A woman’s place is in the Pope­mo­bile

Post colum­nist E.J. Dionne Jr. says a fe­male pon­tiff would em­body the best of the church

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - ej­dionne@wash­post.com E.J. Dionne Jr. is an op-ed colum­nist for The Washington Post.

Post colum­nist E.J. Dionne on what a nun would bring to the pa­pacy.

In giv­ing up the pa­pacy, Pope Bene­dict XVI was brave and bold. He did the un­ex­pected for the good of the Catholic Church. And when it se­lects a new pope next month, the Col­lege of Car­di­nals should be equally brave and bold. It is time to elect a nun as the next pon­tiff.

Now, I know this hope of mine is the long­est of long shots. I have great faith in the Holy Spirit to move pa­pal con­claves, but I would con­cede that I may be run­ning ahead of the Spirit on this one. Women, af­ter all, are not yet able to be­come priests, and it is un­likely that tra­di­tion­al­ists in the church will sud­denly up­end the all-male, celi­bate priest­hood, let alone name a woman as the bishop of Rome.

None­the­less, hand­ing lead­er­ship to a woman — and in par­tic­u­lar, to a nun — would vastly strengthen Catholi­cism, help the church solve some of its im­me­di­ate prob­lems and in­spire many who have left the church to look at it with new eyes.

Con­sider, first, what con­sti­tutes the church’s strong­est claim on pub­lic re­spect and af­fec­tion. It is not its earthly power, the im­pos­ing beauty of St. Peter’s Basil­ica or even its de­ter­mi­na­tion to pre­serve its doc­trine whole. Rather, the church im­presses even its crit­ics, and in­spires its most loyal and most dis­si­dent mem­bers, be­cause so many in its ranks walk the talk of the Gospel. Hun­dreds of thou­sands of nuns, priests, brothers and laypeo­ple de­vote their lives to the poor, the marginal­ized, refugees, the dis­abled and the home­less, sim­ply be­cause Christ in­structed them — us — to do so. Matthew 25:40 con­tains what may be the most con­struc­tive words ever writ­ten: “Truly I tell you, what­ever you did for one of the least of th­ese my brethren, you did for me.”

More than any other group in the church, the sis­ters have been at the heart of its work on be­half of com­pas­sion and jus­tice. Ni­cholas Kristof of the New York Times made this point as pow­er­fully as any­one in a 2010 col­umn. “In my trav­els around the world, I en­counter two Catholic Churches,” he wrote. “One is the rigid all-male Vat­i­can hi­er­ar­chy that seems out of touch. . . . Yet there’s an­other Catholic Church as well, one I ad­mire in­tensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that sup­ports ex­tra­or­di­nary aid or­ga­ni­za­tions like Catholic Re­lief Ser­vices and Caritas, sav­ing lives ev­ery day, and that op­er­ates su­perb schools that pro­vide needy chil­dren an es­ca­la­tor out of poverty.”

Kristof went on to say that “there’s a stereo­type of nuns as stodgy Vic­to­rian tra­di­tion­al­ists. I learned oth­er­wise while hang­ing on for my life in a pas­sen­ger seat as an Amer­i­can nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swazi­land to visit AIDS or­phans.”

There are cer­tainly bish­ops and car­di­nals who have done this sort of godly work and many more who have sup­ported it. But those who have de­voted their lives to climb­ing the church’s ca­reer lad­der tend not to be like that nun in the jeep in Swazi­land. What a mes­sage the car­di­nals would send about the church’s pri­or­i­ties if they made such a woman pope.

A sis­ter as pope could also re­solve what might seem a con­tra­dic­tion in Catholic the­ol­ogy. More than Protes­tants, Catholics are pro­foundly de­voted to the Vir­gin Mary — and few were as de­voted as the late Pope John Paul II, who de­clared that Mary “sus­tains the spir­i­tual life of us all, and en­cour­ages us, even in suf­fer­ing, to have faith and hope.” A church for which the Blessed Mother plays such an im­por­tant role should cer­tainly be com­fort­able with fe­male lead­er­ship.

While sup­port for a stronger role for women in the church tends to be a “lib­eral” cause, many faith­ful con­ser­va­tives also cite the work of nuns as re­in­forc­ing their de­vo­tion to the church — from the sis­ters who ed­u­cated them in par­ish schools to the work of Mother Teresa’s re­li­gious or­der.

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.


Carmelite nuns fed chil­dren in a Manila slum in De­cem­ber. Sis­ters are of­ten the face of the church’s char­ity work.

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