The contingent of 11 American cardinals who will participate in the conclave to elect a successor to Pope Benedict XVI matches the largest group in election history and is poised to have a heavy influence on the deliberations.
The Americans represent both residential sees in the United States and offices of the Roman Curia, or the central government of the Church. For Cardinals Francis George, Roger Mahony and Justin Rigali, this will be their second time to vote in a conclave. The rest will be voting for the first time.
Three of the voting cardinals serve in the Curia: Cardinals Raymond Burke, William Levada and James Harvey. Cardinal Burke, 64, had served as bishop of La Crosse, Wis., and archbishop of St. Louis before his appointment as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court in the Church. He is considered one of the world’s greatest experts on canon law and also serves as a member of several important Vatican offices, including the congregation that selects the world’s bishops for approval by the pope. Cardinal Levada, 76, was archbishop of San Francisco in 2005 when the newly elected Pope Benedict picked him to be his successor as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office that safeguards the teachings of the Church and also handles the world’s clergy sex abuse cases. He retired in 2012. Cardinal Harvey, 63, who was named to the College of Cardinals last November, was a longtime official in the Vatican Secretariat of State and served from 1998 to 2012 as prefect of the papal household, the office that provides the pope with his day-to-day needs. He was appointed archpriest of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls Basilica in Rome last year.
For Cardinal Francis George, 76, archbishop of Chicago since 1997, his experience in 2005 will be valuable to those attending for the first time.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, 63, was bishop of Sioux City, Iowa, before becoming coadjutor archbishop of Galveston-Houston in 2004 and then archbishop in 2006. He leads one of the most ethnically diverse archdioceses in the United States.
Cardinal Timothy Dolan, 63, archbishop of New York since 2009, is probably the best-known U.S. cardinal and is famous for his combination of astute media awareness and solid orthodoxy.
Cardinal Edwin O’Brien, 73, had been the archbishop of the U.S. Military Services and archbishop of Baltimore before being named grand master of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem in 2011.
A Capuchin Franciscan, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, 68, was named archbishop of Boston in 2003 and has worked to bring reforms and healing to the Catholic community of New England that was ground zero for the clergy sex abuse scandal.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl, 72, has been archbishop of Washington, D.C., since 2006. This is technically his second conclave as he served as a non-voting secretary to Cardinal John Wright during the 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II.
The secular media will likely devote much attention to two retired but still voting cardinals: Roger Mahony, 76, archbishop emeritus of Los Angeles, and Justin Rigali, 77, archbishop emeritus of Philadelphia. Similar attention was paid in the 2005 conclave to Cardinal Bernard Law, the former archbishop of Boston who resigned in 2002 in the wake of the sex abuse scandal. Both Cardinals Rigali and Mahony have been heavily criticized for their handling of abuse cases, and their presence in the conclave will be sure to spark protesters and hard questions from reporters.
American participation in conclaves is still relatively new in Church history. The first American cardinal was named in 1875, John McCloskey of New York. He had the opportunity to be the first American to vote in a conclave three years later after the death of Pope Blessed Pius IX. Cardinal McCloskey’s ship arrived too late for him to enter the conclave, however, so the honor of being first fell to Cardinal James Gibbons, archbishop of Baltimore, who voted in the 1903 conclave that elected Pope St. Pius X.
Reaching Rome in time to enter the Sistine Chapel proved a challenge for the non-European cardinals in the early 20th century. And so, when several cardinals, including Americans Denis Dougherty of Philadelphia and William O’Connell of Boston, arrived too late again to join the conclave in 1922, the newly elected Pope Pius XI extended the time period between the death of a pope and the start of the election.
Since then, Americans have taken part in every conclave, with the size of the American contingent increasing over the decades. Nine Americans took part in the October 1978 conclave that elected Pope John Paul II, and there were 11 cardinals in 2005, matching today’s total.
An American pontiff?
Media speculation has also centered on whether an American might be a serious candidate to be elected pope in this conclave. There are potential scenarios in which Cardinals Dolan or Wuerl could be chosen, although both are considered longshots chiefly because of the presence of the United States as the world’s lone superpower. Each, however, could play a significant role in helping cardinal-electors to achieve a consensus on other candidates.
Something similar reportedly occurred in the second conclave of 1978 after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I. When it became clear the cardinals could not settle on an Italian candidate, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia raised the idea of a non-Italian, and with Cardinal Franz König of Vienna giving support, he pointed the way toward the unexpected election of Karol Wojtyla, the archbishop of Krakow who took the name John Paul II.
Matthew Bunson is the editor of The Catholic Almanac (OSV, $32.95) and the Catholic Answer magazine.