The cardinals who will gather to elect a new pope know that one of the church’s central and most wrenching problems is the sex abuse scandal. An all-male hierarchy adopted policies to cover up the abuse and seemed far too inclined to put protecting the church’s image ahead of protecting children.
Throughout history, it’s not uncommon for women to be brought in to put right what men have put wrong. A female pope would automatically be distanced from this past and could have a degree of credibility that a male member of the hierarchy simply could not.
In the United States and other Western countries, the church is suffering a huge loss of younger female members who cannot understand why it continues to resist the progress women have made in so many other spheres of life.
The church should not find itself in this position. It was, after all, Pope John XXIII who wrote in 1963 (the same year Betty Friedan published “The Feminine Mystique”): “Women are gaining an increasing awareness of their natural dignity. Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”
Electing a nun as pope would electrify women all over the world. And those who think that Catholics in the developing world would object to a female pope should note that women have been elected to lead governments in, among other places, India, Chile, Brazil, Liberia, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Argentina and Dominica.
And a church that has made opposition to abortion a central part of its public mission should consider that older men are hardly the best messengers for this cause. Perhaps a female pope could transform the discussion about abortion from one that is too often rooted in harsh judgments (and at times, anger with modernity) into a compassionate dialogue aimed at changing hearts and minds rather than changing laws.
Unborn children are vulnerable. So are pregnant women. In my experience, nuns are especially alive to these twin vulnerabilities. Nuns are also the people in the church who work the most with pregnant women, the mothers of newborns, and battered women and children. They know better than anyone that a concern for life cannot stop at the moment a child is born.
Some will object to the idea of a female pope on the grounds that it is legally impossible. Yes, it would require a real openness to change. But the rules for electing a pope are much more flexible than many realize. As the Catholic News Service has noted: “In theory, any baptized male Catholic can be elected pope, but current church law says he must become a bishop before taking office; since the 15th century, the electors always have chosen a fellow cardinal.” Under canon law, CNS reports, if a non-bishop or a layman is selected, he must receive episcopal consecration from the dean of the College of Cardinals before ascending to the papacy.
If the college were inspired to elect a woman, it could arrange for her consecration and leave the broader question of whether women should become priests — a change that I both hope and expect will happen someday — open for debate during her pontificate.
I hardly expect the cardinals to follow my advice on this. But I hope that they at least consider electing the kind of man who has the characteristics of my ideal female pontiff. The church needs a leader who has worked closely with the poor and the outcast, who understands that battling over doctrine is less important for the church’s future than modeling Christian behavior — and who sees that the proper Christian attitude toward the modern world is not fear but hope.
Last summer my 18-year-old daughter, Julia, worked at a Catholic-supported program for the homeless in Silver Spring. Like many women her age, Julia has a long list of problems with the church, but she loved the program and deeply admired everyone who worked there.
She came home one night and said: “Why doesn’t the church talk more about this work and less about the stuff it usually talks about?”
I have a hunch that a nun just might understand what Julia was saying better than most cardinals.
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Read “The case for picking an American Pope.”