Women in Church Governance


Pope Francis appoints six women to senior Vatican positions – a historic first

Good. Competent women have a huge amount to contribute to the Body of Christ.

I remember once when Fr. Benedict Groeschel and Cardinal Dolan remarked in some chat I saw on line that there is not a single theological reason in the world that lay women (and men, for that matter) could not be created as cardinals. I agreed (because it’s a fact). The office of cardinal is a medieval creation. It was invented because the papacy had become political football among warring Italian clans and rich families. You want “lay involvement” in Church governance? You had it in the Roman Church a millennium ago. It wasn’t as fun as it sounds. Basically, it meant that the richest mafiosi with the most guns got his son made pope till the next thug took it. The idea of shepherding the flock was not high on the agenda for these people. Not an inspiring period.

So, by way of reform, the cardinalate was invented and actual bishops who had the actual good of the Church and of the flock in mind (especially in reforming zeal that came after the Cluniac revival and percolated through the Church for several centuries) became the locus of Church elections. But, of course, since the entire cardinalate was simply a human invention, there was nothing set in stone about who could be an elector of the pope. The College of Cardinals, like a parish finance council or pastoral council is just a mechanism for getting a job done. It is not intrinsically sacerdotal. Medievals thought that, on the whole, shepherds should handle the job rather than mafiosi, which seems pretty prudent. And since only men can be ordained, only men were cardinals.

But there is room in the tradition for lay cardinals. And if that is so, then there is room in the tradition for lay women cardinals. It is mere custom, not apostolic tradition, that has kept women from being appointed as cardinals. And customs can and do change when it is prudent to do so. I think it is only a matter of time before the Ents of Rome conclude that it is, indeed, prudent that lay men and women have a hand in goverance of the Church.

Well. You’d have thought I’d shouted curse words during Mass. Reactionaries had their customary freakout, as though I was suggesting consecrating Twinkies and 7 Up in the Eucharist. But of course, I’m not. I’m simply stating a fact about what is possible and what is the distinction between apostolic tradition (such as the fact that the Church is not competent to ordain women to Holy Orders) and what is mere human custom, such as the entire college of cardinals and how it is constituted.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe Rome will never have lay women cardinals.

But I doubt I am. I expect that will happen one of these days, though not in my lifetime. I think it will be vital for theologically sound and pious laymen and women to have a hand in electing the Pope. Keeping 99.9999% of the people whom the Pope shepherds from having a say in who their shepherd is seems massively dumb and imprudent to me. It also seems to me to simply be unworkable. What has kept the system from changing is that we have had a looooong run of really good popes, including this one. So the principle “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it” works tolerably well. But sooner or later, as our history suggests, we will get a truly bad one. At that point, a laity with considerably more clout than, say, ninth century peasant laity, is bound to say, “We want a say in who is the next pope”. Given that the early Church used to elect its bishops, there is lots of theological precedence for this.

It will be interesting to watch that play out. But I’m pretty certain I will have to watch from Heaven, assuming I get there.


14 Responses

  1. Love the phrase”Ents of Rome”. In many, many ways it us so apt – I remember reading that the church thinks in terms of centuries, given its age, and not years. Thank for starting my day with a smile.

  2. A question: Could some of these really bad popes from some thousand years ago have introduced bad teaching? I know, and I do believe, that the Holy Spirit guides the teaching of the pope, but what if an ancient pope was elected, as you say, by ” the richest mafiosi with the most guns got his son made pope till the next thug took it. The idea of shepherding the flock was not high on the agenda for these people.”? Would such a pope still receive special charisms for leading the Church? Or, as I was told before, would it happen that those bad popes are not known for doing any teaching at all, good or bad, or much shepherding (I assume they would probably have been too busy, or too distracted, to do anything other than the politics of the time) ?

    1. Nope. No false teaching came from the bad popes. Just bad behavior. One of the things that is remarkable is how the bad popes were not interested in heresy but in the typical stuff men care about: money, pleasure, power, and honor. The examples of popes who flirted with heresy are amazingly thin on the ground. Liberius caved under torture and signed some document okaying semi-Arian ideas, but it was not binding teaching. Honorius wrote a private letter playing with monothelite ideas. But again, no formal teaching. The history of papal orthodoxy is amazingly consistent, even when the pope was a murderous bastard who killed his predecessor to get the job.

      1. How would you know? As far as I can see, the process of expanding doctrine only tests for consistency, not for correctness (which can be subjective) or for divine origin (which is untestable). So basically, anything that gets added that passes that simple consistency test becomes “true teaching” by definition.

        I don’t want to press the issue, because you know, whatever, but from an outsider’s perspective, the whole thing seems unfalsifiable, self-serving and honestly, just plain silly.

      2. Because nothing was added or subtracted by the bad popes. It’s not like we don’t have a massive paper trail of the Church’s teaching before and after them.

      3. I should’ve been more specific: I’m talking in a more general sense. My point is that you can’t really qualify any teaching as bad because the Church lacks any real mechanism for categorizing any of its teachings as such. How can you correct errors if you can’t even admit to them in the first place?

        Its like looking at a deliberately flawed version of the scientific method. Sure, the way the Church does things allows it to be consistent, but it also ensures that on some issues it will remain consistently wrong.

        God help you all if you end up with an extreme culture-war ideologue, who would be primarily interested in shaping the Church’s teaching, as a Pope.

  3. An interesting historical note–apparently Cardinal Consalvi, the secretary of state for the Holy See during the time of Napoleon, was a layman until he was ordained a deacon and created a cardinal.


    “One of Pius VII’s wisest decisions was to name Ercole Consalvi his secretary of state, creating this layman a cardinal—Consalvi was ordained a deacon at the time—and putting him in charge of virtually the entire apparatus of papal governance. Reading the story of Consalvi as de facto prime minister of the Papal States is a step back into a long-vanished world with striking parallels to our own time.”

    1. Another historical note…both Yves Congar and Avery Dulles were made Cardinals …neither of these brilliant theologians were Bishops. Canon law changed in 1917 and required cardinals to be ordained priests or bishops…and in 1983 that any priest made a cardinal must become a Bishop as well ..however the Pope can grant a dispensation..which was what happened for Dulles. Canon law of course can be changed. On a side note…I suggest reading Dulles’ book “Models of the Church”

  4. When St. John Henry Newman was canonized last year, I was reading up on him and so surprised to learn he was never a bishop. I knew the cardinalate wasn’t a Holy Order, but had still assumed all cardinals were created from bishops. Now I’m surprised again, in a pleasant way!

    To my eyes, the cardinalate as it is today looks like the sheer opposite of “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant.” I tremble whenever I consider the American-middle-class luxury I live in and remember Christ’s words and the words of the Church Fathers on theft from the poor. Do the men who accept titles like “Prince of the Church,” wear vestments far richer than anything I’ve seen a monarch wear, and live very luxuriously have no fear at all when they hear, “The first among you shall be last”?

    In my fantasy world, those entrusted with the highest responsibilities of shepherding, up to and including allowing the Holy Spirit to work through them to select the next Vicar of Christ, would take Christ’s words very seriously. If I was gen Z I might start a trend: Cardinals Become Mendicant & Discalced Challenge 2020.

      1. Women could never keep the proceedings of a conclave secret. The sexes ARE different and each has its weaknesses. Good point

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