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Coat of arms of an archbishop with cardinal rank, recognizable by the red cardinal hat ( Galero ) with 30 side tassels ( Fiocchi ) and the archbishop's (double) lecture cross
Former Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi in cardinal robe (2008)
Cardinals Walter Cardinal Kasper and Godfried Cardinal Danneels (from left) in choir clothes (2008)

Cardinal is a spiritual title of the Roman Catholic Church and the highest dignity after the Pope . The cardinal title, which is awarded for life, calls the bearer to special joint responsibility for the overall management of the Church in the College of Cardinals as well as the Roman Curia and basically entitles the holder to participate in the conclave up to the age of 80 . Diocesan bishops with cardinal titles perform these tasks in addition to the management of their diocese , while cardinals of the curia act in a leading position - comparable to a minister - at the curia in Rome.

The priests reserved cardinal dignity by the pope at his discretion in the rule to selected, earned bishops lent or members of the Curia. In principle, all ordained priests can be appointed cardinal; According to canon law, non-bishops must be ordained a bishop, from which the Pope can dispense . The college of cardinals is subdivided into three cardinal classes in an honorary order, its chairman is the cardinal dean . Of the currently 221 cardinals , 122 would be eligible to vote in the conclave (as of July 17, 2020).

Origin of the term

The expression cardinal comes from the Latin cardinalis "important, excellent" (derived from cardo "door hinge, pivot point"). Secondly, it refers originally a Roman on a main church ( Cardo ) - outside of Rome - salaried clergy ( incardinatus cardinalis ), which a church or Diakonie as a titular church ( tituli cardinales is entrusted) in Rome.

It is the oldest ecclesiastical honorary function, which immediately follows the Pope, the Summus Pontifex . Cardinals are thus the highest dignitaries after the Pope, this cardinal dignity is also known as a cardinalate . It goes back to the time of the old church . Pope Silvester I (314–335) spoke of presbyteri et diaconi cardinales . The function as a cardinal can traditionally be associated with an ecclesiastical office, e.g. B. Cardinal Secretary of State. Furthermore, the cardinalate means admission to the Roman clergy and as “Prince of the Pope” to the nobility (→ title of nobility ).

Title and salutation

The full title is: Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalis ("Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church"), which is usually abbreviated as S. R. E. Cardinalis in church letters and documents . The patriarchs of the oriental churches bear the title Sanctae Ecclesiae Cardinalis because they do not belong to the Roman clergy.

As part of the name in the Roman Catholic Church, the word cardinal is usually placed between the first name and the family name. The formal address is (Your) Eminence.

Canon law provision

Men who are to be made cardinals must at least be ordained a priest . Otherwise the Pope is independent and free in her choice (cf. can. 351 §1 CIC ). Since April 15, 1962, only bishops have been appointed cardinals as a rule . In current practice there are exceptions, e.g. B. when priests are appointed cardinals because of special merits. These must be ordained bishops according to the norms of the Codex Iuris Canonici . However, the Pope can dispense from this obligation at the request of the would-be cardinal . This exception currently applies to Albert Vanhoye and Ernest Simoni . Since 1994, priests from the Society of Jesus have renounced episcopal ordination before their elevation to the cardinalate, whatever was granted.

According to earlier church law, ordination was not a prerequisite for cardinal creation. The last cardinal to be created as a layperson was Theodolfo Mertel (1806–1899); However, he was subsequently ordained a subdeacon and thus belonged to the clergy. Since 1917 (CIC 1917 Can. 232 - § 1) ordination to the priest has been a binding requirement.

The Pope is not obliged to reveal the name of the cardinal he has appointed, in such cases one speaks of a cardinal in pectore . This practice is regularly chosen by cardinals from countries where the Church is persecuted.

The elevation of the cardinals , also called the creation of the cardinals , takes place according to current church law (CIC 1983) by a decree of the Pope, which is promulgated before the College of Cardinals . In recent times it has consistently taken place in a solemn, public, extraordinary consistory . From then on, the persons concerned have all the rights and duties of a cardinal.

There are three classes ( ordines ) :

The cardinals form the college of cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church under the direction of the cardinal dean ; this office has been held by Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re since January 2020 . The cardinals are appointed by the Pope and solemnly “created” in a consistory ( cardinal elevation ). They are his immediate assistants in governing the Church as a whole. The cardinals entitled to vote elect the new Pope during the vacancy of the Apostolic See in the conclave . Are eligible to vote since 1968 by Pope Paul VI. enacted regulation all cardinals who have not yet reached the age of 80 on the day before the vacancy. The maximum number of cardinals eligible to vote has been allowed since one of Paul VI. adopted and February 22, 1996 by Pope John Paul II. confirmed regulation does not amount to more than 120. This number was exceeded again and again by various consistories, but when there was a vacancy, no more than 120 cardinals were entitled to vote.

Sometimes the term cardinalate also describes the period in which a person holds the dignity of a cardinal ("term of office"): As a rule, from the day the cardinal was created by the Pope until his death. The cardinal dignity can be resigned or withdrawn by the Pope with the permission of the Pope. In the history of cardinals, however, this has only happened very rarely, see, for example, Louis Billot and Guillaume Briçonnet . In July 2018, Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick resigned the cardinalate after allegations of abuse, which Pope Francis immediately accepted.


Since the 4th century, the cardinals were first advisers and collaborators of the Pope in the service of the tituli (title churches) of the city of Rome, i.e. H. of the first parishes . Cardinals were the heads of the tituli cardinales , the most important title churches. To this day, each cardinal is assigned a titular church in Rome. Thus cardinals also belong to the clergy of the city of Rome. Since the papal election decree of 1059, only the cardinals elect the Pope. They have met since 1150 in the sacrum collegium , presided over by the dean.

From the 11th century onwards, a structured college of cardinals gradually emerged, which also had more and more influence on the church leadership. One example is the Cardinal Bishop Humbert von Silva Candida , who in 1054 carried out the excommunication of the Byzantine Patriarch Michael Kerullarios . The popes also made more cardinals now. Especially under Urban II. And Pascal II. - appointed the latter more than 70 cardinals - played an increasingly influential role the College of Cardinals, which also Paschalis' conflict with Emperor V. Henry was. One of their main tasks was to act as legates to mediate between the Roman Curia and the rest of Christianity.

During the Great Occidental Schism (1378-1417), cardinals were often appointed to strengthen their own obedience . This was also clearly evident under Urban VI. : Just five months after his election as Pope, he appointed 26 new cardinals, most of them Italian. The first "Italianization" of the College of Cardinals emerged, which finally took shape towards the end of the 15th century and then continued into the 20th century.

Cardinal Ferdinand I de Medici was one of the lay cardinals (portrait by Alessandro Allori , 1588)

The award of cardinals' hats was a means, especially in the early modern period , with which popes cultivated their relations with the European royal houses and strengthened their friendly relations with other states. Since the middle of the 15th century it was common in many dynasties in Europe for a son or brother of the ruling prince to be appointed cardinal. An example of such a cardinal appointment is that of the Spanish king's son Cardinal Infante Ferdinand in 1619. The Borghese family , to which the appointing Pope Paul V belonged, received a Spanish nobility title in return. The same applies to the Kingdom of Poland , the Habsburgs , the Kingdom of Portugal and the Lorraine people . The great noble families of Italy such as the Medici , the Farnese , the Gonzaga or the d'Este were represented in the college of cardinals. Occasionally these so-called “dynastic” cardinals such as Cardinal Maurizio di Savoia or Francesco Maria Farnese did not even receive church ordinations. This gave them the opportunity to return to the worldly state if this seemed sensible for dynastic reasons. Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries there were a total of twelve cardinals reverting to secular status. Among them is Cesare Borgia , who is counted among the so-called " Cardinalnepots ", as well as about ten cardinals, for whom the family line of succession was decisive for the resignation. These include Ferdinando de Medici , who became ruler of Florence after the death of his brother in 1589 and married Christine of Lorraine . Albrecht VII was the son of Emperor Maximilian II and resigned his cardinalate after twelve years. Ferdinando Gonzaga returned his cardinal's hat in 1615 after his older ducal brother died in 1612 without a male heir. Cardinal appointments such as that of Carlo Emanuele Pio di Savoia were occasionally a necessity for the Curia in order to enforce its claims to rule in the papal territory.

Conversely, the princes suggested people they would like to the Pope to be awarded the cardinal's hat . These people are known as crown cardinals or national cardinals and were usually more connected to the prince than to the respective pope. Cardinals that can be described as typical crown cardinals are, for example, the Spaniards Bernardo de Sandoval y Rojas and Antonio Zapata y Cisneros .

The appointment of a cardinals as the Pope's instrument of political rule only lost its importance in the aftermath of the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, when politics increasingly deconfessionalized . The representation in the College of Cardinals in Rome as a political and religious power factor became increasingly uninteresting for the European ruling houses. Cardinals like Angelo Giori , who came from a humble background, remained suspiciously eyed outsiders within the curial leadership circles during this time, whose sphere of activity was often to be found in informal areas. Until 1870, however, the popes were not only heads of the Catholic Church, but also rulers of a papal state that stretched from Bologna and Ferrara in the north to Benevento in the south. Between the cardinals there are therefore administrative officials whose specialty was jurisprudence rather than theology . An example of the career of an administrative specialist and diplomat is that of Fabrizio Spada , who served for a time as cardinal state secretary towards the end of the 17th century . A similar example is Giuseppe Renato Imperiali , who was active at the same time and who was under Popes Clement XI. up to Clemens XII. held important government offices in the Papal States, but was hardly interested in religious topics.

Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro , one of the most influential cardinals of the late 19th century

During Napoleon's time , the cardinals' political influence declined. The French Emperor even had several cardinals (including Alessandro Mattei , Carlo Oppizzoni and Giulio Maria della Somaglia ) who refused to recognize his second marriage to Archduchess Marie-Louise of Austria arrested and forbade them to wear red robes (“black cardinals "). Less than fifty years later, their ecclesiastical influence had also declined. Pius IX about described the cardinals as "useless advisers". Under Pius' successor Leo XIII. they had no influence on papal politics. Cardinal State Secretary Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro is an exception .

From the 19th century onwards, the College of Cardinals was divided into the so-called Zelanti , who put spiritual issues in the foreground, and the Politicanti , who were more like diplomats. Examples of Zelanti are Rafael Merry del Val y Zulueta and Prospero Caterini , while the Politicanti included cardinals such as Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro, Giuseppe Albani and Ercole Consalvi .

While before, without exception, Europeans were created to be cardinals, that changed in the late 19th century. In 1875 Pius IX took with the Archbishop of New York , John McCloskey , for the first time an American to the college of cardinals, but such an appointment was initially an exception. Since the 20th century, especially since the pontificate of Pius XII. Cardinals who were not from Europe were regularly appointed. This ended the time of Italian, and later also European, supremacy in the College of Cardinals.

Under Pius XII. The structure of the cardinals also changed: While a few cardinals have been appointed several times a year, since then a large number of cardinals have been created at greater intervals. Pius XII. created 32 cardinals in his first consistory in 1946, and 24 in his second in 1953. Thus, of course, the total number of cardinals created also increased. John Paul II (1978-2005), for example, had 231 cardinals. The college of cardinals also enlarged; while at the 1939 conclave it consisted of 62 cardinals, at the first conclave in 1978 there were already 129 cardinals.


Christoph Cardinal Schönborn in cassock with red cingulate and pileolus (2006)

Cardinals wear a special cardinal ring and, on liturgical occasions, a scarlet gown (porpora) , the mozzetta and the biret , which is bestowed with the cardinal ring in a special ceremony by the Pope as choir clothing . There are also the cingulum and the pileolus made of red moiré silk . The red color is intended to express the dignity of the office and to indicate that the bearers of this dignity should be ready to stand up for the Christian faith “even up to the shedding of their own blood”. Outside the liturgy, the cardinal wears a black cassock with red piping (seam trim) and red buttons. Furthermore, the cardinals used to wear a robe in an almost violet-looking dark purple for the choir attire when the Pope died and for the following conclave; however, the pileolus and biretta remained scarlet. The previously common cardinal's hat with 15 red tassels ( fiocchi ) hanging down to the sides was made in 1969 by Paul VI. abolished and only appears today in the coat of arms of a cardinal.

Right and rights of the cardinal

The cardinal has the right to be buried in his own church, he can offer the sacrament of penance anywhere in the world , he may only be brought before the court of the Pope (in the event of violations of church law) and he can determine the place for the hearing of witnesses himself . He exercises no power over his titular church, but advisory patronage . The so-called “ cardinal purple ”, which is actually scarlet , and since 1630 the salutation “ Eminence ” belong to the rights of honor . The title "Cardinal" is placed between first and last name.

After the Papal States had been incorporated into the Kingdom of Italy in 1870, the Lateran Treaty of February 11, 1929 recognized the full sovereignty of the Pope over the "State of the Vatican City" (Città del Vaticano). According to this, the rank of cardinals corresponds to that of princes ruling houses .

Traditional episcopal seats with cardinal dignity

At some episcopal seats such as Cologne , Munich-Freising or Vienna , the diocesan bishop is usually elevated to cardinal. However, this tradition does not justify any claim to cardinal dignity. Pope Francis broke with this tradition many times and did not give the holders of such episcopal seats the rank of cardinals.

Loss of cardinal dignity

In addition to the natural loss of cardinal dignity with an election as Pope, there are also other ways in which one can lose the cardinal dignity.


Cardinals can also ask the Pope to resign. However, this is rarely used.

15th century

16th Century

17th century

18th century

19th century

20th century

21st century


In the history of the Catholic Church, some cardinals have also been deposed.

9th century

11th century

12th Century

14th Century

15th century

16th Century

17th century

18th century

Current cardinals from German-speaking countries


Pope emeritus Benedict XVI. (* 1927) was also cardinal as Joseph Ratzinger from 1977 to 2005.



See also


  • Martin Bräuer: Handbook of the Cardinals, 1846−2012 . De Gruyter, Berlin 2014, ISBN 978-3-11-026944-4 .
  • Klaus Ganzer , Cardinals as Church Princes? In: Voices of Time , ISSN  0039-1492 , vol. 136 (2011), pp. 313-325.
  • Arne Karsten (Ed.): Hunt for the red hat. Cardinal careers in baroque Rome . Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2004, ISBN 3-525-36277-3
  • Arne Karsten: artists and cardinals. On the patronage of Roman cardinal nephews in the 17th century . Revised, supplemented edition. Böhlau, Cologne a. a. 2003, ISBN 3-412-11302-6 (also: Berlin, Humboldt-Univ., Diss., 2001)
  • Carl Gerold Fürst : Cardinalis. Prolegomena to a Legal History of the Roman College of Cardinals. Fink, Munich 1967 (also: Salzburg, Habil.-Schr.)
  • Christa Kramer von Reisswitz: The papal makers. The cardinals and the conclave. Updated paperback edition. Knaur Pocket Book, Munich 2003, ISBN 3-426-77656-1 ( Knaur Pocket Books 77656)
  • Agnelo Rossi : Il Collegio Cardinalizio. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Città del Vaticano 1990, ISBN 88-209-1776-9
  • Codex of Canon Law , Latin-German edition with subject index. Kevelaer 5th edition 2001, here: Book II, Chapter III, can. 351
  • Rudolf Michael Schmitz : Art. Cardinal, College of Cardinals , in: Stephan Haering / Heribert Schmitz (ed.) Lexikon des Kirchenrechts , Freiburg 2004, (Lexicon for Theology and Church compact), Sp. 475–478
  • Petrus Canisius van Lierde / André Giraud: The College of Cardinals . Aschaffenburg 1965, (The Christ in the World, XII. Row: Building and Structure of the Church, Vol. 3)

Web links

Wiktionary: Cardinal  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Commons : Cardinals  - Collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Church from A - Z: Cardinal. In: Association of the Dioceses of Germany, accessed on September 29, 2019 .
  2. With humility to the Pope's Senate. In: February 13, 2015, accessed July 31, 2019 .
  3. What is a cardinal. In: Church + Life Network. The Bishop of Münster, accessed on September 4, 2019 .
  4. Tobias Glenz: What is a cardinal? In: June 28, 2018, accessed December 27, 2019 .
  5. ^ Public Ordinary Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals - Papal Mass - Sermon by Pope Francis in the Vatican Basilica., February 14, 2015, accessed November 11, 2019 .
  6. cf. K. Ganzer, Cardinals as Church Princes ?: Voices of the Time 2011, No. 5, pp. 313–323
  7. Paul VI., Motu proprio Ad purpuratorum patrum collegium of February 11, 1965, No. II
  8. Tobias Glenz: What is a cardinal? In: June 28, 2018, accessed September 20, 2019 .
  9. ^ Decision of John XXIII. in order not to have to treat patriarchs of the United Churches who were not cardinals inferior to non-bishops who were cardinals when entering the sessions of the Second Vatican Council . Acta Sanctae Sedis (AAS) Volume 54, 1962, pages 256-258. As a result, John XXIII consecrated. the then cardinal deacons, who were not yet bishops, became bishops.
  10. Codex of Canon Law - IntraText. Retrieved September 29, 2019 .
  11. Comunicato della Sala Stampa della Santa Sede. In: Daily Bulletin. Holy See Press Office, July 28, 2018, accessed July 28, 2018 (Italian, with English translation).
  12. ^ Jürgen Dendorfer , Ralf Lützelschwab: History of the Cardinalate in the Middle Ages. Stuttgart 2011, pp. 80-81.
  13. Dendorfer / Lützelschwab, p. 139
  14. ^ Dendorfer / Lützelschwab, p. 322.
  15. ^ Giancarlo Zizola : The successor , Patmos-Verlag 1997, p. 105
  16. ^ Zizola, p. 105
  17. ^ Conclave August 1978 at
  18. ^ The College of Cardinals General Documentazion. February 7, 2014, accessed September 29, 2019 .
  19. ^ Genealogisches Handbuch des Adels , Adelslexikon Volume X, Complete Series Volume 119, CA Starke Verlag Limburg / Lahn 1999, p. 165, ISBN 3-7980-0819-1
  20. ^ Cardinals who resigned the cardinalate (1440-2018). In: Salvador Miranda : The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. ( Florida International University website ), accessed January 7, 2018.
  21. ^ Comunicato stampa del Decano del Collegio Cardinalizio. Retrieved March 19, 2018 .
  22. Comunicato della Sala Stampa della Santa Sede. In: Daily Bulletin. Holy See Press Office, July 28, 2018, accessed July 28, 2018 (Italian, with English translation).
  23. Deposed cardinals (847-1725). In: Salvador Miranda : The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. ( Florida International University website ), accessed January 7, 2018.