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Lay Catholics can be cardinals too


Woman with a baby and two lay men, one with a child, and all five wearing cardinal hats, follow three regular Cardinals into the Conclave. 'Cardinals' by Chris JohnstonThe decision of Benedict XVI to follow the precedent of Celestine V, who was pope for less than 18 months (13 Dec 1292–19 May 1294), raises the fascinating possibility that the papacy could revisit other ancient traditions that have since fallen into neglect.

One of these is the major constitutional reform introduced into the Church in 1059 by another pope, Nicholas II, who established the principle that to be canonically elected, a pope needed to be chosen with the assent not just of the cardinal bishops and other cardinal clergy, but of the whole of the Church: 'and then the rest of the clergy and the people shall approach to give their assent to the new election' (Gratian, Decretum 1.23.1).

As no mechanism was implemented to enforce this part of the constitutional reform, the papacy has failed for centuries to live up to its own canon law. Any new pope constitutionally needs the assent of the entire Church.

Nicholas II was challenging a system that had then prevailed for several centuries, whereby the Pope was effectively appointed by the Holy Roman Emperor. His establishment of a College of Cardinals was explicitly intended to challenge a system of ecclesiastical appointment that had become notoriously corrupt.

The notion of a cardinal (literally a hinge) has nothing to do with the hierarchy of holy orders. There were originally cardinal deacons and priests as well as cardinal bishops, each representing their particular grade within the Church. The text of the 1059 constitutional reform, which became part of canon law, makes clear that the papal election needed the support not just of the cardinals but of the clergy and people as a whole.

If the Church is serious about the need for reform of its governance it would do well to revisit the major constitutional reforms established in the 11th century. There is no reason why the category of cardinal could not be restored to those in the Church below the rank of bishop, or indeed be given to lay men and lay women.

The College of Cardinals is meant to be a representative assembly. In the 11th century, literacy outside the clerical and monastic orders was not widespread. The appointment of cardinals was intended to be a circuit breaker, to identify talented individuals outside the aristocratic elite that traditionally governed the Roman Church. A new pope needs to consider ways of returning to the reforms initiated by Pope Nicholas II.

Needless to say, those reforms were manipulated by subsequent popes (and perhaps even more by cardinals who desired papal office) to ensure that such dangerous principles as representation should be quietly forgotten. That is another reason for revisiting the core principles that lie behind the present structures of the Church.

The notion that the election of a pope should involve 'clergy and people' was not a new-fangled notion in the 11th century. The earliest law codes of the Church emphasise that any bishop had to be chosen by clergy and people. Pope Nicolas II believed he was recovering ancient traditions of the Church that had been lost as a consequence of political interference by secular authorities, keen to use bishops to legitimate their own power.

The genius of Pope Nicolas II was to create an electoral college entrusted with making the initial choice of a candidate, who then had to win support from representatives of other ranks of clergy, namely priests, deacons and subdeacons, and from clergy and people as a whole. External political influence was forbidden. He wanted the same procedure to apply to choosing bishops.

We need a pope not just to transform the electoral system for choosing his successor, but to provide inspiration for a journey that has not finished. My vote would be for a new Pope Nicholas.

Constant Mews headshotProfessor Constant J. Mews teaches medieval history in the School of Historical Studies, Monash, where he is Director of the Centre for Studies in Religion and Theology.

Topic tags: Constant Mews, Pope Benedict, Conclave



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Existing comments

All sounds good in theory, but as we know tradition outweighs benevolence in a capitalist society. The Pope is also supposed to be "merely" the Bishop of Rome too, one amongst equals in a college of bishops. If you ask the former bishop of Toowoomba, he might beg to differ.

AURELIUS | 04 March 2013  

A brilliant and incisive article, Constant, but I wonder how realistic it would be to think that it might be possible to reverse the trend of centuries? Lay Cardinals, like Lay Canons in the Anglican Communion, could be a good thing, but I wonder whether anyone high up in the Vatican hierarchy would favour this? It would need a sponsor. Any papabile who stated himself to be in favour of this would probably not become Pope. Institutions have a way of becoming bogged down with their own institutional inertia. I have also noticed, in the Anglican Church here, a disturbing tendency for the hierarchy to become more, rather than less, clericalist and the lay people chosen for office seem chosen, in the main, for utter blandness and being unwilling to shake the boat. Would this happen with Lay Catholic Cardinals? I would bet anything "troublesome" people like Joan Chittister would not be chosen. Bureaucracies have a way of "carrying on regardless" unless some disaster forces them to change. The Vatican, which is not the same as the Catholic Church in toto, is a well seasoned bureaucracy. Regarding the Church, as a whole, being involved in papal selection, given its enormous size, it would have to be representatives, whether Lay Cardinals or not, who did so. Involving over a billion people in a meaningful way would be hard.

Edward F | 04 March 2013  

Constant, have you not been associated with our Church over sufficient time to realise that we of the laity have been endowed with a lower level of human intellect?

John Kersh | 04 March 2013  

To JOHN KERSH, I don't believe it's a matter of lower intellect - more like royal inheritance (You don't hear many praises for the intellectual power of the House of Windsor)

AURELIUS | 04 March 2013  

Approval of the whole church=1.5 billion I wonder why "no mechanism was implemented to enforce this part of the constitutional reform,[eg 1.5 billion] the papacy has failed for centuries to live up to its own canon law. Any new pope constitutionally needs the assent of the entire Church."[Come off it! 1.5 Billion?]. The present process is fabulous and produces 'the best'

Father John George | 09 March 2013  

I've been wondering where I could find the church authority for the election of a pope from beyond the ranks of our cardinals. So thank you, Professor Mews! James McEvoy in another article today reflects in relation to the upcoming Papal enclave: " The Church needs a pope with an engaged, open stance, sensitive to the struggles of contemporary seekers and not pushing pat answers". I'd like to suggest either Bishop Geoffrey Robinson or Fr Frank Brennan sj

Marea | 10 March 2013  

This is high flying babble. The world in 11th century was difficult enough. If it proved impossible to implement the idea then how much more impossible now. choices, choices, choices. National and diocesan management is a different matter but a college of cardinals any larger than it is, would require a run up to a conclave approaching or even longer than, that to the next Federal election here!

Tony Knight | 10 March 2013  

Good idea. Australia has a number of candidates to offer too. Senator Barnaby Rubble, the greatly loved and respected Qld Senator from St. George (even his home town name surely qualifies him for the job?), Tony Abbott, Christopher Pyne, Christopher Pearson Joe De Bruyn and the entire cast from the Shoppo's Union, and of course Father Bob. My money is on Father Bob, at least he sounds honest as the day is long.

Janice Wallace | 10 March 2013  

Q. Why do I think that Prof Mews' erudite, and blessedly clear, precise and unambiguous exposition of who can be elected Pope, (or anything remotely like it) will be part of the briefing papers prepared for the College of Cardinals as they set about their solemn task of choosing the next Pope? A. Because Tradition (the Curia's way of doing things) trumps Enlightenment every time.

Uncle Pat | 10 March 2013  

The world is apparently full of experts on the papacy and what it needs or requires. If, indeed, selection was open to all and sundry one wonders how many would put their hands up for the job.

john frawley | 10 March 2013  

Professor Mews paints an attractive picture of the election constitution of 1059, but I am not sure it quite represents what Nicholas was doing - restricting voting rights to clerics (quite rightly in the circumstances) of the rank of cardinal bishop: cardinal priests and cardinal deacons did not legally get in on the act for another century. And of course, those giving assent were only the clergy and people of Rome, a rather unruly crowd as reforming popes knew only too well. Mind you, I'm all in favour of doing away with electing a pope and choosing a bishop of Rome instead, but that's another matter...

Michael Walsh | 10 March 2013  

Oh well maybe next time round!

john bartlett | 10 March 2013  

this article inadvertently perhaps explains the intense belief up until recently that the church must keep the handling of sexual abuse by clerics away from secular authorities.

Jennifer Herrick | 10 March 2013  

father John george as usual thinks that this present assembly of scribes and pharisees is the best of all possible worlds. One only has to read the gospels carefully to see what most of the churches of the world. at least hierarchical ones, are looking like.

Brian Poidevin | 10 March 2013  

According to Fr George, "the present process is fabulous and produces 'the best'". The first claim is a value judgement; but where is there any recent, hard evidence for the second? Or is it true by self-definition (the Holy Spirit does it for us)?

Frederick Green | 10 March 2013  

All the Cardinals that will vote for the new Pope are loyal to Jesus, loyal to Our Blessed Mother Mary, loyal to to the present papacy and loyal to the MAGISTERIUM. So I am not worried who will be elected! I still pray for the new Pope. I do not know the name, but I know the outcome. He will be another Pope John Paul II (the Great) and Pope Benedict XVI. (Viva il Papa)

Ron Cini | 11 March 2013  

My understanding has been that you do not even need to be a cardinal to be elected pope. Professsor Mews, is that correct? Might this add a further dimension to papal elections? Perhaps it might be time to put together an electoral roll?

Stephen V | 11 March 2013  

How about leaving the College of Cardinals as is, but replacing the Curia with a body of committed Catholic women with major administrative experience. Nothing against lay men - just an opportunity for the Princes of the Church to work with women and experience a more balanced view of humanity. it would be great if they also worked with people who understood lines of accountability, principled governance and necessary checks anbalances in the use of power. The women needn't be ordained, of course, even if there are any women left who'd consent to being ordained.

Joan Seymour | 11 March 2013  

In the Anglican Church last year, wasn't it the laity who voted against women bishops? They seem to be more conservative than the bishops there. It depends, I suppose, on how they are chosen - but they are no guarantee in themselves of reform in the Church.

Joss Heywood | 11 March 2013  

The present process is not fabulous, nor does it necessarily produce the best Fr George.The Simple message in this article is that significant structural change is required chnge that recognises that the Holy Spirit moves within the whole Church-not just among Bishops and clergy!

Joseph Cauchi | 12 March 2013  

An interesting thought, Prof Mews. Even more interesting & much more achievable is the thought of the lay people & priests being involved in the choice of Bishops. I am praying that Pope Francis will invite Bill Morris to return as an active Australian Bishop. We would welcome him here in Tasmania, where our much loved Archbishop Adrian Doyle is still waiting to hand over his crozier.

Cate Sullivan | 14 March 2013  

Why Cardinals at all? We have colleges of Bishops in every country. If they were democratically elected by the faithful, the residing "chairman" of the College could fill the requirements of a degegate when required.

Roy Fanthome | 15 March 2013  

Another change that was made in 1570 by Pope St Pius V was that the Mass should be said in Latin, shall not be said in he vernacular, shall remain in perpetuatem, and shall never be changed. How about getting back to that!

Bernie | 15 March 2013  

As a Catholic from the Anglican tradition I am amazed constantly at how supine Roman Catholics seem to be when it comes to 'authority'. Authority is from God yet you have invested the mantle of that authority in often men of low worth but yet you still bow to their wishes. Are you servile? Is this the result of a 'good Catholic education'? Is this indoctrination? It sounds a bit as though at confirmation you were asked to surrender your integrity and obey, obey, obey!! What hope do you offer us in the broader church as companions along the way to a better more just world - the Kingdom?

graham patison | 16 March 2013  

Graham Patison: At first I was going to reply that of course Catholics think for themselves rather than blindly obeying. Look at how many Catholics ignore "Humanae Vitae". Sadly, go to most Masses and you will find most of the congregation have gone along meekly with the olde/new Mass "translation". They say "consubstantial" and beat their breasts and other culturally inappropriate grovelling stuff. Admittedly 10% of the attendees will be Magisterium Catholics (although they are only 1.5% of the larger Catholic population), and a further significant percentage will be from recent migrant groups who culturally tend to obey authority figures. If it were not for ethnic groups, the Catholic Church in Australia (and probably U.S. also) would be in deep, deep trouble. Most Anglo/Celtic Catholics have given up.

Bruce S | 17 March 2013  

This is more of interest now as clerical abuse and it’s infestation in the church unchecked raises again the question of the structure of the church . Interestingly Nicholas II also was a reformer in taking away priestly marriage and enforcing celibacy. The argument must be had now to get women back into the headquarters of the church through having married clergy as an option to begin with as St Paul said , secondly, I agree with Constant Mews that the current structure need not exclude women indeed the cardinals could be women ( perhaps with a change of chacon law) and technically therefore Pope theoretically. Even if priesthood was not conferred on them but only perhaps deaconate

Hayden Legro | 15 March 2019  

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