VATICAN CITY -- The emergency Vatican summit on clergy sex abuse will be an uncommon moment when American church leaders are the focus of attention in the world of Roman Catholicism.
While the United States has more Catholics (63.7 million) than all other countries except Brazil and Mexico, more cardinals (13) than any nation besides Italy and contributes handsome amounts of money, it is not generally considered a great force in the global church.
Experts agree no American would be elected pope, partly because the nation's superpower status would be seen as a problem by the other 115 voting members of the College of Cardinals.
The sex abuse crisis only adds to that handicap, although it ironically is giving American church leaders extended access to top Vatican officials and the pope himself.
Before John Paul II, the cardinals' only collective function was to elect one of their number as successor when the pope died. Otherwise, they gathered only for ritual installations of new members.
But John Paul considers them active advisers. For the first time in centuries, he assembled the full college a year after becoming pope, to air the church's agenda, and again in 1994 to address Vatican finances.
Cardinals have also joined special meetings called by this pope, including a 1989 session with all the U.S. archbishops on American church tensions.
What's unique this time is that all cardinals from a single nation are conferring -- and on just a week's notice.
What does it mean to be a cardinal?
Well, a cardinal's red hat is the highest honor the church bestows, next to the papacy. It goes to men who run the world's major archdioceses and Vatican agencies, plus top diplomats and special cases like U.S. theologian Avery Dulles, honored for a lifetime of astute scholarship.
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