Saturday, 16 April 2011


This is a post about the most exclusive club in the world: the Sacred College of Cardinals.

What are cardinals?

Cardinals are, in theory, the principal clergy of the diocese of Rome - hence their full title, 'cardinals of the Holy Roman Church'.  Each of them is appointed to serve a particular parish church in Rome (or, in a few cases, to one of the so-called "suburbicarian" dioceses adjoining the city), though these days such appointments are purely nominal and honorary.

The cardinals are divided into three subcategories: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons.  These descriptions denote the titular position that they are assigned in the diocese of Rome or the suburbicarian dioceses.  For example, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, is a cardinal priest by virtue of being the nominal parish priest of the church of Sts Gioacchino and Anna in the Roman suburb of Tuscolano.  In spite of the nomenclature, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons are almost always bishops.  Since 1962, all new cardinals have been legally obliged to be consecrated as bishops if they are not bishops already.  At the time, this rule applied to 12 existing cardinals.  The rule is occasionally relaxed for priests who obtain a special dispensation - most famously, this was granted by Pope John Paul II to Yves Congar in 1994 and Avery Dulles in 2001.

Since 1965, a small number of patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches have been appointed to the College of Cardinals without being assigned titular churches or sees around Rome.  The Patriarch of Antioch, Ignace Gabriel I Tappouni, had already been appointed as a cardinal in 1935, and lost his titular church in the 1965 reform.

Pope John VIII compared the cardinals to the 70 elders who assisted Moses in the Old Testament (De Jure Cardinalium), and the number of cardinals was limited to 70 as late as 1917 (these comprised 6 cardinal bishops, 50 cardinal priests and 14 cardinal deacons).  In 1975, Pope Paul VI decreed that the number of cardinals under 80 could not exceed 120, though this limit is sometimes ignored by popes when creating new cardinals.  At present, there are exactly 200 cardinals, 115 of whom are under 80.

The College of Cardinals has traditionally been dominated by Italians.  The first papal conclave attended by a majority of non-Italian cardinals was that which took place on the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

Cardinals have traditionally been entitled to the same honours as royal princes.  This is the origin of Article 21 of the 1929 Lateran Treaty, which stated: "All Cardinals shall enjoy, in Italy, the honours due to Princes of the Blood".  The term 'Prince of the Church' is still occasionally used in relation to cardinals, though historically the term had a wider meaning.

The style of address for a cardinal has been "your Eminence" since 1630.  Strictly speaking, cardinals are referred to as "John Cardinal Smith" rather than "Cardinal John Smith", though the latter form is in wide use.

Cardinals dress in red garments.  This custom dates from the 13th century.  The 'red hat' is synonymous with the office of cardinal.

The College of Cardinals, which is a legal entity in its own right, is led by the Dean, to whom is assigned the suburbicarian diocese of Ostia.  The Dean used to be appointed by seniority from along the cardinal bishops, but today he is elected by the cardinal bishops, subject to the approval of the Pope.  There is also a Sub-Dean.  Neither has any executive authority.

Legal status and privileges

The 1983 Code of Canon Law

According to the 1983 Code, the cardinals "constitute a special college which provides for the election of the Roman Pontiff".  In addition, they "assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform" (Canon 349).  They are required to be "especially outstanding in doctrine, morals, piety, and prudence in action" (Canon 351).  Cardinals living outside Rome and outside their own dioceses are exempt from the jurisdiction of the local bishops (Canon 357).

The 1917 Code of Canon Law

The 1917 Code stated that the cardinals "constitute the Senate of the Roman Pontiff and assist him as his principal counsellors and helpers in governing the Church" (Canon 230).

Under Canon 232.2, the following were prohibited from becoming cardinals:
1. illegitimate sons, even if they have been legitimised by a subsequent marriage; and also other men who are irregular or are impeded from taking holy orders by virtue of canonical disabilities, even if they have been dispensed by papal authority to take orders and to take up offices, even those of episcopal rank;
2. men who have had children, even from a lawful marriage, or whose offspring have born them a grandchild;
3. men who are related in the first or the second degree of kinship with another living Cardinal.
Cardinals were also given the following privileges (Canon 239.1):
1. hearing confessions anywhere in the world, even those of religious of both sexes, and absolving from all sins and censures, even reserved ones, with the sole of exception of censures reserved specialissimo modo to the Apostolic See and those relating to the disclosure of matters subject to the secret of the Holy Office...
3. preaching the word of God in any place...
5. blessing in any place, with the sign of the cross alone, rosaries and other prayer-chaplets, crosses, medals, statues and scapulars approved by the Apostolic See, with all the customary indulgences granted by the Holy See...
6. erecting and blessing stations of the Way of the Cross in churches, oratories (even private ones) and other pious places with all the applicable indugences...
7. celebrating Mass on a portable altar not only in the house that they inhabit, but wherever they travel...
8. celebrating Mass at sea....
10. benefiting from a personal privileged altar with a daily indulgence...
12. blessing the people everywhere in the manner of Bishops (but in the City, only in churches, in pious places and at gatherings of the faithful);
13. wearing a pectoral cross in the manner of Bishops... and using a mitre and a pastoral staff....
15. using pontifical vestments with a throne and baldachino in all churches outside the City (with the Ordinary being warned beforehand, if the church is a cathedral);
18. receiving the honours customarily given to the Ordinary of the place wherever they travel;
20. performing consecrations and blessings of the altars of churches, sacred furniture and Abbots... in any place....
21. taking precedence over all Prelates, even Patriarchs and even Pontifical Legates, unless the Legate is a Cardinal who is residing in his own country...
22. conferring first tonsure and the minor orders...
23. administering the sacrament of confirmation....


Cardo is the Latin for "hinge", and this has inspired a folk etymology to the effect that the original cardinals were "hingemen" who acted as doorkeepers at Mass during the times of persecution under the Roman Empire.

The term "cardinal" (cardinalis) was applied from the 5th century to members of the Roman clergy, though it was also used in reference to clerics elsewhere in the Catholic world.  The first non-Roman churchman to be assigned a titular church in Rome was Dietrich of Trier in 975, though he does not seem to have been regarded as a cardinal.  The College of Cardinals started to meet as a single unit from the 12th century.

In his apostolic constitution Postquam, issued in 1586, Sixtus V stated that, just as the Pope represents St Peter, so the cardinals represent the other apostles.  They are the "counsellors and assistants" of the pontiff: they are "like his eyes and ears and the most noble parts of the sacred head, and his foremost limbs, put in place by the Holy Spirit".  Sixtus also describes them as "the brightest lights of the Church, the foundations of the temple of God, and the pillars of the Christian commonwealth".

A decade later, in 1596, Henrique Henriques wrote in his Summa Theologiae Moralis:
The principal and pre-eminent dignity after that of the Supreme Pontiff is now that of the Cardinalate....  The duty of the Cardinal is to assist the Supreme Pontiff, as the Apostles assisted Christ through exercising their ministries.  It is said that this duty derives from the time of the Apostles....  Cardinals are called by the Apostolic See to govern the universal Church....  Certain insignia of this rank were instituted by Pope Innocent IV at the Council of Lyons in the year 1243: that Cardinals might ride on horseback and make use of a red and purple galero or hat, as if they are ready to defend the faith with their blood and at the risk of their lives.  They swear to defend the faith in this way when they are appointed....
The cardinals' loss of jurisdiction over their titular churches in Rome started with Pope Innocent XII's Romanum Decet Pontificem in 1692.  The cardinals' final powers over their titular churches were abolished in 1969, leaving them with a purely honorary role.

Before the 20th century, men who were not priests or bishops could be appointed as cardinals.  Though sometimes known as "lay cardinals", these men were technically members of the clergy, since they were given the tonsure and the minor orders.  The last non-priest cardinal was Teodolfo Martel, a lawyer, who died in 1899, though it is said that in the 1960s Pope Paul VI considered making the philosopher Jacques Maritain a cardinal.  From 1917, there has been a legal prohibition on non-priests being appointed as cardinals, and in 1972 the tonsure and minor orders were abolished.

Papal elections

Since 1159, the cardinals alone have had the right to elect the Pope.  The new pontiff is almost invariably drawn from their ranks.  It is not unknown for non-cardinals to receive a few votes in papal elections - this is said to have happened to Giovanni Battista Montini (the future Pope Paul VI) in 1958 and, more controversially, to the rebel archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1978.  However, no non-cardinal has succeeded in being elected pope since Urban VI in 1378.

In 1971, cardinals over the age of 80 lost their rights to participate in conclaves.  This restriction affected 25 cardinals at that time.

Further reading

The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church
College of Cardinals
Cardinals And The College - The Inner Workings

Additional note - 4 December 2011

Here are a couple of passages from Filippo Maroto's Institutiones iuris canonici ad normam novi codicis (1919):

815.  The common obligations of all Cardinals are as follows.- A) As Cardinals enjoy the highest dignity and the closest association with the Roman Pontiff, they are bound, more than other men, to show reverence and obedience to the Pope, to maintain loyalty to the Apostolic See with a special devotion, to work tirelessly for the good of the Church, and to defend her rights even if they are required to shed their blood, as they are reminded by their red clothing.

B) Similarly, Cardinals, since they are the principal counsellors and helpers of the Roman Pontiff in his governance of the Church, have the obligation of assisting the Pontiff with frank and salutary advice and with diligent work and collaboration.  They are therefore bound to take on the duties, commissions, legations, etc, which are entrusted to them by the Roman Pontiff and to execute them with intelligence, diligence, discretion and loyalty.

C) A specific obligation of Cardinals is to reside in the Curia, so that they can fulfil there the offices and duties placed upon them by the Roman Pontiff....  Cardinals who are Bishops of some non-Roman diocese are exempted for the requirement to reside in the Curia.  When, however, they come to the City, they must present themselves to the Supreme Pontiff and must not leave the City before they have requested his permission to depart....

819. The duties of Cardinals to the Church and the Pontiff....  - Since Cardinals are the principal counsellors and helpers of the Roman Pontiff, two duties fall on them as a consequence: they can and must advise and work for the Roman Pontiff....

As for the first duty, Cardinals are the Counsellors of the Pope, and, specifically, his principal counsellors, since they form his Senate.  But the authority and power of the Pontiff is not dependent in any way on the consent or advice of the Cardinals, either individually or collectively.  It is right, indeed, for the Pope, in governing the Church, particularly in matters that are difficult and of great importance, to ask the advice of the Cardinals whom he has chosen as his special advisers, nor indeed does this duty of Cardinals appear to be an empty one; but it is not within the remit either of individual Cardinals or of the entirety of the sacred College... to demand as of right that the Roman Pontiff... asks for their advice, still less that he obtains their consent.  Otherwise, it would be impossible to transact business if some Cardinals were unaware of or in disagreement with it.