August 19, 2022

A cardinal is a clergyman who occupies the second hierarchical rank in the organizational chart of the Catholic Church, immediately after the pope, who is the one who appoints him in public ceremonies called "ordinary councils". The cardinals constitute the College of Cardinals, a peculiar body to which the election of the Supreme Pontiff corresponds in the event of the death or resignation of the previous one. In ordinary circumstances the cardinals assist the pope collectively when he summons them to deal with matters of utmost importance, or individually through the various positions they hold or the offices they exercise. Among these ordinary tasks there is the government of certain dioceses, the management of the main bodies of the Roman Curia, the administration of the Holy See and the Vatican City.

Origin and functions

The word cardinal, taken from the title given to certain high officials of the Roman Empire from the reign of Theodosius I the Great (347-395), comes from the Latin cardo, -inis, which means axis or hinge, which defines with accuracy its central and highly relevant role within the Church. Since the cardinals were originally the most prominent clerics of the Diocese of Rome, each of them holds a suffragan bishopric of this one (called "suburbicari", etymologically "below that of the city"), or a title of presbyter or deacon of certain Roman temples that enjoy this privilege. The patriarchs of the Eastern Churches loyal to the Roman Primate, whose title is their respective patriarchal seat, are exempt from this rule. The highest hierarchies of the College of Cardinals are the dean and vice-dean (see "Cardinal bishops", the order to which they belong), the chamberlain (responsible for managing ordinary affairs during his vacancy, appointed cardinal within any order) and the protodeacon (see "Cardinal Deacons"). The Sacred College also has a vice-chamberlain, a secretary and a treasurer, who, however, do not necessarily have to be cardinals. The dignity of cardinal is for life, regardless of the holder's personal circumstances. Of course there can be resignations, but these are extremely rare (the last one was that of Louis Billot, S.J., created in 1911 cardinal deacon of Santa Maria in Via Lata and who resigned the cardinalate in 1927 due to disagreements with Pope Pius XI). It is even more rare for a cardinal to be stripped of his dignity: the last one was Louis René Édouard de Rohan, coadjutant bishop of Strasbourg, created cardinal of the title of Santa Maria in Traspontina in 1778 and deposed eight years later as a result of the famous affair of necklace of Queen Marie Antoinette of France.


The first cardinals of whom there is news belong to the pontificate of Pope Alexander I (105 ca. -115 ca.), although their functions at that time remain undetermined. What is proven is that at that time the election of the pope was carried out by all the clergy of Rome and not only by the cardinals. It was not until the papacy of Nicholas II (Apostolic Constitution In nomine Domini of 1059) that the right of election was reserved for the Roman cardinals and precisely those who were bishops. In 1179 Alexander III (Apostolic Constitution Licet de vitanda discordia) extended this right to all cardinals, regardless of where they were from, and whether they were bishops or not. Blessed Pope Gregory X established a two-thirds majority of the votes of the cardinals for a pope to be elected (Apostolic Constitution Ubi periculum of 1274). These last two provisions are always in force, although revised in the current regulations. In 1576 and through the bull Immensa æternis Dei, Pope Sixtus IV established that to be a cardinal it was necessary, at least, to have received minor ecclesiastical orders and decreed the classification into three orders: episcopal, presbyteral and deacon