A+ A A-

Who are the Cardinals?


In the beginning, they were the priests and deacons of Rome. Later, they were powerful medieval princes, owning castles and lands and ruling much of Europe. Today they are returning to the simplicity of an earlier age but they can still, sometimes, command the attention of the worlds leaders when they speak. "They" are the cardinals of the Catholic Church.


Who are these men who elect the Pope? Who are these mysterious "cardinals," these old men (and some not so old) who act as the reigning pontiff's closest advisors and who, upon his death, have the right and obligation to choose (with the help of the Holy Spirit) almost always from among their own number a successor to the Apostle Peter? Other than casting votes in a papal conclave, what are their jobs? Who chooses them, and how? How many of them are there? What kind of a spiritual perspective do they have as the Second Millennium of Christianity draws to a close? Are they optimistic or pessimistic about the state of the Church? Do they have a message for us?

These are some of the question we would like to address in this series of special reports on the College of Cardinals which we begin with this issue. Our plan is to focus on one group of cardinals at a time, continent by continent, beginning with those from North America. By the end of our series, we will have presented the entire College of more than 150 cardinals to our readers in photographs and brief biographies. Each report will be accompanied by an interpretative essay which will attempt to clarify the special problems each group of cardinals faces. When the series is complete, we plan to combine these special reports into a single volume.

The cardinals have been called "the Princes of the Church," "the Sacred College" and "the Senate of the Church." All these terms tell us something about who they are.

If the cardinals are "princes," they are not kings. That is, they have a secondary role to that of the one who is above them: the Pope.

If they are a "sacred college," they are not a secular one, that is, their functions are in the religious sphere, not in the sphere of politics or economics or any other secular endeavor. That does not mean, however, that their deliberations and decisions cannot affect politics and society, as the eight active U.S. cardinals proved in April when they publicly denounced U.S. President Bill Clinton's decision to veto legislation that would have banned partial-birth abortions. It does mean that their decisions are rooted in and spring from their faith, that they have an essentially ecclesial, not societal horizon.

If they comprise "the senate of the Church," then we understand that they have some kind of deliberative function in the preparation and passage of legislation pertaining to the life of the Church. Their role is that of a group of senior Church members who can advise the Church's leader, the Pope, and what the right course of action is.

And so we approach little by little, in these appellations, the definition of the role of a cardinal in the Catholic Church: like the role of a prince in relation to a king; like the role of a member of an august religious assembly focused on transcendental matters, not mundane ones; like the role of a Senator in a secular state.

The word "cardinal" derives from the Latin cardinalis, which in turn derives from cardo-dinis, meaning the hinge of a gate, and, by extension, support, foundation. The cardinals are the "hinges" upon which the doors of the Church swing open and shut; they are the "support," the "foundation" of the Catholic Church.

The Code of Canon Law attributes to the College of Cardinals the task of helping the Roman pontiff deal both with "questions of greater moment" and with the ordinary "daily administration" of the Church.

This is in keeping with the original function of the College. In the first centuries of the Church, the Bishop of Rome was surrounded by his presbyterium, or local priests and deacons along with the bishops of dioceses neighboring Rome. The presbyterium helped the Pope carry out his duties as bishop of the capital city of the Roman Empire. As those duties, over the centuries, began to increasingly involve all of Italy, then all of Europe, then the entire world, some of the priests and deacons who assisted the Pope began to be chosen from among non-Romans. Today the body that was once limited in membership to the clergy of the city of Rome includes members from dozens of different countries.

The College of Cardinals has one over-arching task: to elect the Bishop of Rome. This task has been entrusted exclusively to the College for almost 1,000 years, since 1179, about the time the College's structure was formalized.

In the medieval centuries there were not more than 24 cardinals, the original number of the titular churches in Rome. With the passage of time, however, the number grew, first to 70, in 1586, then to 120 under Paul VI (1963-1978). Even this limit has been exceeded, however, because of the rule, introduced by Paul VI in the apostolic letter Ingravescentem Aetatem, dated November 21, 1970, that cardinals can no longer participate in a papal conclave after they turn 80. This means there can be many cardinals older than age 80, but fewer than 120 under age 80; in this way, Paul VI's 120-cardinal limit is technically preserved by being seen as applying only to voting cardinals, not to all cardinals. At present, in June of 1996, there are 154 cardinals, of whom 115 are under the age of 80, meaning that, technically, there are five "vacancies" the Pope has available to fill with new cardinals. (It should be noted that many of the cardinals have indicated to Inside the Vatican that they feel Paul's decision to put an age limit on voting was unfair and should be repealed; John Paul II has said he does not which to repeal the limit himself, out of respect for Paul VI, but has suggested that a future Pope may see fit to do so.)

The 1918 Code of Canon Law decreed that all cardinals must be priests. Previously there had been cardinals who were not priests (for example, Cardinal Giacomo Antonelli, d. 1876, Secretary of State to Pius IX, was a deacon). John XXIII provided in the motu proprio Cum Gravissima on April 15, 1962 that cardinals would henceforth be bishops.

This brings us to the question, a sometimes delicate one, of the relationship between the College of Cardinals and the world's bishops either together or in national bishops' conferences. Do cardinals "rank" one step higher than bishops? No, not at all. There is no higher spiritual "rank" in the Church than that of the bishop, which is itself simply the fullness of Holy Orders (the priesthood); even the Pope is Pope in virtue of the fact that he is the Bishop of Rome and for no other reason. Does the College of Cardinals "rank" higher than the world's bishops gathered together, as in a General Council, or than a national bishops' conference? Again, no; a General Council, with and under the Pope, is the highest authority in the Church. But for national bishops' conferences the answer is more nuanced, precisely because the theology of bishops' conferences remains undeveloped and problematic. Bishops individually have full powers to lead their local Church communities in communion with one another and with the Bishop of Rome; the Bishop of Rome has this type of authority over Rome and over the entire Church, because of the Petrine commission. But the role and authority of territorial or national groups of bishops collectively remain unclear. That is not the case with the College of Cardinals: though made up of bishops from around the world, the College's role is clearly limited to advising the Bishop of Rome on the exercise of his universal Petrine mission, and its authority is entirely derivative. The cardinals are, as it were, "the Pope's men," his advisors, helpers, councillors, friends, his eyes and ears around the world, and, sometimes, his voice. They share in his mission because he has chosen them for that task, and only because he has chosen them.

This is why all cardinals (except Eastern patriarchs) are "aggregated" to the clergy of Rome, even if they have never set foot in Rome. This "aggregation" is signified by the assignment to each cardinal, except the patriarchs, of a titular church in Rome.

There are three ranks of cardinals: cardinal bishops, cardinal priests and cardinal deacons, reflecting the fact that originally not all cardinals were bishops, or even priests. The cardinal bishops include the six titular bishops of the "suburbicarian" sees (the episcopal sees bordering on the city of Rome) and the Eastern patriarchs. First in rank are the titular bishops of Ostia, Palestrina, Porto-Santa Rufina, Albano, Velletri-Segni, Frascati, Sabina-Poggio Mirteto (the dean of the college, presently Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, holds title to two sees, the see of Ostia as well as his other suburbicarian see, in this case, Palestrina; Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Church's chief doctrinal officer, is titular bishop of Velletri-Segni; Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Pope's right-hand man as Vatican Secretary of State, is titular bishop of Albano).

The cardinal bishops are engaged in full-time service in the central administration of Church affairs in departments of the Roman Curia.

In the revised Code of Canon Law, the position of Eastern patriarchs as the heads of sees of apostolic origin with ancient liturgies is fully recognized. They are assigned rank among the cardinals in order of seniority, following the suburbicarian titleholders.

Cardinal priests, formerly the priests in charge of leading churches in Rome, are bishops whose dioceses are outside Rome.

Cardinal deacons, formerly chosen according to regional divisions of Rome, are titular bishops assigned to full-time service in the Roman Curia.

The dean and sub-dean of the College are elected by the cardinal bishops subject to approval by the Pope from among their number. The dean, or the sub-dean in his absence, presides over the entire College as the first among equals. The current dean of the College is Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops; from Benin, he is the first African to head the College of Cardinals.

Cardinals are selected by the Pope and by no one else; he has complete authority to choose whom he wishes. However, there are certain patterns which have now become traditional and which are normally adhered to. Certain sees, like Baltimore and Boston in America and Genoa in Italy, are usually headed by cardinals, even though they are no longer the largest or most important cities. Thus, if one becomes the archbishop of one of those "traditionally cardinalatial" sees, it is usually only a matter of time before one is "raised to the cardinalate." The Pope usually creates cardinals in groups of from 15 to 30 in a public Consistory held in Rome. These Consistories can be held at any time during the year, but it seems to be becoming a pattern for Consistories to be held in conjunction with the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul on June 29. (This is why many expect John Paul to name a further group of about 15 or 20 new cardinals, only a handful of who will be under age 80, in June, 1997.)

For centuries, the College was largely Italian; it was logical that this should be so, as the College was a product of the Roman Church. But as the Roman Church grew and spread, the concept of cardinals as assistants to the Pope began to broaden as well. Instead of simply assisting the Pope in his duties as Bishop of Rome, the cardinals were to assist him in his duties as universal pastor. This meant the selection of cardinals from every corner of the globe.

In the past few consistories, the number of cardinals from outside Italy and from outside Europe has steadily increased. If one looks at the overall data, the effect is not as striking as if one looks only at the data for cardinals under the age of 80. There are now only 18 Italian cardinals with the right to vote in a Conclave, though there are 34 overall (16 of the Italian cardinals are above the age of 80).

The red hats given to the cardinals are the color of blood, signifying that they are expected to witness to the faith "usque ad sanguinis effusionem" "even unto the shedding of blood" that is, even as martyrs.

"In you," Pope John Paul told the cardinals in a recent consistory, "the faithful and even the pastors of the particular Churches scattered throughout the world look for light and direction to live more profoundly the communion with the Roman See. Is not this perhaps the meaning of the admonition contained in the rite we are celebrating: 'Te intrepidum exhibere debeas' ('You should show yourself fearless')?"

That is the mission of a cardinal.

See the Inside the Vatican feature on the Cardinals for more information.



"Who are the Cardinals?" Inside the Vatican.

This article is reprinted with permission from Inside the Vatican.

The Author

Copyright © 2001 Inside the Vatican
back to top