cardinal (in the Roman Catholic Church)

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

cardinal (in the Roman Catholic Church)

cardinal [Lat.,=attached to and thus "belonging to" the hinge], in the Roman Catholic Church, a member of the highest body of the church. The sacred college of cardinals of the Holy Roman Church is the electoral college of the papacy. Its members are appointed by the pope. A cardinal's insignia resemble those of a bishop, except for the characteristic red, broad-brimmed, tasseled hat, which is conferred by the pope but not subsequently worn. Cardinals, the "princes of the church," are styled "Eminence."

The term cardinal was formerly applied to important clergymen of all sorts and countries, but in the Middle Ages it was restricted to the Roman province. The college of cardinals is the modern derivative of the clergy of the ancient diocese of Rome, used by the pope for advice and transaction of business. Pope Sixtus V set the maximum number of cardinals at 70, a tradition maintained for centuries until the pontificate of Pope John XXIII. Since then it has increased to well over 100, approaching twice that at times. The number number of cardinals eligible to vote in papal elections (those under 80 years old) was limited to 120 by Paul VI and John Paul II, but John Paul appointed more than that number several times. Following the lead of Pius XII, John XXIII and Paul VI promoted the international character of the college. John Paul continued to expand international representation in the college, and Europeans now account for only about half of the cardinals eligible to vote in papal elections.

Classes of Cardinals

There are three classes of cardinals. Cardinal bishops are the bishops of seven sees around Rome (Ostia, Velletri, Porto and Santa Rufina, Albano, Frascati, Palestrina, and Sabina and Poggio Mirteto) and Eastern-rite patriarchs; the first of these in order of creation is dean of the college and ex officio bishop of Ostia in addition to his other see. Cardinal priests are mostly archbishops outside the Roman province; the title "cardinal archbishop" —often applied to these men—simply represents the union of the two dignities in one man. Cardinal deacons are priests with functions in the papal government. Cardinal priests and cardinal deacons have titles corresponding to churches of the Roman diocese.

The Cabinet of the Pope

Apart from papal elections, the cardinals have great importance as the privy council of the pope. Hence those who are not bishops away from Rome must live at Rome. They meet with the pope in consistories, public and secret, but most of the business they transact is done in their various jurisdictional capacities. Thus the cardinals in residence at Rome make up a cabinet for the pope, directing the work of the Curia Romana, as the papal administration is called. This is made up of standing committees and courts, the departments of administration divided among them. Since there is no division of powers in the headship of the church, most organs of the Curia have power to judge, to command, and to legislate. The acts of these bodies are validated by papal approbation, and they therefore bind Roman Catholics as direct pontifical acts. Only the pope himself can speak finally in matters of faith and morals (see infallibility). The major divisions of the Curia are the secretariat of state, the Roman congregations, and the Roman tribunals. There are also pontifical commisions under some of the congregations; a number of pontifical councils with special responsibilities (e.g., for ecumenical dialogue with other Christians, for the family, for issues relating to the sanctity of life, and for dialogue with nonbelievers); curial offices responsible for administering the Vatican property and treasury; and other bodies.

The Secretariat of State

The secretariat of state, headed by the cardinal secretary of state, works most closely with the pope and is the most important body of the Curia; it is divided into two sections. The section for general affairs handles affairs relating to the papal office, distributes encyclicals and other official papal documents, oversees the official media and the press office of the Vatican, and maintains the church's statistical bureau. The section for relations with states is responsible for the Vatican's diplomatic relation with foreign governments and international organizations.

Roman Congregations

A Roman congregation consists of a group of cardinals, headed by a prefect, together with two staffs that transact most of the business—one of major officials and the other of minor officials chosen by competitive examination and assigned to less important affairs. The congregation proper, i.e., the cardinals, makes all major decisions.

The following are the Roman congregations (founded by Sixtus V in 1588; reorganized by Pius X in 1908, by Paul VI at the close of the Second Vatican Council, and by John Paul II in 1988): the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly, of the Holy Office; see Inquisition), concerned with doctrinal orthodoxy; the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, for all concerns of those following Eastern rites in communion with the pope; the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, for all public worship of the Latin rite, liturgical books, and the like, including sacred music and art; the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints, for overseeing the process of canonization and verifying sacred relics; the Congregation for Bishops, for recommending candidates for bishop and establishing dioceses; the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (formerly Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith; the Propaganda), for all concerns of the missions of the Latin rite; the Congregation for the Clergy, for all concerns relating to all secular priests and deacons; the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, for all concerns relating to religious orders and their members; and the Congregation for Catholic Education, for the administration of seminaries and Catholic educational institutions. Of the Roman congregations, the two whose influence is felt most deeply throughout the church are probably the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples.

The Roman Tribunals

The Roman tribunals are three secret courts, the highest of the church; each is headed by a cardinal, and its work is handled by trained canonists. They are the Apostolic Penitentiary, for all cases of conscience appealed by any Catholic to the pope and for the regulation of indulgences; the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signature, the court of final appeal of the church, considering only cases involving the members of, or appealed from, the Rota; the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, the court of appeal from diocesan courts and the lower court of Vatican City, hearing all cases requiring trial and evidence, except cases of conscience, cases of canonization, and cases involving sovereigns of states (reserved to the pope in person).


See studies by G. D. Kittler (1960), and F. B. Thornton (1963).

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