From Facebook to page one of The Sunday Times

Mark Twain, the famed American author once said “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story, unless you can’t think of anything better”.

The thought struck me when I read a report in the Irish edition of The Sunday Times at the weekend with the headline ‘Trinity woman tipped as cardinal’. The story, given prominence on the front page was written by veteran journalist Justine McCarthy and claimed that Trinity College professor Linda Hogan was being ‘tipped’ to become “the Catholic Church’s first female cardinal”. As such, McCarthy claims, Prof. Hogan would be eligible to cast a vote in the election of the new Pope.

And there’s more: not only is Ireland poised to give the Catholic world the first female cardinal, but a second too! Former President Mary McAleese is also tipped to ‘get the nod’ as it were.

I had to check the dateline for a second to ensure that it wasn’t April Fools’ Day. But, joking aside, the yarn has circled the globe based on little more than the thoughts of an American priest on his Facebook page.

Vatican spokesman Fr Federico Lombardi dismissed the rumour that the Pope would appoint female cardinals at the forthcoming consistory as “just nonsense”.

By Monday morning, however, the Irish Independent was reporting that the speculation was ‘mounting’. It was indeed, in the sense that media outlets were reporting and re-reporting the same story from the same single source again and again. That source was US Jesuit Fr James Keenan who posted on his Facebook page the names of a number of women who he would like to see as a cardinal.


But, hold on a second: before we even get to candidates, shouldn’t we ask whether or not Pope Francis is planning to create female cardinals? The short answer is that no one knows. It is certainly a possibility. The Pope has indicated on a number of occasions that he wants to find creative ways to increase the involvement of women in the Church.

“Theologically and theoretically, it is possible,” Fr Lombardi said, that there may be lay cardinals at some stage in the future. “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.”

Sole prerogative

It should also be remembered that all of the so-called lay cardinals were in minor orders and therefore clerics. That being said, cardinals are created by the Pope ex nihilo (out of nothing) and it is his sole prerogative to do so. The current restrictions are purely legal and since the Pope’s legislative authority within the Church is supreme and absolute he can change the rules if he so chooses.

What’s not at all clear is whether or not female – or lay male – cardinals would be members of the College of Cardinals as it is understood today. The College of Cardinals (or at least the members who are under the age of 80) is responsible for electing a new Pope. This role derives from the fact that the cardinals are the historic successors of the parish priests of Rome. This is why every cardinal has responsibility for a church in the city of Rome – a titular church. A papal conclave, in a sense, is the parish priests of Rome coming together to elect their bishop.


The Vatican spokesman didn’t dismiss out of hand the idea that there might be female cardinals at a future consistory. But, the question remains: would the appointment of a female cardinal really represent a significant reform? It would make headlines for sure, but would it really increase the overall involvement of women in the Church? There’s a wider issue that tends to be ignored in these debates: the role of laymen within the Church.

There are lots of roles and responsibilities within the Church that do not – and should not – require ordination. Take the number of priests who work within the Roman Curia at the Vatican. Is this really the best use of their priesthood? Were they ordained to work in an office in Rome?

I have a suspicion that a Pope who has called on priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of the sheep” will have something to say about that. In the meantime, the female cardinal ‘scoop’ in The Sunday Times is an interesting example of how a hunch can circle the globe from a Facebook post and end up on the front page of a Sunday newspaper.