You have to hand it to Pope Francis:
he knows how to make headlines. He first startled Vatican worthies by refusing to live in the splendid papal apartment, choosing instead a simple church "hotel" where he breakfasts with visiting clergy and lay people, who are no doubt startled at sharing their morning rolls with such an august companion. Thereafter he eschewed the Vatican limo, preferring to drive an ancient Renault. When the scandal around Cardinal O'Brien erupted, he dealt with it swiftly and emphatically, and he appears equally determined to stamp out corruption and laxity among his officials.
But now, in what may prove a pivotal moment for the Catholic church, it is speculated that he is about to create the first-ever woman cardinal.
Ahead of the Pope's assembly of cardinals in February, it is expected Francis will appoint at least 14 new red hats, and Rome is buzzing with rumours one will be female. Following an article in a Spanish newspaper by a Jesuit priest saying he thought this eminently likely, a shortlist of possible candidates is already being circulated, despite the Vatican's denial that any such move is afoot. Among the front runners is Linda Hogan, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, who is married and a feminist as well as a theologian.
Should this historic appointment actually come to pass, whoever dons the crimson biretta will be the first woman cardinal since the post was created in the 12th century. Yet, according to Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, John Paul II asked Mother Theresa if she would become a cardinal and she refused. So it seems there is nothing outrageous in Francis's suspected intentions.
Such a move would certainly be consistent with his championing of women in the Church. While he has in the past ruled out the idea of women becoming priests, he has also been clear about the uniquely important role they can play. This being so, it is theoretically possible that if a woman were to become a cardinal she could one day be elected pope, even though other women could still not become priests. And if this were to happen - and this non-Catholic devoutly hopes it does - the Catholic Church would never be the same again.
According to legend there has already been a female pope, a 9th-century pontiff called Joan. When she gave birth, an outraged mob killed her. Even if this story seems more worthy of Game of Thrones than the history books, Joan, if she existed, had carefully concealed her gender. Should Francis create a woman cardinal, however, it will be a most potent, public gesture of affirmation, and one few of us thought to see in our lifetime.
A mere 30 years ago a British woman prime minister seemed astonishing; a female German Chancellor would have been unthinkable even when Thatcher was in No. 10, yet there is now serious talk of America electing its first female president. Even so, as one after another of the most prestigious and powerful positions is finally secured by women, the college of cardinals - and above all the papacy - has always seemed unbreachable, the most securely, scarily male chauvinist domain on the planet.
The impact of a woman pope would therefore be seismic. Her appointment to the most influential position in the world, whose reach stretches across all continents, would be the most significant step yet in reversing millennia of patriarchy and prejudice. Hitherto notorious for its subjection of women, who have been treated as second-class citizens, allowed only lesser positions of authority and kept out of key doctrinal and policy decisions, the Catholic Church with a woman at the helm would surely, at the very least, feel obliged to rethink its all-male priesthood.
Even if that were not to happen, a woman making the most important decisions and appointments could alter Catholicism beyond recognition. No doubt many privately wonder if the sexual abuse victims of recent years would have been better treated had women been involved in their cases, or if more emphasis would have been put on helping the poor than on power-mongering, on openness rather than cliques, on life-saving contraception rather than dogma. None of us can answer that, of course, but the prospect of a woman cardinal has raised the possibility - however seemingly remote - that maybe one day we will.
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