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A cardinal is a senior ecclesiastical official in the Roman Catholic Church, member of the College of Cardinals ranking below the Pope and appointed by him during a consistory of his equals.

The duties of the cardinals are to attend the meetings of the aforementioned Sacred College and to make themselves available individually if the Pope desires their counsel. Most cardinals have additional duties either leading many of the church's dioceses and archdioceses or running the Roman Curia.

Upon a pope's death, the college runs the church during the sede vacante; those under 80 years old are also responsible for electing the next Pope.

The term "cardinal" derives from the Latin cardo, or hinge, which in Canon law referred to the cleric's incardination into the local church of Rome. Nowadays, the term also suggests metaphorically the fulcrum-like leadership role they play in the church at large. Because of the scarlet color of their vestments, symbolic of the readiness to shed their blood if necessary, cardinals are the namesakes of the bird of the same name.

In the Church of England, the term 'Cardinal' is applied to two members of the College of Minor Canons of St Paul's Cathedral, London. The use of the term predates the Reformation, but is still in use. A papal grant of Urban VI (1378) referred to ‘duo deputati ab antiquo, qui Cardinales vocantur’, who took a leading role in the affairs of the college. The two cardinals of the choir enjoyed fees from funerals and anniversary masses sung in the cathedral; they were consulted on liturgical matters, as on the suitability of the office hymn Verbum supernum at the time of the introduction of the Sarum rite at St Paul’s in the mid fifteenth century. Their duty to celebrate at the high altar in place of the dean and canons was unique to St Paul’s. Moreover the junior cardinal had special responsibility for visiting the sick and ministering the sacrament to them: a dangerous duty in a city infected by plague and disease. In reward the cardinals enjoyed a double allowance of money, bread and ale from the college common funds.

College and Orders of cardinalate[]

Vetements cardinal Gamarelli

Choir dress of a cardinal

Pope Sixtus V limited the number of cardinals to 70 (six cardinal bishops, 50 cardinal priests, 14 cardinal deacons). In 1975, Pope Paul VI created the age limit on electors and raised the limit to 120 cardinal electors. But the numerical limitations have been frequently disregarded in order to make the College of Cardinals a more representative body. Pope John Paul II elevated an additional 31 cardinals in a consistory on October 21, 2003, bringing the number of cardinals at that time to 194. As of John Paul II's death, 117 of the then-current 183 cardinals were young enough to be electors.

According to Canon 350 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law, the College of Cardinals is presently divided into three orders:

  • the episcopal order (Cardinal Bishops),
  • the presbyteral order (Cardinal Priests), the most numerous group,
  • the diaconal order (Cardinal Deacons).

As modern canon law requires, except in special circumstances, all Cardinals to already be ordained bishops the division of the Cardinals is a matter of form growing out of the history of the College and does not contain juridical meaning.

Normally there are six cardinal bishops, to each of whom the Pope assigns the title of a suburbicarian church (Velletri, Porto and Santa Rufina (formerly two suburbicariates), Albano, Frascati (Tusculum), Palestrina (Præneste), and Sabina); these six elect one of their number Dean of the College of Cardinals: the head of the order and of the whole college, the first among equals, who by tradition also holds the seventh suburbicarian see, Rome's ancient port Ostia; his election must be approved by the Pope.

At the Pope's discretion, patriarchs of Eastern Rite Catholic Churches may also be appointed to the college. When created Cardinal, they become cardinal bishops, but without holding a suburbicarian see, and cannot elect the dean nor become dean.

Cardinal priests and cardinal deacons are each assigned a church or deaconry in Rome by the Pope. Those created directly to the presbyteral order are major archbishops, Latin-Rite patriarchs, metropolitan archbishops, or other diocesean ordinaries.

Cardinals elevated to the diaconal order are either officials of the Roman Curia or those elevated after their eightieth birthday (hence ineligible and without a vote in a conclave). Cardinal deacons can choose to be elevated to the presbyteral order ten years after being made a cardinal.

Although the incumbents of certain prestigious sees are usually created cardinal, no see carries an actual right to the cardinalate. Membership in the college outranks any title conferred by an office, other than the see of Rome.

Originally any Catholic male could be appointed to the College: for example in the 16th century Reginald Pole was a cardinal for 18 years before he was ordained a priest. Today, Canon 351 specifically requires that a cardinal at least be in the order of priesthood, and those who are not already bishops must receive episcopal consecration. Only bishops are normally created cardinals. A recent exception is Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., who was a priest at the time of his elevation in 2001. He successfully petitioned Pope John Paul II for a dispensation from episcopal consecration due to advanced age. Although he is not a bishop, he is still entitled to wear the episcopal vestments and other pontificalia (episcopal regalia: mitre, crozier, pectoral cross and ring) and possess a coat of arms by virtue of his status as cardinal. He is, though, restricted to the lower two orders of cardinals.

Secret cardinal[]

In addition to the named cardinals, a pope may name cardinals in pectore, Latin for in the breast. A cardinal named in pectore is known only to the pope; not even the cardinal so named is necessarily aware of his elevation. Cardinals are named in pectore to protect them or their congregations from reprisals if their identities were known.

If conditions change such that a secret cardinal would be safe, the pope may at any time make public a previously in pectore cardinal, who ranks in precedence with those of his original consistory. If a pope dies before revealing the identity of an in pectore cardinal, the cardinalate expires unless it is left in writing.

This was the case with Pope John Paul II, who named an in pectore cardinal during his tenure that remained secret even after his death on April 2, 2005. Many speculated that the Holy Father's will would contain the name of the in pectore cardinal, but it did not.

Attributes and other privileges[]

Excluding the rochet, which is always white, a cardinal wears scarlet garments (the blood-like red symbolizes a cardinal's willingness to die for his faith) when in choir, including the cassock, mozzetta, zucchetto, and biretta. His normal-wear simar is black but has scarlet piping and a scarlet fascia. Occasionally, a cardinal wears a scarlet ferraiolo which is a cape worn over the shoulders, tied in a bow by narrow strips of cloth in the front, without any 'trim' or piping on it.

  • If the cardinal is not already a bishop, he is usually ordained as bishop upon appointment. The designated cardinal however can petition the pope to dispense him from this requirement.
  • Cardinals place a scarlet galero with thirty tassels, the ancient symbol of their office, above their coat of arms.
  • Since 1630, cardinals have taken the style Eminence, and upon elevation the word "Cardinal" becomes part of the prelate's name, traditionally coming immediately before the surname. As an example, the full style of Cardinal McCarrick is "His Eminence, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop Emeritus of Washington."
  • All cardinals received a gold ring, to symbolize their bond with the papacy, which is traditionally hand-kissed by Catholics when he is greeted. These rings are designed by the pope who chooses the image on the outside, which during the papacy of Benedict XVI is a modern depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus, with Mary and John at his sides. The ring also includes the papal seal on the inside.
  • In canon law, no ecclesiastical court may judge a cardinal except for the Pope himself.


The cardinals did not always elect the Pope; the Pope was originally elected by the clergy and the people of the Roman Church. In medieval times, Roman nobility gained influence. The Holy Roman Emperors had a hand in choosing the pontiff. But as the pope gained importance in international affairs, the right of election was given to the cardinals in 1059. However the influence of temporal rulers, notably the French kings, largely reemerged via cardinals of certain nationalities or politically significant movements; there even developed traditions entitling certain monarchs -- e.g. of Austria, Spain, and Portugal -- to nominate one of their trusted clerical subjects to be created cardinal, a so-called crown-cardinal.

The Pope could substitute another body of electors for the College of Cardinals at any time; in fact there have been proposals in the past to have the Synod of Bishops perform this function (the proposals have not been adopted because, among other reasons, the Synod of Bishops can only meet when called by the Pope).

In early modern times, English and French monarchs had cardinals as their chief ministers—Wolsey in England, Richelieu, Mazarin and Fleury in France. These men were cardinals, not because of their religious duties, but because it allowed their kings to pay them from church revenues. Rome accepted the loss of some revenue in order to protect the rest of its property and revenue.

Cardinals in popular culture[]

  • Among others, Charlton Heston and Tim Curry have played Cardinal Richelieu in adaptations of The Three Musketeers.
  • Orson Welles played Thomas Cardinal Wolsey in the 1966 screen adaptation of A Man for All Seasons.
  • George Carlin played the fictional Ignatius Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smith's Dogma.
  • Jonathan Pryce played the fictional Cardinal Houseman in Stigmata (1995).
  • John Huston played the fictional Cardinal Glennon in The Cardinal (1963).

See also[]

  • List of Titular Churches in Rome
  • Cardinal protector
  • List of cardinals
  • List of Cardinals by country
  • List of deceased cardinals
  • American Cardinals Dinner

Sources, References and External links[]

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