Some surprising facts about cardinals and Supreme Court judges

Last week a surprising rumor began to be floated that pope Francis may appoint some women as cardinals of the church. This rumor was quickly batted down by the Vatican but before they did my puzzled reaction was ” How can a church that bars women from being priests have them as cardinals?”

It turns out that while women cannot be deacons, priest, or bishops there is no prohibition against women cardinals.

The Vatican’s chief spokesman said women could become cardinals in the Roman Catholic church, calling such a move “theologically and theoretically” possible, according to an Irish newspaper.

Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the director of the Holy See Press Office, made the comments to The Irish Times, a daily published in Dublin.

While the Times reports that the Vatican spokesperson called “nonsense” the idea that Pope Francis would name a cardinal soon, it also reports the priest was rather open about the possibility in the future.

“Theologically and theoretically, it is possible,” Lombardi said about a female cardinal, according to the Times.

“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.”

Although a woman has not been appointed a cardinal since the system of electing the pope began around the 12th century, some have suggested it would be possible for the church to name women as cardinals. They say this could happen without changing the church’s teaching regarding the ordination of only men to the priesthood, as cardinals are not ordained into their ministry.

So while it may appear strange, the position of cardinal seems to be outside the usual hierarchical ranking system of the Catholic church.

It is like the US Supreme Court. According to the US constitution, you do not need to have a law degree or been a judge to be appointed to the highest court in the land. In practice, though, almost all have been lawyers.

The last person to be appointed to the court without a law degree was Robert H. Jackson who served from 1941 to 1954 and had a distinguished record and was the chief United States prosecutor at the Nuremburg trials. He had some law school education but did not graduate from one. The last person to serve on the Supreme Court without a law degree was Stanley Forman Reed, who served from 1938 to 1957. He too had some legal education but not a degree.

In these days of great focus on credentials, I doubt that we ever again will see anyone appointed to the Supreme Court without a law degree. In fact, the pool of candidates now seems to have become exceedingly narrow, with only people from elite schools being considered. Currently there are five from Harvard, 3 from Yale, and one from Columbia.

I don’t think this is a good thing. We need people with a much wider range of social, economic, and educational backgrounds.


  1. colnago80 says

    Plus a president with a law degree from Harvard, his predecessor with a business administration degree from Harvard, and his predecessor with a law degree from Yale.

  2. neeroc says

    It really does make you wish that someone would take advantage of the allowable rather than the conventional though doesn’t it?

    The Canadian Prime Minister is similar. It is not an elected position. Although the Governor General generally picks the leader of the winning party, ANYONE over the age of 18 is eligible for the position. They do not even need to be a sitting MP (in other words, elected) in order to be named. It might be nice to shake things up a bit.

  3. Jockaira says

    As God’s Official Temporal Representative on Earth, I guess the Pope can do anything he damn well pleases.

  4. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Well apparently there was once a female Pope :

    Although that may just be a legend – or perhaps not.

    [The Pope Joan idea] .. was widely believed for centuries, though modern religious scholars consider it fictitious,..

    Well, they would wouldn’t they?

  5. StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return! says

    Argh. Blockquote fail. Final line there is mine. Mea culpa.

    I wonder if and when the Church will ever accept women in any and all roles. It took them 500 years to apologise and admit they got it wrong on heliocentrism and the trial of Galileo. Maybe they’ll fix or at least get up to date on this one a bit faster?

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