Before I begin, please allow me to clarify. I am very thankful to live in a country where I am free to worship and live as I choose. I am infinitely more thankful to be a Catholic person, free to live the teachings of the Church, receive the sacraments, and share in her holiness. The Church is at the center of my Catholic life, and America is where I live out that life.
While centered in the Vatican, our Church is the Universal Church. It must continue to teach from its holy foundations and share the good news. The Holy Father must think of all his children, his flock as a whole. He must be fully consumed by the entirety of God’s one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
Conversely, we live in an all-consuming country. Radio talk show personalities like Michael Savage insist that Americans live in the “greatest country on God’s green earth.” In an age where manifest destiny should be extinct (what with the earth already fully discovered), our country is still one in which newspapers tie our foreign policy to notions of “exceptionalism.” We also live in a deeply divided and politicized nation. Finally, despite the divisions in our country, there is a strong undercurrent of nationalism stressing that we should be Americans first and everything else second.
There is no room for this type of manifest-destiny spirit and politicization in the Church. The Church serves one master—God. If an American were chosen as Pope, he would be expected by some to cater to the whims of the American people. He may be expected to be an American first and a servant of the Church second. And it is almost certain that his worldview would reflect in some way assumptions based on American exceptionalism, however much he might hope to be free of these. This would be a travesty for the Universal Church. In addition, the Catholic Church in America has become a big player in political debates. The Vatican has stated the teachings of the Church and has largely been able to avoid taking red or blue America’s side. An American Pope would not be granted such luxuries by the American press. In America, priests and bishops are scrutinized in the media by journalists and across the internet, particularly in the blogosphere, as if our country should be the focal point of Vatican decisions and dissemination of doctrine. If we had an American pope, this Americentrism would only increase.
This is not to say that we do not have holy American cardinals that lead their flocks with great faith and trust in God. We do. These cardinals are focused on sharing the Word of God and increasing the faithfulness of their flock. Unfortunately, this flock often places itself at the center of the Church and the demands that they place upon the Holy See are great. If one of our cardinals were to be pope, the demands would only increase. Contemporary Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, would likely exert tremendous pressure on any pope, making ministry to the worldwide Church very difficult—even more so if the pope happened to come from the United States.
Should we hope that someday there will be an American Pope? Yes. We should hope and pray that someday our country will foster the faith of someone with a heart for people of all nations, someone who will be a strong and inspirational leader willing to stand for the Church and her holiness. However, America does not seem ready to yield such a figure at this time within the current political climate. We should instead pray for a person who can unite our Universal and Holy Church to make her truly one. We should pray for someone who has a heart for people of all nations, especially the least among us. Regardless of provenance, the faith, heart, and leadership abilities of the new Pope will be what takes our Church into the future.