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Could secular forces play a role in who becomes Chicago's next archbishop?

As much as Chicago's Roman Catholics believe the selection of the city's next archbishop will be guided by the Holy Spirit, experts and history point to other forces, such as demographics and local politics, that help shape such decisions.

"Politics, diversity and money play a role in this world. We know that," said Miguel Diaz, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who served in Rome under the Obama administration.

"The pope is clearly not just the head of the world's Catholics. He's also the head of a sovereign state," he said. "That should tell you … the church is really functioning in two worlds."

As Cardinal Francis George battles cancer and urges the church to find his successor, Pope Francis must decide who will lead the church in the city that President Barack Obama calls home, where Catholic Charities relies on federal funding to serve hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans and where Catholic schools are lobbying for public funding to stay open.

The code of canon law that governs the appointment of Catholic bishops makes clear that no civil authority has the right to designate a church leader. Some observers, however, see more nuance in the process to pick George's successor, a decision that could provide a blueprint for the entire church in the U.S.

"There's an emphasis on the part of Francis that the church be a constructive player in the public debate," said Rocco Palmo, a Philadelphia writer and expert on the Catholic Church hierarchy. "Because of federal money and public grants, it poses a question to Francis: Is the church going to be a team player, especially with a pope who cares so much for the poor, or would he want the church to risk what it's able to do with public money because of its public positions or because of its aggressive stance on what's happening in the state?"

In fact, Chicago's Catholic Charities, the church's provider of direct services to people in need, is one of the largest in the American church. Since George arrived in Chicago in 1997, the number of clients served has doubled, to 1 out of every 3 Chicago residents, said Monsignor Michael Boland, president of Chicago's Catholic Charities. And last year, about 75 percent of its budget came from local, state and federal government contracts. In 2011, Catholic Charities across the state lost public funding for its foster care and adoption services when it refused to license qualified same-sex parents in civil unions.

Palmo points to something more personal that might also play into a decision on George's replacement, a roughly 50-minute meeting Obama had with Francis in March to discuss issues such as poverty, income inequality and the quest to halt human trafficking.

"It is the president's hometown," Palmo said. "He keeps talking about what a pleasant meeting he had with Francis. Admittedly this is probably on (the pope's) mind."

Some scholars, however, argue that the meeting between the pope and the president didn't signal a courtship.

"The meeting between the pope and (Obama) was not a love fest," conservative Catholic scholar George Weigel said. "I doubt that the Holy Father knows that (Obama) is from Chicago, and if he did he wouldn't care. No (U.S. government) or Illinois or Chicago politician is going to have anything to say about this succession that will make the slightest difference."

Jo-Renee Formicola, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, a Catholic institution in New Jersey, said while the pope might be aware that the church relies heavily on public funds to fulfill its mission, that's probably a minor factor in choosing George's successor.

"He will make his decision based on what is the best religious, spiritual role that the church can play and the individual is someone who's got to be able to straddle the problems between Catholic Charities and the state governmental structure," she said. "This is not a political appointment. It's a religious appointment."

She said she would not be surprised to see an archbishop who shares Obama's experience of community activism, largely honed in Chicago's Catholic parishes.

John Carr, director of the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, said Francis would be immune to political pressure. For all their similarities, Carr said, the pope and the president approach the world from two different vantage points.

"Francis looks at the world from the bottom up," he said. "That's not the way Washington looks at it.

"I don't think secular politics will have any significant impact on the selection," he added. "The ecclesial dimensions are so great and Pope Francis is such an independent figure that outside political influences are not going to have a role."

It would not be the first time secular politics guided a Chicago archbishop selection. In 1915, then-Auxiliary Bishop George Mundelein of Brooklyn was scheduled to go to the Diocese of Buffalo, N.Y. When the British government protested the idea of a bishop of German and Irish descent serving on the Canadian-American border, the pope tapped him to fill the Chicago vacancy instead.

Diaz, the former ambassador, said he never tried to meddle in such matters, even when church leaders were trying to decide who would be the next archbishop of Washington, D.C. But he said many factors play a role.

"Certainly the fact that the president is from Chicago, there has to be some kind of bell there, even if it loosely rings, some kind of hope for Chicago," said the former diplomat, who begins teaching at Loyola University Chicago in the fall.

"Yes, there are powerful interests from different parts of the world that can try to exert that kind of secular pressure on certain people who belong to the (Congregation for Bishops)," Diaz said, referring to the Vatican body that advises the pope on the selection of most new prelates. "None of us are naive enough not to know these things will not be in play. It's a big church. Like any other institution, it's comprised of human beings."

mbrachear@tribune.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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