American Catholics are keeping close watch on developments in Rome, wondering how their relationship with the Vatican might change when a new pope is selected to replace Pope John Paul II.

There are an estimated 67 million Catholics in the United States. But American Catholics represent only about six percent of the more than one billion Catholics around the world. That is one reason why many Vatican experts say it is unlikely that an American cardinal will be chosen as the next pope.

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York is one of the 117 Catholic cardinals now in Rome who will select the next pope. He was asked about the qualities he is looking for in the successor to Pope John Paul II.

Cardinal Edward Egan
"It would be a wonderful thing if he has a lot of energy," said Cardinal Egan. "It would be very fine if he speaks a number of languages, understands a number of languages. It would be well if he has done a certain amount of traveling. It would be most important that he is a man of prayer and that he focuses on the congregations, the communities of faith, the parishes and the dioceses."

Whichever cardinal is selected as John Paul's successor, he will have to deal with a diverse U.S. Catholic church that has split on a number of religious and social issues.

Some recent polls indicate that a majority of U.S. Catholics disagree with church mandates against birth control, permitting priests to marry and allowing women to become priests.

The Reverend David Hollenbach is a Jesuit priest and a professor of Catholic Theology at Boston College. He says some American Catholics may look to the next pope for change, even as they honor the memory of Pope John Paul II.

"Where American Catholics, I think, have seen some new insights into the way in which living as a Christian does call for new ways of understanding the role of women in society, that there were some new insights about the significance and meaning of human sexuality that I think Americans felt were not sufficiently appreciated by the way the pope was approaching some of these issues," said Reverend Hollenbach. "But despite those questions that caused some debate and division, I think most Catholics in the United States felt that overall the pope was a man of great achievement and great leadership and therefore a person whom they admired deeply."

A recent Zogby poll found that 86 percent of those American Catholics surveyed thought that Pope John Paul II did a good job of leading the worldwide church. But a smaller majority, 59 percent, agreed that the pope understood the specific challenges facing the U.S. church.

Professor Chester Gillis teaches theology at Georgetown University in Washington. He told NBC's Meet the Press program that younger Catholics in particular tended to be selective about the pope's message.

"The pope's social teachings, for example, and his championing of the poor and his being with the underdog," said prof. Gillis. "They are all in favor of that. They are in favor of social justice. But teachings on sexual ethics just fall on deaf ears for them and they kind of selectively ignore that."

Many other American Catholics disagree with that approach. They will be looking for the next pope to follow in John Paul's footsteps.

Ray Flynn is a former Boston mayor who also served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican under President Clinton. He also spoke on NBC television.

"We have a good message, the teachings of [Jesus] Christ," said ambassador Flynn. "We also need a good communicator. We need somebody who believes in that and is able to articulate that. I think this is the talent of John Paul II and if I am looking for somebody as a pope, I would vote for somebody who is going to follow in that tradition, who is going to be respectful for traditional Catholic values regardless of what the political climate is."

Many American Catholics supported John Paul's strong stance against abortion, even though the country at large remains sharply divided over the issue.

Some recent polls suggest the pope was also having success in convincing U.S. Catholics to oppose the death penalty, even though a majority of the country still supports it.

Once again, Boston College Professor David Hollenbach.

"The issue of abortion is a very controversial one in American society," he said. "He also very strongly and vigorously opposed the death penalty and that is not a position that is largely popular in American society these days. But American Catholics have begun to accept this position adopted by the pope. The most recent polls indicate that more than half of the American Catholic population stands opposed to the death penalty and I think this is a result of American Catholics hearing the message of the pope and responding to it."

Another recent poll also indicated that 82 percent of American Catholics want the central church in Rome to do more to combat sexual abuse of children and teenagers by the clergy. The clergy abuse scandal, which broke in 2002, tarnished the church's reputation in the United States among both Catholics and non-Catholics.