Boston media is abuzz with speculation that the city’s own Cardinal Sean O’Malley might be a contender for the papacy. Although opinions vary on his chances - he's been called the frontrunner by some, a long shot by others - the possibility of an American pope raises many issues, even for non-Catholics.
The papal selection story would normally be of little importance for humanists and other nonbelievers, but obviously an American pope could have an impact far beyond Catholic life and religious doctrine. Questions and issues would be numerous. Would an American in the Vatican ignite a religious revival of sorts in the United States (which is already one of the most religious developed countries), and how would that affect public policy? How would Protestants, and specifically the Religious Right, react to an American pontiff? Since church leaders are always vocal in condemning secularism, would this new pope be a resource for the anti-secular forces in his homeland?
There can be little doubt that an American papacy would result in a surge of energy for American Catholicism. Many local parishes would be filled for at least a few Sundays, as long-absent nominal Catholics return to the pews to participate in the victory celebration. Bill Donohue, the always camera-ready Catholic League president, would be booked solid for awhile, as news anchors wait in line for his insight and analysis. And this surge in American Catholicism would most likely result in a surge in church revenue, as the relatively wealthy American flock, appreciating its newfound connection to Rome, opens its checkbooks more generously.
The real question, however, is whether the energy would last, and whether an American pontiff would have a long-term impact on American society. Would Catholic theology suddenly be seen as more relevant in the lives of America’s Catholics, many of whom haven't practiced in years? Would the church as an institution find renewed legitimacy in the social/political arena?
Most of this remains unclear. A hometown hero rising to the top of one of the world’s oldest and largest institutions is big news, but this particular institution has seen better days. Modernity has been chipping away at the church’s credibility since at least the Reformation, and subsequent confrontations with science, from Galileo to Darwin, have often left the church appearing quite fallible. With a theology steeped in very specific supernatural claims - divine revelation, the virgin birth, the deification of a man, etc. - Catholicism, like other branches of Christianity, has struggled against the inevitable rethinking of life and values that has accompanied the awesome advancement of real-world, secular knowledge.
Indeed, the church as an institution would have found the modern era to be quite a challenge under any circumstances, but the institution’s own unique characteristics – generally inflexible, slow to change, male-dominated, with customs and practices rooted in ancient culture – have made its adaptation to contemporary society even more difficult. Add to that a horrific, widespread, and seemingly endless child sex-abuse scandal and subsequent cover-up, and the institution’s credibility and long-term relevance are even more questionable.
As such, after the initial excitement of an American sitting atop the heirarchy in Rome fades, it's possible that most Americans, Catholic and otherwise, would return to daily life relatively unchanged. Surveys suggest that Americans are unsympathetic to many, if not most, of the church's visible public positions, and there is little reason to think an American pope will change that. Even some 98 percent of sexually active Catholics have used birth control, and significant majorities oppose the church’s views on most major issues. It seems unlikely that an American papacy would somehow radically alter such views.
Indeed, the church’s struggle for credibility can be better understood when one considers its obsessions with social issues, most of which relate directly or indirectly to sex, and most of which reflect a consistent indifference, if not hostility, to the rights of women and gays. Curiously, for example, American Catholic bishops even opposed the Violence Against Women Act, because the legislation acknowledged “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.” Unambiguously, this is a brazen declaration of priorities that places the bishops' opposition to LGBT rights higher than their opposition to violence against women.
If such positions are typical of the men who lead American Catholicism, there is little chance that they will resonate after the initial euphoria of a local hero being selected as pope subsides. Truth is, these men often do more than anyone to show America the wisdom of humanism and secularism.