Don’t Bind God To Contracts He Didn’t Sign

One of the reasons I appreciate the Catholic Church is that its lifeblood is apostolic tradition, which ensures against running around after The Latest Thing. However, I am also aware of the long history of Catholics trying to bind God to contracts He has never signed. Many times people leave the Catholic Church, not because it’s too unchanging, but because it changes in some way they did not expect. People think this started with Vatican II, but in reality it began in Acts 15 with the reaction to the Council of Jerusalem, which taught that Gentiles didn’t have to be circumcised. And so it has continued ever since.
I was reminded of this recently when I pointed out on my blog that one of the effects of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis was to make clear that it is only the priestly office to which women cannot be ordained. This means, among other things, that the offices of king and prophet are open to women (and have been occupied by them for centuries). In turn, I observed, this means there is nothing in the Tradition particularly forbidding the Church from making lay women cardinals.
To be clear, my point is not that I’m especially eager to see women cardinals, nor that I’m especially opposed to it. But you’d have thought I had called for the assassination of the pope, given readers’ reactions. They wrote me to say things like, “It’s a horrible idea. Having female cardinals would inevitably cause a major schism. It’s execrable. Crazy. Unbelievable.”
Some proposed Paul’s remarks about women not having authority over men as the bulwark against the possibility of lay cardinals. But, as the Church has pointed out in Inter Insigniores: “Paul in no way opposes the right, which he elsewhere recognizes as possessed by women, to prophesy in the assembly (cf. 1 Cor 11:5); the prohibition solely concerns the official function of teaching in the Christian assembly.” That’s why women are not per se barred from teaching. This is attested to, not only by the fact that entire orders of nuns do nothing else, but by the fact that four women are Doctors of the Church. Similarly, women have long exercised the kingly office that is part of their baptism. That’s why we have had abbesses, hospital administrators, principals, college presidents, and any number of other governance roles filled by women. Nothing in the Tradition forbids this.
So we are left with what? Well, on my blog, there was a horror of doing things differently. But that’s not faithfulness to Tradition. That’s simply traditionalism, which works (as the circumcision party at the Council of Jerusalem discovered) right up until the moment the Church says, “We aren’t bound by old ways simply because they are old. We are bound by old ways if they are apostolic.”
The College of Cardinals is a bureaucratic device that was designed in the Middle Ages to handle an administrative problem. It is useful, not sacrosanct. It is no more a feature of Sacred Tradition than a parish finance council. Currently, the Church opts to have only ordained men as cardinals, and it is fully within its rights to do so. Personally, I think it should continue doing so, if for no other reason than that the flock has been jerked around by enough head-spinning changes over the past 40 years and doesn’t need more without good cause. But the fact remains that there is nothing particularly standing in the way of the Church’s governors opting to alter the canon law that is their own creation on this point, if they see fit.
Because I recognize this fact, it will not constitute a crisis of faith for me if, at some future point, the Church opts to create women cardinals. However, if one chooses to try to bind God to a contract He has never signed, then we must be prepared to have a perfectly foolish crisis of faith should God not choose to meet our demands.

Mark P. Shea


Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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