The College of Cardinals

Cardinals are chosen by the Holy Father to serve as his principal assistants and advisers in the central administration of church affairs. Collectively, they form the College of Cardinals. Provisions regarding their selection, rank, roles, and prerogatives are detailed in Canons 349 to 359 of the Code of Canon Law of the Catholic Church.


Following that of the Pope, the title of cardinal is the highest dignity in the Catholic Church which was recognized as early as the pontificate of Sylvester 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. Cardinals are considered “princes of the Church” and are addressed by the title of "Eminence."


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 Pope 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 diocese, which are the six dioceses closest to Rome (Albano, Frascati, Ostia, Palestrina, Porto-Santa, Ruffina and Velletri-Segni).


Because the Cardinals are called to help the Pope in his leadership of the Church, they are also linked in a special way to the Diocese of Rome. With the exception of a small number of Cardinals who are made the titular bishops (ie, in name only) of the sees surrounding Rome, each of the remaining Cardinals is given the honorary "governance" of one of the most traditional Parish Churches of Rome. Whenever they visit Rome, they are encouraged to minister to their community. Strictly speaking, it is the Cardinal who is the "parish priest" of these parishes, not the priest who fulfils that role in reality. However, in real terms, the Cardinal's position in that church is only titular.


Cardinals under the age of 80 elect the Pope when the Holy See becomes vacant; and are major administrators of church affairs, serving in one or more departments of the Roman Curia. Cardinals in charge of agencies of the Roman Curia and Vatican City are asked to submit their resignation from office to the Pope on reaching the age of 75. A cardinal's title, while symbolic of high honor, does not signify any extension of the powers of holy orders.


There are three degrees within the College of Cardinals:

* Cardinal Bishops

* Cardinal Priests 

* Cardinal Deacons


This does not correspond to their actual degree of orders (ie, whether they are a bishop, priest or deacon) but to their position within the College of Cardinals. Cardinals appointed from dioceses around the world are made Cardinal Priests. Cardinals appointed from within the Roman Curia are made Cardinal Deacons. However, after having been a Cardinal Deacon for 10 years, the Cardinal can petition the Pope to be promoted to Cardinal Priest. The distinction between the three degrees of Cardinals has little practical significance except in determining the order and rank for ceremonial processions. Also, during the period after a Pope dies and before a new one is elected, it is one's position within the College of Cardinals that determines one's power to exercise certain roles if the Dean of the College of Cardinals or Camerlengo are unable to do so.


Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution "Romano Pontifici Eligendo," promulgated on October 1, 1975, established numerical limits for the College of Cardinals. It stated that cardinals who had reached the age of 80 could not enter into conclave, and that the number of electors could not go beyond 120. Pope John Paul II continued this limitation when he revoked "Romano Pontifici Eligendo" and introduced a new revised set of rules for papal elections in "Universi Dominici Gregis" in 1996. These new set of rules however, were changed back to Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution by Pope Benedict XVI in 2007.