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Pope Francis on Sunday announced the appointment of 21 new members of the College of Cardinals, who will be formally invested with the red biretta — a sign of their office — in September.

The Conclave during which the Pope is elected in the Sistine Chapel
Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. Credit: Vatican Media.

But since the pope’s announcement, some Catholics have asked whether those bishops are already eligible to vote in a papal conclave, or when they will be.

So what’s the deal? If the Church holds a conclave next week, or next month, for that matter, can Archbishops Prevost, Pierre, and Fernandez take part? 

The Pillar explains.


What exactly is a cardinal?

The College of Cardinals is a group of men appointed by the pope to assist him in his governance and leadership of the universal Church.

Canon law explains that the college also exists to “assist the Roman Pontiff either collegially when they are convoked to deal with questions of major importance, or individually when they help the Roman Pontiff through the various offices they perform, especially in the daily care of the universal Church.” 

The origins of the college began in the early centuries of the Church, when priests in the churches of Rome were expected to assist the pope with his liturgical duties in the city’s basilicas.

The group grew to include the deacons of the papal household, who handled the administration of the Church’s money, and the bishops of the seven dioceses which border the diocese of Rome. 

Over time, the pope’s cardinals began to serve as his delegates, representatives, and diplomats. Beginning especially in the 11th century, popes began to appoint cardinals from other places in the Church, and at the same time, cardinals began formally to elect the bishop of Rome, first with the consultation of other clergy and laity, and eventually, in a papal conclave.

Today, the best known and most important function of the College of Cardinals is to elect the next Bishop of Rome after the death of a pope. 

What does “cardinal” even mean, anyway?

The word “cardinal” is often mistakenly believed to derive from the Greek root kardía, meaning heart, and people often note that red which cardinals wear, and the bird of the same name.

But in fact, the term cardinal comes from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge, and refers both to the fact that cardinals are attached, or hinged, to the diocese of Rome, and to the pivotal role the college is meant to play in assisting the pope in the governance of the Church. 

Cardinals wear red, as a sign of their willingness to embrace martyrdom for the faith. The birds are named for the churchmen, not because of any common link between the word and the color.

It’s also a common misconception that “anyone” can be a cardinal. While it is true that the college is a creation of merely ecclesiastical law, and therefore can be changed by the pope at his discretion, canon law currently requires that only men already ordained to the priesthood can be made cardinals, and that priests “must” be made bishops if they are appointed to the College of Cardinals.

However, popes do occasionally waive the requirement that cardinals become bishops, especially when they confer the red hat on a priest already over 80 years old — and unable to vote in a conclave — as a special honor.

And how do the cardinals elect the pope?

In a conclave — a gathering of cardinals after the pope’s death, which takes place “under key” — con clave — as the cardinals are locked in the Sistine Chapel for their deliberations. Until recently, small, and very bare, apartments were created inside the chapel’s facilities for the cardinals’ use, but today cardinal electors overnight at the Domus Sanctae Martha, and conduct their deliberations inside the Sistine Chapel.

According to the current rules for a conclave, cardinals under 80 are eligible to vote in a papal conclave. A two-thirds majority of votes is required for the election of a pope, with the possibility of a run-off election between the two candidates with the most votes after a certain number of ballots.

So if there’s a conclave really soon can the newly named cardinals vote?

Not yet. Because they’re not actually cardinals yet. 

Pope Francis announced last Sunday that “next 30 September I will hold a Consistory for the appointment of new Cardinals.” 

He then named the 21 men whom he intends to create as cardinals at that consistory, or gathering. 

While we tend to extend to cardinals-elect the titles and trappings of their office —  calling cardinals-elect “Your Eminence,” for example, they don’t actually acquire the rights of cardinals until a formal ceremony to that effect.

Are you sure? I mean, Pope Francis has clearly conveyed that he wants them to be cardinals. So if there’s a conclave, doesn’t he intend that they participate?

Here’s what the law of the Church says: 

In Universi dominici gregis, the present law regarding the election of a pope, the Church conveys that: “A Cardinal of Holy Roman Church who has been created and published before the College of Cardinals thereby has the right to elect the Pope.”

The rite for “creation and publication” is what takes place at a consistory, whereby the pope pronounces a specific formula of “creation,” after which the new cardinals promise their allegiance and obedience to the pope.

For the newly named cardinals-elect, that will take place at a gathering in late September.

After that formulaic “creation,” the new cardinals approach the pope to receive the symbols and documents of the college: a red biretta, a ring, and a decree which assigns each cardinal a specific title and rank within the college of cardinals.

In fact, the Church’s law allows for the possibility that some cardinals-elect might not be able to be present at a constistory — because of illness, imprisonment, or some other reason. As long as the pope includes them in the formula of “creation,” and signs a formal decree of enrollment, they become cardinals, with ordinary voting members. 

But before that ceremony, if a conclave takes place, the newly named cardinals-to-be will not be eligible to participate. 

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