R. Scott Appleby, a historian, is director of the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is a co-editor of “Catholics in the American Century: Recasting Narratives of U.S. History” and the author of “The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation.”
An American pope? No chance.
That was the consensus a mere eight years ago — a blip in church time — upon the death of Pope John Paul II. Both Europe, the institutional epicenter of the Catholic Church, and the developing world, its demographic stronghold, were too resentful of America’s global footprint: its ostentatious wealth, its ubiquitous military presence and its saber-rattling, diplomacy-scorning president bent on prosecuting two unpopular wars. Big Brother hardly needed a partner in the Vatican.
Nor did U.S. social trends inspire confidence among the men who would elect the next pope. They were not alone, of course, in deploring the values celebrated in American popular culture and exported across the planet by Hollywood and Wall Street. But the cardinals appointed during the 27-year pontificate of John Paul II shared a more pointed diagnosis of the American soul: U.S. constitutional guarantees of individual freedoms, distorted by the materialism and hedonism of unbridled capitalism, had produced a climate of moral license — to have abortions, use birth control and eschew marriage.