Cartoonists are a gift to reason and faith; they debunk, enlighten and encapsulate; they are the visual equivalent of a sound bite.

Today's Globe and Mail editorial cartoon speaks to the folly of a church governance structure that has no visible place for women: as the cardinals, dressed in full regalia, resplendent in scarlet and lace, process into the Sistine Chapel to begin the serious work of a conclave, two habited nuns look on, while one observes: "It’s a guy thing."

In spite of centuries of tradition, the prodigious weight of convention, and the constraints of a protocol that admit no variation, one is entitled to wonder why at the beginning of the 21st Century the absence of women in a decision-making body with no Apostolic warrant or genesis should be seen as inoculated against change.

Two months ago in a piece for the Globe and Mail titled "Why not open the College of Cardinals to women?" -- written several weeks before Benedict's arresting announcement -- I made the case for a serious inclusion of women in the machinery of governance in a way that would not touch on matters of doctrine. 

In other words, leaving the role of ordained ministry and women for another time, why not use current structures to maximize the presence of women in key areas of influence and decision-making?

Whoever becomes pope must find ways of erecting channels of communication between the hierarchy and women that enable honest dialogue, careful listening, and the wise discerning that can only flourish in an environment where censure is lifted, sloganeering abandoned, and polarization muted. 

One body that can contribute immensely to this is the College of Cardinals.

Why not include in their number, as I have argued elsewhere, the likes of:

  • former Irish president and lawyer (civil and canon) Mary McAleese;
  • Harvard jurist and perennial Vatican favourite Mary Ann Glendon;
  • Canadian pediatrician and ethicist Sister Nuala Kenny;
  • U.S. philanthropist and church activist Kerry Robinson; and
  • that feisty and deliciously eccentric British nun, art critic Wendy Beckett.

They are all very much individuals, do not subscribe to any one common ideology, and span the spectrum of opinion and conviction. In other words, there is no more a "women's voice" as there is no more a "men's voice." 

There is a plethora of voices and the college of cardinals, a uniquely ecclesial creation that is open to change and reconfiguration at the drop of a papal fiat, may be just the body to represent that rich diversity that Benedict delights in seeing and hearing in an orchestra of sweet sound, harmony and concord. And precisely because of, and not irrespective of, its diversity of players. 

Such an innovation is not a departure from matters de fide, does not compromise the church's authority, and is not a frivolous concession to faddism. 

Popes change rules concerning their election after their election. Benedict surprised us all with his resignation, setting a new and healthy precedent for his successors. Is it too much then to expect the new pope to look at the constitution of the college of cardinals and make it more broadly representative of the universal church? 

If that were to happen a future Globe and Mail cartoonist could well have both women and men dressed resplendent  in scarlet and lace. 

With only reporters looking on.


Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB