New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan is president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Andrew Medichin, Associated Press

A U.S.pope: It suddenly doesn't seem so far-fetched

  • Article by: Michelle Boorstein
  • Washington Post
  • March 3, 2013 - 9:35 PM


When someone becomes pope, he dons all white and takes the title “holiness.” 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 Dolan of New York City and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as ­contenders, 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 Vatican culture. An even larger obstacle, experts on Catholicism say, is the U.S. image 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 last week. 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 Roman Catholic Church and in the perception of the United States’ place in the world.

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 and raised in Britain and runs continuing theological education at the Pontifical North American College in 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 say it will be hard to overcome the perception that the United States already has enough power, and that our perspective on topics such as income inequality and religious freedom is a sheltered one because for us these aren’t life-and-death matters.


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