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US will have unprecedented voice in electing new pope

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Wisconsin native James Harvey, right, was among six new cardinals installed during a ceremony on Nov. 24.

Updated at 6:41 p.m. ET: When the next Papal Conclave meets behind closed doors to replace the retiring Pope Benedict XVI, the United States will have an unprecedented voice in the process.

Eleven cardinal electors, almost 10 percent of the conclave, will be Americans -- the largest share the country has ever had, even though it has historically had a large Catholic population.

The retiring pope gets credit for the greater influence of the U.S.


Last year, he named three new American cardinals, increasing the U.S. total to 19. Only 11 will be electors because in order to vote in the papal election, the cardinals must be under 80 when the pope being replaced dies or leaves his seat.

With 11 votes, the U.S. is now the second-largest bloc, behind only Italy, which has 28 electors, according to the Holy See press office at the Vatican. Germany is third, with six. The new pontiff is expected to be elected by the end of March, according to Vatican officials.

The archbishop of New York, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, explains the "mixed emotions" he feels about the news that Pope Benedict XVI will resign on February 28, saying he feels a "special bond" with the pope.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York who was elevated to cardinal last year, is considered a longshot candidate to succeed the pope.

When asked about the qualities necessary for the next pope, Dolan told TODAY that "a good place to start would be to look at Pope Benedict."

He added: "There's a learning, a savviness about the world, there's a theological depth, there's an unquestionably personal piety and holiness, there's a linguistic talent, there's a knowledge of the church universal."

When asked whether he would be allowed to vote for himself, Dolan laughed. "Crazy people cannot enter the conclave," he joked.

The shift in power toward the U.S. “reflects the vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States,”  John Paul II biographer George Weigel said in November.

"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," he added.

Alessandro Speciale, Vatican correspondent at Religious News Service, echoed Weigel’s opinion, adding that “coming from the world’s only superpower could still be seen as a negative factor in a global church.”

What the increasing U.S. presence among the cardinal electors might mean is that Benedict XVI was very much aware that Catholicism is no longer a predominantly European religion.

Javier Barbancho / AFP - Getty Images

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

The U.S. has as many as 78 million Catholics, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. For comparison’s sake, Italy, despite having the largest share of electors and being primarily Catholic, has a total population of fewer than 61 million residents, according to World Bank estimates from 2011.

"It remains to be seen whether this numerical weight will actually translate into influence at the conclave," Speciale said in November. "Though national links are powerful, many other factors ... play into the secret voting at the Sistine Chapel."

Some experts have suggested that the next pope might be from Latin America.

Reuters noted Monday that Latin America now "represents 42 percent of the world's 1.2 billion-strong Catholic population, the largest single block in the Church, compared to 25 percent in its European heartland."

Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, who now holds the pope's old post as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is among the senior Vatican officials to suggest that it might be Latin America's turn.

"I know a lot of bishops and cardinals from Latin America who could take responsibility for the universal Church," he told Duesseldorf's Rheinische Post newspaper in December.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the retired archbishop of Los Angeles, announced in a statement Monday that he will help pick the next pope: "I look forward to traveling to Rome soon to help thank Pope Benedict XVI for his gifted service to the Church, and to participate in the Conclave to elect his successor."

Mahony's announcement that he'll participate in the decision came despite documents revealing he was complicit in protecting priests accused of sex abuse during his tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

The 85-year-old pope says he no longer has the strength to carry out his duties, announcing that he will resign effective February 28. NBC's Claudio Lavanga reports from Rome.

Related:

Pope Benedict XVI to step aside on Feb. 28

'Heavy heart but complete understanding': Pope's resignation stuns church leadership

From prisoner of war to pontiff: A timeline of Pope Benedict XVI's life