The College of Cardinals

Author: Vatican Information Service


Vatican Information Service


Following that of Pope, the title of cardinal is the highest dignity in the Catholic Church, and was recognized as early as the pontificate of Silvester I (314-335). Rooted in the Latin word "cardo," meaning hinge, cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff and chosen to serve as his principal collaborators and assistants.

In early years, "cardinal" was a title attributed generically to ecclesiastics in the service of a church or diaconate, particularly to ecclesiastics in Rome who were the Pope's counselors. Later this title was reserved for those responsible for the titular churches ("tituli cardinales") of Rome and the most important churches in Italy and abroad. Gradually, from Pope Nicholas II in 1059 to Eugenio IV in 1438, this title acquired the prestige which still marks it today.

The College of Cardinals was constituted in its current form in 1150: it has a dean, who is the bishop of Ostia, along with the other titular church which he already holds, and a camerlengo or chamberlain, who administers the goods of the Church when the See of Peter is vacant. The dean is chosen from those cardinals of episcopal rank who possess a title to a suburbicarian Church (Canon 352, para 2), which are the six dioceses closest to Rome (Albano, Frascati, Ostia, Palestrina, Porto-Santa Ruffina and Velletri-Segni).

Canons 349 through 359 govern the makeup and responsibilities of the College.

Canon 349 states: "The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college whose responsibility is to provide for the election of the Roman Pontiff in accord with the norm of special law; the cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff collegially when they are called together to deal with questions of major importance; they do so individually when they assist the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church by means of the different offices which they perform."

The number of cardinals varied almost until the end of the 16th century and continued to increase in keeping with the successive development of the Church's affairs. The Councils of Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-37), limited the number to 24. But by the time of Paul IV (1555-59), the number had risen to 70 and increased to 76 under Pius IV (1559-65). Sixtus V, with the constitution 'Postquam verus' of December 1586, established the number of Cardinals at 70.

But the number of cardinals has increased and it reached 144 after the consistory of March 1973. Paul VI, in the Motu proprio "Ad Purpuratorum Patrum" of February 11th, 1965, extended the College of Cardinals to include the oriental patriarchs. "The oriental patriarchs who have become members of the College of Cardinals have as their title their own patriarchal see" (Canon 350, para 3).

Canon 350, para 1, states: "The College of Cardinals is divided into three ranks: the episcopal rank which consists of both the cardinals to whom the Roman Pontiff assigns the title of a suburbicarian church and the oriental patriarchs who have become members of the college of cardinals, the presbyteral rank, and the diaconal rank."

There has been a strong internationalization of the college over the past 30 years. The requisites for eligibility are more or less the same as those laid down by the Council of Trent in the 24th session of November 11, 1563. These include men who have received priestly ordination and are distinguished for their doctrine, piety and prudence in performing their duties; those who are not yet bishops must receive the episcopal consecration (Canon 351, para 1).

As advisors to the Pope, the cardinals act collegially with him through consistories, which meet by order of the Roman Pontiff and under his presidency; consistories can either be ordinary or extraordinary. In the ordinary consistory, all cardinals present in Rome, other bishops, priests and special guests are convened. These consistories are called by the Pope for consultation on certain important issues or to give special solemnity to some celebrations. An extraordinary consistory is one to which all cardinals are convened, and is celebrated when some special needs or more serious affairs of the Church suggest that it should be held.

Since 1059, cardinals have been the exclusive electors of the Pope, whom they elect in conclave on the basis of the latest guidelines contained in Pope John Paul II's Apostolic Constitution "Universi Dominici Gregis," promulgated on February 22, 1996. During the "sede vacante" or vacancy of the Apostolic See, the College of Cardinals plays an important role in the general government of the Church and, following the Lateran Treaties of 1929, also in the government of Vatican City State.

Cardinals are asked to present their resignation upon reaching 75 years of age. Those over the age of 80 are no longer eligible to enter into conclave. They also cease to be members of offices of the Roman Curia or of any permanent organism or dicastery of the Holy See.

As of February 21, 2001 there will be 178 members of the College of Cardinals, 154 of whom were created by Pope John Paul II. Of these 178, 50 are over the age of 80 and cannot enter into conclave. Of the remaining 128 cardinal electors, all but 10 have been appointed by John Paul II. Paul VI had set the limit for cardinal electors at 120 but Pope John Paul, when on January 21 he named the cardinals he would elevate in the February 2001 consistory, admitted he had gone beyond the established limit.

The current members of the College of Cardinals represent all the continents and come from 63 countries. There are 92 from Europe, 18 from North America, 32 from Latin America, 15 from Africa, 17 from Asia, and 4 from Oceania.

Cardinals are addressed by the title of "Eminence." Those who work for the Roman Curia and reside in either Vatican City or Rome are considered citizens of Vatican City.

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