Cardinal Dolan: Does Catholicism need or want an American Pope?

Archbishop of New York Timothy Dolan has been named as a possible successor to Pope Benedict XVI. The odds are slim. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, February 12, 2013 — Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, has been named as a possible successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who resigned unexpectedly on Monday. While there’s growing expectation that the new pope will come from outside of Europe, the odds that it will be Dolan are slim. Church demographics and the balance of power in the College of Cardinals both shout against Dolan winning the election.


The Roman Catholic Church is facing some of the most dramatic challenges to its character since the Protestant Reformation. A central actor in European history and hugely influential in the development of western civilization, the Catholic church is based in an increasingly secular Europe. A hundred years ago Catholicism was predominantly European; today more Catholics live in Africa and Asia than in Europe.

Active church affiliation is in decline throughout the developed world, not just in Europe. Those not attending any church comprise the fastest growing group in polls of religious affiliation in the United States. Declining church attendance and activity has been reflected in declining numbers of American and European Catholics choosing to enter the Roman Catholic vocations, that is, by declining numbers entering the priesthood, the diaconate, or entering orders as nuns.

The church faces special problems in the United States, where sexual scandals involving priests and subsequent cover-ups have diminished the church’s stature. The Catholic church is in political conflict with a presidential administration that has issued policies strongly at odds with church teachings.

The Catholic church sees its strongest growth in the developing world, and not just in traditionally Catholic Latin America. In 1900, 181 million of the world’s 266 million Catholics lived in Europe and 13 million in North America. Seventy-two million lived in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Today Latin America has 483 million Catholics, Africa 177 million, and Asia 137 million. Europe accounts for just 277 million and North America, 85 million. 

In other words, a hundred years ago only a quarter of the world’s Catholics lived in Africa, Asia and Latin America; today, over two thirds of the world’s Catholics live in those regions.


Against that backdrop, does the Catholic church need or want an American pope? 

Cardinal Dolan is one of several named as front runners to replace Pope Benedict. Other possible successors come from Africa, South America, North America, and Europe. Among them are Peter Appiah Turkson from Ghana, Leonardo Sandri of Argentina, Marc Quellet from Canada, Angelo Scola from Italy, and Christoph Schoenborn from Austria. 

The huge number of Catholics in the developing world argues for a pope from that region. North America is a relatively minor part of the Catholic world, and its relative importance is in decline. In addition, there are 117 cardinal electors – cardinals who are eligible to vote for a new pope – and only 14 are from North America. 

While the election of a pope is not based on demographics, trends in church growth have to weigh heavily on the minds of cardinal electors. Dolan’s theological conservatism could win him some votes, but his decision to pay some priests $20,000 to leave the priesthood rather than report their sexual abuse of minors to authorities will cost him. 


Also arguing against Cardinal Dolan is his age. At 62, he might be expected to remain on the Throne of Saint Peter for a generation. The young Karol Wojtyła, elected to the papacy at 58, reined for 27 years, and for much of his rein he was a vigorous and sometimes unsettling force in the church. The fear that a young and energetic pope might drive the church for a generation would argue for a more seasoned choice, if not another place-holder like Benedict. 


If Cardinal Dolan is unlikely to succeed Benedict, who might have a better chance?

The most important region in the Catholic world is Latin America. Cardinal Sandri is an Argentine of Italian descent and is well respected in the Vatican, but he has no pastoral experience and does not have a position of real power in Rome. Brazilian Odilo Scherer is touted by some as another strong Latin American candidate. His views are considered moderate; a critic of “liberation theology” and its use of Marxist thought, he nevertheless has praised its focus on eradicating social injustice. 

Africa is a region where the Catholic church can expect to see considerable growth in coming decades. Cardinal Turkson stands out as the most prominent representative of the church on that continent. He was tapped by Benedict to help (unsuccesfully) broker a peaceful resolution to a conflict in Ivory Coast. He is a member of a number of important congregations in the Curia, and he was named as President of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. A conservative on many church issues, he has argued to change the world financial system and create a Global Bank, which would emphasize the interests of developing countries. 

While there’s expectation of a non-European pope, over half of the cardinal electors, 62, are European. They won’t necessarily prefer a European, but neither are they going to vote for a non-European just for the sake of satisfying media speculation and the quaint notion that there should be something globally democratic about the selection.

Nor is it a sure thing that the non-European electors will vote against a cardinal just because he is from Europe. A pope isn’t an affirmative action novelty or an experiment in ethnic public relations. Whether the new pope is black, Hispanic or European, he will have to have the respect and support of his colleagues in the College of Cardinals. 

The election of a new pope will say something about the way the cardinal electors see the church in ten years or twenty. The way they see it will not necessarily coincide with the expectations or wishes of the world’s Catholics, American observers, or even the world press.

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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