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 apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice