Speculation about Pope Francis’ naming a woman as a cardinal this coming February was reportedly rebutted by the director of the Vatican’s press office Father Federico Lomabrdi . He called the rumor “nonsense.”
The Huffington Post quoted him as saying, “It is simply not a realistic possibility…”
He went on to acknowledge, however, that it (naming a woman as cardinal) is theologically and theoretically possible!
The history of the origin of cardinals in the Church and of the meaning of the term “cardinal” is still debated.
Some think cardinal comes from the Latin cardo (hinge), supposing that cardinals were the men on whom ecclesiastical administration turned.
Others suppose that the word comes from incardinare, a term which Church officials made up to describe bishops who were transferred to other dioceses after their own were invaded and/or destroyed by barbarians.
Over time those named cardinal formed a body of privileged clergy, becoming advisors to the popes.
The Third Lateran Council (1179) confirmed that cardinals alone were the electors of a new pope.
Pope John XXIII in April of 1962 ordered that all cardinals should be ordained bishops.
Current Church law (canon 351) explains, “The Roman Pontiff freely selects men to be promoted as cardinals, who have been ordained at least into the order of the presbyterate…those who are not yet bishops must receive Episcopal consecration.”
Basing himself on that law, Vatican spokesman Father Lombardi is on solid ground in describing as “nonsense” the rumors and speculation that Pope Francis will name a woman as cardinal.
However, the pope can dispense from the requirement that a cardinal must be a bishop; such was the case with Vatican II theologians Yves Congar, Henri de Lubac, and Urs von Balthasar. (De Lubac refused the offer of the red hat if acceptance required his being ordained a bishop; Pope John Paul II respected deLubac’s wish and set aside the requirement.)
Since the College of cardinals is man-made and not an essential part of the Church’s institution, it could be abolished. There was a strong call for its dissolution in the 15th century.
History indicates that laymen have been named cardinals (e.g., Fernando I de Medici in the 16th century, but, though he was never ordained a deacon, priest or bishop, he is said to have received the tonsure, one of the minor orders which made him officially a cleric, no longer a lay person).
Theologically, theoretically then (as Father Lombardi acknowledged) Pope Francis could name a woman as cardinal but at this time law and custom militate strongly against it.