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!

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Tom Crowe is a cradle Catholic with a deep love for and commitment to Holy Mother the Church, colored by a rather interesting life-long relationship with her. Born during the great liturgical upheaval of the 1970s, Crowe was brought up in a parish that continued using the Missal of 1962—the Traditional Latin Mass—for which he developed a love. Crowe learned the faith as a child from the Baltimore Catechism, and didn’t stop learning and wrestling with the Church’s teachings at his Confirmation. Through reading and many conversations with friends and converts far smarter than he, Crowe came to know, accept, and love the Church and what she proposes far more intimately. For three years these conversation took place in seminary before Crowe, with the blessing of the formation team, determined that seminary was not right for him. In the wild and humorous ways of God, Crowe landed on his feet in Steubenville, Ohio, where he manages the online presence for Franciscan University of Steubenville, where he also trains altar servers and is the head master of ceremonies for the Mass in the Extraordinary Form on campus.

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