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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

SharePoint Administrator/Developer (C#, VB.NET, VISUAL STUDIO 2

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SharePoi...

European HR Director, London

£80000 - £95000 per annum: Charter Selection: A leading Global organisation Ja...

Day In a Page

Migrants in Britain a decade on: The Poles who brought prosperity

Migrants in Britain a decade on

The Poles who brought prosperity
Philippe Legrain: 'The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - we need a European Spring'

Philippe Legrain: 'We need a European Spring'

The eurozone crisis has tipped many into disillusionment, despair and extremism - this radically altered landscape calls for a new kind of politics, argues the economist
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A moment of glory on the Western Front for the soldiers of the Raj
Judith Owen reveals how husband Harry Shearer - star of This Is Spinal Tap and The Simpsons - helped her music flourish

Judith Owen: 'How my husband helped my music flourish'

Her mother's suicide and father's cancer also informed the singer-songwriter's new album, says Pierre Perrone
The online lifeline: How a housing association's remarkable educational initiative gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression

Online lifeline: Housing association's educational initiative

South Yorkshire Housing Association's free training courses gave hope to tenant battling long-term illness and depression
Face-recognition software: Is this the end of anonymity for all of us?

Face-recognition software: The end of anonymity?

The software is already used for military surveillance, by police to identify suspects - and on Facebook
Train Kick Selfie Guy is set to scoop up to $250,000 thanks to his viral video - so how can you cash in on your candid moments?

Viral videos: Cashing in on candid moments

Train Kick Selfie Guy Jared Frank could receive anything between $30,000 (£17,800) to $250,000 (£149,000) for his misfortune - and that's just his cut of advertising revenue from being viewed on YouTube
The world's fastest elevators - 20 metres per second - are coming soon to China

World's fastest elevators coming soon to China

Whatever next? Simon Usborne finds out from Britain's highest authority on the subject
Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture that causes men to miss out on seeing their children

Cityfathers tackles long-hours culture

The organisation is the brainchild of Louisa Symington-Mills, a chief operating officer who set up Citymothers in 2012 - a group that now boasts more than 3,000 members
Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home

It's not always fun in the sun: Moving abroad does not guarantee happiness

Brits who migrate to Costa del Sol more unhappy than those who stay at home
Migrants in Britain a decade on: They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire

Migrants in Britain a decade on

They came, they worked, they stayed in Lincolnshire
Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

Chris Addison on swapping politics for pillow talk

The 'Thick of It' favourite thinks the romcom is an 'awful genre'. So why is he happy with a starring role in Sky Living's new Lake District-set series 'Trying Again'?
Why musicians play into their old age

Why musicians play into their old age

Nick Hasted looks at how they are driven by a burning desire to keep on entertaining fans despite risking ridicule
How can you tell a gentleman?

How can you tell a gentleman?

A list of public figures with gallant attributes by Country Life magazine throws a fascinating light on what it means to be a gentleman in the modern world