Stephen McGinty: Time for a female cardinal?

Pope John Paul ll with Mother Teresa who he allegedly asked  to be a cardinal. Picture: Getty
Pope John Paul ll with Mother Teresa who he allegedly asked to be a cardinal. Picture: Getty
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Mother Teresa is reputed to have said no, but a female in the Sistine Chapel not be out of the question, says Stephen McGinty

MY favourite photograph of the past week is of the “Bishop of Bling” climbing into a vintage BMW with the pious grin of the spiritually entitled.

In case you might have missed the story of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the Bishop of Limburgh in Germany has been suspended by the Pope after the discovery that he had managed to spent £26 million on renovating his official residence, including purchasing a bath tub for £10,000 and spending £17,000 on a conference table.

When he attended an anti-poverty conference in India, he flew first class, however when called to Rome to explain himself he wisely opted for Ryanair. Perhaps he has now been punished enough.

Yet the story of Bishop Bling has proved a dazzling distraction to what could be a more remarkable story. A rumour has begun to circulate that Pope Francis, who has repeatedly said that he wishes to see women take on a greater role, may appoint a female cardinal. The story began to smoulder last month when a Spanish newspaper quoted a former priest from Brazil as saying that it “is not a joke. It’s something that Pope Francis has thought about before: naming a woman cardinal.”

An anonymous Jesuit was also quoted as saying: “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.”

Quickly the Italian media picked up the story and in America, Father James Keenan, a moral theologian at Boston Collage, has started a Facebook page requesting potential nominees which currently includes Linda Hogan, a professor of ecumenics at Trinity College in Dublin; Sister Teresa Okure, a theology professor at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Nigeria; and Maryanne Loughry, an associate director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Australia.

So what is the argument against the Pope appointing a woman to the College of Cardinals? Well, first there is the Code of Canon Law, the rules that govern the Catholic Church, which states that only priests and bishops can become cardinals. As a woman cannot be ordained as a priest, well, at least according to the binding statement of Pope John Paul II, this means they cannot become a cardinal. But this barrier is not as imposing nor as high as some might suggest. The reason is that such a distinction, that a cardinal must be a priest or a bishop, is a relatively recent addition to canon law. Prior to 1917, there was no such law to restrict a pope to appointing only ordained men. Now, the law may have been further revised in 1983, when the canon law regarding cardinals was changed so that anyone who is appointed a cardinal must also be made a bishop.

Yet the point about canon law is that as well as being created, laws can also be repealed. There is no parliament in the Vatican through which potential laws much pass. If the pope wishes to amend or change a law he can effectively do so. As was pointed out in a recent Italian news story: “The pope is the supreme legislator of the universal church and is absolutely free to make decisions about canon law.”

Prior to 1917, a pope was technically free to appoint whomever he wished to the College of Cardinals, a body of advisers founded 800 years ago. For centuries, elevation to the cardinalate was a perk bestowed by papal patrons on the grounds that the individual would do their bidding. Pope Alexander VI infamously made his illegitimate son, Cesare Borgia, a cardinal when he was just 18 years old. Though rare and infrequent, there is a number of precedents for the appointment of a layperson as a cardinal. In 1858, Pope Pius IX appointed Teodolfo Mertel, a brilliant Italian legalist who had helped to draw up the laws governing the Papal States. Mertel spent the next 41 years, until his death in 1899, as a cardinal.

Yet even after the changes were made to canon law, subsequent popes felt free to disregard it, one of them was Pope Paul VI who offered to make Jacques Maritain, the French philosopher, a cardinal. Maritain, who was born into a Protestant family, grew up to reject his Christian faith and became agnostic for a number of years before finally converting to Catholicism. He once wrote: “We do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve.” Yet he had no desire to serve this truth by donning a red biretta.

If Pope Paul VI wished to recognise Maritain for his life’s work, another pope had similar ideas. The most surprising story to have emerged in the recent reports on the prospects, or otherwise, of a female cardinal is that Pope John Paul II thought that exceptions could be made for the right woman. It may have been John Paul II who buried the notion of female ordination in 1994 but it has been claimed that he asked Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the US Conference of Bishops said in an interview last year that a female cardinal was “theoretically” possible then added: “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’.”

First, we have to consider that this isn’t true, that it is just a rumour, that Pope John Paul II had no interest on bestowing such an honour on a woman he greatly admired. But let’s consider for a minute that it is true, as, after all, Pope John Paul II did have a towering regard for Mother Teresa and it would be a powerful statement.

Less than 12 months ago, the idea of a pope resigning from the Papacy would have been unthinkable. Pope Benedict XVI later said that God told him to do it. Yet what Benedict has done is shatter the restrictions that the administrators of the Catholic Church have bound around themselves. There is no reason why a woman could not be a cardinal, other than a long tradition and Benedict has shown that the pope need pay no heed to tradition if it interferes with what he personally wishes to do. Benedict personally wished to have a quieter life, and it could be argued that the person who most benefited from this decision was Benedict, so what if a pope made a decision to set aside tradition that did not benefit himself directly, but instead benefited half of the population of the planet?

The irony is that such a seismic appointment is possible under the papacy of Francis and would be a welcome, remarkable and positive contribution not only to the Catholic Church but to the wider world. As a symbol it would indicate that the Catholic Church does genuinely wish to change and move away from its sexist, patriarchal image and begin to truly recognise the role of women within the Church. For regardless of how insistent the Catholic Church may be over parity between priests and nuns, there remains the sense that the female religious are second-class citizens in an organisation that always favours men for their ability to say Mass.

Yet the symbol it would send to the rest of the world would be invaluable. It would be a further step up towards equality and a challenge to those faiths who believe that men and women should not even be permitted to pray together.

Yes, I’m aware that a female cardinal would raise awkward questions of female priests and most directly the possibility of a female pope. It would be a strange inverse of the problems facing the Church of England where women can be priests but not bishops. In a future Catholic Church could we have the possibility of women eligible to be cardinals but not priests? Quite possibly, but it is an awkward conversation worth having.

The Church has long been built on the idea of a hierarchy, with the laity at the bottom with each tier rising successively higher until the pope sits at the apex. The goal however should be that of a circle, a community of equals, with the pope at the centre. The appointment of a female cardinal would be a move in the right direction.

The Catholic Church is not a democracy, but within the Sistine Chapel, it is time that women got the vote.