EJ Dionne Jr., unencumbered by facts or reason, calls for a female pope.

“Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses”

“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.”

And thus E.J. Dionne Jr. is off and running.

Initially I was dumbfounded because I didn’t think anyone would actually seriously propose what I tossed off as a joke in my “first reactions” post last Monday.

But propose it he did. Thus this post right here, which I started nearly as soon as his hit the intertubalwebs, took a lot longer to write than I had hoped because I just couldn’t decide if I should go right to derision or treat it seriously, what parts I should respond to (there’s a whole lotta dumb in there), and how far “into the weeds” to go in my responses.

One last “meta” note before diving in: this post of mine is written firmly understanding that a female pope is as possible as a circle with corners, even if I occasionally respond for argument’s sake as though it were possible.

What Dionne runs through is a laundry list of bad arguments for women’s ordination: The leadership roles women have in Church missionary work and religious communities and their indispensable contributions to same. The advancement of women in society. Comments by recent popes on the dignity and increasingly important role of women in society. The Catholic devotion to the Blessed Mother. The sex scandals! The out-of-touch, stodgy, siloed hierarchy that can’t possibly understand what’s really going on in the world. Yadda, yadda yadda.

Herein I share some (but not all) of the amazingly obtuse statements with as quick a response as I can muster.

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.

See? Easy-peesy-lemon-squeezy. All we have to do is ignore the words “male” and “he” in those rules and begin allowing women to be priests and bishops, and voila! we’ve got ourselves a female pope. All it requires is “a real openness to change.”

There’s a term for people who are in many ways practically Catholic but are totes okay with women priests and bishops (and contraception, gay marriage, abortion…): Anglican. Why Dionne and folks like him don’t cross the Stour is beyond me.* Be open to change, E.J.: admit you’ve left the Church in all ways but self-identification and it will all become so much more clear for everyone.

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.

This is just surprisingly bad logic. I’m surprised neither he nor his editor didn’t catch how idiotic this is before it went to press. “Arrange for her consecration” without addressing the question of whether women can be priests? To put it in terms Dionne would likely understand, that’s like being awarded a Pulitzer for an article that has not yet been written.

[H]anding 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.

Per the snippet I posted just previously, the maelstroms of controversy this would cause regarding core doctrinal questions would absolutely destroy the Church, not strengthen, nor solve any problems. Lots of people *would* look at the Church (we capitalize “Church” when referring to the global institution founded by Christ on Peter and the Apostles, E.J.) with new eyes, but they’d be laughing their tookuses off, not considering entering the Church. My evidence? The amazing disappearing Anglican communion.

He spends a few paragraphs extolling the great work millions of Catholics around the world do for the poor and downtrodden, including a nun who took Nick Kristof of the New York Times on a bone-jarring jeep ride through the bush in Swaziland while doing her missionary work. Such recognition is right and proper, but it is not an argument for making any of those religious—male or female—pope. And a fair number of women religious doing that work whom I know personally or by reputation would recoil at the notion of a woman being ordained a priest, let alone being elected pope.

Here is where Dionne makes the false move in this regard:

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.

First, why “such a woman”? Why not “such a man”? All Catholic men are eligible, technically, so he could simply advocate for some religious brother who has proven his social justice bona fides. But that wouldn’t make for nearly as sexy a column so he goes for the impossible angle that has shock value.

Second, he clearly does not understand Church of today. While history tells us that bishoprics, including the papacy, have in the past been treated like crowns and peerages, that was during an era when being a bishop was a desirable position for secular reasons—political power, governmental authority, money, respect, and all the trappings that come along with them (note a word I did not use: “leadership.” More on that in a moment). I have no illusions that jockeying for position doesn’t happen in the Church today, but there is no evidence that one climbs the episcopal “career” ladder as one climbs the ladder in a bureaucracy in DC.

In fact, there is evidence to the contrary. Benedict nearly refused the papacy at the 2005 conclave. John Paul II was loathe to leave Poland. Being named a bishop at all is to be singled out for one of the most difficult and unforgiving “careers” out there, let alone being elected pope.

Third, so many of today’s most prominent bishops have had real-world experience as champions of social justice, parish priests, and activists in various capacities, even while bishop. He even acknowledges this. Why does he not advocate for one of them to be elected pope?

Then there’s this grade-school-level theological gem:

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.

And yet, that same John Paul II who had such a tender devotion to the Blessed Mother, and who attributed his surviving the assassination attempt to the Blessed Mother, gave perhaps the strongest message ever that women’s ordination is not a possibility.

Now, I generally try to avoid speaking or writing on topics when I clearly know next to nothing on them. It seems a good way to avoid appearing ignorant, arrogant, and unwise. It also theoretically lends more credence to anything I *do* write, because it indicates I believe I have something worth writing that is based in reality. E.J. Dionne clearly has no such compunction.

Great female leaders of the Church like Mother Teresa, Teresa of Avila, Elizabeth Ann Seton, even Catherine of Siena who wielded considerable influence over bishops and popes, would have been repulsed by the notion that women should be ordained, let alone be up for the papacy. (Incidentally, that’s one of the problems with these gals’ lines of argumentation also.)

They knew what Dionne and so many others like him don’t seem to realize: leadership and influence are not matters of position, and the hierarchy is not there primarily to lord over and control any of us. Leadership comes from prudence, compassion, strength of will, the ability to make good decisions, and the ability to communicate a vision clearly. People follow those who demonstrate these things, thus making those people “leaders.” Leaders frequently end up in positions of authority, but not always. People in positions of authority can be leaders, but not always.

The hierarchy of the Church is there to be our spiritual fathers, in a visible line of succession from the Apostles, bringing new spiritual life into the world through the sacraments and safeguarding the treasures of the Church’s Tradition. These are masculine, not feminine, roles. This does not mean women are inferior. Women cannot be fathers, and it is not their role to be the primary protector.

Likewise, men cannot be mothers—talk about a position that naturally means leadership!—and are not primarily nurturers.

But either can be leaders from the positions they have. Dionne, in fact, acknowledges this by noting the great leadership shown by so many women like Mother Teresa in their missionary activities. No man did that—a woman did. And thank God she did!

I hardly expect the cardinals to follow my advice on this.

Well that’s good.

But I hope that they at least consider electing the kind of man who has the characteristics of my ideal female pontiff.

That they can do, but I’ll bet they’ll have a little more on their mind than your list.

The church needs a leader who has worked closely with the poor and the outcast,…

Again: The Church already has tons of leaders who do this, male and female. The pope does not *need* to be one of them, but happily there are a fair number of cardinals involved who have done so.

…who understands that battling over doctrine is less important for the church’s future than modeling Christian behavior…

Equally important, actually, because getting the doctrine right leads to proper teaching of the faithful, which, theoretically, if the people are docile, spurs proper behavior.

…— and who sees that the proper Christian attitude toward the modern world is not fear but hope.



…sorry, momentarily speechless. I don’t think E.J. Dionne pays any attention to the Church nowadays At. All.

A major part of the Church’s message to the world yesterday, today, everyday, is precisely HOPE. Spe Salvi, “Saved in hope,” was Pope Benedict’s second encyclical. It is a marvelous meditation on the virtue of hope and the effect it has on our lives. It is not long nor difficult reading—Benedict, unlike John Paul II, is an incredibly clear writer. If you have not read it, I encourage you (especially you, E.J.) to read at least the first half.

Further, what on earth does he thinks motivates all of the nuns and brothers who go out into the bush? What motivates the cardinals sitting in palaces in Rome to work the thankless jobs pouring over doctrinal statements and theological wrangling? What inspires men to want to be priests and brothers, women sisters and nuns, men and women fathers and mothers? Hope does: hope in the goodness of God and His promise of a glorious future in His love.

Further still, what were the first words of John Paul II to the world when he was elected in 1978? “Do not fear!” He said it repeatedly as pope. Benedict has globe-trotted well into his eighties without fear, even going to Turkey against many people’s wishes, despite concerns for his safety. Bishops stick with their flocks in war-torn regions, in the oppressive Chinese state, in darkening places like Venezuela, exhorting them not to fear, but to keep their eyes focused on Christ.

Dionne finishes up with a story about his daughter who has become disenchanted with the Church. With a father who has such a distorted view of the Church as E.J. Dionne Jr., it’s a wonder she can even spell “Catholic.”

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?”

This is just an amazing statement. E.J. Dionne Jr., who writes for the Washington Post, who could write about the good things people in the Church (including bishops, no?) do on a regular basis and get the word out, laments that THE CHURCH doesn’t talk about these things enough.

The mind reels.

To return to the first Dionne quote I included, “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,” the problem with running out ahead of the Holy Spirit is that it means you’ve left the Holy Spirit behind. When you separate yourself from the Holy Spirit (because you know how things ought to be) rather than waiting on His promptings and guidance you find yourself in a world of hurt. When you do that you are remaking God in your own image and likeness rather than letting Him bring you back to His. You lose sight of what is really, truly important, because you have decided for yourself what is important.

The really sad thing is Dionne is not alone. That fact gives good catechists job security.

The really happy thing is that the Holy Spirit is still working at His own pace, and in the conclave the cardinal electors are unable to run ahead of the Spirit at all.


*No, it really isn’t: there isn’t much compelling about an Anglican displaying alarming ignorance about the Church but proceeding to lecture her cardinals on matters of doctrine, but a “Catholic” doing so? Enlightened!



  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.smith.1420354 Greg Smith

    Hi Tom ~ Mr. Dionne’s remarks are about as serious as
    my daughter’s short story in which Pope Mary Magdalene IX makes a papal visit
    to the Archdiocese of Alpha Centari on her starship Sheppardess One. Back
    here on Earth however, the rest of us ought to be reflecting and praying
    over what kind of a man we need.

    My wife asked me what qualities I’d like to see in the next pontiff. After thinking about it here’s what I came up with:

    Generally,at this time in the Church’s history, we need a man with considerable pastoral experience over the course of his career. He doesn’t necessarily need to have done the heroic jeep riding type of thing Mr. Dionne describes, but rather have had a career of tending to the flocks of parishes and dioceses. This isn’t the time for someone who has empathized service at the Vatican nor a heavy Canon law specialist.

    More specifically, we desperately need a pope who “gets” how badly the abuse scandal has damaged us who will take the bull by the horns in resolving past cases and guiding his bishops in preventing these atrocities in the future. To do this, the new pope
    ought to be a capable manager or have a special talent for finding good senior staff on the administrative side.

    Finally, since Benedict XVI may have set a new precedent of pope’s retiring (a good thing IMHO) the Cardinal Electors ought to at least consider not only the age but the general health of the candidates they consider.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts.
    Pax tecum,


    • http://twitter.com/TomCrowe Tom Crowe

      And I think they are very sound thoughts, indeed. We’ll see what the Holy Spirit has in mind in a little less than a month.

    • MyNana510

      I, for one, don’t want a female Pope. Not that I don’t think women aren’t capable of church leadership but there are many things women can do within the church that are just as important if not in some ways, more important in helping shape our Catholic faith. One of the reasons I converted a few years ago was exactly because of the fact that for more than 2000 years it’s stood by it’s core beliefs that it believes to be God’s will instead of bending and shaping itself to the “people’s will”. Bending to the “people’s will” was what pulled us away from all that God wanted for us, more individual interpretation of the Bible, and Protestantism (which by definition, Protestant comes from protest).

  • http://twitter.com/Neal_Dewing Neal D.

    Hear, hear. While the consequence to their souls would be regrettable, I sometimes wish Catholics like Dionne would just go be Protestants. This would leave us without the benefit of their carefully considered theological prescriptions, but I think we’d muddle through.

    • http://twitter.com/TomCrowe Tom Crowe

      Frankly, the impact upon their souls is worse if they persist in grave error and both present themselves for Communion and write in such a public manner that can cause confusion among the faithful—that’s the sin of scandal, which is quite serious. The far better thing for them is either self-imposed silence and not receiving Communion until such time as they intellectually accept the Church’s teachings or at least bend their will; or cease to call themselves Catholic in their public pronouncements and refrain from Communion accordingly.

  • Pingback: The Conclave, Papacy, and Papabili

  • Jeffrey Lyons

    It’s been said that the only way to end war is to put women in leadership rolls all over the world. I tend to agree. I certainly would love to see a lady Priest but I’m not holding my breath.

    • http://twitter.com/TomCrowe Tom Crowe

      Well that’s good, because you would eventually die of asphyxiation.

      • Jeffrey Lyons

        You’re right. However, the Pope showed us, by retiring, that tradition is not set in stone. Here’s hoping!

        • chris scanlan

          This isn’t about tradition. This is about adherence to the church’s teaching. When women become priests in the Catholic church, it will no longer be the Catholic church, but another sect alongside baptists and anglicans

        • http://twitter.com/TomCrowe Tom Crowe

          You’re right, if you understand a certain fine distinction: traditions (small t) like meatless Fridays, an all-celibate clergy, or popes dying in office are not set in stone; while Traditions (capital T) like the Real Presence, the infallibility of the pope, and the all-male clergy are set in stone.

          • Jeffrey Lyons

            Well, maybe T’s will turn to t’s when more information is revealed. Here’s hoping.

          • http://twitter.com/TomCrowe Tom Crowe

            Right. That’s what you’re not getting: big Ts cannot turn to little ts because big Ts were revealed as such while little ts are the ways the Church has established to best adhere to the big Ts. We Catholics believe there is no new revelation coming—it all ended with Jesus.

          • abadilla

            Tom, I like that you wrote “we Catholics,” because I am bewildered that so many Catholics today do not understand Catholicism 101.

          • Jeffrey Lyons

            That’s not what Jesus said.

          • chris scanlan

            If you could elaborate, that would be helpful. I’m not quite sure how to understand the comment.

          • abadilla

            Jesus also did not say anything about nuclear weapons but the Church had to address the problem in modern times. There are lots of things Jesus did not say but we can’t imagine He will be pleased with the permissive socierty that passes as freedom today. Jesus never uttered the word “abortion” yet it is one of the major teachings of Catholic moral teaching.

          • Jeffrey Lyons

            My point exactly.

          • abadilla

            Have you ever heard the saying, “Actions speak louder than words?” Jesus did not have to say we should not ordain women, He said it with his actions by choosing 12 Apostles.

          • Jeffrey Lyons

            in the time of Jesus, women were considered no more than slaves. Had Jesus chosen some women disciples, no one would have listened to Him: and He knew that. He was a very wise man.

          • Joe M

            Are you not familiar with the bible?

            Women played a fundamental role to Christianity during the time of Jesus. They still do today.

          • abadilla

            “in the time of Jesus, women were considered no more than slaves.” If that were true, the more reason for Jesus to elevate women to the priesthood.
            Your argument really makes of Jesus a wimp who saw a grave unjustice and didn’t address it. It never occurs to you that Jesus being truly Man and truly God would know right from wrong even in his culture and would address a major problem if He saw one.

          • enness

            Children weren’t paid much mind either; and yet, we are told we must enter the Kingdom like little children…Jesus didn’t have a problem breaking man’s rules. It’s his Father he would not contradict.

          • Joe M

            Jesus told Peter to build a Church. The Catholic Church and the principles it has defined based on the teachings of Jesus is the result.

          • abadilla

            The virtue of hope is a wonderful thing in Christianity but in this instance, it will lead you to utter frustration. I’m 63 and can hope all I want to be 25 and to have the waste I had when I was 16, 28, but that is simply not reality, just wishful thinking.
            See, there is that pesky little thing called “reality” that keeps calling me away from my fantasies.

          • Joe M

            What information? You haven’t provided any information to support your idea.

          • enness

            Public revelation is over.

    • abadilla

      I’m glad you are not holding your breath since you might die in the process, and the wonderful thing about this democratic country is simple, one could have all sort of fantasies which will never become true in reality.

    • Joe M

      I’m trying to figure out how a pope being female would have ended any wars. Can you explain?

      • abadilla

        Joe, he can’t explain it because he does not have serious information to explain anything. What he has is what liberals always have, pure sentimentality to address heavy subjects.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ellencontard Ellen Jauregui Contard

    *stands up and claps* Beautifully said! Women have very important roles. This is not one of them. Of course, it is said that a mother becomes her child’s internal voice. Whoever the next pope is, he had a mother, as did every priest, bishop, our Lord Himself. Rest in that, all who long for female Church leadership… 😉

    • http://twitter.com/TomCrowe Tom Crowe

      An excellent point: Every single one of us, male and female, has been profoundly influenced by female leadership, our mothers especially. In fact, one of the most important instances of leadership in world history took place at a wedding feast in the Galilean town of Cana about the year 30 A.D.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ellencontard Ellen Jauregui Contard

        Too right! And it is still strong leadership for us today:




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