When Pope Benedict XVI was elected in 2005 few Vatican experts expected that the German pontiff would draw the United States closer than ever to Rome. In April of this year, however, Time magazine saw fit to call him "The American Pope". Certainly, in his curial appointments, Benedict XVI has seemed eager to have Americans in charge. Last month the press almost failed to notice that, with the appointment of the Archbishop of St Louis, Raymond Burke, as prefect of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest judicial authority in the Church, Americans now occupy three key positions in the Vatican. In 2003 John Paul II created Cardinal Francis Stafford, formerly Archbishop of Denver, and from 1996 to 2003 president of the Pontifical Council for Laity, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary. This office deals with matters of conscience involving the sacrament of penance, and with procedural issues concerning indulgences. Benedict XVI has kept Cardinal Stafford in this post, notwithstand ing his formal resignation in 2007, when he reached the age of 75. In May 2005 Benedict XVI appointed Cardinal William Levada, Archbishop of San Francisco since 1995, to succeed him in his own previous post as Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine for the Faith.
Now that Archbishop Burke has been chosen as the first non-European to lead the Apostolic Signatura, an American triumvirate of sorts has been installed within the Vatican.
This situation did not escape John Allen, the ever-alert Catholic journalist, who described Archbishop Burke's promotion as "a clear sign of appreciation for the American Church, a sentiment especially strong in Rome these days in the wake of what was considered a remarkably successful visit to America by Benedict XVI in April". Mr Allen added that the growth of American influence in the Vatican might also be attributed to the Holy See's growing discomfort with the increasingly secular European Union. By contrast, many Church officials regard the US as the last best hope for public Christianity. America is the only advanced country in the modem world to have retained a culture of faith; and Americans are at once aware and proud of their Christian heritage. It is curious that a nation originally founded on puritanical and almost explicitly anti-Catholic principles should today win the Church's approval for its spiritual vivacity. Moreover, the recent warmth between Mother Church and Uncle Sam flows both ways. The Methodist President Bush appears sincerely devoted to the Pope, to a greater extent, perhaps, than any previous president in American history. The only other occupant of the White House to match Bush in pm-papal fervour was not the Catholic John F Kennedy, but Ronald Reagan, who shared the anti-Communist sentiments of John Paul II.
During an interview before the recent papal visit to Washington President Bush went so far as to declare that he saw God when he looked into Benedict XVI's eyes, thus prompting speculation that he would follow his ally Tony Blair in becoming a Catholic after resigning from office. Of course, Bush's departure from the White House is imminent, and it is hard to imagine Barack Obama or John McCain showing the same dogged affection for the Holy Father. But a friendly relationship with the Holy See carries considerable political capital. There are now more than 60 million Catholics in the US, out of a total population of some 304 million, which means that any president would be foolish to shun the Church's blessing. From the Roman perspective, closer ties to America offer many benefits. A breakdown of the last collection of Peter's Pence showed that America gave $18.7m (£9.3m), more'than twice as much any other country. Furthermore, the Vatican recognises the importance of binding the American Church's hierarchy to Rome in order to keep American Catholics on the rails of orthodoxy. American Catholicism, while indisputably dynamic, is notoriously wild and independent, particularly on its liberal wing. With conservatives like Archbishop Burke exerting influence on both sides of the Atlantic, the Vatican is in a good position to channel America's spiritual energy. But how will America influence the Church? It is intriguing that, just as America's importance to Catholicism is rising, the country's global primacy appears to be under threat. Newspapers here are peppered with depressed editorials pronouncing the end of America's great "unipolar moment". Future occupants of the White House might struggle to call themselves Leaders of the Free World.
On the other hand, it may not be long before Time puts a real American pope on its cover.