Juan Arias, a Spanish journalist working for “El País” newspaper, attributes the idea of creating women cardinals to Pope Francis. Italian historian Lucetta Scaraffia likes the idea. Here is the story of an old idea that will likely never materialiseAmerican Jesuit theologian, Fr. James Keenan picked up on the idea on his Facebook page, proposing the appointment of women to the College of Cardinals – the world’s most exclusive “club” which for centuries has had the power of electing the Pope – as a pivotal change to the structure of the Catholic Church.
Spanish journalist Juan Arias echoed this idea in an article he wrote for Spanish newspaper El País. In the article, Arias attributes the “idea” of appointing women bishops to Francis.
Lucetta Scaraffia, an historian and columnist for Italian daily Il Messaggero and Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, approved of this idea in an article published in Il Messaggero.
“The idea presented in El País newspaper of appointing women cardinals to the College of Cardinals is not new,” Scaraffia said. Other people – notably the great Catholic English anthropologist Mary Douglas – have also made their voices heard over the years, to show this is a key way to give women authority, thereby boosting their authoritativeness in the Catholic Church. The great advantage of appointing women cardinals would be that it could be done, whilst avoiding the thorny issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood.
It would constitute a big and significant change; the kind of change we are used to seeing from Pope Francis. It would not come as much of a shock given the Pope’s recent statements on the role of women in the Church. In an article for L’Osservatore Romano, Scaraffia herself complained about the scarcity of women in the pre-Conclave discussions last March, the aim of which was to outline the future of the Catholic Church and discuss the profile, characteristics, qualities and talents of the future Pope.
The idea of appointing women to the College of Cardinals is not new, Scaraffia noted. It was mentioned during the Synod of Bishops for Africa held on 10 October 1994, attended by John Paul II, when Mgr. Ernest Kombo, the Congo’s Jesuit bishop proposed the following: “Women must be able to rise to the highest positions in the establishment of the church, they should also be nominated as lay cardinals.” Shortly before this, the Anglican Church had ordained its first female priests in Westminster Abbey. John Paul II reacted to this by sending a long Apostolic Letter (the “Ordinatio sacerdotalis”) which stressed that it was impossible for the Catholic Church to ordain female priests.
Kombo’s speech drew a cool response. He prayed that women would become an important part of the consecrated body of the Church, both in terms of numbers and responsibility, with leading roles being given to them, such as lay cardinals, if possible. So what was being advocated was the creation of women cardinals not the ordination of women priests.
The cardinalate of course is an honorific title, not a Holy Order. The holder of the title of cardinal is a member of the clergy of the diocese of Rome and a collaborator and advisor of the Pope. Cardinals are expected to testify the faith usque ad sanguinis effusionem, meaning they must be ready to sacrifice their life for the faith. But Canon 351, paragraph 1, of the 1983 Code of Canon Law is also pretty clear on this: “The Roman Pontiff freely selects men to be promoted as cardinals, who have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate [i.e., priest] and are especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action; those who are not yet bishops must receive Episcopal consecration.”
So “men” and “priests”. And once they are nominated, they must be ordained bishops. This law was introduced by John XXIII and meant that for centuries there were cardinals who were just priests or just deacons (the last cardinal deacon who was not a priest was Giovanni Mercati, created cardinal by Pius XI in 1936).
The Episcopacy rule still holds although under the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the Church started to do away with it in cases where an individual who was nominated cardinal asked to be exempted from Episcopal ordination due to their advanced age at the time of their nomination. Many theologians who were created cardinals after the age of 80 asked not to be made bishops, including the Jesuits Henri De Lubac, Avery Robert Dulles, Roberto Tucci and Albert Vanhoye.
It is also worth remembering that a cardinal is by definition a member of the clergy. So being clericus - ordained that is - is not just a requirement of the Code of Canon Law but a constituent element of the cardinalate. When someone is created cardinal they become a member of the clergy of the diocese of Rome. It is this status that enables cardinals to vote for the Bishop of Rome.
What did Francis say regarding the role of women in the Church? In his interview with Italian Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, he explained: “It is necessary to broaden the opportunities for a stronger presence of women in the church.” But he also added: “I am wary of a solution that can be reduced to a kind of ‘female machismo,’ because a woman has a different make-up than a man. But what I hear about the role of women is often inspired by an ideology of machismo.”
“The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church. Mary, a woman, is more important than the bishops. I say this because we must not confuse the function with the dignity.” This suggests that it is essential for women to be appreciated in the Church but not through “clericalisation”. It seems rather hasty to assume that Francis’ statements allude to the idea of the creation of female cardinals. It is not essential to dress women in red to ensure they are valued and given responsibilities in the Church.