Women Bishops for Wales, Ireland, South India, South Africa – Female Cardinals in Rome?

As we wait patiently for the Church of England finally to conclude its slow progress to the ordination of women bishops, there has been progress, elsewhere. The Church of Wales has voted by unexpectedly large margins to approve women bishops, the Church of Ireland which had previously approved women bishops in principle, sprang a surprise by announcing the first woman bishop for the British Isles, and almost unnoticed by the press, the Church of South India similarly announced its first woman bishop.  In South Africa, their 2013 synod was attended by their first two female bishops. An ever bigger surprise could just be in store from the Roman Catholic Church. In the wake of Pope Francis’ remarkable interview with the Jesuit publication Civita Cattolica, there was speculation in some Spanish and Italian papers that he could be preparing to include women not as priests, or as bishops, but as cardinals.

Such a move would be extraordinary, but is not entirely implausible. Commentary at El País and at Il Messaggero, available in English translation at Iglesia Descalza, notes that there is an inherent contradiction between Francis’ acceptance of the current Catholic orthodoxy that women cannot be ordained priests, and his equally clear acceptance that the Church is impoverished if we do not make adequate provision for full inclusion of women in the life of the Church.  This could be resolved symbolically, by including women as cardinals. Procedurally, this could be achieved in one of two ways, with relatively minor adjustments to current rules of discipline – not doctrine.

The more likely and more significant approach would be by admitting women as deacons. This would not be in conflict with any principle derived from the Bible, as defenders of the male priesthood claim that women priests would be, and there is abundant Biblical and historical evidence that women deacons were active in the early Christian communities. There are some Catholics who argue that their role was different to that of modern deacons, but even Pope Benedict acknowledged that the possibility of female deacons existed. Others believe that the necessary changes to church regulations could be implemented quite quickly. This would send a powerful initial signal of greater inclusion for women, and practice is likely to be taken up by substantial numbers of women religious and lay women. The really intriguing thing, is that it also opens up a path to women as cardinals. This is because although the usual career path to cardinals’ red hats is as priest, to bishop, archbishop and then cardinal, this is not the only one available. It is claimed technically, the minimum requirement for eligibility is no more than ordination as a deacon.

The other possible route to women cardinals, would be to revert to earlier practice, in which even the diaconate was not an essential precondition – there have in the past been laymen appointed as cardinals. If lay men, why not lay women? This too, could be achieved with a relatively simple change to the rules, but by affecting only those individuals so named, and not the much greater number admitted as deacons, would be more purely symbolic in value, and so both less useful, and less likely.

Some of the commentary along these lines has suggested, based on personal acquaintance with Pope Francis,that he is already thinking along these lines. Since this possibility was first mooted in the press, there has been feverish speculation that he could even name the first female cardinal in his first consistory, in February 2014. Such a move, certainly in the short term, would surprise me, and his in fact been flatly dismissed by the papal spokesman, Fr Lombardi. He did however agree that technically and legally, the possibility exists, and did not rule it out for future.This dramatic change will not come as early as next year, but there are good reasons for thinking that tor women, as for gays and lesbians, and for those who are divorced and remarried, under Francis, this is no longer the hostile church that it was under Benedict XVI and John Paul II. For inclusion of all, the tectonic plates of the church have shifted.

We see this most directly in the simple fact that this is being discussed at all. Under the previous two popes, there was a simple claim that women’s ordination was not possible, could not even be discussed, and that was an end of it. Benedict even dismissed Bishop Morrison of Australia, simply for suggesting that we should consider women’s ordination. .Francis has instead acknowledged that there are dangers in this kind of authoritarianism and certainty, that there must be dialogue with the whole church, reverting to the language of Vatican II of the church as “the people of God” and declaring unambiguously that we need to develop a new theology of women that ensure them a rightful place in the church, that we can hear their voices.

Others would respond that there is no need for a “new” theology of women, that outside the ivory towers of the Vatican, a substantial, credible theology of women already exists. What is needed, is simply that the present all-male establishment take proper note. The genie is out of the bottle, and will not return. We know that a substantial proportion of Catholics support married clergy, and want at least to discuss seriously how to create greater inclusion for women, as priests or otherwise. The voices that under Benedict and John Paul were cowed into silence, will hold their tongues no longer. Encouraged by Francis’ call for dialogue, we should now expect to hear a great deal more thoughtful commentary, and proposals, on a stronger place for Catholic women.  Up to now, the Catholic Church has lagged far behind other denominations in this respect, but at last it is at least beginning to catch up.

It may be wishful thinking to hope for women cardinals (or even deacons) any time soon, but it is no longer entirely fanciful to look ahead to some future date when a pope, opening a general council of the church (in Sao Paolo? or Manila?) may be accompanied by her wife.

Terry Weldon

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