Could women elect a pope?

I know that in the past, certain laymen were elevated to the rank of cardinal. I also understand that it is not possible for the Church to confer holy orders upon women and that all modern members of the Sacred College of Cardinals are bishops. However, as the means by which the pope is elected is not set in stone, and considering the possibility of laypersons being elevated to the College, isn’t it theoretically possible that someday certain women – while not being clergy – could participate in the election of the pope? This may somewhat appease liberal components of the Church, and grant women an expanded role in the Church without violating divine law. Am I correct that this could happen?

While it is hypothetically possible that a woman could be named a cardinal – in theory, the title is not restricted to clergy – it is highly unlikely that even should a woman be named a cardinal that she would be admitted to the electoral process for the pope. Here are a few of the difficulties with the prospect:

[list]Cardinals are traditionally considered to be the Roman clergy. Indeed, one of John Paul II’s reasons for reaffirming the College of Cardinals as the papal electoral body in his apostolic constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (Latin, “The Lord’s Whole Flock”; cf. Introduction, paragraph 6) is because the cardinals have long been considered Roman clergy given the responsibility of electing their bishop. Naming a woman a cardinal would violate the longstanding traditional custom of associating the cardinals with the Roman clergy.

[list]Canon law currently provides that eligibility for the honor of cardinal is restricted to men ordained at least to the priesthood (cf. canon 351 §1, Code of Canon Law). Indeed, unless a priest is dispensed from the necessity – as was Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. – the same canon obliges that those selected who are not yet bishops be ordained to the episcopate. As women cannot validly receive holy orders, the requirements of this canon would have to be suppressed in order for a woman to be named a cardinal.

[list]Even in the unlikely event that canon 351 §1 *were *suppressed and a woman was named a cardinal, it would likely be an honorary title only. It is highly doubtful that a woman cardinal would be admitted to the papal electoral process because those admitted are considered to be the “pool” of candidates from whom the pope will be selected. A woman cannot be named pope because she cannot validly receive the episcopal ordination necessary for the Bishop of Rome, so it would not make sense to admit her to the electoral body. Just as other cardinals are excluded from the conclave by virtue of their age (and thus making their election to pope highly improbable), so a cardinal whose election to pope would be impossible would very likely be excluded from the conclave.

Recommended reading:

Universi Dominici Gregis by John Paul II

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit