“Cardinals all live at the Vatican, right? They’re all bishops, too.” “I also heard you can’t be pope unless you’re a cardinal first.” “They all wear red because of the blood of the martyrs, and they are like the senate for the Vatican.” “But cardinals are the only office that’s not in the Bible, so we really shouldn’t have them.”

Stop. Rewind . . . not all of these are correct, and some are only partially correct. As important as cardinals are in the Catholic Church, they seem to be woefully misunderstood. But seeing how we call them “princes” of the Church, I recon it’s pretty important for all of us to make sure we understand this unique office.


What is a cardinal?

A cardinal is a senior office in the ecclesial hierarchy of the Church. While each cardinal has a unique purpose, most remain bishop of whatever diocese they were before their cardinalate while still remaining available to any summons from the pope. Others are assigned to specific duties within the Curia—the administrative apparatus of the Holy See—or any other duty assigned.

According to Canon Law, “The cardinals of the Holy Roman Church constitute the senate of the Roman Pontiff and aid him as his chief counselors and collaborators in the government of the Church” (CIC 230).

Together, they make up the College of Cardinals and they live all over the world. But several, as their duties require, do live in Rome. Largely, cardinals are responsible for electing the Bishop of Rome. This authority was formally established at the Lateran Council in A.D. 769, but has been restricted, reformed, and reset a number of times. In general, the office of cardinal we know today is the same office recognized in the twelfth century.

Contrary to some views, the etymology of “cardinal” to describe this office is not because of their scarlet red cassocks. As far back as the ninth century, being “incardinated” meant being permanently assigned to a church or diocese (La. cardo meaning “hinge,” effectively becoming “chief” or “principle”).

With grassroots beginnings, it can be confirmed that this term appears no place in the Bible. However, in the general sense and in the sense applied by Canon Law, we see “chief counselors and collaborators in the government of the Church” in the Council of Jerusalem for example (Acts 15).


Who can be a cardinal?

Can I become a cardinal? Sure, but . . . Most cardinals are created—yes, “created”—from the office of bishop. And this makes sense. Folks who are going to make decisions and take actions that affect the entire Church, and specifically the bishops, should know a thing or two about being a bishop. So, because the vast majority of cardinals are bishops, then the vast majority of them are also priests and/or deacons, but some were still not bishops. Fr. Henri de Lubac, who was not a bishop, became a cardinal, and Pope John Paul II named another priest, Hans Urs von Balthasar, a cardinal, but von Balthasar died a few days before his ceremony.

However, the office of cardinal is not limited to those who partake in the Sacrament of Holy Orders—lay people can become cardinals as well. A number of cardinals in the history of the Church have been lay persons elevated to the sacred office; a fact which some researchers of history will find quite disturbing. Sadly, some of the worst scandals in the Church came from these, but not all, so the idea is not altogether an issue—it’s just not within the norms of the Church. So as we see, “cardinal” is not the next “promotion” or “step” after bishop, but it’s not impossible for a lay person to receive orders (perhaps) and be created into a cardinal. As recent as 1968, Pope Paul VI reportedly considered appointing the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain a lay cardinal.

Now, about that “created” business. Yes, Cardinals are created, and I only know this because of a recent debate. Canon 35 states “Cardinals are created by a decree of the Roman Pontiff which is made public in the presence of the college of cardinals. From the moment of the announcement they are bound by the duties and possess the rights defined by law.” 

And that’s the college of cardinals in a nutshell.

Oh . . . there’s actually one more thing. Why the red? We know that we don’t call them cardinals because their cassocks are similar in tone to the avian variety, so why scarlet red? The Catholic Encyclopedia doesn’t discuss every detail, but it does help aid out understanding a little:

The “red hat” is given in the next public consistory after they have taken the customary oath. At the beginning of the next secret consistory takes place the ceremony known as the "opening of the mouth" (aperitio oris), and at the close of the same consistory the “closing of the mouth” (clausura etis), symbolizing their duties to keep the secrets of their office and to give wise counsel to the pope. The ring is then given to each, and at the same time the “title” or church by which the new cardinal shall henceforth be known. 

Not much about the red hat and cassock in the encyclopedia—most references to the red representing the blood of the martyrs is tradition. But traditions matter! In 2012 Pope Benedict XVI alluded to this meaning, perhaps a verification of sorts:

From now on, they devote even more to work with me in governing the universal Church, and to be witness to the gospel to the point of sacrificing their own life. This is the meaning of the red color in their clothes.

Paul told the Corinthians:

Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, matters pertaining to this life! If then you have such cases, why do you lay them before those who are least esteemed by the church? (1 Cor. 6:3-4)

If the highest of heaven might judge angels, how much more do we souls on earth need the orthodox and courageous judgment and shepherding of our cardinals? Let’s pray for their health, wisdom, and leadership.