What to Do About Empty Speculation in the Media Concerning Francis Appointing Women Cardinals

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 lo, now it’s coming 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.

  • Spastic Hedgehog

    I was ready to get my resume together. I am dissapoint. ;)

  • Neil1919

    Couple of additional thoughts Mark. First, there have been “lay cardinals” in the past. Technically they were required to receive “minor orders,” [e.g., subdeacon, acolyte] but had not received “major orders” [Deacon, Priest, Bishop].

    The last lay cardinal was in the mid-19th century, not exactly ancient history. His name was Teodolfo Mertel, he was a lawyer. He quickly ordained deacon, but he was for a period a lay cardinal. He was also the last cardinal to not be at least a priest.

    There is also a story that says Pope Paul VI seriously considered creating Jaques Maritan a cardinal in the late 1960s. At that point he had been a widower for several years, but he remained a layman his entire life.

    Of course, your general point stands–lay people have and could still be cardinals. And if lay people can be admitted, then there isn’t really a reason to not admit lay women. For example, I think Mother Mary Assumpta Long, OP, would make a wonderful cardinal.

    • http://www.likelierthings.com/ Jon W

      Knock it off, Neil1919. Don’t you know the world is ending? :-|

  • Chris Ferrara

    Unbelievable. So now you’re prepared to swallow lady cardinals, of which there have been exactly none in the 2000-year history of the Church. But hey, male cardinals are just another “custom.” Toss it overboard, along with the Latin Mass, the traditional liturgical calendar, communion on the tongue, Gregorian chant, the high altar, the central tabernacle, altar boys, and so on! No harm will come of it. Why just look at the fine fettle of the Church today after fifty years of abandoning “customs”! Behold the great renewal! Of course, Catholics no longer follow any Church teaching they don’t like and the West is now in a state of “silent apostasy” (John Paul II) but look how happy the remaining Catholics are, even if they are not reproducing any longer.

    By the way, your depiction of cardinals as some sort of modern innovation is a caricature. The office goes back to the earliest days of the Church. Only its application and scope have evolved. And never has the office involved women.

    But everything novel is just OK with with you, Mark, as long as no actual Catholic dogma prohibits it. Indeed, if the Pope instructed all priests to wear bathing suits and propeller beanies instead of vestments, you would probably argue that this was theologically permissible.

    Is any wonder that you are known as a neo-Catholic?

    • chezami

      Correction, cardinals have only been around for less than a thousand years. And yeah, I don’t much care if the Church tweaks the system to allow for them. I also don’t much care if She doesn’t. Your hysteria on behalf of various human traditions is duly noted. Also your habit of donning paper mitres and issuing fake excommunications of us filthy neo-Catholics who are unworthy of you Pure Catholic greatness.

      You’re done here. Goodbye.

    • ivan_the_mad

      Nothing to see here, it’s just another fringe element that exists only the internet.

      • contrarian

        I worry that you might not know who Christopher Ferrara is. His books are used in graduate seminars in many departments. His work in moral and political theology has been praised by tog dogs in top philosophy and theology departments worldwide.

        Or were you being tongue in cheek?

  • Mark R

    A lay cardinal would probably be construed an abuse by the originators of the office. The Church before Vat. II countenanced other such abuses as priests serving as deacons in High Mass.
    Some evidence exists that the office of cardinal was created to keep the choice of pope in “Roman” hands, as was the forged donation of Constantine, during the period of Frankish encroachment (who brought the filioque — much avoided be the popes heretofore). The office of cardinal was also proposed for New Rome i.e. Constantinople, but was rejected by that church.

  • Elmwood

    Women cardinals: why? Who are pushing for it and are they good examples of obedient Catholics or are they cafeteria Catholics who would be more honest with themselves if they just become Episcopalian?

    If they allow for women cardinals, then they should also allow for lay male cardinals.

  • Rachel

    I see several potential problems with it. One of them is the assumed belief that anyone who is a cardinal could potentially be elected Pope. Even though canonically, the only thing required is that they are male, Catholic in good standing, and of age. However, most of the time the pope is elected from the college of Cardinals and that’s been going on for a couple of centuries (with a few exceptions). Having male lay cardinals may not be a problem but he would have to be single since he would have to be ordained/consecrated a bishop, etc in order to be pope. Obviously, a woman couldn’t do that. I suppose that a new canon could be put in place saying that clearly only single males can be considered for the papacy. Sure, that would piss off certain feminists but then again, having a greater voice in the Church, ie. more from the religious orders (granted some cardinals are in fact from religious orders, both male and female and the laity themselves wouldn’t be such a bad thing either. Sure, this is something that has not been considered in our over 2,000 year history but there is nothing theologically that says it can’t happen. The college of Cardinals is a medieval innovation. Like you said, before that time, the popes were elected sometimes through acclamation, etc.

    • Rosemarie


      Do all of the cardinals who vote in the conclave have to be eligible for the papacy? I guess if the Church ever did start to create female cardinals (which most likely won’t happen), they would vote in the conclave but would not themselves be eligible for the See of St. Peter. So that wouldn’t satisfy the feminists anyway, since it would be seen as discrimination or something.

      • Rachel

        Exactly. That’s where I see the problem. I do believe that all who vote in the conclave are assumed to be eligible for the Papacy. This is another reason why I don’t think that female cardinals would work

        • jcb

          Well, the assumption would cease to be correct if there were female cardinals, obviously. But why is that a problem?

        • Sally Wilkins

          I don’t believe there is any “assumption,” much less canonical direction, that all those in the conclave are “eligible” OR that those outside the conclave are not eligible. The conclave elects someone under the leading of the Holy Spirit. If that person is not already a cleric, ordination precedes installation. If we believe that the HS directs the conclave, this is a non-issue. If not, we have a bigger problem.

  • Matthew

    Electing the pope is not the only job of a cardinal. They are often heads of important Vatican offices. Like it or not the Church has historically linked jurisdiction, that is having authority over others, with ordination. Given the standard Catholic understanding of Orders it seems problematic for a bishop to be under the authority of a non-ordained person. In the USA we tried this in the 19th century with lay trustee-ism. It did not end well.

    • chezami

      Yup. As I say, I know there are arguments against. They may well carry the day. I don’t have anything invested in the matter myself and don’t care what the Church does about it one way or t’other. Nor do I care if people oppose the idea. I only care when Reactionary dicks show up and start shouting “No wonder you are known as a neo-Catholic” (code for “heretic”). Screw that shit. I’ve had my fill of combox bishops with their bulls of excommunication written on toilet paper.

      • enness

        Okay, I guess now you definitely are calling people dicks. I still say if they don’t like the title they shouldn’t go out of their way to earn it, but I suppose integrity requires that I take back part of my earlier comment on the other post.

    • Marthe Lépine

      And who says that women cannot be heads of important Vatican offices? It seems to me that several of those offices are mostly administrative functions, which are necessary in any large organization. IMHO a woman could perfectly be able to do such functions.

      • Paul

        “It seems to me that several of those offices are mostly administrative”

        Perhaps you should reread Pastor bonus. The dicasteries of the Roman Curia, especially the Congregations and Tribunals, exercise power over the decisions of diocesan bishops, often without direct Papal action. Having a lay person as the head of such an office, regardless of that person’s gender, is ecclesiologically problematic.

        • Illinidiva

          There is nothing to suggest that the Pastor bonus couldn’t be changed so that laypeople and women (both lay and religious) couldn’t be involved in running the Curia. There are some offices that will always need to be run by an archbishop (Clergy, Divine Worship, and Bishops) and the Secretariat and nuncios will need to be priests, but why does the “mayor” of Vatican City need to be a Cardinal? Or the person in charge of the Council on Social Justice or Education? Why couldn’t the person in charge of Religious Orders be a female religious?
          The idea probably appeals to Francis because priests should be smelling like their sheep rather than being in offices as bureaucrats. It is also a way to give women more of a say in the Church without opening the can of worms associated with female priests.

  • jaybird1951

    Avery Dulles was made a cardinal. Although a priest he was never consecrated a bishop.I also think he was elevated too late in life to be able to vote in a conclave.

    • Dan C

      True. It was his age that would have prevented his participation in a conclave.

  • Paul

    Mark, I think that this interesting question needs to be broken down into 2 parts. The first part is the question that we are really interested in: can a lay person (man or woman) serve as one of the principal advisors of the Pope and a Papal elector, which is the current function of the members of the college of cardinals? The answer to that question is yes.

    The second part, which is a completely separate question from the first, is whether a layperson can be a member of the college of cardinals. Given the history of that group and the composition of the group, the answer is no. The college of cardinals evolved out of the principal clergy of the Church of Rome, which had served as the Pope’s senate and which gained the exclusive right to elect the Pope in the middle ages. The college has always been a clerical body, which is why every member of the college has an assigned Roman church. “Lay cardinals” were not actually laypersons, as those persons were actually clerics due to receiving minor orders. Plus, as previously noted, having truly lay cardinals would create some very odd ecclesiological and hierarchical consequences, such as lay persons having precedence over bishops and lay persons being heads of churches in Rome.

    Thus, if the laity are to be involved in the election of the Roman Pontiff and in serving on his senate, then those particular functions need to be assigned to a different group other than the college of cardinals.

  • Katalina

    Remember what Francis has been saying about gossip and sinning with the tongue so on that note please stop with the name calling mostly the word REACTIONARY. This term was used in the period after the council along with RIGID to weed out and persecute Orthodox seminarians. We are all Catholic Christians period we don’t need name calling anymore. You don’t agree with certain groups of the faithful who tend to worship and pray differently than you fine. Both you and Jimmy Akin have both used this uncharitable term. A few years back it was believe it or not the word John Allen used as well as Father Rosica which was TALIBAN CATHOLIC. Enough is enough. We have to stand united against a very hostile enemy actually several and stand together. In other words. In essentials UNITY. In doubtful things Diversity and above all Charity. Otherwise we are not real followers of Jesus Christ.

    • Dan C

      You distinguish “orthodox.” From who? Heterodox? Are these the acceptable names?

    • Bill


      Mark was clear by what he meant by reactionary, which is not the same as traditionalist. You’re clubbing him over the head over the wrong things.

  • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

    It might be helpful to go through the history of lay cardinals because apparently we’ve had a few:


    • Paul

      But they weren’t really lay cardinals. They were cardinals in minor orders.

      • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

        I think it’s probably fair to say that a lay cardinal is a term of art, specific to the Church. What does the Church say that they are and where does she say it? There seem to be two potential definitions in play.

        • Paul

          Are these the two potential definitions that you are talking about?

          (1) “A lay cardinal is a cleric appointed to the sacred college that has not yet received the major orders.”

          (2) “A lay cardinal is a layperson appointed to the sacred college.”

          If those are the definitions, then historically, we have had several examples of #1 and, unless we experience a restoration of minor clerics in the Western Church, we will not experience any more examples of #1.

          I don’t think we have any examples of #2 yet, but I would be happy to be corrected on that point. Plus, I would argue against any future examples of #2 as it goes against what the college is supposed to represent historically: the principal clergy of the Roman Church.

          (But that does not mean that some other body, consisting of clergy and laity, could become the Pope’s senate and electors.)

          • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

            Your definitions are fine except that you overlook the existence of Eastern Cardinals. Restoration of minor orders in the West is thus not a requirement.

            Now which of the two definitions is Mark supporting and which definition is supported by Zagano? I think that if they don’t agree on definitions, they are talking past each other, not to each other.

            • Paul

              “Your definitions are fine except that you overlook the existence of Eastern Cardinals.”

              Thanks for that catch. It would probably be extremely unlikely that a minor cleric of an Eastern church would ever be named to the college, but although technically contra legem for the present, there is at least historical precedent for the possibility.

              “I think that if they don’t agree on definitions, they are talking past each other, not to each other.”

              A very good point, especially given Dr. Zagano’s position on the ordination of women.

              • http://chicagoboyz.net/ TMLutas

                I don’t know Dr. Zagano, nor her position on the ordination of women.

  • wineinthewater

    I think the most amusing part of that article is that it makes such a big point that if there were female deacons, then canon law wouldn’t even need to be changed in order for there to be female Cardinals. But it completely glosses over the fact that canon law would have to be changed in order to have female deacons. Personally, I think the hurdle to lay Cardinals, including lay female Cardinals, is lower than the hurdle to female deacons.

  • Chesire11

    “It’s conceived, written and published for the sort of Catholic who is intensely faithful to the Third Vatican Council.”

    Lol, very nice!

  • Jacques

    1. Women have never been involved in the government of the Church. Are we to imagine that these lady cardinals would vote for the next successor of Peter? We know they couldn’t elect one of their number, but the mere fact of their being involved in Church government would be a massive breach with 2000 years of history. (And I really can’t imagine it would do much to promote relations with the Orthodox.)

    2. Cardinals all have tutular churches in the diocese of Rome – their office originates in the parish clergy of Rome of the first millennium, the pope’s local priests. Would cardinalesses (or whatever they’re to be called) have titular churches?

    The whole idea is too bizarre. No, it’s not a matter of dogma, but Chris Ferrara is right to note that vestments aren’t either. If his tone was perhaps unnecessarily polemical, his fundamental point was correct.

    • Jacques


    • Paul

      “Women have never been involved in the government of the Church.”

      Except that there are lay canonists, including women lay canonists, serving as judges in the diocesan and metropolitan tribunals in those countries that permit lay judges, like the United States.

      • chezami

        Not to mention abbesses, leaders of women religious orders, queens, hospital administrators and all sort of other women in positions of governance inside and outside the Church that impinge on its governance.

  • http://www.DSDOConnor.com/ Daniel O’Connor