A lot of the commentary about the election of the next pope has focused on the possibility — or, more often, impossibility — that Benedict XVI’s successor would allow women to be ordained to the priesthood.
The usual reason given for the poor prospects for women priests is that Benedict has packed the College of Cardinals with “conservatives” who oppose the idea. But even if Benedict (and Pope John Paul II before him) had chosen more feminist-friendly cardinals, the notion that the next pope would even consider ordaining women as priests is unthinkable — and for a reason almost no one discusses.
That reason is the attitude of the tradition-revering churches rooted in the Eastern Roman Empire. This group comprises not only Eastern Orthodox churches, which definitively broke with the pope in 1054, but other ancient Eastern churches that over the centuries parted ways with both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, a group that includes the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt and the Armenian Apostolic Church. Then there are the so-called Eastern Rite Catholic churches which recognize the authority of the pope in Rome but follow Eastern traditions (including a married priesthood).
Of the 117 cardinals under the age of 80 who will choose Benedict’s successors, only four are bishops from Eastern Catholic churches — the retired Coptic Catholic patriarch of Alexandria in Egypt (not to be confused with the Coptic Orthodox pope), the patriarch of the Maronite Church in Lebanon and two archbishops from Eastern-rite churches in India. A fifth Eastern-Rite cardinal, retired Major Archbishop Lubomyr Husar of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, just missed participating in the election. He turns 80 on Feb. 26, two days before Benedict’s resignation becomes effective.
But while their representation in the College of Cardinals may be small, Eastern Rite Catholics are an important link to non-Catholic Eastern Christians, with whom they sometimes worship in places such as Iraq. They also are a reminder of the golden age of an undivided Christian church, before disputes over papal authority and abstruse questions about the nature of Christ led bishops to withdraw “communion” from one another.
Reunion between the Roman Catholic Church and estranged Eastern churches — a priority of the “liberal” Second Vatican Council as well as the “conservative” John Paul II and Benedict XVI — would be unthinkable if Rome decided to ordain women as priests. More than that, such a decision likely would drive Eastern-Rite Catholics out of communion with Rome. Finally, such a decision would allow the patriarch of Constantinople and other Eastern prelates to boast that, unlike the pope (“the first Protestant,” according to an old Orthodox gibe), the East had held fast to Catholic tradition while Rome strayed. No pope, liberal or conservative, would want to give the East those bragging rights.