Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City enters Our Lady of Guadalupe at Monte Mario where he is the titular head on March 10, 2013 in Rome, Italy. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
(Journal News) -- Since the morning that Pope Benedict XVI said he no longer had the energy to go on, countless New Yorkers have asked the same question: Might the vivacious Cardinal Tim Dolan, who has plenty of juice, have a shot at the top job?
The archbishop of New York responded that he has a better chance of replacing A-Rod at third base for the Yankees and that those insisting otherwise might be "drinking too much grappa or smoking marijuana."
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There's good rationale for his skepticism, other than modesty. American cardinals have never been considered papal material. The reasons cited have been many: The American church was too "young"; the United States already had too much power; Americans were weaned on too much openness; American capitalism was too extreme and dismissive of the poor.
But there is a growing sense that Benedict's history-making retirement has opened the door to the unknown and that Dolan or perhaps Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston have a very small, but real chance to become pope after the conclave opens Tuesday.
"I wouldn't lay money on it and I'm surprised their names are even out there, but the circumstances of this conclave could lead to a new stock-taking," said Christopher Ruddy, a theologian at the Catholic University of America in Washington. "What are we looking for in a new pope? I think Benedict had to be aware of this possibility. His resignation might lead to unexpected things."
On Thursday, a veteran Vatican journalist for the Italian magazine L'espresso made a glowing case for Dolan's candidacy, predicting that he could get many votes on the cardinals' first ballot. Sandro Magister wrote that Dolan is the "consummate candidate" to challenge Vatican mismanagement, which has been revealed in a series of leaks to the media.
Dolan, he wrote, "is a larger-than-life man from the Midwest with a radiant smile and overflowing vigor, precisely that 'vigor of both body and mind' which Joseph Ratzinger recognized he had lost and defined as necessary for his successor."
"Many in the Third World would suspect that the CIA fixed the election or Wall Street bought it," Reese said. "Muslims would fear that an American pope was going to be a chaplain for the White House. Finally, through the centuries, the church has tried to keep the papacy out of the hands of the reigning superpower, whether that was the Holy Roman Empire, France or Spain."
Reese agreed that an American's best chance would be a long, deadlocked balloting process that needs a compromise candidate.
Ruddy said that many cardinals would likely fear that an American pope would concentrate too much attention on the United States and even on the concerns of American Catholics. "Americans are used to being the center of things," he said. "America has a large number of Catholics, but they are only 6 percent of the world's Catholics. Then there is the other 94 percent."
Ruddy said that two traditional Vatican concerns about the United States - that the American church is much younger than Europe's and that Americans are doers rather than thinkers - have probably weakened over time.
Analysts said that it's hard to know whether years of media attention on sex abuse in U.S. churches could affect an American cardinal's candidacy. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests , the leading advocacy group for victims, has included Dolan and O'Malley in a list of the 12 worst papal candidates.
SNAP criticized Dolan for moving slowly against abusers and for making $20,000 payments to abusive priests to get them to leave the priesthood while he was archbishop of Milwaukee.
Eleven Americans will participate in the conclave.
For what it's worth, the Irish gambling operation Paddy Power had Dolan's odds late last week at 33:1, making him the 14th best bet. Number one is not an Italian, but Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana.
John Allen, one of the leading American analysts of the Catholic church, also wrote last week that Dolan might be too boisterous for many cardinals, but "there continues to be a drumbeat around Dolan that can't be ignored."
Boston's O'Malley is a soft-spoken Franciscan Capuchin friar who wears a brown robe and sandals, making him an American alternative to Dolan, at least in style.
Still, Terrence Tilley, chairman of theology at Fordham University in the Bronx, said an American would have to overcome a lot of red, white and blue baggage to leap-frog all the European cardinals and perhaps others. He noted that the American cardinals were pressured days ago to stop daily media briefings.
"The Americans' predisposition to transparency in administration is very different from the Italian preference for secrecy," Tilley said. "It's not that the Americans are not hierarchical. They are. But we are perceived as different in style from Europeans. It's all about perception."
Tilley said that most American Catholics are probably unaware that both John Paul II and Benedict XVI warned in their writings about the dangers of unrestrained capitalism and called for greater financial oversight. He said it's unclear whether Vatican concerns about American-style capitalism would affect the cardinals' evaluations of Dolan and others.
"I think an American pope is very unlikely," Tilley said. "The only possibility is a long conclave in which no candidate emerges relatively early. What in effect would be a brokered election might surface an American. But I would not in the least expect that."
The Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and longtime commentator on Catholicism, said that the chances of an American pope are almost nil. One overlooked factor, he said, is that Americans are not great linguists, and popes have to be comfortable with many languages.
But the key, he said, is that the cardinals would worry about how the election of an American would be perceived around the world, especially in the Third World and Muslim nations.
(The Journal News, Westchester Co., NY)