The College of Cardinals began its pre-conclave meetings (the so-called Congregazioni Generali) this week in Rome, with 153 members in attendance. Of them, 115 are under the age of 80, and therefore eligible to participate in the papal election. The question popping up in every Italian newspaper article and commentary is, of course, the same: who will be the new Pope?
While, for obvious reasons, it is impossible to predict the most likely outcome of the cardinals’ decision, it is true that European, and especially Italian, media have devoted particular attention to Cardinal Timothy Dolan and to American cardinals in general. For instance, two days ago the daily Corriere della Sera, the most influential Italian newspaper, had a long interview with the Archbishop of New York . Yesterday, La Repubblica published a long article on the “Stars and Stripes cardinals” and how they are approaching the conclave.
Why are American cardinals receiving so much attention? One obvious, and superficial, reason is that they are much more skilled, as compared to other cardinals, in communicating and establishing relationships with the media. But there is another factor. The United States’ ability to preserve a vocal religious presence in the public sphere has always raised interest and curiosity in Rome, and especially now, in a time when the secularization of Europe is growing at an unprecedented level. It is not to reveal a secret to say that Benedict XVI himself, on many occasions, expressed appreciation for the “American model,” a model in which religious arguments in the public sphere are heard and debated much more than in Europe.
Why did this American model fit better with Benedict XVI’s approach and teachings? According to John L. Allen, Jr., Benedict XVI, contrary to the conventional narrative, tried to shape his teachings on the basis of an “affirmative orthodoxy.” In a conversation with Archbishop Dolan (A People of Hope, Image Books, 2011) Allen defined affirmative “in the sense of being determined to present the building blocks of orthodoxy in a positive key.” The emphasis would therefore be on “what Catholicism embraces and affirms, what it says ‘yes’ to, rather than what it opposes and condemns.” This affirmative orthodoxy works much better in a social context, like America’s, which welcomes religion in the public sphere and in which religious arguments are heard.
Today, the real challenge for the Catholic Church, especially according to many European cardinals, is religious indifference and the coming of a post-Christian world represented by a new type of man: the homo indifferens. As a result, the American experience, which represents, in many accounts, a hopeful and affirming Catholicism, is seen as a success story in Rome. This does not mean that in a few days we will have an American Pope. But I’m sure, like it or not, that the “American model” will matter in discussions on the future of the Church.