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The sound case for women cardinals

FAITH & REASON The Pope wants to see women in positions of leadership. Until 1916 there was no requirement for cardinals to be priests. Why not bring back lay cardinals? asks Andrew Brown.
The Roman Catholic Church in Britain is so smoothly run and so united in outward loyalty and inward indifference to Rome that it is easy to forget the magnitude of the civil war waging almost everywhere else in the Church in the developed world.

Two American religious papers give us a taste of it. One is the National Catholic Reporter, for which the late Peter Hebblethwaite was Rome correspondent; the other is the Catholic World Report, a glossy monthly devoted to the cause of tradition. It is difficult to believe they are describing the same church; all that seems to unite them is the bilious tone with which they describe their enemies, each other.

But there are deeper similarities. Both believe that they represent the one true church, and that the tendencies represented by the other will strangle and poison the truth if allowed to flourish. Both believe that the crucial battleground is over appointments and that sex and authority are intimately connected. These beliefs have come to the forefront of both papers with the affair of the 30 women cardinals.

The Pope started it. In a statement made just before his visit to America, he urged the Church to make use of the gifts of women in leadership positions. Of course, he believes that women can never be priests and that for Catholics even to discuss this possibility is wrong, and he has done his utmost, by argument, decree and appointments policy, to extirpate dissent on this issue. Quite right, too, the Catholic World Report would say. It is his job to guard the truth. Yet he does obviously believe that women should exercise power in the secular world.

Lay people generally have little power in Rome. The system is not set up for it. The last time the issue of women's power was seriously debated there was, I think, the autumn of last year, when a Zairean bishop proposed making women cardinals. The tradition that cardinals, who elect the Pope, must be priests was only codified in 1916. There is no insuperable doctrinal argument that says they have to be ordained; and, if they could be lay people once more, some of them might be women.

That is the proposal which the National Catholic Reporter has revived. In an editorial in the latest issue, it proposes that the 30 gaps in the college of cardinals at the moment be filled with women, with the aim of having half the college as women by the year 2000. In the same issue appears an article by Fr Andrew Greeley, a priest and sociologist, assessing the worth of the present bench of bishops in the US: "With unrelenting consistency in recent years, the Vatican has appointed . . . mean-spirited careerists - inept, incompetent, insensitive bureaucrats who are utterly indifferent to their clergy and laity."

I would not want by this quote to make the Catholic World Report seem the voice of reason. If anything, it is the easier of the two to parody, if only because its motto is obviously "no surrender". The Reporter's proposal for women cardinals was greeted by the CWR as yet another example of deliberate treason.

But there is a real difficulty here. The CWR is right to point out that many prominent Catholic intellectuals are disloyal to the teachings of the Church. It is wrong to suppose this problem can be solved by sacking or silencing all dissenters. The teachings of the Church have both a hierarchical and a democratic authority. Catholics believe them true because the Church has pronounced them true, but part of the Church's proclamation of these truths is the fact that Catholics assent to them. This assent cannot in the long run be compelled.

At the moment, it is withheld in crucial areas by most Catholics in the developed world and whether the resulting disagreement is conducted in public, as in America, or in private, as it is for the most part in Britain, the consequences are poisonous. Hypocrisy is not the worst vice, but institutionalised hypocrisy is dangerous for a church that claims to be founded on truth. Yet what else can a church practice when it cannot admit to uncertainty?

I suspect this state of institutionalised hypocrisy is a powerful reason both for the shortage of vocations and for the fact that the Catholic Church in Britain has been for years losing members faster than the Church of England. Perhaps it will take a woman cardinal to see some way out of the mess.