WASHINGTON — 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. 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.