Could Pope Francis appoint women cardinals?

The London-based Tablet this week offers an interesting editorial that explores the prospect of several previously “unthinkable” changes in the Catholic Church.

“Under its new pope,” the international Catholic weekly says, “the Catholic Church begins to feel like an animal that has emerged from winter hibernation, blinking in the sunlight and looking for pastures new. From around the world the signs of this reawakening are becoming visible.”

The editorial highlights a new proposal from German bishops for a diaconate for women, Pope Francis’ “strictures against clericalism, … against clergy who strut around declaring ‘I’m the boss,’” and how new energy in the Catholic-Anglican dialogue may lead to a strengthening of participative structures for a lay voice within the church.

Perhaps all this is still so much wishful thinking, but it is also impossible to ignore the new hopes that are currently being kindled within the church.

The women deacon idea, the editorial said, “needs pushing further, not even ruling out the prospect, floated not long ago by Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, that women could be appointed as cardinals, given that red hats do not necessarily have to be proffered to clergy.”

Cardinal Dolan said that? How did I ever miss that? Well, it may not be entirely accurate to say that he “floated” that idea, but the exchange he had in Februrary 2012 (on the EWTN show Sunday Night Prime; forward to the 3:30 mark) with his interviewer Father Benedict Groeschel is still intriguing:

Groeschel: And theologically—this is going to throw our audience off a bit—it theoretically could be a woman made a cardinal, …
Dolan: Theoretically.
Groeschel: …, because there is no holy orders [involved] there.
Dolan: That’s right. 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.’ ”

Even if Dolan is not exactly floating that idea here, he clearly accepts and acknowledges the indisputable fact that the appointment of cardinals in the Catholic Church is—and always has been—separate from the question of ordination.

Noting that same fact, U.S. Catholic magazine did in fact float the appointment of women cardinals 21 years ago. In a July 1992 article titled “Women shouldn’t be an exception to the cardinal rule,” Chicago Catholic publisher Greg Pierce made a convincing case for women cardinals. Here are some excerpts from that piece:

The origin of the college of cardinals can be found in a group of Roman citizens sympathetic to the early church, who were able to open and close influential and threatening doors for Christians who had gone underground for fear of persecution. These noble citizens were named cardinals after cardo, the Latin word for “hinge.” They may or may not have been Christians themselves, but it is almost certain that most—if not all—were laypeople.

It is also a historical fact that through the centuries many people who were not ordained were named cardinals. As late as 1493, the infamous Italian duke Cesare Borgia was named a cardinal even though he never took religious vows.

Therefore, while it is true that all cardinals today are priests, it is clear that this is a man-made (sic) rule that could be changed. Jesus thankfully never named any cardinals; so we don’t have that problem to contend with.

If those who are opposed to the ordination of women are sincere in their belief that this is not a question of power and justice but rather one of service and gender roles, then there is a perfect way to demonstrate it—one that should be significant even to the most ardent supporter of women’s ordination yet not offend even the biggest opponent.

To show the church’s commitment to the equality of men and women and to prove that his reluctance to ordain women has nothing to do with the question of power in the church, the pope could announce that he will name only women as cardinals of the church until their number in the college of cardinals equals 50 percent of its membership….

Women would then know for sure that the church is serious about encouraging their involvement in the church, yet those who oppose the ordination of women could still have their way.

With even Cardinal Dolan acknowledging that the idea of appointing women cardinals is “theoretically” theologically kosher, this step could be one very significant way for Pope Francis to signal that he is serious about the “fundamental importance” of women in the church that he highlighted in his weekly audience on the Wednesday after Easter.  

About the author

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds

Meinrad Scherer-Emunds was the executive editor of U.S. Catholic. He is currently the director of communications for Maryknoll Lay Missioners.