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?

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • RelapsedCatholic

    While it may not be a new idea, the fact that we have a Pope where people could actually see this happening is new. I love your idea of lay people, I would add a few scholars, poets, and theologians. Some female cardinals are exactly what I would love to see.

  • Daren J. Zehnle

    For it to be possible, the law would first have to change. Canon 351.1 states:

    “The Roman Pontiff freely selects men [the Latin says 'viri'] to be promoted as cardinals, who have been
    ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate and are especially
    outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action; those who are
    not yet bishops must receive episcopal consecration.”

  • Victor

    Sorry folks! But as much as I believe that woman are equal to “U>S (usual sinners) who are in the family of “MAN” and long story short, for what “IT” is worth, I could never go against The Church that “Jesus” “The Christ” originally started through His Peter if you know what me, myself and i mean?

    God Bless Peace

  • Chesire11

    I don’t believe that the late Avery Cardinal Dulles was ever made a bishop, so that requirement seems to have been dispensed in the not too distant past.

    Also, there is the story that Blessed John Paul II offered to make Blessed Mother Theresa of Calcutta a Cardinal, but she declined. I don;t know if the story is true or not, but I’m Irish enough to decide that it should be true, and that if it isn’t true, it’s hardly the stories fault that reality didn’t live up to it!

  • KyPerson

    I’m very traditional but I could see laymen and laywomen as Cardinals tasked with electing a new Pope. Maybe not in my lifetime.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    So does that mean a woman could be Pope? If laymen can be in the College of Cardinals then what would be the criteria for being selected? Whenever you have people who “don’t rise through the ranks” get placed in authority, you get resentment and division. Seems like we’d be heading in the direction of the medieval church where some sort of social rank or status or affirmative action got them into the position of authority. My gut tells me it would not be a good idea for laymen to be Cardinals, and that’s not even considering the division that would occur if women were to be selected. I don’t see anything wrong with the way the College of Cardinals and Papal selections work. I wouldn’t change it.

  • Donna

    That is noted in the article. It’s also noted that Canon Law states that if a man is made a cardinal he must also be made a bishop. Popes can and have disregarded that canon, so there is no reason they could not dispense with the canon requiring that cardinals be men. I would not be surprised if this is where Francis is heading with his talk of a greater role for women in the church.

  • doughboy

    This does not sit well with me. We could have an entire set of women jockeying for positions to change the hierarchical structure of the Church just because they see it in terms of being oppressive and a mere political institution, and then elect a woman as Pontiff ‘just because they could.’ Too farfetched?

  • TerryC

    No. As a matter of fact there is no requirement that the Pope be selected from among the College of Cardinals. He must be a Baptized male and by Canon Law must be ordained a bishop before he can accept the appointment.
    However since the 15th century no one has been elected who is not a member of the college.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Thanks. So there is an actual requirement that the Pope must be male and a bishop? That makes me feel more comfortable, but I still don’t like laymen being elected into the College. If you didn’t earn that position, then it falls to the criticism of corruption or affirmative action.

  • Jonenred

    I think the church should become more protestant as well Elizabeth. Women cardinals is a great idea.

  • Patrick Thornton

    While possible, it would be breaking with the long tradition that cardinals be made clerics of some sort. Throughout history, there were of course men who were not priests or even deacons who were also cardinals, but they were not of the lay state, they were made clerics. Until 1970 or so, a man became a cleric by receiving tonsure. Then it was changed (at the time of the suppression of the minor orders) so that a man only becomes a cleric when he is ordained to the diaconate. Of course, only men can be made clerics. So, it would seem unlikely that the Church would go against this long-standing tradition.

  • Donna

    “Too farfetched?”

    Yes. Not to mention slightly paranoid, as the pope has to be a priest and it’s very clear women will never be priests. Nice to see your low opinion of women Catholics, though. I have always staunchly defended the Church against allegations that it is a systemically misogynistic institution which only has regard for those women who limit themselves to very confined roles. I still believe that, although obviously individual members are an exception.

  • doughboy

    On the contrary. I love all the women in my life, faithful or not. I daresay I even love those involved in the womynpreest movement. What I don’t trust are those who would use such an opportunity to change the Church for their own ends (be they male or female). I’m not a theologian, but I do prize obedience as I’ve witnessed the fruits of disobedience in my life and would hate to see the Church wrecked by those seeking political points. Women will never be priests? Looks that way now, but doesn’t mean there aren’t those that keep trying to change that reality.

  • Mary

    I’ll be honest here… I think there’s a real problem with saying that the Cardinals or hierarchy have to ‘earn’ their position, or there will be problems among the hierarchy. I think one might also argue that there are real problems among the hierarchy because so many of them see bishoprics, archbishoprics, and finally the cardinalate as something to be ‘earned,’ like a promotion, or something that’s due to them. We want men (women? in the spirit of the article) to be given these positions because they embody the spirit of service. Who is to say that a layman, working in the trenches of a theology department or among the poor for years, wouldn’t have a spirit of service to the church and the unique point of view of a layman that might have something to offer in the selection of a pope?
    Can you clarify what you mean by ‘earning’ the position?

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Possibly. But if the army was to take a civilian working in the Pentagon and make him a Colonel in command of a brigade, you bet there would be resentment. Who says that all those majors and Lt. Colonels he jumped over weren’t just as qualified and employ the same spirit? What makes that outsider so special that the people who have been working their way up can’t perform at his level? If anything those working their way up have the credentials of working with the existing workforce. Earning the position means working up the chain of command. My personal hunch is that if the Pope were to appoint Cardinals that weren’t bishops, it would cause a lot of confusion and resentment. Look at all the politics that go on now at the Vatican. I think this would exponentially increase the politics.

  • Mary

    That’s not a great analogy, though. Because we’re all members of the Church, whereas, even a civilian working in the Pentagon is not a member of the military. A more apt analogy might be that every American has the right to run for office (not a great analogy, either, I’ll admit). I don’t think we want to get to the point where claims are made that ordination gives you a special knowledge for discerning papal elections — that could open the church up to Gnosticism.
    Vatican II was very interested in reminded Catholics that the hierarchy that come first is the one that puts all baptized Catholics into the Church and beholden to God, and the division between clergy and laity comes after that.
    I don’t think ANYONE is arguing that any old person should be appointed a Cardinal, just because they are a lay person or just because they are female. It’s not the lay or female part that’s the most important. What I think people are pondering is that that the lay or female voice of a learned theologian (Maritain) or mystic (Catherine of Siena) or servant of God (Bl. Theresa of Calcutta) might have something to contribute to the College of Cardinals.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Sounds like affirmative action to me.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Well, anyone that mentions Catherine of Siena always touches my heart! That certainly softened my view, but I can’t say changed it. I understand the point. It has the potential for causing a lot of havoc. I don’t see what’s wrong now with the way it works. What’s the College of Cardinals do other than pick a Pope? It seems to me that’s been working quite well over the last century. When was the last Pope that was a complete dud? Why change for the sake of change?

  • Mary

    Well, I certainly HOPE this won’t change just for the sake of change. I’m sure there are a lot of feminists (both of the male and female gender) who will argue that FINALLY the church should get with the program and have a woman Cardinal because that will pull us into the 21st century. But if we take seriously that women qua women have something unique to offer the Church, then this is one way for that thing to be made available for the Holy Spirit to use when electing a pope.

  • Traditonal for life

    this church would be disastrous. Sometimes people like to break up things
    so that they can have a fire sale. The Roman Catholic Church is just that
    thing they wish to break up. Look what they done to not only the Jewish
    religion, but the Jewish culture. The Roman Catholic Church invented
    Women’s Rights. That is correct, I said it. 80-100 years BEFORE any
    suffrage, in any country. our nuns (who wore habits; as if there is anything
    wrong with wearing a uniform and that applies to men as well) manned the
    hospitals and infirmaries. We INVENTED HEALTH CARE-and THE RCC put the
    NUNS IN CHARGE and I will tell you what no priest cardinal or Pope even dare
    challenge them. THE RCC invented Women’s Rights. Who do we bow
    before, SECOND ONLY to GOD and Jesus Christ? Well who? misogynistic ???????

    The thing is if these changes happen-there might be a giant sucking

    sound. I was in another state last week. The Roman Catholic church didn’t look
    like a church. It certainly lacked the discipline of a Roman Catholic Church.
    People were talking before mass. There was no reverence as people were trying
    to pray. NOT A ROSARY IN SIGHT. There was a more Pentecostal way that
    theliturgy was delivered. Certainly, No St. Michael the Archangel after
    theprayers of the Faithful. I mean, you could tell this was a church born Post
    Vatican II, 70′s-lack of reverence. Inspirational message but without respect
    lost on the audience. Inspiration can exist but it has toexist hand in hand
    with respect for “what the mass is.” All Icould think of is welcome
    back to the early 70′s. I don’t think the faithfulwill return to the pew by
    that route. Otherwise, your other faiths wouldhave grabbed them up by now.
    Protestants lost their audience in a myriad of watered down messages. Jewish is
    a dying culture. Female Rabbis, come on… The pews are empty all around. Protestants
    watered down their message long ago and have experienced the same glut. People
    don’t like to be told “what to do.” Or do they? Some of the best kids
    (and I know because I am a teacher) are ones who exist is boundaries-it is not
    different with adults.

  • Romulus

    Human beings don’t have gender. Not unless you want to believe that sexual categories are oppressive and that all we really have is gender roles, self-chosen or else socially imposed. Pope Benedict dealt with this is his last Christmas message to the Roman Curia. No one but me seems to have noticed.

  • Romulus

    Cardinals, whatever else they may be, are all clergy of the Church of Rome, and each is assigned his titular parish. Women cannot be clerics.

  • Adam Frey

    Mmmmm. The rule requiring a male-and-priestly Cardinal may be one of these prophylactic rules that was instituted because to allow to the contrary would be to invite scandal.

    Here in the military, we have a lot of rules that have no inherently “moral” component to them, but we’ve instituted them because to allow otherwise would be to invite trouble. Best example is our prohibition on fraternization: as an officer, I’m forbidden from forming close friendships with or dating enlisted members. There’s no inherent harm in me being friends with or dating anybody, but as an officer, I may be called upon to stick a gun in somebody’s hands and tell them to run up a hill at the likely cost of their lives. If I’m buddies with one of my subordinates, who do you think isn’t getting sent up the hill? How’s the rest of the group going to take that?

    Probably the same deal applies to male Cardinals. You just wouldn’t allow it, because the world is what it is, and would become waaaaaay to confused over why they can serve as Cardinals but can’t be ordained…

    (I personally have no problem with the idea of female deacons given the reference to St. Phoebe in one of St. Paul’s letters…but mother church has said no, and I’m not sure if that’s a prudential rule or because the male nature of the priesthood extends to the deaconate as well. I defer.)

  • Victor

    Hey RelapsedCatholic! I’ve finally learned that His Holiness has not made any real changes in “Christ Teaching” other than reaching out with LOVE to each other so let’s not start any new rumors this close to Halloween NOW!? And by the way folks! Please, let’s keep praying for sinner vic. He needs “IT”. :)

  • Heather

    Keeping in mind that only the Pope could appoint said hypothetical female cardinals, and he presumably would not appoint crazy nuns-on-the-bus womynpriest types who are not in agreement with the Magisterium, yes, too farfetched. You don’t get to be any kind of cardinal, be it episcopal or lay, by lobbying for it.

  • jenny

    That would bring a lot of healing/justice to women, girls and families in general.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    Are you saying that women don’t do lots for the Church now and don’t have responsibilities? They do lots and are greatly respected, as our Blessed Mother is respected. Being in the College of Cardinals for the sake of gender equality seems like an act of pride.

  • MMN

    Romulus is correct, Cardinals are the Roman clergy and they gather to elect their Bishop, the Bishop of Rome. The term cardinal comes from the Latin “Cardo” – hinge (as in you are affixed to something, think in-card-ination). In the ancient Church a cleric could be affixed to a church, a deaconry or a diocese. Clerics affixed to a particular Church were called Cardinals. In time the deacons affixed to deaconries in Rome became known as Cardinal Deacons, and priests affixed to churches of particular importance in Rome came to be known as Cardinal Priests, and finally bishops int he surrounding dioceses of Rome (that had a special relationship with the Roman Pontiff (i.e. Ostia) came to be known as Cardinal Bishops.

    all of that is by way of saying that Cardinals are Roman Clergy and they come together to elect their Bishop, the Roman Pontiff. Romulus is right, women can’t be clerics.

  • Donna

    Well, you’ve certainly made the point that the status quo is a huge failure.

    As for the church inventing women’s rights and using the nuns as proof — listen, I have fond memories of going to a Catholic school run by nuns. The major hospital in our city was run by nuns and they were wonderful women and role models. But you have to be honest about this — the nuns were teachers and nurses, two occupations that were “appropriate” for women and not highly valued. The nuns were very cheap labor and that’s why they were in charge of schools and hospitals, not because of any sense of women’s rights or any belief in women’s abilities outside of narrow confines.

    The fact that so many men are alarmed at the possibility of women being allowed to take part in selecting a pope is very telling about how many traditional Catholic males view women — not the “women in their lives,” but women as a group of people.

    I’m not sure how I even feel about the possibility of women cardinals, other than it shouldn’t be rejected solely out of fear of change or fear that any women chosen would disregard the promptings of the Holy Spirit or the good of the universal church and pursue their own agenda.

  • andrekenji

    I don´t think that would happen. The relationship between men and women inside the Church is not so contentious, specially outside the United States. And note that the Virgin Mary is extremely popular in Latin America.

    Besides that, priests are men that generally only have men on their social circle, and many of them don´t know how to relate or to deal with women – I´m seeing a lot of women complaining about priests here in Brazil. That´s also a problem. Note that other than the Popes, the most known Catholic is Mother Teresa. Here in Brazil, two women(Zilda Arns, the sister of Evaristo, and Irmã Dulce) are extremely popular. Someone like Mother Teresa as a Cardinal could be a enormous asset for the Church.

    I think that a compromise is a possible.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Women cardinals would have merely a perfunctory function. Because women cannot be ordained, they cannot be electors in a conclave, they cannot be vicars of titular churches in Rome, they cannot perform official duties over the ordained, etc. Therefore, this would embolden th for their ordination and be a source for scandal at the core of the Church. The day this happens, I’ll agree with the Orthodox.

    Why do women think that their equal human dignity is only affirmed if they get to play men?

    BTW, that’s a martyr’s not a cardinal’s mantle.

    St. Thecla, pray for us.

  • Mary

    I don’t think you actually read what I wrote in it’s entirety. I did not say that women should be in the College for the sake of gender equality, and if fact I said the complete opposite. Since you seem to not want to engage with what I’m actually saying, I’m going to bow out of this conversation now.

  • Mary

    Bad choice of word there, given the cultural climate… I didn’t mean to imply that gender is separate from from sex (male or female).

  • Nan

    He asked for a dispensation from being made bishop as he became a cardinal at age 83; note that he also became Cardinal when he was too old to vote in the conclave.

    Stories like that are dangerous as we don’t know whether they’re true.

  • Nan

    God elevated Mary to the highest position a woman can have; Mother of God. Not only that but Christ made women equal to men as he preached both to men and women, nor did he limit his preaching to Jews. Women and families do need healing but that comes from closeness to Christ, not external factors; we need healing from the damage feminism has wrought these last 50 years, encouraging women to think they’re the same as men (which is different than being equal to) so they’d abandon their god-given role as nurturers of the next generation. Instead, they abandon that role by contracepting, thinking they know better than God about fertility, aborting children because our selfish society has deemed raising children to be a burden and divorcing because they want everything their way. Women do need healing but making women cardinals would cause damage rather than healing.

  • Donna

    It’s great that you love all the women in your life, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have a low regard for women in general. You feel the need to protect the church from women, even women the Pope hypothetically would find worthy to serve as a Cardinal. So, for you, the possibility that a woman might disregard the good of the church as a whole in order to pursue her own agenda is a good reason to bar all women from this role.

    If I were to follow your reasoning, I would conclude that all men should be barred from the priesthood and from being a bishop because a number of them were unable to control their sexual urges and did incomparable harm to youth and the church as a whole. Ridiculous, no?

  • jenny

    May we try a simple test for our brothers/ husbands/priests – at human level ?
    How does a man feel going to pre-confession to a woman , prior to going to confession to a priest?
    During pre-confession, the man has to present his list of “problems” to a lay woman and get her advise on male-specific sins.
    Our brothers/husband/priests may get a new vision about Bible’s verse: ” …confess your sins to one another…” James 5:16.

  • jenny

    The sooner, the better for all of us women, girls, and men.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    Papal appointments, even by saintly popes, are not infallible (e.g., Card. Mahony by JPII).

  • Chesire11

    Like I said, he was dispensed from the requirement, and a story is only dangerous if we are indifferent to whether it is true or not.

  • Nan

    This predates your childhood. Women have been doing good works within the Church for millennia and many founded religious orders. Those nuns in the schools and nuns in the hospitals belonged to orders whose charisms were teaching and healing. That’s why the orders were founded; other orders take care of priests. You disparage these things as though teaching and healing are unimportant. These women out in the world have already broken free of the narrow confines of centuries before.

    With regard to women cardinals, I agree with whoever said that would just encourage those who believe that women should be priests. Christ prayed on the mountain with his father, then called the twelve to him. We know from Scripture that he had many women followers and that there were priestesses in Roman territories, so what he did was countercultural; he appointed only men as priests.

  • Nan

    There are only sins. Pre-confession is your examination of conscience and your prayers prior to confession. We always confess to God, the priest is merely his conduit. Only God can forgive our sins, thus, your idea would only serve to muddy the waters. Confessing your sins to one another is a protestant thought.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I read it. You said that women would add something “unique” but you never said what that uniqueness was. I said that the College of Cardinals has be working quite well So what is it that women offer that needs to be added? If you ask me this urge to have women in the governing body is based on some sort of feminist equality rather than tradition and scripture.

  • jenny

    Can men imagine how it fees to listen to a homily given by a woman?

  • jenny

    The fact that 1 in 4 children is fatherless, says enough about male dominated management .

  • Heather

    True, but one loopy cardinal (or even a couple of them) isn’t going to be able to hijack an election.

    I just have a hard time seeing how people are assuming that “female cardinal” = “liberal dissident” = “Pope Joan.” I’m not saying I think they would be a good idea. But I’m thinking that the kind of woman who would ever get the nod would be much more Mother Teresa and much less Sister Aging Hippie.

  • jenny

    The fact that 1 in 4 children is fatherless, says enough about male dominated management

  • Donna

    You misunderstand. I don’t disparage teaching and healing as unimportant. I simply point out the truth that in a male dominated culture, teaching, nursing (none of the orders were made up of nun physicians, were they?) and taking care of priests are occupations which fit neatly within the view that women should be restricted to activities in which they are caretakers and nurturers of others. Trying to use this as an argument to prove that the Catholic Church “invented women’s rights” is laughable. Mary is venerated for her obedience and her motherhood, both of which allow men to rest comfortably and unchallenged.

    JP II began to explore women’s worth and dignity as a whole, and it looks as though Francis will continue to do so. The fact that traditional Catholics are so terribly discomfited by this shows how much they fear. What, I’m not sure. Women will not be priests. We can’t be, and I daresay that most of us who think the Church has some work to do in this area don’t want women priests. I know I don’t. Still, the fact that people use this as an excuse to disallow women any greater role in the church is very telling.

  • jenny

    I thought that men abort their children too, by not providing food and care to their unborn children.
    Maybe we should pray for our abortionist fathers too…..
    Any explanation about 1 in 4 children with no father? see any statistics.