As we welcome 17 new Eminences to the College of Cardinals, including 13 cardinal electors, let’s look at the College – first a bit of history, then the College today.

Following that of Pope, the title of cardinal is the highest dignity in the Catholic Church, and 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.

It is important to note that the title “cardinal” is an honorific title – a cardinal is not an ordained order – those three orders are deacon, priest and bishop.

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 of Rome and the most important churches in Italy and abroad. Gradually, from Pope Nicholas II in 1059 to Eugenio IV in 1438, this title acquired the prestige that 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 Church – think of suburban – that is, the six dioceses closest to Rome (Albano, Frascati, Ostia, Palestrina, Porto-Santa Ruffina and Velletri-Segni).

Canons 349 through 359 govern the makeup and responsibilities of the College.

Canon 349 states: “The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute a special college whose responsibility is to provide for the election of the Roman Pontiff in accord with the norm of special law; The cardinals assist the Roman Pontiff collegially when they are called together to deal with questions of major importance; they do so individually when they assist the Roman Pontiff especially in the daily care of the universal Church by means of the different offices which they perform.”

The number of cardinals varied almost until the end of the 16th century and continued to increase in keeping with the successive development of the Church’s affairs. Sixtus V, with the constitution “Postquam verus” of December 1586, established the number of Cardinals at 70. The number of cardinals has increased since then and it reached 144 after the consistory of March 1973.

Eight years earlier, in February 1965, Paul VI extended the College of Cardinals to include the oriental patriarchs.

On November 21, 1970, with another motu proprio, Paul VI established that when cardinals reached the age of 80: a) they ceased to be members of the dicasteries  – the offices – of the Roman Curia and of all the permanent organisms of the Holy See and of the Vatican City State; b) they become ineligible to elect the Roman Pontiff and to enter the Conclave.

There is no maximum number today for the entire College of Cardinals although the ceiling for cardinal electors is 120. That was set by Blessed Paul VI in 1973.


If you love statistics, the following links from the Holy See Press Office are for you!

List of Cardinals in alphabetical order:—statistiche/elenco_alfabetico.html

List of Cardinals in order of Age:—statistiche/elenco_per_eta.html

List of Cardinals according to Nations and in order of Age:—statistiche/elenco_per_nazione.html

Graph: Distribution of Cardinal electors and non-electors:—statistiche/distribuzione-per-tipo.html

Graph: Distribution of Cardinals according to role:—statistiche/distribuzione-per-funzione.html

Composition of Cardinals according to geographical region:—statistiche/composizione-per-area.html

Graph: Distribution of Cardinals according to geographical region—statistiche/distribuzione-per-area.html