As top Catholic leaders from around the world prepare to elect the successor to retiring Pope Benedict XVI, a new survey shows that nearly a quarter of American Catholics want the top leader of the world's largest church to come from the U.S.
According to the HuffPost/YouGov poll, 24 percent of U.S. Catholics want an American pope. The choice would be unprecedented in the church, though at least two Americans, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York and Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston, are rumored to be in the running.
The survey, which also asked Catholics and non-Catholics if they preferred a pope from Latin America, Europe or Africa, found that 45 percent of Catholics believe "it doesn't matter" where a pope comes from, and 13 percent had no opinion. As a whole, 14 percent of Americans said they wanted a pope from the U.S., while 43 percent said the pope's origin didn't matter and 29 percent had no opinion.
The pope, arguably the most powerful religious leader in the world, also has significant political sway. Benedict shocked Catholics when he announced last week that he will retire on Feb. 28 due to health reasons, after seven years in the post. He will be the first pope to resign in 600 years.
The church's current rules, instituted by Pope John Paul II, say that a conclave to elect a new pope must convene no less than 15 to 20 days after the prior pope leaves his position. That means the earliest conclave could start on March 15, though a Vatican spokesman has said the election may be earlier.
Vatican observers and reporters have floated the names of several cardinals from Latin America and Africa, as well as a top Canadian Catholic leader, for the papacy. But nearly all popes in history have been born in Europe, and of the 117 Cardinals eligible to elect the new pope, the majority are European. Italy, with 28 cardinals, is the most represented country.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll, conducted February 12-13 among a representative sample of 1,000 U.S. adults (206 of whom were Catholic), also asked how Americans view Benedict and how they believe his resignation will affect the church. About a third of Catholics said they viewed the pope very favorably, while only 10 percent of non-Catholics said the same. Thirty-one percent of Catholics said they had a "somewhat favorable" opinion of him, compared to 18 percent of non-Catholics.
Nearly one-third of Catholics either said Benedict's resignation will help the church or be a "mixed blessing." But many non-Catholics, 48 percent, said they weren't sure what effect his retirement would have.
A Washington Post-ABC poll also released this week found that just over half of Americans and almost two in three American Catholics approved of the pope's performance. Those figures are lower than ratings for Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. The news organizations surveyed Americans in 2004 and found that 67 percent approved of John Paul II then, including 87 percent of American Catholics.
The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life also recently polled American Catholics, finding that John Paul II's ratings were higher than Benedict's.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll was conducted using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population. Factors considered include age, race, gender, education, employment, income, marital status, number of children, voter registration, time and location of Internet access, interest in politics, religion and church attendance. The margin of error was 3.6 percent.
Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for Eastern Churches, splashes holy water during his visit to the Church of the Nativity in the biblical West Bank town of Bethlehem on February 27, 2008. AFP PHOTO/MUSA AL-SHAER (Photo credit should read MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP/Getty Images)
TRIER, GERMANY - APRIL 13: Cardinal Marc Ouellet holds a mass in celebration of The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe at the Cathedral of St Peter on April 13, 2012 in Trier, Germany. The Pilgrimage of the Holy Robe runs from April 13 to May 13, during which hundreds of thousands pilgrims are expected to view the Holy Robe. The robe, said to have been worn by Jesus Christ leading up to his crucifixion, is housed by the cathedral and rarely displayed for public viewing. (Photo by Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images)
The President of the Pontifical Council for Culture, cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi poses during the presentation of Pope Benedict XVI's new book 'Childhood of Jesus' to the press on November 20, 2012 at the Vatican. “Childhood of Jesus” is the third volume of Joseph Ratzinger's 'Jesus of Nazareth' series. AFP PHOTO / ANDREAS SOLARO (Photo credit should read ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images)
Vatican State Secretary Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone (L) and the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola chat at La Scala theatre in Milan on June 1, 2012 during the 7th World Meeting of Families. Benedict attended a concert at the prestigious Scala opera house to hear Beethoven's Ninth Symphony conducted by Daniel Barenboim. AFP PHOTO / POOL / DANIEL DAL ZENNARO (Photo credit should read DANIEL DAL ZENNARO/AFP/GettyImages)
President of the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue of the Vatican City Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran (C) pay his respects at the Golden Temple Sikh Shrine in Amritsar on November 11, 2011. Tauran along with four members visited the city to attend a religious seminary on Sikhism and Christians to be held at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar on November 12. AFP PHOTO/NARINDER NANU (Photo credit should read NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images)
Pope Benedict XVI talks with Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, president of CEI (Italian Bishops' Conference), during an audience with the Curia for Christmas greetings, in the Sala Clementina of the Apostolic Palace, in Vatican City, Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011. The Pope met with Cardinals and members of the Roman Curia for an exchange of greetings ahead of the year end festivities. (AP Photo/Claudio Peri, Pool)
New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan speaks to the press in his residence, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Dolan says he was as startled as the rest of the world about Pope Benedict XVI's announcement that he will resign later this month due to failing health. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)
Luis Antonio Tagle of the Philippines takes place for an audience with the pontif on November 26, 2012 at Paul VI hall at the Vatican. Pope Benedict XVI led an audience to the six non-European prelates appointed two-days ago as new members of the College of Cardinals. AFP PHOTO / VINCENZO PINTO (Photo credit should read VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images)
Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze, right, arrives for a meeting, at the Vatican, Monday, March 4, 2013. Cardinals from around the world have gathered inside the Vatican for their first round of meetings before the conclave to elect the next pope, amid scandals inside and out of the Vatican and the continued reverberations of Benedict XVI's decision to retire. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini) CORRECTION: An earlier photo incorrectly identified Bernard Cardinal Agre, the Archbishop Emeritus of Cote D'Ivoire as Cardinal Arinze