Should the Church have women cardinals?

As we speak about power in the Church, we must ask: is this not simply a form of clericalism, a phenomenon much decried by Pope Francis?

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

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.

About Nicholas Senz 13 Articles
Nicholas Senz is is Director of Children's and Adult Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, TX. He holds Master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. Nicholas lives with his wife and three children. Visit him online at www.nicholassenz.com.

67 Comments

  1. A really tone-deaf article. Of all the things to propose while the Church is engulfed by apostasy, strangled by homosexual networks, and headed by the worst pope in 1,000 years. What could go wrong?

    • Couldn’t agree more. It is long past time to get back to the basics: emphasis on the FULL gospels and the ENTIRE bible, the sacraments (pride of place to the Body & Blood of our Lord), formation based on the catechism (without flinching at the most challenging teachings), and the rosary as the leading edge of a sound prayer life. Also, for those so inclined, the Liturgy of The Hours. How many of our clergy are so ordered, as they go about their business?

      • I think you did a good job on the article. Female cardinals are not the answer. Holiness is. I hope our shepherds begin to understand how serious a situation we find ourselves in.

    • After reading your comment a judge would render a directed verdict of guilty for the internet crime of posting without comprehending.

  2. Keenan and people like him are part of the problem, because they view the Church as a seat of power.

    He should get a different job.

  3. Perhaps the essential requirement is that the man be a committed and devout Roman Catholic who clings to Christ and rabidly adheres to the perennial Magisterium of the Church.
    We could almost start over from scratch if that was put in place.
    Maybe we should start there before we go gender bending the cardinalate.

    • “Perhaps the essential requirement is that the man be a committed and devout Roman Catholic who clings to Christ and rabidly adheres to the perennial Magisterium of the Church.”

      Are there no women who fit that description? Who would you rather have choosing the next pope: Cardinal Daneels or Janet Smith?

      Fr. Keenan’s article was intended to be provocative. The point of reforming the college of Cardinals would be to involve lay people, whether male or female.

      • “Are there no women who fit that description?” One might have asked that question of Christ when he chose the twelve. He chose men and so the priesthood is reserved for men, whatever our personal presences might be. But speaking of empowerment, the most empowered human being to ever walk this planet, and the most holy, humble and obscure, was a woman – the mother of Our Lord. His ways are mysterious …

        • If the Blessed Virgin Mary was not chosen from the very beginning to serve as a priest in a world packed with priestesses it is quite obvious that Almighty God was emphasizing an anthropological reality — a mystery within our human constitution. He chose her as His living spotless tabernacle and cast a light upon the depth reality of her femininity. He very well might have revealed Himself as a goddess in the Genesis accounts. He might have been incarnated as a woman at that critical moment in history. He is God. He can do what He wills.
          But no. Why. What is Almighty God attempting to affirm and communicate to us about the sexes?
          Our speculators and theorizers who believe themselves theologians are unable and unwilling to scratch the Divine Mystery unable to more beyond their unwillingness to accept the God given nature and purpose or their own genitalia. Yes – these organs define us. What a wonder.
          Genesis. Generate. Generation. We participate in God’s eternal creative act in time, and if we achieve union with Him by His mercy, in eternity.
          Why do we – the clergy no less than the laity — continue to consider the clerical and religious states as superior and honorable? They are modes of depth service. We are nothing more than slaves having given our assent to the Will of God. If we do His will there is no need for being considered special. We have only done what He asks of us and that is our delight.
          The hubris exhibited in this gender bending bull is repugnant. One actually begins to wonder if it is not some mode of overcompensation for the deep interior self-contempt generated by Original Sin.
          A final question is this. Do we require Cardinals at all? When you have the likes of Ticona, Tobin and Cupich and Dolan running around, who needs them?

  4. I don’t believe I would stay in the Church if the laity, men or women, had the same power as the clergy. Laypeople can be just as corrupt as some of these priests. And people seem to forget that women can be sexual predators as well.

  5. “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.””

    Putting things bluntly, Fr. Keenan is clueless, because, for one thing, if he thinks women in power don’t have the exact same problems men do, he hasn’t been paying attention, and for another, the only thing that will reform those members of the Church who need it is faith and virtue.

    Tell you what, Fr. Keenan: I’m a woman, and how dare you insult me by attempting to foist this abomination on me against my will? How dare you decide that the women you named in some way represent me, or any other woman? Stop being so oppressive.

    • Amen!
      And also as a woman the right women for the job so to speak wouldn’t do it because Holy Women serve and in their humility would not want a position of “power” and authority. Those that do I would really question. Most likely exactly why St. Teresa of Calcutta said No!

  6. Fr. Keenan needs to get over his Latincentricism. A reform of the Roman Curia that included reducing the role of the college of cardinals and reverting back to a form of the local synod of the Church of Rome, for matters concerning the Church of Rome, would be advisable. The Cardinals should not be taken to be representatives of the Church Universal.

  7. To those who believe that it is theologically permissible for women to be in the College of Cardinals, what do you do with Scriptural passages such as 1 Timothy 1 9-14 which clearly preclude women from having authority over men in the Church?

    • hah. They’d probably say that Paul was speaking from within the temporal constraints of his own particular background and that thanks to the “development of doctrine” we have a Church that is more egalitarian, in accordance with what is required for human dignity.

  8. “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?”

    Because it is usually the Catholic left who suggests female cardinals. However, I have heard the occasional orthodox Catholic raise the idea. Surely you can think of a few solid, faithful Catholic women… and quite a few “progressive” and “suspect” men who have already been created Cardinals! Thought experiment time: who would make a better Cardinal, Uncle Ted or Mother Angelica?

  9. Ultimately, what enables corruption in the Church is absolute, unsupervised power.

    Bad bishops don’t have to resign, can’t be punished by the laity, and answer only to the Pope, who can’t seem to purge them either.

    Only clergy get to be cardinals and choose the Pope. Only the Pope can choose cardinals.

    Women are corrupted by power, too. Look at the horrifying stories of nuns abusing vulnerable children in America, Ireland, and other places. Who was supervising these orphanages?

    How more corrupt and incestuous can our leadership get? Priests, seminarians, bishops cardinals – literally in bed with each other!

    Let some air in. People from outside the old boys club, laymen, laywomen.

    Checks and balances. That’s what we lack.

  10. Except that Janet Smith or similarly faithful women would never be selected for the College of Cardinals. The female equivalents of McCarrick, etc. would be the odds on favorites, and we’d still be in the same boat.

  11. Women clergy will never become a reality if the church continues to be headed by OLD MEN! We can go back in church history to the middle ages and Pope Joan. Whether one believes that she ever existed, Joan concealed her gender so well that she fooled the dopes running the show. My sister-in-law, a staunch Catholic, gave me her copy of the book.

    When I just look at the power of male Bishops when they have exclusive control of where a priest is located. The parishioners have no say. The Protestants allow a consistory to decide who runs their parish. It may be the simple exercise of unfettered authority that causes concern with Catholics.

    • Whether one believes she existed she concealed here gender so well…”. If one disagrees–and no person who has studied Church history believes she existed because “she” did not– then one isn’t going to agree that “she” hid her gender well because “she” did not exist. What you’ve said is tantamount to saying “Well, even if one disagrees that Thor existed, he did amazing things using mjolnir.”.

      • Oh, Brian, there you go being all intelligent and rational and logical. How unfair. And probably patriarchal and oppressive and sexist, too. Shame on you!

    • I’ve no idea what book you’re talking about, but assuming it’s one that claims there ever was a real Pope Joan, if your sister-in-law is actually a staunch Catholic she’d do a lot better reading something that isn’t utter bilge. And so would you, though I’ve seen no evidence that you’re actually a Catholic, staunch or otherwise.

      The Protestants? Which Protestants (of over 30,000 denominations) do you mean?

      And so what if parishioners have no say in who their priest is? The parish is not supposed to be a cult of personality.

      • Your attitude shows you really don’t care… status quo. That attitude reeks with thoughts of old men who can’t solve the current dilemma.

        • This is the position you are taking: “There is a serous problem, and I think we should do this incredibly stupid thing that won’t solve the problem and in any case is an impossibility; the chief goal of those who support it is not to solve any problem but to attack the Church.”

          I point out the flaws in what, to be extremely charitable and generous, we will call your reasoning, and your reply is “YOU DON’T CARE!!!”

          Considering that you have announced yourself to be an old man, you certainly do have a poor opinion of them. Why should I pay any attention to you?

          The solution is not to create an impossibility, women cardinals; the solution is to have well-formed, holy priests, bishops, archbishops, cardinals, pope (none of whom can be women) and to rid ourseves of the perverted and evil people who have caused the problem.

    • But most of the old mainline Protestant churches who have long embraced female clergy and many other reforms attractive to many Catholics have suffered massive membership losses – 2/3 of Episcopalians, for example, the model “progressive” church. I can’t see any advantage to Catholics going down the same rabbit hole.

  12. Somewhere in the New Testament, I believe it’s in 1st or 2nd Corinthians, Saint Paul wrote that everything is acceptable but maybe not good for the Christian Churches. Sounds like we should all go back to the teaching of Sacred Tradition and stop wasting time on frivolous arguments. There are souls to be harvested for God. When we waste time on “what ifs” we are not managing our mission of spreading the Gospel.

  13. I have come across the following quote from this article before ‘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’. Actually, this is not accurate – married men can be ordained as deacons but not as priests or bishops. In the Orthodox Church, whose sacraments we recognise, married men can become priests but not bishops. The key to the theology behind this rests with the teaching that it is the bishop who has the fullness of the sacrament of ordination. He then delegates specific aspects of his powers to the priest and the deacon.

    • You are mistaking validity and liceity here. What is essential for the validity of the sacrament is that the ordinand be a man, and that the ordaining bishop use the proper form and matter in the rite and have the proper intention. The different disciplines of Eastern and Western Churches regarding celibacy prove this fact rather than militate against it. So, for example, in the Latin Church under current canon law, a married man ordained to the priesthood without dispensation would indeed be ordained validly, but not licitly–the ordination would “take,” but he would be in canonical trouble.

      • Belated thanks for the clarification. However I suspect that the person that I quoted was conflating ‘valid’ and ‘licit’, as I was myself.

  14. Since the question of proportionalism always tag not far behind, that would make the CofC slightly over 50% female.

    If that’s the thumb rule then the percentage of homosexuals among the clergy (talking about identity, not behavior) should be reduced to reflect the general population, which hovers around 2-3% (which has remained fairly steady in spite of the aggressive glorification of male on male sex).

  15. To be honest, I don’t think that dumping women into the existing power structure of the Church will help that much. Rather than trying to give women a taste of unaccountable power, we should be trying to REDUCE the power of the bishops and cardinals. That means chopping huge dioceses into smaller ones, and giving lay people some influence over the “hiring” and “firing” of their bishops. It doesn’t mean that we all get to vote on what Catholic doctrine should be! It just means that the laity needs real power—with teeth in it—to hold their bishops accountable for financial and sexual corruption.

  16. Our Church has run for over two thousand years by men and the majority of women don’t see anything wrong. Let us not turn the Church into some political movement which will divide the Church. Many Anglicans started leaving the Church when they started ordaining women. Jesus would have had a good reason to ordained women like Mary Magdalene etc. but he did not. People have been talking about Antichrist coming, is it the time? The truth is that Most Women in parishes don’t even talk about ordination of women! This is the problem of a few individual women who are power hungry – and this thinking is not Catholic. They can leave our Church and go elsewhere. I pray the Pope sticks to the Church’s teaching. Pedophilia priests exist in all Churches, it is even worse among married clergy!Let us pray for the Church.

  17. Great article Nick.
    I hope the people that read it will do it slowly and understand the intent of the article and not try to read between the lines.

  18. The princely Cardinals of the Renaissance were all clerics in minor orders. Because they were only in minor orders, they could easily surrender the cardinalate and return to the lay state when better things beckoned. Cardinals are all clerics because they hold the suburban episcopal sees, the parishes of Rome, and the seven deaconal churches. There are no precedents for lay persons being Cardinals.

  19. A genuine misunderstanding that denies Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church regarding the sacrament of orders–the diaconate does not imply nor is it part of priestly ordination: “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.”

    • I know you are a leading scholar in this area, so I tread lightly, but I would be interested to hear more. What specifically in canon law or the Catechism contradicts what I said? Doesn’t CCC 1554 suggest a unity to the sacrament as I’ve suggested? Also, CIC 1024 and CCC 1577 is quite clear on who may receive ordination.
      I did not say that the diaconate implies priestly ordination, because, of course, one can become a deacon without ever becoming a priest (just as one can become a priest without becoming a bishop). But that does not mean there is not an essential unity to the sacrament, correct?

  20. In the failed Catholic theocracy the winds of change are blowing with perfume.

    I would settle if the church opted to raise women to Corporal, well maybe General. Admiral Michelle Howard (Navy)

  21. I find it difficult to believe that twisting two millenia of theology and discipline like a pretzel will accomplish anything but add to the chaos. It would seem that a good start would be a return to traditional virtue and then go forward from there. And yes, that would include a provision for a married clergy to hopefully crowd out the unsatisfactory members that have infiltrated the Church.

    • “And yes, that would include a provision for a married clergy to hopefully crowd out the unsatisfactory members that have infiltrated the Church.”

      Because none of the denominations that allow married clergy have any problems or scandals or sins at all.

      • Sarcasm is unbecoming to this important issue. This is a problem seriously effecting the Catholic Church. Whether other denominations have their own problems, and they probably do, is immaterial. The problem has been identified and needs be be addressed, part of which is considering alternatives. And no, other churches do not have the problem to this extent or duration.

        • My reply was becoming and appropriate.

          “Whether other denominations have their own problems, and they probably do, is immaterial.”

          Actually, it is quite material to your argument. You claim that having married clergy would solve the problem; if denominations that have married clergy nevertheless have the same problems, it shows that your proposed solution is no solution at all.

          The problem has been identified and needs be be addressed, part of which is considering alternatives.

          “And no, other churches do not have the problem to this extent or duration.”

          How do you know? Up until 20 years ago nobody would have thought that the Church had this problem. There are articles available saying that other churches do indeed have the problem though it has not yet been revealed. I imagine it would be harder to investigate the many protestant denominations that lack a centralized structure.

          Added to that is that married clergy brings its own problems – like divorce, adultery, remarriage… So your solution doesn’t actually solve anything.

  22. You need a mystical understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ in order to understand the male priesthood. The relationship between Christ and His Church is said to be spousal. Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church is His Bride. When a husband and a wife enter into the one flesh union it is the man who enters into the woman. Likewise, in conception it is the male sperm that swims up to and enters into the female egg. It seems clear that the act of entering within is a male act. The male is the doer of intimacy. The female is the one who receives this intimacy. This explains why Christ came as a male, and why male terms like Father and Son are used to describe God, and why the Church is called Holy Mother Church. 
    *
    Because of the Hypostatic Union, Christ is One Person in two natures, divine and human. The priest acts In Persona Christi, in the person of Christ. In Holy Orders during the ordination the priest is configured to Christ in a very special way. As such, Holy Orders is in the image and likeness of the Hypostatic Union. The priest is the living icon of Christ. Consecrated women religious are considered to be brides of Christ.
    *
    The priest acts In Persona Christi during the Consecration. In the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist during the Consecration the Real Presence of Christ enters into and becomes one with the bread and the wine. Transubstantiation at its core is a male act. The Body and Blood in a similar fashion enter into the communicant. The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament that is permeated with Christ’s maleness, and gives us a foreshadowing of the final nuptial union that is described in Revelation.

  23. Most (but not all) of the women named as possible candidates would be good to help the Church become what she is not meant to be,they would “revision” the Church out of existence. If women were to be made cardinals there are plenty of orthodox candidates. I notice the good Father only mentions theologians,no pastoral workers, just a small bias?

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