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Jim Conrad of Clarence hopes to see an evangelical pope who emphasizes tradition and orthodoxy.

Phylis Slattery of Williamsville expects whoever is elected as Benedict XVI’s successor to clean up the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal.

“Do something, rather than just talk about it,” Slattery said.

Mary Ann Ingelfinger of Orchard Park prefers a candidate from outside the Vatican curia who can make the church more welcoming and less exclusionary.

Luke Slate wants a pontiff who will shed outdated traditions and lead the church in new directions.

“Being young, I feel part of a group that still has hope the next pope will be active in promoting change,” said Slate, a 17-year-old senior at Canisius High School.

With the papal election process set to begin Tuesday inside the Sistine Chapel, many of the world’s one billion Catholics are examining the state of the church and wondering what lies ahead.

That includes Western New York, home to more than 630,000 Catholics in eight counties, far and away the area’s largest denomination.

Yet recent studies and polls show that American Catholics often tune out the pope and the Vatican on matters of theology, faith practice and morals. And many of these U.S. Catholics believe church leaders are out of touch with them, especially on such topics as married priests and women clergy.

“A lot of people are expecting change with a new pope,” said Henry Zomerfeld, a University at Buffalo law student and campus minister at SUNY Buffalo State’s Newman Center. “Anytime you have a change in leadership, you want to see other changes.”

Some maintain that church restrictions against artificial contraception, women clergy and married men serving as priests are antiquated and should be changed.

Others question the election process itself, which has 120 cardinals – most of them older than 65, all male and all appointed by the previous two, ideologically similar popes – determining who should shepherd a tremendously diverse and far-flung flock.

When asked for her preferred characteristic in the next pope, Mary Herbst of Grand Island responded: “Of course I could say, ‘a woman,’ which is true, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Indeed, only baptized Catholic males are considered eligible for the post.

The monarchical hierarchy of the church is so stuck in the time of the Roman Empire that lifelong Catholic Gloria McLaughlin, a former nun, can hardly watch the election process anymore.

“I’ll be interested, but mildly,” McLaughlin said. “I wish I could give them more heed. I wish it were more significant in my life, but it isn’t.”

Real change doubted

The church has a golden opportunity to make big changes that could help restore credibility in the wake of the sex abuse scandals, McLaughlin said.

“The tragedy of it is certainly many American Catholics don’t get too excited about it because it’s going to be the same old, same old,” she added.

Ingelfinger of Orchard Park feels similarly that the next pontiff isn’t likely to take the church in a different direction, especially since his predecessor, Benedict XVI, will be living nearby and casting a long shadow in papal retirement.

“The very idea that he’s living there is going to color what the next pope thinks,” Ingelfinger said. “Benedict should have gone back to Germany to a monastery there. He didn’t have to be on the grounds of the Vatican.”

Nonetheless, Ingelfinger said it won’t make much of a difference in her life who gets elected.

“Whatever comes, I have been a Catholic and I will remain a Catholic because my faith doesn’t depend on one person or another,” she said. “I’ve been here for several popes, and I’ll be here when they’re gone.”

The papal office remains highly regarded among most American Catholics, including Ingelfinger, who said she respects the papacy and the tradition it represents.

Disconnect with Vatican

At the same time, Catholics in the United States – even those who strongly identify as Catholic and emphasize Catholicism’s importance in their lives – often tune out the pope and the Vatican.

Fewer than a third of Catholics in this country consider the Vatican’s teaching authority very important to them, and 20 percent described that teaching authority as not important at all, according to 2011 survey research by Michele Dillon, professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.

“There is a disconnect. American Catholics go their own way, regardless of what Rome says,” said Dillon, whose forthcoming book “American Catholics in Transition,” with co-authors William V. D’Antonio and Mary L. Gautier, explores practice and beliefs of American Catholics. “It’s very much their religion, not some distant hierarchy’s religion.”

The most recent data suggests American Catholics’ deep bond with the church is slipping, however, especially among women.

In 2011, about 55 percent of women surveyed in Dillon’s research said they would never leave the Catholic Church, which was down from 62 percent in 1993. Weekly Mass attendance among those women also fell to about 32 percent from more than 50 percent in 1987, and the church ranking among the most important parts of a Catholic woman’s life fell to 38 percent.

In 1987, 58 percent of women expressed that sentiment about the church.

“It’s as if they’re running out of patience,” Dillon said.

More than half of Catholics surveyed in a Quinnipiac University poll released Friday said church leaders were out of touch with American Catholics and the next pope should move the church in a new direction. The poll also showed strong support among American Catholics for married priests and women clergy.

The church seemed “a little outdated” and “stuck in some traditions” that are out of step with a world in constant change, said Slate, the 17-year-old Canisius senior.

“The church should try to keep up with that if it wants to retain its popularity,” Slate said.

Young Catholics especially could use a jolt from the papal changeover, he added.

“They tolerate the church right now, but they would definitely become more enthusiastic if a more liberal pope were elected.”

Does Slate think it will happen?

“Realistically, probably not, but my hope would be yes,” he said.

Others back tradition

There are other local Catholics, though, who want a pope who stays with traditional teachings.

Conrad of Clarence believes the future pontiff should avoid bending on church doctrine that has a track record of relevancy for 2,000 years.

Conrad wants a conservative pope who won’t hesitate “to be bold in telling the church of America, ‘This is the way it is.’ ”

“There’s a lot of cafeteria spirituality. There’s a lot of Catholics that can’t even recognize sin,” he said. “We tend to not be as obedient to the pope’s teaching … We have a different mindset over here in America. We’re kind of rebels.”

And Michael Godzala of Cheektowaga also doesn’t want to see the next pontiff stray from the church’s current teachings, including its belief that marriage exists solely for the benefit of a man and woman.

“I’m keeping to my faith, and whatever people want to do with gay rights and same-sex marriage, that’s their conscience,” said Godzala, who hopes to see a much younger man elected as pontiff this time around.

“The church needs a strong pope to spread the faith throughout the world and show that he’s the leader of the faith,” he said.

Whatever they think of church dogma and the current crop of “papabile” – those cardinals considered contenders for the papacy – many local Catholics are expected to tune into media coverage of the conclave spectacle.

The Rev. Francis Lombardo, a local Franciscan priest, already spent an hour answering questions about the conclave from parishioners of St. Gregory the Great Church in Amherst during a recent informal lunch get-together.

“Books are going to be written about this time,” he said. “This is history.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com