As this summer of scandal in the Catholic Church has unfolded, many have offered suggestions for how to address the deeper issues lying at the heart of the corruption within Church leadership. We’ve seen calls to end the “imperial episcopate,” make clerical celibacy optional, even for a mass resignation of the US episcopate and bringing back something akin to lay trusteeism. (That may be a tendentious reading of the proposal here.)
And, of course, some are once again calling for the ordination of women to the priesthood, which the last three popes have all affirmed is impossible. This has not stopped some from continuing to argue that bringing women into Sacred Orders is a necessary step to combat abuse and corruption in the Church.
Fr. James Keenan, SJ, a moral theologian at Boston College, has offered his own suggestion, a seeming middle way: to change canon law and Church practice and add women to the College of Cardinals.
Putting things bluntly, Fr. Keenan states, “I believe that until women have power in the church, we will not be reformed. By power, I don’t think making women deacons is much of a step; I think making them cardinals is.” (Nota bene: Pope Francis does not thinking that making women deacons is a solution, either, as he expressed his anger over the way his commissioning of a body to examine the role of ancient deaconesses was misconstrued to be preparation to ordain women into the Order of Deacons, which is not at all the same thing.) Fr. Keenan takes the suggestion of Cardinal Arborelius of Sweden to have an official “College of Women” as consultors to the pope and brings it one step further: simply admit women to the Sacred College itself. (He rejects the cardinal’s suggestion as akin to racial segregation, “separate but equal.”)
Whereas the current Code of Canon Law requires cardinals to be clerics, it was not uncommon in previous periods in Church history for laymen to be created cardinals, as Fr. Keenan notes. The Renaissance period was dotted with “cardinal-princes” who advised and elected popes. And Fr. Keenan reports rumors that both Pope St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI offered to make St. Teresa of Calcutta a cardinal, “but she didn’t want it” (apparently trying to add “conservative” bona fides to the idea).
We’re even given a list of women theologians to choose from:
Think of M. Shawn Copeland, Lisa Sowle Cahill, St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson, Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley, Cathleen Kaveny, María Pilar Aquino, Dominican Sr. Mary Catherine Hilkert, Susan Wood, Phyllis Zagano, C. Vanessa White, and Immaculate Heart of Mary Sr. Mary Ann Hinsdale. From around the world, think of Linda Hogan, Agnes Brazal, Philomena Maura, Maria Clara Bingemer, Marianne Heimbach Steins, Virginia Saldanha, Ivone Gebara, Benedictine Sr. Teresa Forcades, Holy Child Jesus Sr. Teresa Okure, and hundreds of others.
His assertion that naming women as cardinals is both “theologically and theoretically possible”—quoting the former Vatican spokesman, Fr. Federico Lombardi—is certainly correct. However, the key question is not whether it is possible, but whether it would be beneficial. What advantages and disadvantages would there be to naming women as cardinals?
As Fr. Keenan and others having argued, having women cardinals would send a strong signal of women’s “empowerment” within the Church. Women might more easily be placed at the head of Vatican congregations. Women would be involved in electing popes. Women would be given a place of real power in a Church often seen as patriarchal in the most negative sense.
But look at the list provided. Why do those who suggest this route always have the same sort of people in mind as “ideal” female cardinals: progressive social justice activists and suspect theologians? Many on Fr. Keenan’s list have publicly dissented from Church teaching, and a few have even been investigated or censured by the doctrinal watchdogs of the USCCB and the Vatican (several instances of which are noted here).
You’ll notice, too, that Fr. Keenan slips in a passing reference to “workin[ing] to see women… ordained as deacons,” which the weight of theological opinion agrees is an impossibility just as much as women priests, because the Sacrament of Holy Orders, though it consists of distinct orders, is one sacrament, meaning that the requirements for validity for one order are the same for all the others. It’s not unreasonable to see this call for women cardinals as thin edge of the wedge, looking to pry loose the nails that have heretofore closed off that possibility.
The subtle hint is always there, though seldom stated outright: if women were in more positions of power in the Church, they would be able to effect changes in Church teaching that many women (they say) would like to see, from female ordination to declaring contraception, abortion, and a range of other acts as morally licit. For these advocates, the purpose of this power is not to reform, but to transform.
As we speak about power, we must ask: is this not simply a form of clericalism, a phenomenon much decried by Pope Francis? Has not the Holy Father spoken repeatedly against attempts to try to “clericalize the laity” thus denigrating the inherent dignity of all Christians? Notice how Fr. Keenan frames the issue in his opening sentence: “I don’t see enough constructive models of empowerment.” This is a common stance among advocates of women’s ordination and women cardinals: to speak about power rather than service, about decisions rather than ministry, about representation rather than the Gospel.
At a time when the divisions within the Church are becoming more visible, would such a move help to heal them, or only exacerbate them? Would we begin to talk of constituencies needing to be represented? Why have only theologians—why not businessmen or “thought leaders,” and so forth? Should “cardinal-princes” be revived in the form of creating political leaders as cardinals, representatives of their nations’ interests? Who would like to see Tony Cardinal Blair? Though I must admit, the prospect of Jacob Cardinal Rees-Mogg is intriguing—but that only proves my point! Isn’t there enough of the Corinthian error right now—with “I belong to Paul” and “I belong to Apollos” becoming “I belong to Burke” and “I belong to Marx” (with all the delicious irony that latter provides)—must we multiply it?
What gives the game away in Fr. Keenan’s article is that, though he prefaces his case for women cardinals by speaking of the current scandals and the need for reform in the Church, he never actually states how bringing women into the Sacred College will alleviate the particular problems the Church faces. This creates the sense that Fr. Keenan and others advocating for such changes are merely taking advantage of the situation to push an idea they held otherwise—or in the words of current political argot, to “never let a crisis go to waste.” This is hardly the time for such things.