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Cardinal Timothy Dolan leads a morning prayer service at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Saturday, Feb. 25, 2012 in New York. While a long shot, Dolan is the most likely American candidate to replace Benedict XVI as pope.
American influence on the Papal Conclave that will elect the next pontiff has never been stronger. But the odds of an American becoming pope remain distant at best, Vatican scholars and journalists say.
That's in large part because the United States, with more Catholics than any European country, is already seen as having too strong a hand in global politics and economic matters. So why give us the papacy, too?
"America was a missionary country up to the beginning of the 20th Century, and we like to think of ourselves as the center of the world, but Rome doesn't," said Charles Hilken, a St. Mary's College of California history professor who specializes in papal elections.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI named three new American cardinals, bringing the country's total to 19, 11 of whom are younger than 80 and thus qualified to vote in the papal election. That's nearly 10 percent of the conclave.
Only Italy, home of the Vatican, has more eligible voters, with 28.
Of the American dark horses, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York has the best chance to succeed Benedict, who will abdicate this month, observers say.
"Look, the Holy Spirit has his little jokes, as they say in the Curia, so you never know what the conclave will do, and Dolan is certainly the most appealing American candidate, likely the most ever," said David Gibson, a writer for Religion News Service and the author of a biography of Benedict. "But he's still a huge long shot."
The reality is that the U.S. is not where the Catholic Church wants to focus its energy, Gibson said. While popes have always come from Europe, the church's future is widely seen as lying in the Southern Hemisphere: in South America, and in Africa, where membership is booming.
"If they go outside Europe for the first time, Latin America is the best bet," Gibson said.
In that sense, we still could see the first "American" pope, albeit one from Brazil (home of the largest Catholic population, more than that of Italy, France and Spain combined), or Mexico, with the second-largest Catholic population, or even Argentina.
There is also a promising candidate from the north: Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the Canadian-born former Archbishop of Quebec who now works in a powerful position in Rome.
"That's more likely than it going to the U.S., to be quite honest," Hilken said.