US will have unprecedented voice in electing new pope - | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

US will have unprecedented voice in electing new pope

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By John Newland and Claudio Lavanga, NBC News

When the next Papal Conclave meets to replace the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, the United States will have an unprecedented voice in the process.

Eleven cardinal electors, almost 10 percent of the Conclave, will be Americans -- the largest share the country has ever had, even though it has historically had a large Catholic population.

The retiring pope gets credit for the greater influence of the U.S.

Last year, he named three new American cardinals, increasing the U.S. total to 19. Only 11 will be electors because in order to vote in the papal election, the cardinals must be under 80 when the pope being replaced dies or leaves his seat.

With 11 votes, the U.S. is now the second-largest bloc, behind only Italy, which has 28 electors, according to the Holy See press office at the Vatican. Germany is third, with six.

The shift in power toward the U.S. "reflects the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States,"  John Paul II biographer George Weigel said in November.

The 85-year-old pope says he no longer has the strength to carry out his duties, announcing that he will resign effective February 28. NBC's Claudio Lavanga reports from Rome, who says the resignation "came as a shock."

"But I don't think it likely that any American will be elected pope for as long as the United States remains the world's pre-eminent power," he added.

Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent at Religious News Service, agreed with Weigel's opinion, adding that "coming from the world's only superpower could still be seen as a negative factor in a global church."

What the increasing U.S. presence among the cardinal electors might mean is that Benedict XVI was very much aware that Catholicism is no longer a predominantly European religion.

The U.S. has as many as 78 million Catholics, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. For comparison's sake, Italy, despite having the largest share of electors and being primarily Catholic, has a total population of fewer than 61 million residents, according to World Bank estimates from 2011.

"It remains to be seen whether this numerical weight will actually translate into influence at the conclave," Speciale said in November. "Though national links are powerful, many other factors ... play into the secret voting at the Sistine Chapel."

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