Whether it’s even possible is a matter of debate. But that hasn’t stopped the feverish speculation, which was sparked last month by an article in a Spanish newspaper in which Juan Arias, a former priest who writes from Brazil, wrote that the idea “is not a joke. It’s something that Pope Francis has thought about before: naming a woman cardinal.”
Arias quoted an unnamed priest — a Jesuit, like Francis — who said: “Knowing this pope, he wouldn’t hesitate before appointing a woman cardinal. ... And he would indeed enjoy being the first pope to allow women to participate in the selection of a new pontiff.”
That was enough to start the ball rolling. The report was quickly picked up by Catholic media in Italy and then raced around a church that, in the months since Francis’ election, has been primed to expect the unexpected from this pope.
In the U.S., the Rev. James Keenan, a fellow Jesuit and a well-regarded moral theologian at Boston College, started a post on his Facebook page soliciting nominees for the first female cardinal. Keenan said he wrote the post mainly as a way to recognize the many women who would be “great candidates.” On his list: Linda Hogan, a professor of ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin; Sister Teresa Okure, a theology professor at the Catholic Institute of West Africa in Nigeria; and Maryanne Loughry, associate director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Australia.
But Keenan is not the first to float the idea.
Just last year, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was asked during an interview on Catholic television whether a woman could be named a cardinal. Dolan agreed that it was “theoretically” possible, adding:
“You know, in fact, get this, and I’ve heard it from more than one person, that one time somebody said to Blessed John Paul II, ‘You should make Mother Teresa of Calcutta a cardinal.’ ... And the pope said, ‘I asked her. She doesn’t want to be one.’”
So what’s to stop Francis from taking that step — assuming he finds a woman willing to say yes?
It could be a tricky move, but there’s a saying in the church that while only God can create the world, only a pope can create cardinals. The role of the cardinal is not a biblical precept and is a relatively late development in Catholicism — the office in its familiar form was codified in the 12th century, when cardinals were given the exclusive right to elect a pope. The pope in turn can largely can set whatever parameters he likes for who becomes one of the 120 or so voting-age cardinals in the college.
Beyond that, there isn’t much more to the office; it is basically a title, an honor, albeit a grand one, and requires no special ordination. “The cardinalate is a very historical, human institution that can be changed more easily than other things,” said Massimo Faggioli, a church historian at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.