Women in Church Governance
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.