Is the Catholic Church ready for female cardinals?

(RNS) – Pope Francis is revamping the Vatican curia – church administrators and senior staff – and could appoint new cardinals in June.

Francis’ new apostolic constitution,Evangelium Predicate(“Preach the Gospel”), published last month, noted that heads of departments and other offices that run the Church do not need to be ordained. This underscored Francis’ stated goal of giving “more space” to women in the church.

Most of the important dicasteries are in fact headed by cardinals. But if any Catholic can lead a curial office, the question becomes: does the title come with the position? More importantly, is the title necessary to do the job?

Since the 16th century, cardinals have mainly come from the ranks of priests and bishops, but this has not always been the case.

If a cardinal’s primary duty is to be an adviser to the pope and no ordination is required, it might make sense to revive the tradition of lay cardinals and include women in the mix.

Since the 16th century, cardinals have mainly come from the ranks of priests and bishops, but this has not always been the case.

[Women in the College of Cardinals: A modest proposal for a more equal (and prophetic) church]

Some members of the Spanish and Italian royal families were created cardinals in the medieval church. More recently, Pope Pius IX named curia lawyer Teodolfo Mertel cardinal, two months before ordaining him deacon in 1858.

Mertel wasn’t exactly a lay cardinal — he received the clerical tonsure, a rite just before ordination, in his late thirties — but he remained a cardinal deacon for the rest of his life.

As auditor of the papal treasury, he oversaw much of the Vatican’s money.

There is even historical evidence of female deacons doing much the same thing. A sixth-century inscription recalls the deacon Anne, who, together with her brother, seems to have been treasurer of Rome.

Thus, lay and female cardinals are not beyond the realm of possibility. The question is, would it make a difference?

Under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, however, anyone appointed as a cardinal had to be at least a priest. The 1983 version of the code states that in addition to being chosen from among men who are at least priests, new cardinals must accept ordination as bishops. The appointment of a lay man or woman would require a change or at least a dispensation from the law.

Yet in the late 1960s, Pope Paul VI considered making French philosopher Jacques Maritain a lay cardinal, an idea that Maritain himself rejected. There is a rumor that Mother Teresa turned down Pope John Paul II when he asked her to become a cardinal.

Thus, lay and female cardinals are not beyond the realm of possibility. The question is, would it make a difference?

The pope’s emphasis on evangelization signals that his choice – male or female, married or single, ordained or not – depends solely on his ability and willingness to do the job.

It would certainly be interesting. Lay cardinals or deacons would be admitted to the College of Cardinals, which since 1179 has elected the next pope. It is highly unlikely that a lay or female cardinal will be elected bishop of Rome.

But Francis has already appointed a layman, former journalist Paolo Ruffini, to head what will be renamed the Dicastery for Communication, and the pope’s emphasis on the Church’s mission of evangelization signals that his choice of personnel – male or female, married or single, ordained or not – depends solely on the ability and willingness to do the work in that context.

The message of “Praedicate Evangelium” is that becoming a cardinal is secondary and relative only to how obtaining the title would or would not advance the task at hand. This includes expanding management and ministry to the laity. It also involves telling the world that women are equally talented and capable human beings.

So, has the time of female cardinals come?

Maybe yes, maybe no. But it’s a new church.

Jerry B. Hatch