By Michelle Boorstein
The Washington Post
When someone becomes pope — God’s representative on Earth to Catholics — he dons all white, takes the title “his holiness,” and is greeted even by top cardinals with a kiss of his ring. Can a cardinal who pals around with Stephen Colbert fill such a vaunted role? How about one with a style so simple that he serves tuna sandwiches and chips to even his most important guests?
Yet these two men — Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York City and Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston — are being talked about as contenders for the papacy, marking the first time an American has ever been seriously considered.
A U.S. pope has long been viewed as a highly unlikely possibility, partly due to the nation’s reputation as too informal, in contrast with the heavily ritualized, even mystical Vatican culture. An even larger obstacle, experts on Catholicism say, is the image of the United States as a global superpower reputedly under the sway of Wall Street and the CIA and morally corrupted by Hollywood.
But this year, “it’s a whole new ballgame,” as O’Malley said at a news conference Thursday. The stage has been set, he and others say, by Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to eschew convention and retire.
Now, even as a U.S. pope remains a long shot, the fact that it’s such a subject of discussion points to dramatic changes both in the Catholic Church and in the perception of the United States’s place in the world.
U.S. qualities long seen as disqualifiers suddenly look like selling points to some. Brash get-it-done cowboys? Perhaps that’s what’s needed to clean up Vatican corruption. Secularism and the collapse of the traditional family? Those are very familiar topics in the United States, as is clergy sex abuse.