Cardinals enter "Pro Eligendo Pontifice" Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013 at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Could Pope Francis make women cardinals? A pipe dream, and an opening

(RNS) Could a woman vote for the next pope?

Cardinals enter "Pro Eligendo Pontifice" Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013 at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

Cardinals enter "Pro Eligendo Pontifice" Mass at St. Peter's Basilica on March 12, 2013, at the Vatican. RNS photo by Andrea Sabbadini

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Pope Francis has said repeatedly that he wants to see greater roles for women in the Catholic Church, and some argue that he could take a giant step in that direction by appointing women to the College of Cardinals – the select and (so far) all-male club of "Princes of the Church" that casts secret ballots in a conclave to elect a new pope.

Whether it’s even possible is a matter of debate. But that hasn’t stopped the feverish speculation, which was sparked last month by an article in a Spanish newspaper in which Juan Arias, a former priest who writes from Brazil, wrote that the idea “is not a joke. It’s something that Pope Francis has thought about before: naming a woman cardinal.”

Arias quoted an unnamed priest -- a Jesuit, like Francis – who said: “Knowing this pope, he wouldn’t hesitate before appointing a woman cardinal. … And he would indeed enjoy being the first pope to allow women to participate in the selection of a new pontiff.”

That was enough to start the ball rolling. The report was quickly picked up by Catholic media in Italy and then raced around a church that, in the months since Francis' election, has been primed to expect the unexpected from this pope.

In the U.S., the Rev. James Keenan, a fellow Jesuit and a well-regarded moral theologian at Boston College, started a post on his Facebook page soliciting nominees for the first female cardinal. Keenan said he wrote the post mainly as a way to recognize the many women who would be “great candidates.” On his list: Linda Hogan, a professor of ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin; Sister Teresa Okure, a theology professor at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Nigeria; and Maryanne Loughry, associate director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Australia.

But Keenan is not the first to float the idea.

Just last year, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was asked during an interview on Catholic television whether a woman could be named a cardinal. Dolan agreed that it was “theoretically” possible, adding:

“You know, in fact, get this, and I’ve heard it from more than one person, that one time somebody said to Blessed John Paul II, ‘You should make Mother Teresa of Calcutta a cardinal.’ … And the pope said, ‘I asked her. She doesn’t want to be one.’”

So what’s to stop Francis from taking that step – assuming he finds a woman willing to say yes?

It could be a tricky move, but there’s a saying in the church that while only God can create the world, only a pope can create cardinals. The role of the cardinal is not a biblical precept and is a relatively late development in Catholicism – the office in its familiar form was codified in the 12th century, when cardinals were given the exclusive right to elect a pope. The pope in turn can largely can set whatever parameters he likes for who becomes one of the 120 or so voting-age cardinals in the college.

Beyond that, there isn’t much more to the office; it is basically a title, an honor, albeit a grand one, and requires no special ordination. “The cardinalate is a very historical, human institution that can be changed more easily than other things,” said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

(RNS1-MAR31) Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was one of history's most infamous pontiffs, and serves as the inspiration of the new Showtime series, "The Borgias." RNS photo.

(RNS1-MAR31) Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) was one of history's most infamous pontiffs and serves as the inspiration of the new Showtime series "The Borgias." RNS photo.

In past centuries the office was often used as a patronage job; during the Italian Renaissance, Pope Alexander VI made his illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, a cardinal at the age of 18. Such nepotism led to a reform of the office, but laymen – never women – were occasionally made cardinals in the ensuing centuries, though they were eventually ordained as deacons.

The last cardinal who was not a priest was an Italian jurist, Teodolfo Mertel, who wrote laws governing the papal territories. Pope Pius IX made him a cardinal in 1858 and Mertel died in 1899.

In 1917, a revision of the church’s Code of Canon Law decreed that only priests and bishops could be made cardinals, and a subsequent update in 1983 said that anyone made a cardinal must become a bishop as well.

Yet popes have periodically dispensed with that requirement and have named priests as cardinals without making them bishops. In 1968, Pope Paul VI reportedly offered a red hat to the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, a layman. Maritain declined.

But the idea of making a woman a cardinal continued to percolate. The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, also a Jesuit whose progressive legacy has been praised by Pope Francis, proposed the idea years ago, as have several other church leaders and commentators.

The main obstacle now appears to be the requirement that a cardinal must be ordained. Yet that could be resolved by allowing women to be deacons – a level of ordination just below the priesthood. The idea of opening the diaconate to women has been gaining currency in recent years and has emerged as a possible path to the conclave for lay people, and specifically for woman.

Would Francis do it? He has said, among other things, that the church needs to develop “a truly deep theology of women” and that it “is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.”

Appointing women as cardinals might be one way to do that -- or the debate could provide cover for other, more realistic but equally momentous changes, such as naming a woman to head a major Vatican department or opening the diaconate to women.

In the end, as one Italian news story put it: “The pope is the supreme legislator of the universal church and is absolutely free to make decisions about canon law.”



  1. Creating women Cardinals would be very dangerous move, and in the long run it would inevitably lead to women priests and a feminization of the priesthood.

    This idea is another illustration of the near complete spiritual bancruptcy of the Catholic Church and of its sliding into evermore egalitarian waters. Catholic culture thrives on cultivating distinctions, not on leveling them off. Distinctions between men and women, between married people and celebetarians, between the laity and the clergy, between the religious and the secular, &c, &c. This proud cultivating of distinctions reflects the divine order, where each thing has its distinctive place and only exists by being different.

    The traditional cultivating of distinctions in calling and responsibilities should be kept intact and the modern attack on it should be called what it really is: uproar from the gutter.

  2. “This proud cultivating of distinctions reflects the divine order, where each thing has its distinctive place and only exists by being different.”

    Is this reflective of the Christian doctrine on the two natures of Christ? Of the Trinity? It seems a fabrication to word it in this way. The notion of a male-only college if cardinals seems a policy in search of a theology.

    What I would like to see is the detachment of cardinals from big archdioceses. In fact, when it comes to sees plagued by scandal, I would like to see the red hat withheld. Boston and Philadelphia, for example, should not have red hats and their bishops might be inappropriate metropolitans. A diocese like Erie, for example, with a good reputation for vocations and lay involvement might be a better choice than Philadelphia.

    And if we must have distinctions, maybe since we have men-only in the episcopate, an all-female college of cardinals is a must-have.

    That’ll keep ’em separate, eh?

  3. Actually, historically cardinals did not have to be ordained. I don’t know when that changed, but probably at the Council of Trent and the Counter-Reformation. Why women shouldn’t exercise leadership in the church (they already do as women religious) remains to be explained even if one DOES believe women shouldn’t be in Holy Orders.

  4. Mr Sevenster, could you explain what is so bankrupt about egalitarianism? Or, for that matter, what would be bad about a “feminization” of the priesthood? From the standpoint of the story of Jesus, arguably the most sacramental act of all time was performed by Jesus’ mother.

  5. nice posting. In the Middle Ages Red Hats came with considerable landholdings (i.e., wealth) and therefore were purchased by powerful families and placed on the heads of sons (sometimes sons not old enough to receive Communion) in order to enhance those families’ wealth and power. I imagine handsome emoluments still attach to cardinalates, though the idea is so un-handsome to the sensibilities of many Roman catholics that such information is carefully guarded. The real bottom line in this discussion is what the Roman catholic institution (like any other bureaucracy) feels it must do to maintain its status-quo, i.e., its power. The machinations of power are nearly always unattractive at best, and more usually, grotesque. Anyone who knows anything about the history of Vatican uses of power knows that the Roman church is no exception. When the bureaucrats in the Vatican find that the desire to keep women out of seats of power is outweighed by a desperate need to take steps to keep the whole thing afloat, Roman catholic women will find themselves in Holy Orders – including episcopal thrones.

  6. I actually wrote about this possibility earlier this year in connection with exploring ways of reviving first-millennium notions of ordination that could allow women to be “ordained” as leaders of “ordines” within the Church, but which would also preserve the priesthood as a male-only “ordo”:

  7. The pain caused by all-male church management inflected in women and girls and families can be understood if men go to confession to a woman.

    Then, men will feel how inappropriate and how wrong it is to confess sins and expect advise from the opposite gender.

    I encourage priests to present their list of “problems” to a woman, prior to going to confession to a priest. Does it feel good to talk about your sins with a woman ? And see how knowledgeable is a woman about male specific sins.

  8. We certainly wouldn’t want anything to disturb our distinctions. What would happened if someone disturbed the distinction between God and man?

  9. The pope can change the rules regarding papal electors anytime he chooses. If the pope insists on male priests and bishops, he can still provide for electors who cannot be elected pope. Current conclave rules provide for the priestly and episcopal ordination by the senior cardinal bishop in the conclave of the man chosen to be pope.

    Above all, why is it necessary even for a cleric to head up some of the dicasteries of the Vatican? Any qualified individual, it seems, could serve as head of the Vatican’s supreme court, the Apostolic Signature. LIkewise the dicastery charged with governing the Vatican state. There are others.

  10. There has been so much nonsense posted on this topic. Women cardinals would lead to women priests. Th Church has said no on women’s ordination and so on.
    Such arguments are pathetic. Cardinality is an appointment, not an ordination. There have been cardinals in Church history who were never ordained. So there is nothing in Canon law which prevents women from being ordained as cardinals.

    There are plenty of highly intelligent, qualified women experienced in so many areas who could transform the Curia. The Church would be blessed and transformed by the input of such women

  11. Sorry, I meant to say there is nothing in Canon law which could not be CHANGED by the Pope.

  12. The most important thing at the moment is to throw off those red garments and crown of the cardinals , bishops and that royal title , it is a disgrace for Jesus because it resembles Herod and not Jesus.They ought to be dressing like a pastor with the smell of the sheep.Pope Francis has said something akin to it if my memories are correct.After this essential reformation we can think of women and their rights.

  13. The door is closed … maybe … but the KEY is not lost.

  14. I thought Father Avery Dulles was the last non Bishop Cardinal.

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