Academic journal article Population

Mortality Patterns of Cardinals (Sixteenth - Twentieth Centuries)

Academic journal article Population

Mortality Patterns of Cardinals (Sixteenth - Twentieth Centuries)

Article excerpt

The field of demographic history boasts a strong tradition of studies on the mortality patterns of select populations, which can be divided into three strands: the first focuses on numerous minority groups, such as the Jews, the second concerns the elite classes (most often nobles), and the third examines demographic categories chosen on the grounds of determined attributes such as occupation (miners, fishermen, religious communities etc.). Focussing on these aggregates provides a means not only to examine the demographic behaviour of these populations, but also to trace their long-term evolution (Houdaille 1970 and 1989; Hollingsworth, 1977). Several data series dating back to the medieval period are available to scholars. They concern the upper classes or religious, particularly monastic, communities which are impossible to study using classical demographic methods (Hollingsworth, 1975; Biraben, 1977; Davis, 1998). For some of these groups, the datasets can be used to analyse the evolution of mortality rates over the course of several centuries (Zhao, 1997; Vandenbroucke, 1985). Obviously, great care should be taken in considering the particular inherent characteristics of these populations. For example, we can presume that the lifestyle of most religious groups would have protected them, at least in theory, from some of the risks of disease and fatal illness to which the nonreligious community was exposed (Levin, 1996).

This article investigates the characteristics and levels of mortality among cardinals of the Catholic Church. The cardinal is an age-old figure dating back to the second century AD, and although his original role differed greatly from that of today, this institution has maintained a remarkable continuity over the last five hundred years, not only in terms of access to office, but also regarding the appointed duties and the number of members.

The information available on cardinals is extremely detailed and complete, with few or none of the usual difficulties related to truncated or censored data (Jonker, 2003; Houston, 1995; Houston and Prest, 1995). The information source used here is the catalogue of cardinals, compiled and constantly updated by Salvador Miranda and freely available online.(1) This database contains the biographies of the more than 4,000 cardinals known since AD 492. Each of these includes references and a large amount of information on each member of the Sacred College from the fifth century to today, including date and place of birth, date of elevation and date and place of death, although unfortunately the cause of death is often lacking.

With the aim of investigating aspects of the survival of this particular group over a number of centuries, this paper is divided into four parts. The first describes the main historical events related to the Sacred College between the modern and contemporary period. The second outlines this group's particular demographic characteristics and their evolution over time. The third examines issues related to the mortality levels of cardinals, drawing comparisons with other sectors of the population. The fourth and final part discusses the results of these analyses.

I. Cardinals: who are they and what are their duties?

Cardinals are high prelates who perform an essential role in the functioning of the Catholic Church, including electing the Pope and assisting him in office (Cardia, 1993, pp. 104-105). Their duties today differ very little from those eight hundred years ago.

In turn, the cardinals are appointed by the Pope. The elevation ceremony occurs during the course of a consistory, the assembly of cardinals, where the Pope announces his wish to elevate a number of candidates to the rank of cardinal. However, he does not necessarily reveal their identity at this time and the names of one or more new cardinals can be retained, or, to use the correct term, reserved in pectore. It is thereafter the Pope's prerogative to release (or espettorare) these names, sometimes after a few months or years or even - if he takes this secret to the grave - never, in which case the oblivious cardinal in pectore has lost his appointment. …

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