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Could U.S. decline make possible an American pope?

In an interview on MSNBC with George Weigel, an expert on the Catholic Church and the author of a biography of John Paul II, on Feb. 28, the day that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect, Chris Matthews asked Weigel about the possibility that New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan might be summoned to ...

John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images
John Moore/Getty Images

In an interview on MSNBC with George Weigel, an expert on the Catholic Church and the author of a biography of John Paul II, on Feb. 28, the day that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect, Chris Matthews asked Weigel about the possibility that New York's Timothy Cardinal Dolan might be summoned to the Chair of St Peter. Matthews remarked that Dolan is an attractive candidate, "very American," "a guy's guy."

Weigel's response was interesting from a strategic perspective. He explained that in years past, there has always been an unwritten proscription on an American pope. The reasoning went, essentially, that because the United States is so powerful in the world, it should not have one of its sons rule the Church.  In many ways, this is the obverse of American fears that John F. Kennedy would collude with the Vatican to bring the U.S. under the sway of the Holy See (interestingly, Obama-supporting Catholics attacked Paul Ryan in last year's campaign by arguing that he was insufficiently attentive to Catholic social doctrine, a charge Ryan's bishop helped refute).

In an interview on MSNBC with George Weigel, an expert on the Catholic Church and the author of a biography of John Paul II, on Feb. 28, the day that the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI took effect, Chris Matthews asked Weigel about the possibility that New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan might be summoned to the Chair of St Peter. Matthews remarked that Dolan is an attractive candidate, "very American," "a guy’s guy."

Weigel’s response was interesting from a strategic perspective. He explained that in years past, there has always been an unwritten proscription on an American pope. The reasoning went, essentially, that because the United States is so powerful in the world, it should not have one of its sons rule the Church.  In many ways, this is the obverse of American fears that John F. Kennedy would collude with the Vatican to bring the U.S. under the sway of the Holy See (interestingly, Obama-supporting Catholics attacked Paul Ryan in last year’s campaign by arguing that he was insufficiently attentive to Catholic social doctrine, a charge Ryan’s bishop helped refute).

Behind that power calculation against an American pope, there is the long-standing suspicion as well that Americans were prone to, well, "Americanism" as it was known in Church circles in the 19th and early 20th centuries. That is, Americans are given to individualism, private conscience, and a general lack of docility. No telling what might happen if a Yank put on that ring.

But Weigel continued that this "superpower veto" is now inoperative. The United States is no longer seen as so dominant in world affairs that the Church should fear an American pope. Dolan will be looked at seriously as a candidate, Weigel believes, as will Cardinal Ouellet of Canada, whose proximity to the U.S. might have placed him under the penumbra of the superpower veto in the past. Both would offer the Church a leader capable of the kind of evangelical Catholicism that Weigel and many others see as essential and timely. 

New developments are not lightly picked up by the Catholic Church. So it would be ironic if the strategic withdrawal under President Obama, so dangerously obvious to both our enemies and friends, were also seen as so dispositive of the end of American global leadership as to convince the Cardinals that an American pope might not be a bad idea.

I’m not betting that when the white smoke goes up, Dolan or Ouellet or anybody else in particular will emerge from the coming conclave as Benedict’s successor. But the consequences of American strategic decisions reverberate in all sorts of unexpected ways.

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