America Comment

Will there ever be a Pope from the US?


There are still numerous obstacles preventing an American from being elected to the papacy

A lengthy excerpt from a soon-to-be-released book by America’s Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, made some waves at the weekend. Among other things, the excerpt detailed the tallies from the first round of voting in the 2013 conclave that eventually elected Jorge Mario Cardinal Bergoglio, who took the regnal name of Francis.

Titled, The Election of Pope Francis: An Inside Account of the Conclave That Changed History, the book is being published by Orbis, and has an April 24th release date. It promises to be, “a fascinating behind-the-scenes account of history in the making,” and to reveal, “what actually happed inside the secret conclave.”

In the excerpt published by America last Thursday, O’Connell reports the Archbishop of Boston, Seán Patrick Cardinal O’Malley OFM Cap., garnered ten votes on the first round. It was a surprising number, especially since the conventional wisdom is that the election of a Roman Pontiff from the United States is a practical impossibility, owing to the position of the US as the world’s sole superpower, coupled with the diffuse notion that US Catholicism is thoroughly soaked in the country’s Puritan cultural groundwater.

So, the titbit of information predictably set off a round of speculation: could an American be pope, after all?

I haven’t seen an advance copy of the book, and I do not expect too — though I am looking forward to reading it — so I can’t say what O’Connell makes of his own report. Nevertheless, there are lots of reasons to believe the report is accurate, and lots of other reasons to believe the information reported means something significant, but very different from the topic of speculation.

Basically, the numbers offer a clue to a plausible explanation of the dynamics that may have yielded the result in the first round of voting in 2013. (I know, I know. Hedge much, Altieri?)

There were eleven voting Cardinals from the United States. Assuming Cardinal O’Malley didn’t vote for himself — a reasonable assumption — the ten votes of the other US Cardinals may all have gone to O’Malley. The purpose of such an exercise would have been to telegraph to the other voting Cardinals that the red hats from the US would be voting as a bloc — and possibly that their bloc was up for grabs, and leaning toward a candidate with a profile not entirely unlike O’Malley’s.

That is pure speculation, mind.

The fact is, anyone in the room had a significantly better than 1/6×108  chance (roughly my chances) of coming out Pope. Even based solely on a “balance of power” calculus, however, the election of a Cardinal from the US would have been extremely unlikely in 2013. It would have meant too much worldly and ecclesiastical power concentrated in one person.

Then, the Roman Pontiff is the leader of a worldwide Church counting 1.2 billion members, many of whom are not terribly well disposed to the United States of America, and are wary of “Americans”. I mentioned that many of the Cardinal see the US Church through the lens of US culture, which is largely Protestant. So does much of the Catholic world.

So, the election of a Pope from the US continues to be extremely unlikely, for those same reasons and others beyond the scope of these considerations.

The far more interesting question arising from O’Connell’s report of the voting in round one is: who cast the single votes for Antonelli, Backis, Caffarra, Collins, Gracias, Piacenza, Ravasi, Rodríguez Maradiaga, Sandri, Sarah, Tagle, and Vingt-Trois?

If the Cardinals do go for an Anglophone next time around, my nickel is on it being someone from Africa or Asia. It goes without saying, however, that all this has all the value of a sporting prediction of the sort that begins, “If the season ended today…” Well, it doesn’t — and, if you’d told me in 2013 that the cardinals would pick a 77-year-old Argentine Jesuit who was the “also-ran” in 2005, I’d have offered to trade you your book ticket for the deed to a bridge in Brooklyn.

Still, here we are.