Less than two weeks ago, Boston College hosted a panel designated to consider women’s role in the contemporary Catholic Church. Even before that discussion on Nov. 12, though, one of BC’s Jesuits was making headlines on that very same topic by suggesting that Pope Francis name women to the College of Cardinals this February.
Founders Professor in Theology Rev. James Keenan, S.J., posted on his Facebook page earlier this fall asking for the names of women who would make good candidates for cardinals. “I think there are a lot of people, right now, who feel great joy over the papacy of Francis, and he’s only been pope, what-eight, nine months,” Keenan said. “There’s been a little ambiguity about … what is he going to do about the presence of women in the Church. He’ll say, ‘The Church is feminine.’ Yeah, okay, fine. So where are they?”
Historically, most of the power that women had in the Church, Keenan said, was either as nuns or as abbesses. Wealthy women, he said, also exercised influence, but were largely confined to their own region. Since women are not permitted to be ordained in the Catholic Church, they have limited influence in any official capacity.
“If there’s anything where people are waiting with more than curiosity-let’s say concern-it’s, do we see how is [Pope Francis] on women,” Keenan said. “It’s a recurring question-what will he say or do? I wouldn’t be surprised if he says or does something positive on cardinals, simply because it’s a good way to talk about women in the Church without going directly to the ordination question. We’ve been doing that for such a long time-let’s try another way of getting women at the table, and have access to the pope.”
The College of Cardinals is responsible for electing the pope, but Francis has expanded opportunities for influence somewhat by forming an advisory committee of eight cardinals.
“So I thought, well, why not have women in that circle?” Keenan said. “And why not have women as advisors to the pope just as men are? And if cardinals are what he’s using as the category, why not make them cardinals? … Now, the matter on women cardinals has been raised for decades, but somehow my entry on Facebook prompted it to go much further than it’s ever gone.”
Names that were floated on Keenan’s Facebook page included Ivone Gebara and Maria Bingemer of Brazil; Theresa Okure of Nigeria; Anne Nasimiyu of Kenya; Alison Munro of South Africa; Agnes Brazal of the Philippines; and Marianne Heimbach-Steines of Germany.
“I was naming major scholars,” Keenan said. “So when I posted it I got all sorts of recommendations.” For example, he said, Lisa Cahill, J. Donald Monan professor of theology at BC, was one of the women named in a comment on his post.
Keenan said that his Facebook post elicited a hugely positive reaction. “I get these beautiful letters from all over the place,” he said. “I couldn’t get over how positive-people nominating other women from all over, beautiful little encomiums on different people … I’m thinking, ‘I’m not in the position to get these letters to anyone…’ It was really very extraordinary.”
According to a report from the Irish Times published earlier this month, Francis’ press secretary dismissed rumors that women would be named cardinals in February of next year, yet reaffirmed the technical possibility.
“Theologically and theoretically, it is possible,” said Rev. Federico Lombardi, S.J., according to the report. “Being a cardinal is one of those roles in the church for which, theoretically, you do not have to be ordained but to move from there to suggesting the pope will name women cardinals for the next consistory is not remotely realistic.”
Keenan rejected the interpretation of this statement as a denial. “The news media, being as they are, said, ‘Oh, he’s getting rid of it,’ but the rest of us were looking at it, saying, ‘He said, theoretically and theologically, women cardinals are possible,'” Keenan said. “No one of his stature has said that.”
Although optimistic about greater inclusion of women in the Church, Keenan acknowledged that there is opposition to the idea of female cardinals. “You’ll get some pushback,” he said. “Canon law, 1917, put in a requirement that cardinals had to be ordained.” According to Keenan, however, that law was meant more to reform the Church and halt the practice of nepotism in the naming of cardinals-people appointing young relatives, for example. “It was just hoping to keep out riff-raff, it had nothing to do with some sort of priestly identity,” he said.
Although the 1917 law requiring ordination of cardinals is still in force today, Keenan said that it would be relatively easy to reform. “So when [Francis’] press secretary said, theologically and theoretically it’s possible, he didn’t say canonically it’s possible-but that’s only canon law,” he said.
Lombardi’s statement, Keenan said, does not put the question of women cardinals to rest-it simply means that the appointment of women to the College of Cardinals is not likely in the near future. “But I’m sure that in February, it’s going to be raised, because the pope is going to name a whole mess of men to be cardinals, and people are going to go ‘Where are the women?'” Keenan said. “And then when he has another meeting of this group of eight, they’re going to say, ‘Well, where are the women?’ So, I think I got the issue out there.”