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What’s the difference between a cardinal priest and a cardinal deacon?

In a consistory of the College of Cardinals yesterday, Pope Francis approved seven new men and women who will be declared saints in the coming weeks. 

At the same meeting, eight cardinals formally received a change in rank within the college’s three tiers of seniority. 

As of Monday, Cardinal Angelo Amato, Cardinal Walter Brandmüller, Cardinal Raymond Burke, Cardinal Kurt Koch, Cardinal Francesco Monterisi, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, and Cardinal Robert Sarah moved from the rank of cardinal deacons to become cardinal priests.

—Wait. There are ranks of cardinals? What does that even mean?

The Pillar explains:

Credit: Ross Dunn (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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

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 cardinals fulfilled this collegial function on Monday, when they voted to approve the new candidates for sainthood. Individually, cardinals are appointed from around the world, usually either as serving diocesan bishops or as heads of curial departments.

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.

In fact, the term cardinal comes from the Latin word cardo, which means hinge, and is in reference to the pivotal role the college is meant to play in assisting the pope in the governance of the Church. Cardinals do wear red, as a sign of their willingness to embrace martyrdom for the faith, and 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 a cardinal, and that they “must” go on to be made a bishop.

However, popes do occasionally waive the requirement that they become bishops 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.

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Pecking order

Cardinals are assigned one of three ranks by the pope at the time of their appointment: cardinal bishop, cardinal priest, and cardinal deacon. While seniority within the college is at times little more than a matter of ceremonial precedence, it proceeds down through the ranks and by length of time as a cardinal within each order. ]

The three ranks are nods to the Bishop of Rome’s traditionally suffragan bishops and the clergy of his own diocese, whom he would consult in dealing with questions brought to him from within the diocese and around the world, and who would help elect his successor.

Cardinal bishops have been traditionally assigned as a title one of the six historical suburbicarian dioceses which were subject to the Diocese of Rome. Those titles are usually assigned to the heads of the most senior curial departments, like the Secretary of State.

This only applies to cardinal bishops from the Latin Church; Patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches retain their Eastern patriarchal titles as cardinal bishops upon appointment.

Because so many previous senior curial cardinals are currently living long into retirement, and past the age of 80 when they can no longer vote in a conclave, in 2018, Pope Francis took the unusual step of creating four new cardinal bishops even while the suburbican cardinal bishops were still alive.

It is the cardinal bishops who elect from among themselves the dean of the College of Cardinals for a five year term

In addition to presiding over the college, the dean has a number of key functions for the governance of the Church after the death of a pope, and it's the dean who presides over the daily meetings of cardinals prior to the conclave and who leads the conclave if he is not over 80 years old. If the man elected pope is not already a bishop, it is the cardinal dean who consecrates him.

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The ranks of priest and deacon are a nod to the clergy of the Diocese of Rome who helped their bishop, the pope, by advising him in his role, much in the same way every bishop has his own diocesan curia. 

In honor of this historical links, at the time of their appointment, cardinal priests and deacons are given an honorary title tied to an ancient Roman church, which they are expected to help fundraise for and take a special interest in, the same goes with cardinal bishops and their nominal suburbican dioceses.

Serving diocesan bishops are usually appointed as cardinal priests, while cardinals appointed to lead curial departments usually start out as cardinal deacons.

Promotion within the three cardinalatial ranks is always within the gift of the pope. But, while the pope only names cardinal bishops at his own discretion, during an ordinary consistory cardinal deacons and priests can transfer to different titles within their order and, if they have served ten years as a cardinal deacon, they can choose (with the pope’s approval) to transfer to the order of priests, as happened on Monday. 

While the six cardinals who moved up from cardinal deacons to cardinal priests on Monday are now technically the “newest” cardinal priests, their seniority within the order is dated from the time they were first made a cardinal. So, for example, Cardinal Burke, who was made a cardinal deacon in 2010, now outranks Cardinal Cupich in the order of precedence, even though Cupich was made a cardinal priest in 2018.

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