When the next Papal Conclave meets behind closed doors to replace the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, the United States will have an unprecedented voice in the process.
Eleven cardinal electors, almost 10 percent of the conclave, will be Americans — the largest share the country has ever had, even though it has historically had a large Catholic population.
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The retiring pope gets credit for the greater influence of the United States.
Last year, he named three new American cardinals, increasing the U.S. total to 19. Only 11 will be electors because in order to vote in the papal election, the cardinals must be under 80 when the pope being replaced dies or leaves his seat.
With 11 votes, the U.S. is now the second-largest bloc, behind only Italy, which has 28 electors, according to the Holy See press office at the Vatican. Germany is third, with six. The new pontiff is expected to be elected by the end of March, according to Vatican officials.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York who was elevated to cardinal last year, is considered a longshot candidate to succeed the pope.
When asked about the qualities necessary for the next pope, Dolan told TODAY that “a good place to start would be to look at Pope Benedict.”
He added: “There’s a learning, a savviness about the world, there’s a theological depth, there’s an unquestionably personal piety and holiness, there’s a linguistic talent, there’s a knowledge of the church universal.”
When asked whether he would be allowed to vote for himself, Dolan laughed. “Crazy people cannot enter the conclave,” he joked.
The shift in power toward the U.S. “reflects the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States,” John Paul II biographer George Weigel said in November.
“But I don’t think it likely that any American will be elected pope for as long as the United States remains the world’s pre-eminent power,” he added.
Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent at Religious News Service, echoed Weigel’s opinion, adding that “coming from the world’s only superpower could still be seen as a negative factor in a global church.”
What the increasing U.S. presence among the cardinal electors might mean is that Benedict XVI was very much aware that Catholicism is no longer a predominantly European religion.
Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005.
The U.S. has as many as 78 million Catholics, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. For comparison’s sake, Italy, despite having the largest share of electors and being primarily Catholic, has a total population of fewer than 61 million residents, according to World Bank estimates from 2011.
“It remains to be seen whether this numerical weight will actually translate into influence at the conclave,” Speciale said in November. “Though national links are powerful, many other factors … play into the secret voting at the Sistine Chapel.”
Some experts have suggested that the next pope might be from Latin America.
Reuters noted Monday that Latin America now “represents 42 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared to 25 percent in its European heartland.”
Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who now holds the pope’s old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is among the senior Vatican officials to suggest that it might be Latin America’s turn.
“I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church,” he told Duesseldorf’s Rheinische Post newspaper in December.
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