Could O'Malley be the center-right candidate for the next pope?

Could O’Malley be the center-right candidate for the next pope?

Could O’Malley be the center-right candidate for the next pope?

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston. (Credit: Isabella Bonotto / AP.)

As a thought experiment, ponder who might be the candidate of center-right cardinals in a future papal election. How about Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston?

News Analysis

ANAHEIM, California – For one weekend every year, the two great Magic Kingdoms of the world collide in Anaheim, California, when Disneyland’s neighborhood is taken over by the Catholic Church for the Religious Education Congress of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest annual gathering of Catholics in North America.

For those 72 hours, Anaheim becomes Rome, in that it’s entirely possible that around every street corner, you’re going to bump into an old Catholic friend.

This Sunday, Crux’s Christopher White and I bumped into one such old friend, and over breakfast we had one of those conversations that people absorbed by Church affairs often do. My friend posed the following question: If there were a St. Gallen group of center-right cardinals today trying to prepare for the next papal conclave, who would their candidate be?

(The reference is to a group of progressive cardinals who met occasionally between 1995 and 2006 to talk about future popes, and who played a role in the election of Pope Francis. The existence of the group was confirmed in a biography of Cardinal Godfried Daneels of Belgium.)

White and I kicked the question around, and here’s what we came up with: Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston. I know, I know, the idea of an American pope seems a stretch, but hear us out.

First, O’Malley gets a discount on the general bias against American candidates for a couple of reasons. To begin with, because he’s a member of a major religious order, the Capuchin Franciscans, he strikes many people in the Church more as a citizen of the world than of any one specific nation, and he also has strong support in many places outside American airspace.

Recently, for instance, Crux’s Claire Giangravé and I attended an informal briefing in Rome ahead of Pope Francis’s March 17 visit to San Giovanni Rotondo, the home of Padre Pio, led by Capuchin Father Antonio Belpiede, who for many years served as the spokesman for the sanctuary.

When asked a question about the order’s response to the Church’s clerical sexual abuse scandals, Belpiede launched into a fairly lengthy excursus about how proud he is to belong to the same order as O’Malley, and how much the entire Church would benefit from following the example set by O’Malley on the abuse issue.

In addition, O’Malley’s life experience and command of languages don’t peg him as the typical American in the eyes of most people in other places. He spent most of his priestly career in Hispanic ministry, and speaks fluent Spanish, Portuguese and Italian.

Among Italian journalists covering the Vatican, O’Malley is known as the cardinale meno americano tra gli americani, meaning the “least American cardinal among the Americans.”

As another consideration, probably the defining characteristic of today’s center-right cardinal would be a desire for someone who has the same ability as Francis to make the outside world feel good about the Catholic Church, but with a slightly greater degree of doctrinal caution.

That’s O’Malley to a tee. Doctrinally, he’s fairly by the book, staunchly pro-life and upholding traditional positions on marriage, birth control, and virtually every other hot-button issue. One will scour his record in vain for a moment in which he’s said or done something that could even remotely be considered heterodox. (That’s unless, of course, one considers something like participating in a 2009 funeral for Senator Edward Kennedy a doctrinal question mark.)

By nature, O’Malley’s not really given to spontaneous commentary on any topic under the sun, preferring to measure his words carefully. That would undoubtedly be reassuring to come cardinals weary of Francis’s shoot-from-the-hip style, which, for some of them, creates a constant low-level anxiety about when the next bomb might go off.

Yet at the same time, O’Malley would be in a position to capture a good share of likely “continuity” voters in a future papal election, given his close association and obvious affection for Francis.

Like Francis, O’Malley too projects simplicity and humility, typically going around in his brown Capuchin habit rather than the usual finery of a Prince of the Church. He insists on being called “Cardinal Sean,” and has a palpable affection for ordinary people. Moreover, as a member of Francis’s “C9” council of cardinal advisers, he’s seen as a Francis intimate.

When my Crux colleague Inés San Martín met O’Malley for the first time, she was struck more than anything else by his humanity, his “normal guy” ethos and obvious pastoral heart.

Above all, of course, there’s O’Malley’s reputation as the Church’s leading reformer on the abuse scandals, including his leadership of the pope’s Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, launched by Francis to advise him on the policy dimension of the Church’s efforts to keep children safe.

Without ever intending to, O’Malley has managed to position himself as both a critic of Francis when necessary – highlighted by his distancing statement when Francis accused Chilean abuse victims suggesting a local bishop was guilty of a cover-up of “calumny” and demanded they deliver proof – while simultaneously making it clear he believes the pope is trying to do the right thing.

White and I did consider alternatives for the center-right candidate’s slot, including Cardinals Robert Sarah of Guinea, Antonio Cañizares Llovera of Spain (known as the “little Ratzinger,” a reference to Pope emeritus Benedict XVI), and Malcolm Ranjith of Sri Lanka, but for different reasons, none struck us as quite as plausible.

Of course, trying to predict the next pope is a notoriously hazardous enterprise – as the saying goes, “He who enters a conclave a pope exits a cardinal.” (Like so many bits of conventional wisdom, that’s true maybe half the time – survey the last five papal elections, a clear favorite won twice – Paul VI and Benedict XVI – a B-list candidate won twice – John Paul I and Francis – and a longshot came through once in John Paul II.)

Still, we’re not trying to predict the pope here, merely the figure one constituency within the cardinals might consider lining up behind. My suggestion is this: If it does happen this way, remember you heard it here first; if not, try to forget I ever said anything!

Latest Stories