NEW YORK —
But as Christopher Bellitto, a historian at Kean University in New Jersey who studies the papacy, said, “There’s a big difference between letting somebody borrow the car and handing them the keys.”
“The American church,” he said, “comes with a lot of baggage.”
Among the negatives is the clergy sex abuse scandal, which has affected every U.S. diocese and bishop.
The 11 U.S. cardinals expected to vote in the conclave will include Cardinal Roger Mahony, the former Los Angeles archbishop who was recently stripped of public duties by his successor over his record on handling abuse cases. Also attending will be Cardinal Justin Rigali, who stepped down as Philadelphia archbishop after a landmark indictment of priests revealed he had kept several clergy on assignment despite claims they molested children.
The cardinals are also struggling against the perception, held particularly by Europeans, that most Americans aren’t sophisticated enough to handle the papacy. In a faith 2,000 years old, the United States is considered relatively new ground. Europe was still sending missionaries to the U.S. to create the church through the early 1900s.
Popes are also expected to be multilingual, or to at minimum speak Italian fluently. Dolan, considered to have one of the highest profiles in the U.S. church, speaks only halting Italian and a little Spanish, but no French or Latin. He led the North American Seminary in Rome, a kind of West Point for American priests, but has never worked in a Vatican office.
“There really never has been any American who rises above his American-ness and holds the esteem of the international group of cardinals because of his service, because of what he’s done for the church,” said Brother Charles Hilken, a historian at Saint Mary’s College of California, who has studied the papacy.