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.