US Catholics look for reset in choice of new pope

US Catholics, split on gay marriage and abortion and shaken by pedophile priest scandals, are hoping for a reset as the Church selects a new pope after Benedict XVI's shock resignation announcement.

"Our hope impels us to pray that the College of Cardinals under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit choose a worthy successor to meet the challenges present in today's world," Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who heads the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Monday after the historic abdication.

Dolan's statement appeared vague enough to satisfy the country's 65 million Catholics -- the world's fourth largest grouping of the religion -- whose stances differ on key social issues and church priorities.

"It's an opportunity to press the reset button," James Salt, executive director of Catholics United, told AFP.

"Unfortunately, too many American bishops have been focused on matters of human sexuality, such as women's access to contraception, gay marriage and abortion, when most Americans are dealing with the sagging economy (and) the threat of extreme weather events caused by climate change."

US bishops have spearheaded opposition to President Barack Obama's healthcare reform -- which includes insurance coverage for contraception -- while fighting on the front lines against gay marriage and abortion.

But American Catholics tend to be more liberal, with 54 percent in favor of gay marriage, 53 percent agreeing that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and more than 8 in 10 considering the use of contraceptives morally acceptable, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.

US Catholics' faith in their Church leaders has suffered a series of blows in recent years as clergy have been accused and at times convicted of having covered up pedophilia and dragged their feet in bringing priests to justice.

Many American Catholics expressed hope that the scholarly Benedict would be replaced by a pontiff more in touch with the Church's rank and file.

"We hope for someone with parish experience, aware of the joys and struggles of the ordinary Catholic," said Sister Florence Deacon, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which recently rankled the Vatican for taking positions that Church officials said were too liberal.

More conservative Catholics, distressed by America's liberal drift in recent years, said they feared the centuries-old Church might one day follow suit, sacrificing values they say are rooted in scripture.

Carol Anderson -- who is anti-abortion -- said she is following the upcoming selection process with "trepidation" in these "liberal, secular times."

"I'm really fearful," she said after mass in Washington.

Stephen Schneck, head of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, said "America's political divisions are increasingly also divisions among the faithful."

"As a result, I believe that high on the list for American Catholics' hopes for a new pope would be someone who does not sharpen these divisions but instead mediates them," he said.

While there is much speculation about who will succeed the 85-year-old Benedict, few expect the next pontiff to hail from the United States.

The United States already has "so much power, military power, economic power," said Stephanie Niedringhaus, communications coordinator for NETWORK, which calls itself a national Catholic social justice lobby.

"To also have an American in power in the Catholic church, I think that's not very balanced in the eyes of many people."

Even Dolan -- whose name has been floated as a possible papal candidate -- doesn't think it's likely, joking at a news conference Monday that he was "still writing thank-you notes from when I was made cardinal."