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.