What a morning I had yesterday! It’s been a while since I’d had one that was so stunningly full of possibility.
It all started with Facebook posts from friends of news reports that Linda Hogan, a professor from my alma mater, the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College Dublin, was being tipped to become the first female cardinal of the Catholic church.
|Prof. Linda Hogan, Vice Provost of Trinity College Dublin|
The posts were all quoting stories in reputable newspapers, the Irish Independent and the Belfast Telegraph. Here are links to the stories:
I was thrilled on all kinds of levels. First, there was the very idea that someone I knew- and had actually EMAILED in a regular basis- might be elevated to the Catholic hierarchy! Amazing! My friend and colleague Jayme Reeves did me one better- Linda was her internal examiner at her doctoral defence, so Jayme- a lovely lapsed Baptist- would be able to say that a cardinal of the Catholic church actually approved her PhD thesis!
Beyond those fairly lightweight reactions was the more substantial thrill that I as an Irish radical Catholic felt stir within me- that a real change to how the Catholic church thought, acted and organised itself might actually be happening. All of the hopes that had been ignited by Vatican II, then slowly quashed under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, then fanned into a new flicker of flame under Francis, might actually become a strong flame- something around which we might actually be able to warm and nourish ourselves.
Like most things of this type, it was all too good to be true, and it wasn’t long before Fr Fredrico Lombardi put paid to any such speculation, bluntly calling it ‘nonsense’:
I was angry. I can honestly say I felt humiliated. I felt like I'd been the victim of a particularly cruel, tasteless practical joke. the kind that hits your deepest and weakest point. I was genuinely gutted to discover that the initial press stories I read, which used the language of Hogan being ‘tipped to be’ the first female cardinal, and that Pope Francis was ‘poised to open the way’ were, if not quite gags or parodies, then at least wildly- spectacularly- optimistic.
I’m sure the reporters thought of the initial reports as interesting and quirky, something fun for the Irish market (first female cardinal! And hey! She’s Irish!). But for many of us, this is really important stuff that we do not want thrown around lightly. For me, the effect was perhaps spiritually similar to suffering from a debilitating form of exhausting, chronic disorder, reading a headline that said medical researchers were on to a cure, then reading the article to find that they’d thought up a theoretically possible avenue for further study for a treatment that would probably run about $75,000 a dose, would need to taken once a week for a lifetime- and it was all realistically 15 years away anyway. If that sounds over-the-top, I think it gives a glimpse into the depth of our hopes and the blow some of us feel when those hopes are dashed.
Realistically, if this level of change in the Catholic church indeed does start to occur, it will be of a type that is incremental to a fault. It will be the type of change that comes sparingly and late. It will be done grudgingly, at the last minute, when no more avenues for delay can be realistically found. And it won’t be particularly exciting. Yes, we might have an un-ordained cardinal at some point, but it will be a man. We will then sporadically have un-ordained, unmarried, celibate men for a century or so. Then- and only then- we might have an elderly, celibate woman religious mystic as the first female cardinal.
In that scenario, which I do believe to be brutally realistic, Hogan has so many strikes against her in so many ways that the notion enters the realm of (to use the Vatican’s word) ‘nonsense’.
The bitter fact is that the Church cannot find much of anything for women- let alone married, academic, intellectual women- to do, even at parish level. Why would we think there would all of a sudden be a storm of creativity to find things for them to do at the top? Some cynics might feel that reactions of such dashed hopes might be a bit over-the-top. They'd say , 'What the hell did you expect?' Such reactions would not understand how deeply-held our hope is. For some of us, real, tangible reforms in any number of areas in the Church is a serious hope- and hopes must be held with care.
The ancient Hebrew prophets described this type of hope as that of the watchmen on the walls of a city looking for the dawn (Psalm 130:6). My father-in-law, a Vietnam combat veteran, speaks of the hope of soldiers who have been under fire through a pitch-black night and who finally see the first rays of the morning sun. The attack doesn’t necessarily end, but options appear; rescue and reinforcement become available; damage and strengths can be assessed.
Basically, hope becomes possible once again…
Those of us who think and work in the field of ‘ecumenics’- the intersection of faith, politics and culture- have been fighting through a very, very long, dark night, and we haven’t seen a lot of daylight in a very long time. So reading those headlines yesterday made for a wonderful morning.
Here’s hoping for the real sunrise…