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The path to an American pope? Cardinal's elevation gives US clout at Vatican

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.
Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.
New Cardinal James Michael Harvey of U.S. (right) is congratulated by another cardinal during a consistory ceremony in Saint Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Saturday.Tony Gentle / Reuters

Update at 7.20 a.m. ET on Nov. 24: Milwaukee Archbishop James Harvey and five others were made cardinals by Pope Benedict Saturday, Reuters reports. He reminded them that they wear red vestments because they must be ready to defend the faith "even to the shedding of your blood" in a ceremony in St. Peter's Basilica.

Published on Nov. 23, 2012: ROME — The red, or rather scarlet, carpet will be rolled in St. Peter's Basilica on Saturday for the elevation of six cardinals. The new so-called "princes of the church" will receive their ring, scarlet skullcap and the traditional biretta, a four-cornered hat, in a solemn ceremony presided by Pope Benedict XVI.

The ceremony won't only be a rare insight into one of the oldest and most colorful traditions in the Catholic Church, which with 1.1 billion adherents worldwide, represents more than half of the world's Christian population. It will also redefine the balance of power in the Catholic Church, and further increase the United States' influence in the election of the next pope.

Among the six cardinal-elects is James Harvey, an archbishop from Milwaukee who will become the 11th cardinal elector from the U.S., strengthening the country's position as the Vatican's second-largest voting bloc after Italy.  Cardinal electors are the members of the College of Cardinals who have not reached their 80th birthdays on the day the pope dies and are thus able to vote for the new prelate.

But as American author and John Paul II biographer George Weigel explains, the fact that American cardinals will represent almost 10 percent of worldwide electors in the next Conclave (the election of the pope), does not necessarily mean one of them will become the next Holy Father. 

"The prominence of American cardinals in the current college reflects the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States," Weigel told NBC News. “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." 

What the selection of an American to be one of the new cardinal electors might show however, is that Pope Benedict XVI is acutely aware that the Catholic Church is swiftly ceasing to be predominately European religion. After all, with 134 million followers, Brazil alone has more Catholics than Italy, France and Spain combined, according to a major study released in 2011. Even the United States, with 75 million or  24 percent of the world's Catholics, is far ahead of any European country.

Harvey, 63, is a well-known and respected figure in the Vatican. He was named prefect of the papal household in 1998, and has since arranged daily meetings and engagements for Pope John Paul II first, and Benedict XVI later. Having lived for the past 30 years in the Vatican, he may be more familiar with the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica than the "Domes" at the Mitchell Park Conservatory, but he never severed his ties with his native city.

Once he receives his ring, skullcap and hat on Saturday, Harvey will become the third American to be elevated to cardinal this year, after Edwin Frederick O’Brien and Timothy Michael Dolan received the honor back in February.

External link: Cardinals by country

While chances of an American to be elected Pope are still slim, American cardinals are undeniably a force in the Vatican. 

Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, has quickly become the superstar among American cardinals. His charismatic personality and quick wit  made him an instant hit with the media, who have been waiting for a camera-friendly cleric since the death of Pope John II, arguably the greatest Catholic communicator in the age of mass media.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, speaks with people waiting for free Thanksgiving groceries at the Lt. Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Memorial Community Center in Harlem on Tuesday.Spencer Platt / Getty Images

"Cardinal Dolan is definitely a candidate and enjoys a lot of name recognition — which helps in a global church," Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent at the Religious News Service, told NBC News.

"But two factors might weaken his chances: coming from the world's only superpower could still be seen as a negative factor in a global church, and he has never held a leadership position in the Roman Curia," he said, referring to the Holy See's administrative body.  

In any case, the choice of non-Europeans to high office in the Vatican is a way for the Holy See to shift the balance of power towards other continents and prove the “universality of the church.” 

"There was considerable criticism of the last group of cardinals being too European, too Italianate, and too Curial. I think it's fair to read this group as a response to that criticism," Weigel said.

Speciale agrees: "The previous Consistory in February had been criticized for being overly skewed towards Italy (and more in general Europe) and, again, the Curia. With this quite unusual second batch of red hats in a year, Benedict wanted to show his attention to the rest of the world."

Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. Look back at his life from childhood through his papacy.

Whatever the reason for the choice of non-European Cardinals, the selection plays in favor of the American grouping, which will have one more elector in their ranks.

"The power of Americans in the Vatican has grown significantly in the last few years: not just because of the star power of Cardinal Dolan but also thanks to the organization, economic resources and boldness in the defense of Catholic values in front of a perceived hostile society is admired by many in the Vatican," Speciale said.

"But it remains to be seen whether this numerical weight will actually translate into influence at the Conclave: though national links are powerful, many other factors — the strongest being whether one is part on not of the Roman Curia — play into the secret voting in the Sistine Chapel."

When the time comes, all Cardinals-electors from all over the world will "lock" themselves in the Sistine Chapel in order to vote for a new Pope. While it is unclear who will emerge from it as the new leader of the world's Catholics, one thing is certain: that American influence in that choice went up a notch.

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