I’m a big believer in the adage that most of human history can be described in two sentences:
1. “What could it hurt?” followed shortly thereafter by
2. “How was I supposed to know?”
One of the reasons I so much appreciate the Catholic Church is that its lifeblood is Apostolic Tradition, which ensures against running around after The Latest Thing.
However, I am also aware of the long history of Catholics trying to bind God to contracts he has never signed. Many times people leave the Catholic Church, not because it’s too unchanging, but because it changes in some way they did not expect. People think this started with Vatican II, but the reality is, it began when those damned modernists starting telling Gentiles they didn’t have to be circumcised and our weak-kneed bishops at the Council of Jerusalem caved in and swept away 2000 years of tradition, blast them! (Acts 15). It’s continued ever since with the Church stumbling from one “cowardly cave-in” to the next (and provoking the wrath of people like Arius, Tertullian, Donatus, and countless others who thought they “stood for tradition” and accused the Church of going intolerably soft).
I was reminded of this recently, when I pointed out on my blog that one of the effects of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was to make clear that it is only the priestly office to which women cannot be ordained. This means, among other things, that the offices of King and Prophet are open to women (and have been occupied by them for centuries, right along side men). In turn, this means there is nothing in the Tradition particularly forbidding the Church from making laywomen cardinals.
You’d have thought I had called for the assassination of the Pope! Readers wrote me to say things like, “It’s a horrible idea. I suppose having female cardinals would inevitably cause a major schism. Firstly many conservatives and traditionalists would likely begin to see more and more legitimacy to schismatic arguments of people like the SSPX. A horrible idea. Execrable. Crazy. Unbelievable. Come on, Mark. Geez!”
To be clear, my point is not that I’m especially eager to see woman cardinals, nor that I’m especially opposed to it. My point is that, like it or not, there is nothing in apostolic tradition which makes a lay woman cardinal impossible.
Some propose Paul’s remarks about women not having authority over men as the bulwark against the possibility of lay cardinals. But, as the Church has pointed out in Inter Insigniores:
Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognizes as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (cf. 1 Cor 11:5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly.
That’s why women are not per se barred from teaching (i.e. exercising an aspect of the prophetic office). This is attested, not only by the fact that entire orders of nuns do nothing else, but by the fact that four women are Doctors of the Church.
Similarly, women have long exercised the kingly office that is part of their baptism. That’s why we have had abbesses, hospital administrators, principals, college presidents, and any number of other governance roles filled by women. Nothing in the Tradition forbids this.
So we are left with what? Basically, a kneejerk horror of doing things differently. But that’s not faithfulness to the Tradition. That’s simply traditionalism, which works (as the circumcision party at the Council of Jerusalem discovered) right up until the moment the Church says, “We aren’t bound by old ways simply because they are old. We are bound by old ways if they are apostolic.”
Here’s the facts: the College of Cardinals is a bureaucratic device fadged up in the High Middle Ages to handle an administrative problem. It is useful, not sacrosanct. It is no more a feature of Sacred Tradition than a parish finance council. Currently, the Church opts to have only ordained men as cardinals and it is fully within it rights to do so. But the fact remains that there is absolutely nothing standing in the way of the Church’s governors opting to alter the canon law that is their own creation and make lay men and women cardinals, if they see fit.
Because I recognize this fact, it will not constitute a crisis of faith for me if, at some future point, the Church opts to create women cardinals. However, if one chooses to try to bind God to a contract He has never signed, such as, say, “Gentiles must be circumcised to belong to the Church” or “I’ll stay Catholic so long as women can never be cardinals”, then we must be prepared to have a perfectly foolish crisis of faith should God not choose to meet our demands.