Some time ago, I pointed out that there is basically nothing to stop the Church from appointing lay women cardinals if She decided to do so. Cardinals are essentially administrative fixes, different in degree, but not in kind, from a parish administrative or finance council. They were cooked up by the Church to deal with the the problem of a papacy that had become a political football among squabbling Italian clans. The idea was to have sober and responsible people, not Mafiosi, choose the Pope. In general, a smart move.
Now custom, and that only (reinforced by canon law) says that a cardinal is to an ordained guy. But that’s basically the only reason. Jesus and the apostles never heard of the office of cardinal and never created anybody a cardinal. So there is no apostolic Tradition binding the Church to the notion that a cardinal has to be an ordained guy. A cardinal could just as easily a layman. All it would take is a tweak in the human system known as canon law–and there have been gazillions of tweaks to canon law. If the Church decided to make lay cardinals, it could just as easily make lay women cardinals. (I set aside for the moment the question of whether or not it would be a good idea to make laypeople, whether male or female, cardinals, noting only that I personally don’t much care either way–and that I wouldn’t be super-shocked if the Church decided to do something like this in my lifetime. The only serious question for me is “Can the proposed cardinal do the job of electing a good Pope?” I see no reason why a competent and orthodox layperson, male or female, could not do that and I see lots of reasons–starting with the priest scandal–why voices from outside the episcopal bubble might bring a very helpful perspective to the proceedings. At the same time, I recognize there could be problems, but also note that there already existed in the Church–including the Western Church, the tradition of lay input in episcopal appointments. St. Ambrose was famously elected by acclamation when some kid cried out, “Ambrose, bishop!” and the crowd took up the chant. And that poor guy not only hadn’t been ordained, he hadn’t even been baptized yet! He tried to duck the call, but the congregation caught up with him and (with the Emperor writing letters praising Ambrose’s appointment), persuaded, baptized, confirmed, and ordained him). Was ever marriage to the Church clapped up so suddenly? And all by popular acclamation! So yeah, lay involvement in election of bishops is part of the Tradition and could easily be again if the Church so wills. But that’s up to the Church under the Spirit’s guidance, not a blogospheric referendum (thank God!).
Now when I mentioned this at the time, there was the normal freakoutery from the Usual Suspects, as though I was calling for the immediate election of Pope Joan. Nope. Just explaining what the actual contours of the question actually are so that people stay smart and don’t have a cow if it ever came up.
And the necessity of staying smart and not having a cow remains–because in this particular instance, a close reading of the article reveals that there is no There there. What the piece boils down to is absolutely baseless speculation (“observers believe”) in which a few quotes from Francis having no connection to the question of women cardinals are spun by the hopes of the editorial writer into a scenario made out of whipped air. There’s simply nothing there. Francis has said nothing about women cardinals.
The real key to getting the article is the quotes from Phyllis Zagano on “reinstituting” a diaconate for women as a necessary prelude for women cardinals. Why would she insist on this when, as we have seen, the Church could simply created lay women cardinal if she liked? Because the *real* goal of the article is to try to jimmy a way for women into Holy Orders as a prelude to ordaining women priests. That’s what the piece is all about and it’s feeding off the current Chattering Class delusion that Francis is something other than a “son of the Church” as he describes himself. It’s conceived, written and published for the sort of Catholic who is intensely faithful to the Third Vatican Council.
It will be interesting to see how many Reactionaries swallow this empty speculation and again panic about the Heretic Pope. Meanwhile, sensible Catholics are left exactly where we always were: with a Pope who articulates the Tradition, with the possibility of lay cardinals both male and female, and with a Church that is still Catholic.