I remember when Child One was seven, Pope John Paul II died. We watched the news on the telly, and soon a whole line of cardinals was shown, introduced as the candidates to become the next pope. ‘But Mummy, there aren’t any ladies!’ remonstrated Child One. She was quite right, of course. There wasn’t a single woman there, amongst the scarlet throng of 400-odd (probably very odd) cardinals. I felt terribly embarrassed. I liked my girls to think they could do anything – but here was a door that was shut, bolted and barred forever. ‘They’re a bit funny about that,’ I squirmed. ‘The pope has to be a man.’
Before I knew it, I felt I was having to justify more than a thousand years of misogyny to my daughter. In her eyes, it was beyond bizarre. She knew women who were doctors, lawyers, politicians, mummies … any of them would make a perfectly good pope, in her view. I’m sure she was quite right. All my friends would make absolutely brilliant popes, though I don’t think any of them are particularly religious, and I don’t even know how many are Catholic.
Ironically, the Catholic church’s decision to forbid priests from marrying, therefore cutting women out of ecclesiastical power and influence, was made solely so that the church wasn’t burdened with supporting a whole bunch of widows and orphans. So, instead of having some sort of religious basis, which might be harder to attack, it was simply out of meanness that lady popes were put beyond the pale.
Back to now, and the Catholic church is one of the few men-only clubs still going strong, though it’s going a lot stronger in countries where women’s rights lag behind. It’s hard to feel that a jobs-for-the-boys religion has anything to say to most modern, Western women, except showing us that we’ve come a long way, baby. In fact, as I heard a male BBC radio correspondent reporting on the cardinals’ retreat to the Sistine Chapel today, I realised he sounded as excited as a little kid eavesdropping on what the big boys were up to. I think he’s probably not the only man who finds it secretly thrilling that women are still excluded from something. Well, he, and the cardinals, are welcome to it.
And what happened, all those years ago, when I tried to explain to Child One why a woman couldn’t be pope? I blathered on for a while, then ran out of steam. How could I make it seem logical, or reasonable, when it’s not? ‘Some people just aren’t that keen on ladies,’ I finished lamely. She thought about the cardinals for a moment or two, then said, ‘well, never mind Mummy, at least they’re all wearing dresses.’