Question: How did the Church come to have Cardinals? Who can be a Cardinal? Can a layman be a Cardinal?
Answer: In the earliest days of the Church, the trustworthy men who were able to get things done despite the persecution of the Jews and Romans were called “cardinals”—literally “hinge men” from the Latin word “cardo,” for “hinge.” Very early, the name became the exclusive designation of the clergy, so that there were cardinals in all of the early dioceses. Until the middle ages, the prominent priests of important churches were generally referred to as cardinals. Even today, when a priest joins a diocese, he is said to be “incardinated,” and may leave to join another diocese only after being “excardinated” by the first.
A fortiori, the chief clergy of the Holy See were known as cardinals. Rome is a metropolitan archdiocese with “suburbicarian” sees (i.e. suburban dioceses directly subject to the supervision of the archdiocese of Rome): Ostia, Porto, Santa Rufina (Silva Candida), Albano, Sabina, Tusculum (Frascati), Præneste (Palestrina). Over the centuries the specific sees associated with the archdiocese varied, but they usually numbered seven (later six). The bishops of these suburban dioceses were the chief clergy of the archdiocese, and came to be known as the Cardinal Bishops. They officiated in the Lateran basilica as the Pope’s vicars, served as his councilors, and consecrated the newly elected Popes to the episcopate.
Seven of the principal priests of Rome were called to officiate at divine services at each of the four patriarchal basilicas of the City—Saint Peter’s, Saint Paul’s, Saint Lawrence, and Saint Mary Major. These twenty-eight would come to be called the Cardinal Priests.
Urban Rome was divided into seven regions, staffed by deacons, to administer the charitable and notorial efforts of the Church. Their number varied over the centuries, usually being around twenty. Beside these Cardinal Deacons, history records other positions which were accorded Cardinal rank—but the Cardinal Subdeacons and Cardinal Acolytes are no longer.
With the numbers quoted above, the Cardinals numbered fifty-four at maximum, although there were times in which vacancies were so numerous that only dozen men or so held office. During the reign of Alexander IV (1254-1261) their number reached the all time low of seven! Various attempts at legislation fixed the members at twenty-four, forty, and finally in 1587, Sixtus V set the number at “seventy: six cardinal-bishops, fifty cardinal-priests, and fourteen cardinal-deacons, in imitation of the seventy elders of Moses.”[ii] This number remained fixed until the twentieth century, when the College was considerably expanded to include larger numbers of foreign Cardinals and even high ranking members of the Eastern Rites.
We think of the Cardinals as being clothed in bright red, although this was not always so. The standard explanation of the color is that it was prescribed by Pope Innocent IV (1243-1254) at the Council of Lyons in 1245, as a token of the Cardinals’ willingness to shed their blood in defense of the Faith. The same Pope presented red hats to the Cardinals in attendance at the Abbey of Cluny during a meeting with King (Saint) Louis IX during November 1246. A red zucchetto was authorized as late as 1464, by Pope Paul II (1464-1471).[iii] Not all that unlikely is the story that the red hat was suggested by Margaret, Countess of Flanders, in 1244 as a means for distinguishing Cardinals from lesser prelates. The story has it that Margaret, the daughter of the Latin Emperor at Constantinople, Baldwin II, finding herself embarrassed at not being able to greet the prelates in Rome in accordance with their rank, urged the idea upon Pope Innocent, who complied as mentioned above.[iv] Although much of the Cardinals’ vesture is red (at one time including a cape which enveloped not only the Cardinal but most of his horse!) the red hat is traditionally the distinctive badge of the Cardinals. In Rome it is presented in solemn consistory by the Pope to the newly created Cardinals, or by the head of state if it is impractical for the newly designated to come to the Eternal City. A red biretta is conferred first, with the red broad-brimmed flat circular hat presented the following day. At one time the Cardinals actually wore the red hat in public, but since the Masonic invasion of Rome and conquest of the Papal States in 1870, the red hat is worn only on the day of investiture. It is then locked away until needed to be placed upon his casket at the Cardinal’s death, later to be displayed with honor in his cathedral.[v]
In theory, a similar hat is worn by all of the Latin clergy, differing only in color and in the number of tassels attached, according to rank. As heraldic devices (see illustration above) the hats and tassels of lower prelates descend from those of the Cardinals, with patriarchs, bishops and archabbots assigned green; papal monsignori purple; abbots, religious superiors, and simple priests black; and the General of the Carthusians white. Even where the hats are actually worn, the tassels have been detached and serve only symbolic purposes.
In its origin, the College of Cardinals was identical with the prominent members of the Roman clergy. But the Church is universal and, eventually, non-Roman Cardinals were named. The first known to history was Desiderius, the Abbot of Saint Benedict’s monastery at Monte Cassino, created by Pope Nicholas II (1058-1061), later elected Pope (Blessed) Victor III (1086-1087). The first non-Italian Cardinal was named in 1163 by Pope Alexander III, the Archbishop of Mainz, Conrad von Wittelsbach (1161-1177)—the archbishop was granted a titular church in Rome, but remained to serve in his diocese of Mainz—very likely the first in a long line of international Cardinals with primary duties outside of Rome.
We generally think of the cardinals as the exclusive electors of the Popes, but this was not always true. In the early Church, bishops were elected by the people and clergy of the diocese, perhaps with the concurrence of the other bishops of the province. In Rome, however, the senatorial families and the Emperor also figured into the choice. In some centuries the ability of the powerful to control the election led to serious scandal and incompetent appointees. Taking the election out of the hands of the power brokers took many centuries. In 769 Stephen IV tried unsuccessfully to restrict the electors to the Roman deacons and priests. In 1059 Nicholas II was a bit more successful in restricting the election to the Cardinal bishops; the Cardinal priests and deacons were added to the electorate in 1179 by Alexander III.[vi] Yet, still, the Emperors long insisted on the right to confirm elections—and as recently as 1903, in the conclave which elected Pope Saint Pius X, the Emperor exercised a veto against an earlier front-running candidate. Saint Pius finally abolished any rights of election other than those of the Cardinals.
Although the Cardinals are, at least theoretically, members of the Roman clergy, there have been a few laymen. Callistus III (Alfonso Borgia, 1455-1458) appointed two nephews and a third young man who were most likely not priests, but at least one took Orders and was made bishop of Segorbe, Spain.[vii] Giovanni de’ Medici, the thirteen year old son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, was made Cardinal by Innocent VIII in 1489—unfortunately he went on to become Pope Leo X.[viii] Cæsar Borgia, created Cardinal by his father, Alexander VI, never took Orders. Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), a diplomat of Venice and the Empire was a layman when appointed Cardinal deacon in 1535 by Paul III, but later became cleric, priest, and bishop.[ix] Pope Pius IX made a Cardinal of the diplomat, Giacomo Antonelli, a life long deacon, but of course not a layman.[x]
The 1983 Code of Canon Law requires that Cardinals be priests to be appointed, and receive Episcopal Consecration thereafter. At least three simple priests, Fathers Avery Dulles SJ, Roberto Tucci, and Leo Scheffczyk, created Cardinals by Pope John Paul II, were permitted to serve without becoming bishops.
[i] Salvador Miranda, www.fiu.edu/~mirandas/cardinalcrest.gif. Mr. Miranda’s website at www.fiu.edu/~mirandas/cardinals.htm may be the most comprehensive resource for research on the Cardinals available on the Internet.
[ii] CE s.v. “Cardinal” www.newadvent.org/cathen/03333b.htm
[iv] Glenn D. Kittler, The Papal Princes (NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1960), pp. 109-110.
[v] Ibid. (The Papal Princes) pp. 341-345.
Salvador Miranda, www.fiu.edu/~mirandas/intro.htm,
[viii] CE, s.v. “Leo X” www.newadvent.org/cathen/09162a.htm