A theologian has called for women cardinals, arguing that in the Church “the untethering of competency from orders is long overdue”.

– Tying leadership to ordination a “dumbfounding mistake”

Jesuit Fr. James Keenan, Canisius Professor of Theology at Boston College, made the impassioned plea for female red hats in a July 28 article in the National Catholic Reporter.

In his piece Keenan lamented that “the question of leadership in the church too often defaults to the question of ordination” – that is, to the assumption that only ordained men can be leaders in Catholicism.

But the Jesuit called that stubborn connection between authority and holy orders “a dumbfounding mistake inasmuch as ordination simply does not bestow such competency for leadership, though it does recognize and confirm the capacity to preside at certain sacraments”.

“Pope Francis’ insistence on a servant priesthood is a helpful addendum: Orders is fundamentally a sacrament for a vocation of service”, Keenan added.

The Jesuit went on to argue that ordination is by no means a magic wand, bestowing on the ordained capacities they did not have before they became deacons, priests or bishops.

“By the sacrament of orders, a priest or a bishop does not become more able to lead an office, a parish, a department at an episcopal conference, a state or national conference, a confraternity, a Catholic non-governmental organization, a dicastery or a congregation. Clergy do not gain such competency by orders”, Keenan stressed.

– “It was only a hundred years ago that canon law decreed that cardinals had to be ordained”

Not only, then, are women perfectly competent to fulfil the role of cardinal, Keeann argued – even in the Pope’s inner sanctum of the Council of Cardinal Advisors, which helps Francis with the reform of the Roman Curia and gives the pontiff counsel on specific issues – but female cardinals would also “allow[] us to see as Paul told us the variety of gifts within the Church”.

What’s more, there is historical precedent to support the idea that a non-ordained person can be appointed as a “prince of the Church”, as the Boston theologian recalled.

“It was only a hundred years ago that the ‘new’ Code of Canon Law (1917) decreed that cardinals had to be ordained. Before that they were either from the laity or the ordained, though clearly the majority were the latter”, Keenan explained, while “in 1983, the code required that cardinals be bishops”.

But the theologian pointed out that those requirements of being ordained, first, and a bishop, subsequently – which were in fact meant to stamp out nepotism and purely political appointments to the College of Cardinals – didn’t stop Pope Paul VI offering a red hat to lay French philosopher Jacques Maritain or John Paul II proposing the same dignity to Mother Teresa, according to well-founded rumours.

Even former director of the Holy See Press Office Fr. Federico Lombardi argued in 2013 that women cardinals were “theologically and theoretically … possible”.

“Being a cardinal is one of those roles in the Church for which, theoretically, you do not have to be ordained”, the former Vatican spokesman wrote at the time, as Keenan recalled.

– A groundswell of support for female red hats

The occasion for Keenan’s piece on women cardinals was the recent prediction by the President of the French Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Éric de Moulins-Beaufort of the Reims archdiocese, that “the Holy See will one day be led by the Pope surrounded by a college of cardinals in which there would be women”.

“The voice of all the baptized laity, from the moment they try to embrace Christianity, should be able to count as much as that of the clergy”, de Moulins-Beaufort insisted on that occasion.

But the Reims archbishop has not been the only Church figure pleading recently for female cardinals.

Late last month, a member of the Vatican study commission on the women’s diaconate, Anne-Marie Pelletier argued that “there are many places where women need to be active today in exercising authority and inspiring new governance, such as parish authorities, episcopal councils and the pope’s council”.

University of Münster theology professor Thomas Schüller, meanwhile, floated a reading of Pope Francis’ post-Amazon Synod apostolic exhortation Querida Amazonia in which a papal desire to give women real “leadership positions” in the Church and to “seriously reflect in a courageous manner about the cardinalate” for females would be at the heart of that document.

Earlier in June, too, Belgian Jesuit priest, sociologist and family ministry expert Charles Delhez suggested that opening the College of Cardinals to females could be one way the Church could atone for the wrong it has done to women throughout the centuries.

More on Novena on the movements for equal rights for women in the Church:

French Bishops’ head ‘gets it’ on rights for women, laity: “The Church cannot act as if humans were children who must be held by the hand”

Vatican female deacons commission member: “Why not include women in the college of cardinals?”

German theologian claims ‘Querida Amazonia’ seeks to end “clerical monopoly”, clear way for women cardinals

Belgian Jesuit calls for women cardinals: “It is vital that the world not always be seen through male eyes”


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.