A Female Cardinal? Not a New Idea, Really

Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770)

It’s always struck me as interesting that when Tiepolo painted Saint Thecla, here portrayed at prayer for plague victims, he imagined her in what appears to be an old-fashioned Cardinal’s robe.

Our Orthodox and Byzantine brothers and sisters call Thecla “the Protomartyr, Equal-to-the-Apostles”. I’ve always thought of her as first in a long line of women — from the earliest days of the church until today — who were headstrong in their obedience.

One of my favorite writers, David Gibson has written a piece on the possibility of Pope Francis appointing a few female cardinals. Thecla would have been a natural.

The role of the cardinal is not a biblical precept and is a relatively late development in Catholicism – the office in its familiar form was codified in the 12th century, when cardinals were given the exclusive right to elect a pope. The pope in turn can largely can set whatever parameters he likes for who becomes one of the 120 or so voting-age cardinals in the college..

Beyond that, there isn’t much more to the office; it is basically a title, an honor, albeit a grand one, and requires no special ordination. “The cardinalate is a very historical, human institution that can be changed more easily than other things,” said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.
In 1917, a revision of the church’s Code of Canon Law decreed that only priests and bishops could be made cardinals, and a subsequent update in 1983 said that anyone made a cardinal must become a bishop as well.

Yet popes have periodically dispensed with that requirement and have named priests as cardinals without making them bishops. In 1968, Pope Paul VI reportedly offered a red hat to the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, a layman. Maritain declined.

So, it’s not really a new discussion — I recall watching people duke it out over the subject almost fifteen years ago in a Catholic forum — but it is an interesting one. I think it would be a very good thing to have not just a few women, but some lay men included in the College of Cardinals, and if Popes Paul VI and John Paul II thought so too (as the legends go) then why gainsay it?

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  • Victor

    I agree Manny! I recall that when I worked for our government as a press operator, they always told me that if “IT” is not broken, don’t fix “IT”!
    I wonder what “Jesus Christ” thinks about all of this? :)
    I hear YA sinner vic! Who’s HE? :)
    God Bless Peace

  • Stephen

    We need to be clear that every cardinal is assigned a bishopric, parish or a deaconry in Rome. They have two roles – advisors and collaborators of the Pope in the government of the church and electors of the Pope. The legal basis by which they exercise these functions is that they are the senior clergy of the church of Rome advising and electing their bishop. I can see no way that women who cannot be ordained a priest could ever be given the title of cardinal.