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Monday, November 11, 2013

The Neo-Catholic Road to Cardinalettes

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Impossible! (Like Altar Girls?) Impossible! (Like Altar Girls?)

On November 3rd, Vatican spokesman Fr. Federico Lombardi commented on reports that Pope Francis would name women Cardinals for the February consistory. Almost immediately, certain Neo-Catholic media pundits, as well as the secular press, began to spin the words of Lombardi to imply that he strongly opposed the idea of women Cardinals. Catholic Online chose the headline, Pope Francis Will Not Appoint Women as Cardinals,” while the Irish Times went with, “Vatican dismisses reports of women cardinals.  Conservatives focused on the fact that Fr. Lombardi called the reports “nonsense” and that it is “…simply not a realistic possibility that Pope Francis will name women cardinals for the February consistory. “



Unfortunately, these reports failed to appreciate the most important of Fr. Lombardi’s words. Among his comments, Fr. Lombardi revealed the following bombshell:

“Theologically and theoretically, it is possible,” he added. “Being a cardinal is one of those roles in the church for which, theoretically, you do not have to be ordained…”[1]

Thus, for the first time, an official spokesman of the Vatican publicly put forward the novel and unprecedented idea that the Church has the authority to appoint women as Cardinals. The import of this statement was not lost on the liberals. The progressive National Catholic Reporter was quick to pick up on this incredible statement, using it in their own headline entitled, “Vatican spokesman: Female cardinals 'theoretically possible'.”

Perhaps one reason that this shocking liberal pronouncement was ignored by the Neo-Catholics is because they themselves accept it as true. Not only that, they have been defending the idea of women Cardinals, along with the liberals, for quite some time.  In March of 2012, well before the reign of Pope Francis, Cardinal Timothy Dolan appeared on a show hosted by Fr. Benedict Groeschel on EWTN.[2] During the broadcast, Fr. Groeschel informed Cardinal Dolan that women could be Cardinals. Cardinal Dolan then not only agreed with the notion, but then joked that Mother Theresa of Calcutta would have made a good one.

  Sneak Peek:

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 Neo-Catholic blogger Mark Shea saw this episode as a vindication of the theological possibility of women Cardinals. Shea himself had already come to this position fifteen years earlier due to his private interpretation of a 1994 Apostolic Letter of John Paul II. In a March 2012 blog post entitled, “Cdl. Dolan and Fr. Benedict Groeschel Affirm Me in My Okayness!he wrote:

For 15ish years, ever since the publication of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, I have maintained that one implication of the document is that women can be created cardinals of the Church (since the office of cardinal does not require holy orders and it is *only* the sacerdotal office to which the Church lacks the authority to ordain women). When I say this, I invariably get chewed out as a subversive modernist.

However, the other day, Fr. Groeschel and Cdl Dolan noted exactly the same thing…

I suspect we will see something like this in my lifetime. If not, in my children’s or grand-daughter’s lifetime. Should it happen, do not freak out that the Church is “abandoning the Tradition”. Cardinals are a bit of bureaucratic machinery for taking care of housekeeping in the matter of getting a new pope. They are not The Tradition. The Church could abolish the entire college of cardinals tomorrow (just as she invented it a thousand years ago) and it would not alter the Tradition a jot. You may as well say your parish finance council is apostolic tradition. Do not bind God to contracts he never signed.[3]

Thus, we see in Shea’s post, and other Neo-Catholic writings on the subject, a complete and total theological concession to the progressives and Neo-Modernists that women can be Cardinals. Seemingly the only battle left to be fought on this issue, at least from the Neo-Catholic and liberal viewpoints, is whether the Pope will turn this “theological and theoretical possibility” into a reality. The only assurances the Neo-Catholics can provide us are those of Fr. Lombardi: that the idea Pope Francis would actually name women Cardinals is “nonsense” and “not a realistic possibility.”

Yet, haven’t we heard these assurances before? Wasn’t it an “unrealistic possibility” at one point to think that a pope would approve of female altar servers and Communion in the hand? After all, the former idea was considered evil by one pope and condemned by three before finally being allowed by John Paul II.[4] Meanwhile the latter practice was considered by Catholics to be sacrilegious, outside cases of emergency, until its allowance by Paul VI.[5] Yet both novel practices are widespread today to the detriment of both vocations and belief in the Eucharist. Furthermore, if the title of Cardinal is merely an artificial construct of the legislating Church, as Neo-Catholics would have us believe, why have any limits or conditions on who can be named one? Indeed, why can’t the Pope name non-Catholic Cardinals, or perhaps some non-Christian ones, or even some atheist Cardinals for good measure?

The key to understanding where the Neo-Catholics and the liberals go wrong on the issue of women Cardinals is their flawed notion of Tradition. Their analysis of this issue, and most others, consists of examining the minutiae of the latest ecclesial regulations, completely divorced from all context and history, and then trying to deduce whether this or that unprecedented novelty could theoretically be allowed under the given language. Thus, under this analysis, the entire fate of the Church’s Tradition lies within the commas, semicolons, and shades of meaning of such documents as a 1994 Apostolic Letter on Holy Orders. Such is the gnat-straining, technical, theological prison of the Neo-Catholic mind.

The fact that there has never been even a lay cardinal in the 2,000 years of the Church, much less a female one, apparently doesn’t factor into the Neo-Catholic theological analysis at all. Indeed, only in the Neo-Catholic or liberal mind can starting a practice that has absolutely no basis in Tradition be “traditional.” This irony fails to trouble the Neo-Catholic, however, since to him, “tradition” is defined by papal and bureaucratic fiat and not by historical practice.

The very term “Cardinal” developed in the 9th century Church to name those priests (again, not women, not even laymen) who served as the parish priests of the diocese of Rome. Later, non-Roman Cardinals were assigned a church in Rome to be the head of, or else they were connected in some way to a suburban parish of Rome. The reason is that the heads of the local churches in Rome elect the Bishop of Rome, the Pope. Thus no less than priests were originally intended to be Cardinals.

That said, it is true that we find in Church history relatively rare instances of non-priest clerics (men who had received first tonsure) who had also received minor orders, being named Cardinals.  However, even considering this exceptional practice, it is still obvious that the title of Cardinal was intended by the Church to be in some way tied to Holy Orders. Furthermore, this hardly helps the argument in favor of women Cardinals as women were never able to be clerics, much less receive minor orders.  In addition, Paul VI, in eliminating first tonsure and minor orders in 1972, declared ordination to the deaconate to be the new “first entry point” into the clerical state. Ironically, since even Neo-Catholics agree (for now anyway) that it is impossible to ordain a woman a deacon, it is even more difficult for Neo-Catholics to argue for the possibility of women Cardinals post-1972 than it was before.

In any case, the last of the “minor order” Cardinals died in 1899. The 1917 Code of Canon law then corrected the exceptional practice of non-priest Cardinals and restored the original intention, stating clearly that only bishops and priests could be named Cardinals. Later, far from rolling back this position, the 1983 Code went even further, requiring that Cardinals must already be bishops, or else be ordained bishops upon their selection as Cardinal.

In the final analysis, the Neo-Catholics either don’t understand or refuse to accept that unprecedented novelty cannot be made “traditional” simply because it is imposed or authorized by authority. Their foundational “hermeneutic” of legal positivism, which proposes that the decrees of the legislating Church or even the Pope can rightly overturn centuries of Traditional practice or immemorial custom, is the heart and source of their error. Instead, Catholic practice must always be tightly woven to and constrained by Tradition and custom rather than merely being constrained by the personal preferences and inclinations of churchmen.

The liberals, understanding that the Neo-Catholics have accepted their premise of untying Catholic practice from Tradition, know that it is only a matter of time before Church authority allows their next innovation. And once the innovation is allowed, they also know that the very Neo-Catholics who previously opposed it will then be its staunchest defenders. For as long as a novel practice is duly permitted by Church authority, the Neo-Catholic is bound by his own legal positivism to accept it as Traditional.


[2] Internet video of the show has apparently been taken down by EWTN. This is presumably due to Father’s controversial comments regarding the clerical abuse scandal later that year.


[4] "Pope Gelasius in his ninth letter (chap. 26) to the bishops of Lucania condemned the evil practice which had been introduced of women serving the priest at the celebration of Mass. Since this abuse had spread to the Greeks, Innocent IV strictly forbade it in his letter to the bishop of Tusculum: "Women should not dare to serve at the altar; they should be altogether refused this ministry." We too have forbidden this practice in the same words in Our oft-repeated constitution Etsi Pastoralis, sect. 6, no. 21." From Encyclical Allatae Sunt, 26 July, 1755, Pope Benedict XIV, paragraph 29.

Last modified on Monday, November 11, 2013