The Media Conclave Has Begun With the Hope for a Nun

A female pope? The dream lives on…

E.J. Dionne holds forth on who the best man for the job of Pope will be, and why. 

In giving up the papacy, Pope Benedict XVI was brave and bold. He did the unexpected for the good of the Catholic Church. And when it selects a new pope next month, the College of Cardinals should be equally brave and bold. It is time to elect a nun as the next pontiff.

Now, I know this hope of mine is the longest of long shots. I have great faith in the Holy Spirit to move papal conclaves, but I would concede that I may be running ahead of the Spirit on this one. Women, after all, are not yet able to become priests, and it is unlikely that traditionalists in the church will suddenly upend the all-male, celibate priesthood, let alone name a woman as the bishop of Rome.

Nonetheless, handing leadership to a woman — and in particular, to a nun — would vastly strengthen Catholicism, help the church solve some of its immediate problems and inspire many who have left the church to look at it with new eyes.

Consider, first, what constitutes the church’s strongest claim on public respect and affection. It is not its earthly power, the imposing beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica or even its determination to preserve its doctrine whole. Rather, the church impresses even its critics, and inspires its most loyal and most dissident members, because so many in its ranks walk the talk of the Gospel. Hundreds of thousands of nuns, priests, brothers and laypeople devote their lives to the poor, the marginalized, refugees, the disabled and the homeless, simply because Christ instructed them — us — to do so. Matthew 25:40 contains what may be the most constructive words ever written: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you did for me.”

More than any other group in the church, the sisters have been at the heart of its work on behalf of compassion and justice. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times made this point as powerfully as anyone in a 2010 column. “In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches,” he wrote. “One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch. . . . Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.”

Kristof went on to say that “there’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans.”

There are certainly bishops and cardinals who have done this sort of godly work and many more who have supported it. But those who have devoted their lives to climbing the church’s career ladder tend not to be like that nun in the jeep in Swaziland. What a message the cardinals would send about the church’s priorities if they made such a woman pope.

Read more.

Because sending a message is what’s most important, right? Okey dokey. Interestingly, E.J. gives us no candidates whom he finds fit for the Petrine Office. Maybe he should pin his hopes on installing a female Cardinal first, eh? Fr. Dwight Longenecker could serve as color commentator in that event.

Speaking of being on the wrong side of history, have you ever heard of Pope Joan? Cracked Magazine explains her “true story” in 6 Famous Things From HistoryThat Didn’t Actually Exist. Enjoy.

For something other than “thought experiments” regarding the choices facing the Conclave, check out John Allen’s excellent resource, A Quick Course in “Conclave 101″

We live in interesting times, as John Thavis reminds us of here.

YouTube Preview Image

  • Virginia

    First I believe that the requirement to become the Pope is that the person must be male. Second this was put to rest sometime ago when a pope (and I don’t remember which one) ruled that ONLY males could serve as priests. So I don’t see this happening in the next several centuries.

    • Tom

      On May 22, 1994, Pope John Paul II wrote this in his Apostolic Letter, ORDINATIO SACERDOTALIS. This is considered infallible teaching and will not change. Everyone can read this short letter giving Pope JPII’s thoughts and considerations on the Vatican website here: .

      • Subsistent

        Yes; that a cardinal must be male is a requirement of Canon law, and could conceivably change, the cardinalate being of human ecclesiastic institution, not divine. But the Christian presbyterate is of divine institution, not ecclesiastic. And Pope John Paul seems to have used of set purpose the language of *ex cathedra* definition: that it’s to be “definitively held by all the Church’s faithful” that the Church has simply not been divinely empowered to ordain a woman presbyter. The grounds given for this non-empowerment are not set out definitively, as far as I know; but the non-empowerment itself seems to me to be indeed defined ex cathedra.

  • James

    Some people forget that the greatest in the Church are not the ministers, but the saints. Among these, Mary, a woman, is the greatest. The clamor to have a female priesthood is utterly misguided. The male priesthood has nothing to do with women being inferior. Read St. Thomas or John Paul II. It’s about proper sacramental matter. Since Christ Himself never chose women for the priesthood, the Church being neither the master of the sacraments nor anything more than their minister, cannot change the material sua sponte.

    • Frank Weathers

      You’d think more folks would realize this.

  • anniem

    Yes, “nuns” have done tremendous good in the Church and the world for centuries, not the least of which are the Contemplatives who pray day and night for our fallen world. Let’s not forget that for two thousand years priests have been traveling to every country in the world to bring the good News, the gospel, and especially the Holy Eucharist, to pagans and others. The virtue of humility is sadly lacking in many of the nuns who are hoping for female priests. They are mostly old, and their religious Orders have not attracted any new postulants in several decades. Instead, new Orders are springing up, filled with young, vibrant women who are in love with Jesus Christ and not POWER. A local priest once said that people believe chastity is the most difficult virtue to practice when you are a Sister or a Priest. Nope-it’s obedience to your superiors, and ultimately to the Magisterium of the Church.

    • Subsistent

      A Dominican priest once told me that same thing: that it’s not chastity but obedience which is the most difficult.

  • enness

    …What used to be called “Catholics”?
    A New York Times reporter’s opinion is always reliable. *giggle*

  • Claude

    Good for E.J. Dionne. That column was superb.

    Bring it.

  • Kafantaris

    What the Roman Catholic Church needs at this juncture is a Pope who is not only an outsider, but also from the minority. Yes, this will rattle the brittle bones of the ancient institution, but it will also purge it. Indeed, electing a minority Pope will renew our faith in Christ who Himself would have done no less.

  • nashdomsrock

    “Women, after all, are not yet able to become priests…” Yep…just like my husband ‘isn’t able’ to be the mother of our daughter. It doesn’t get any simpler but people still want to make the concept difficult.

  • R.C.

    Oh, why won’t people get over this tiresome, last-century mooning about overturning gender roles? It’s so 1960′s, and so very obviously ridiculously stupid, when applied to this example.

    An organization this stable is not about to suddenly and obviously declare its entire self-definition invalid. Why don’t people get that?

    The only really distinctive thing about the Catholic Church compared to other Christian organizations can be summed up in 3 points:

    1. They say that the declaration/definition of a dogma is irreformable because in order for something to get dogmatically declared/defined, God must decide that He wants the Church to teach it officially as eternal truth.

    2. They say that their Magisterium, in communion with the Pope, is the sole visible, identifiable, authoritative source on earth for valid, reliable dogmatic declarations/definitions. Nobody else has the guarantee of infallibility, and they do.

    3. They have this guarantee by virtue of BEING the Church that Jesus founded, with Jesus’ promises and grants of authority and miraculous (divine) power backing up that guarantee.

    Got that? This is what makes the Catholic Church important. Lots of other Christians can be nice in Jesus’ name and lead sinners to Christ and get them to repent of their fornicating and boozing and whatnot. And the Eastern Orthodox have valid ordination so they can hear confessions and distribute the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ to the faithful. When it comes to choosing Catholic over other Christian groups, these considerations do not differentiate.

    Ah, but the guarantee of KNOWING, and KNOWING THAT YOU KNOW, that whatever truth has been formally taught to you by the top authorities is the real deal, the real authentic truths of the Christian apostolic faith, and that your same church won’t suddenly reverse itself in another 500 years?

    That’s the Catholic Church’s market, and they have an utter monopoly.

    Now take that knowledge, and consider: The Catholic Church has already taught, Magisterially, irreformably, definitively, that:

    1. Ordination to the priesthood or episcopate is a sacrament;
    2. Sacraments require, in addition to the right words and intent and whatnot, “valid matter”: That is, the material stuff involved in the ceremony has to be the right stuff. (Roughly speaking.)
    3. Ordination the priesthood or episcopate requires, as valid matter, a Catholic MALE.

    That’s the deal.

    So let’s see what happens if the Church reverses itself:

    If the Church reverses itself, it shows that it was wrong when it previously said that only a male can be ordained.

    No big deal if we’re talking about, say, the Lutherans, whose views on any number of topics have shifted substantially from Martin Luther’s since the 1600′s, even if you look at the very most conservative Lutheran groups. No big deal that they’ve shifted, because their self-definition is not wrapped up in having never made an error on dogmatically, officially declared matters of faith and morals.

    But the Catholic Church’s self-definition IS wrapped up in precisely that.

    If they have ever been wrong, then by their own definitions, either (a.) they are not really the Church Jesus founded, or, (b.) they are, but Jesus was not God.

    That is (the implication of) what they teach. That is what they’ve always taught, from as early as one can find any records that deal with the issue.

    Now E.J.Dionne is acting like this choosing a nun thing would be good for the Catholic Church. But Dionne is too ignorant of the topic to realize that choosing a nun would entirely nullify the Church’s existence and self-definition. It would say that it not only was not what it claimed, but that it never had been what it claimed, and never had been anything important or interesting or worthy of a person being a member of it instead of, say, the Rotary club.

    Knowingly make a nun pope? You couldn’t destroy the Church any more effectively unless you nuked every living Catholic individually from orbit.

    You could accidentally “make” a woman pope, say, if all the Cardinals somehow didn’t know he was a she. But she wouldn’t actually BE pope; it would just mean the interregnum had continued (because of, again, the lack of valid matter).

    Now E.J.Dionne is every bit as ignorant of the Catholic Church as Jack Chick. So it’s no great shock he doesn’t realize all this.

    But it’s sad that a major periodical, which even in 2013 still has reasonably serious circulation, would allow someone to display his ignorance so vividly, and spread it to their readers.

  • pagansister

    Sadly, the RCC is not likely to allow women to be priests anytime soon, so how could anyone even begin to hope to have a female Pope?