America found that only about 30 percent of self-described American Catholics supported the Vatican's teaching authority, and 40 percent of respondents thought it was OK to think of the Mass as just wine and wafers -- thus denying a rather central claim of the faith.
Catholic education in the nation that Dolan and O'Malley help to preside over is in shambles, thus many parishioners default to a sort of Protestantism-with-candles. Progressive Catholic polemicists such as Garry Wills and Maureen Dowd regularly exploit this ignorance to cast barbs at the faith of their fathers. Imagine how much more agitated they would get if an American were pope, and how much journalistic hay would be made when the Bishop of Rome stupidly took the bait.
Catholicism actually is growing and thriving elsewhere -- in Africa, for instance, and in parts of South America. It has a foothold in Asia and if the Vatican can ever gain purchase on China, it is likely to grow like gangbusters there. India, with its Hindu-inspired caste system, ought to be ripe for evangelization.
Meanwhile, Catholics and other Christians face serious persecution all over the globe, some of it exacerbated by the policies of the U.S. government. The Iraqi liberation and the Arab Spring resulted in persecution and exile for all too many innocent worshipers. If what the Catholic Church needs is a pope with truly global vision, then the last place the College of Cardinals should look to is America.