VATICAN CITY -- The United States may be the world's military and economic superpower, but Americans find themselves on the periphery as the leaders of the world's largest church gather to pick a new pope. Among the 117 cardinals who will file into the Sistine Chapel for the conclave to elect a pontiff, 11 are American, leaders of a flock that makes up just 6% of the 1 billion members of the worldwide Roman Catholic Church.
The American branch of the church, some theologians say, is perceived by some in the Vatican as materialistic and intellectually lightweight. Critics call it obsessed with issues — such as opening the priesthood to women or married men — that are at best second-tier for most of the world's Catholics. "Many of the hot-button issues in America … are not front-and-center issues for the conclave," said Father James L. Fredericks, a theology professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
Other elements of the world church are more worried about such things as proselytization by Mormons and evangelical Protestants, and competition with Islam. In addition, the American church has been weakened in the eyes of some by the priest sex-abuse scandal. Whereas many U.S. Catholics felt their church leaders were slow to respond, some Vatican officials worried that American bishops reacted to political pressure with changes that endangered the due-process rights of priests. Nor does the American church speak with one voice, being divided sharply between those who call for strict adherence to church doctrine and those urging change.
As a result, cardinals said Tuesday, there is little chance that the Americans will vote as a bloc on the choice of the next pope. "We're all different," Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, archbishop of Washington, said here. "I think it would be terrible if there was one 'American type' cardinal." For example, Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, is generally considered a liberal, while Francis George of Chicago is seen as conservative.
In his 2002 book, "Conclave," Vatican expert John L. Allen Jr. placed Mahony in what he called the College of Cardinals' "reform party" favoring greater decentralization, collegiality in decision making, experimentation and tolerance of diverse opinions in the church. Mahony has said, for example, that the church should at least talk about ordaining married men as a partial solution to the shortage of priests. No other American cardinal has spoken out as much on that issue.
By contrast, Allen placed George and Cardinal Bernard Law, formerly of Boston, in what he called the "border patrol party" of theological conservatives who fear a dilution of Catholic identity and want strict adherence to doctrine. Law resigned from his Boston position in late 2002, apologizing for his handling of the sex scandal, and was reassigned to a Vatican post. Such differences among the cardinals reflect the divisions among U.S. priests and the laity.
A 2002 Los Angeles Times poll found that Catholic clerics under age 41 expressed more allegiance to their hierarchy, less dissent against traditional church teachings and more certainty about the sinfulness of homosexuality, abortion, artificial birth control and other moral issues than did their elders. Those traditional attitudes stem from the influence of John Paul II on the younger generation, and place them at odds with many older priests who were shaped by the liberal reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. The elders tend to support further change, including female priests, optional celibacy, more empowerment of the laity and direct election of bishops.
The poll found that overall, 30% of priests described themselves as liberal on religious and moral issues, 28% described themselves as conservative, and 37% said they were moderate. Among younger priests, however, nearly four in 10 called themselves conservative, and three-quarters said they were more religiously orthodox than were their older counterparts.
"The American church is fairly polarized," said Father Joseph Fessio, provost of Ave Maria University, a newly established college in Florida with an orthodox Catholic emphasis. "The elite in the Catholic institutions generally are sympathetic with the more liberal trends in American society, but younger priests, recently appointed bishops and new religious orders are more traditional."
Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman for the liberal U.S. Catholic organization Call to Action, said such divides were growing, and she expressed hope that the next pope would move to bring the factions together. More liberal members are becoming angry and alienated by such orthodox moves as denying Communion to pro-choice politicians and requiring lay members to sign "loyalty oaths" pledging agreement on Catholic doctrine before being allowed to serve in a parish role such as teacher, she said. "I hope the cardinals elect someone who would try to reconcile and recognize the deep divisions keeping us apart and reaching our common good," she said.
Traditionalists, however, say that only the maintenance of such orthodox theology and practices will allow the church to flourish in a secular world. Whatever the differences, at least one issue appeared to be rising to the top of many American cardinals' wish lists: restoring more autonomy to local bishops and their national conferences on local issues not touching on the church's basic beliefs. Under John Paul, the Vatican reined in the authority of the conferences to speak out on issues.
The groundbreaking letters issued by American bishops in the 1980s condemning nuclear war and economic disparity probably could not be written under today's rules, say those who have followed the developments. In other cases, the agenda and conclusions of the church's synod of bishops have been dictated by the Holy See, said Father Thomas Rausch, a professor of theology at Loyola Marymount.
No one is suggesting local decision-making on issues that reach to the core of Catholic dogma and belief. But Mahony and Cardinal Justin Regali, the archbishop of Philadelphia, said bishops must be free to make pastoral decisions that take local circumstances into account.
"To try to regulate from one place all the realities in every conceivable local church doesn't work," Mahony said in a recent interview.
Regali added: "Unity does not mean uniformity. Unity means unity in essential matters. We know the Catholic Church is part of many different cultures."
But support for more local governance aside, many of the issues that concern American Catholics are not high priorities among the world's other Catholics.
The Most Rev. Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop in the Los Angeles Archdiocese, said his Latin American counterparts cared more about poverty and the impact of globalization than birth control, women's ordination or lay roles in the church. Still, many cardinals caution Vatican watchers not to overly emphasize nationalism or regional differences.
Their choice of a new pope will be guided by the Holy Spirit, Cardinal George of Chicago said. "The most important thing is the church and our faith, not our nation state," he said. "Nation states divide. This is an exercise in unity. We call it communion."
At least one thing seems certain: An unofficial taboo against electing a pontiff from a superpower will preclude a U.S. citizen from being named John Paul's successor. "No American cardinal need prepare to be pope," said Eric Hanson, a professor of political science at Santa Clara University and author of a book on the church in world politics.