The Explainer: Princes of the Church

That was a scene from “Conclave,” where a dying Pope creates his nephew a Cardinal, and gives him a chance to succeed him as Pope.

Recently, Senator Joker Arroyo proposed a resolution suggesting the need for more Cardinals for the Philippines. Some of his colleagues wondered if this was something the Senate should be bothering about. But since Senator Arroyo brought it up, I thought it might be interesting to get a grip on what cardinals are.

And so, it’s red hat night on The Explainer. I’m Manolo Quezon.


I.   Creating Cardinals


Here’s a quick scene from the film “Amen,” where Pope Pius XII whooshes along accompanied by a flock of Cardinals and Bishops.

The scene is one of mystery and pomp. But it tells us nothing about why Cardinals exist in the first place.

Here’s a fascinating book, which tackles how the Catholic Church is governed, as a state whose primary mission is religion.

Because the Catholic Church is a religion, that happens to have its own state, the Pope is both head of the Catholic Church, and the head of state of the Vatican City, which a portion of the city of Rome.

In strictly political terms, the Pope is one of the last absolute monarchs left in the world, yet the only one elected. Besides the religious functions of the Pope, he also has political functions as the head of the oldest continuously-operating government on the planet, that of the Church as a whole, and of the Papal territory in Rome.

First, a quick review of the three kinds of holy orders in the Catholic Church. There are three: deacons, priests, and bishops. Everything else is an added dignity, or title.

Next, let’s begin defining what a cardinal is, in the Roman Catholic Church.

A Cardinal is, literally, someone who has been given a title by the Pope, in the same way a duke or an earl’s given a title by a king or queen.

In fact, the technical term for how Cardinals are made, is the exact same term used in the British nobility. A Cardinal is “created” by the Pope, the same way a Duke is “created” by the Queen of England. A Cardinal then, is someone who has a title, and with that title come certain privileges and responsibilities.

So when someone is created a Cardinal, they’re given a title, and so, the proper reference to someone named Juan de la Cruz upon being created a Cardinal, is Juan Cardinal de la Cruz.

The symbol of a Cardinal is a red hat, of the ancient type seen in this picture.

Today, they’re given a different kind of hat, called a zucchetta. They are also then given special rings by the Popes that create them.

Why red? The colors of the hats and sashes of bishops and archbishops is amaranth; Cardinals wear red, to symbolize how, as the closest advisers of living popes and electors of new ones, they must be ready to shed their blood in defense of the Church if necessary.

In the Congress of Vienna, which convened to sort out international diplomatic rules after the defeat of Napoleon, Cardinals were recognized as being on the level of Princes, something that gave them a specific stature in international protocol. This is why Cardinals are also referred to as Princes of the Catholic Church.

The honorific for a Cardinal is Your Eminence, just as for Archbishops and Bishops its Your Excellency, although in the UK a bishop has the same honorific as a duke, which is, Your Grace.

The term “Cardinal” itself comes from the term Incardinated. Someone in incardinated when they are appointed to a new position different from the one to which they were ordained. Say you were ordained a priest to serve in parish A. If you’re then assigned to parish B, you are incardinated in Parish B.

And there are three types, or degrees, of Cardinals. These types originate from the earliest origins of Cardinals. From lowest to highest, they are, as follows.

So for Cardinals, we have:

Cardinal deacons: originally the deacons in charge of social services for 18 regions of Rome. Today, Cardinal deacons are Cardinals created over the age of 80, and thus no longer entitled to vote, or who have been created Cardinals but choose to remain priests, usually also because of age.

Cardinal priests: originally, priests temporarily incardinated to certain shrines or basilicas for special liturgical services. Most Cardinals today, who also govern their own diocese in countries abroad, are cardinal priests.

Cardinal bishops: originally, the seven bishops for seven dioceses surrounding Rome, and referred to as such, when they held special liturgical services in St. John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome. In 1962, Cardinal bishops were relieved by John XXIII from having jurisdiction over these dioceses. Today Cardinal bishops are often the most senior officials of the Roman Curia, or bureaucracy of the Church.


So originally, being a Cardinal was just a job description. But when did they start having real power, and influence, including the exclusive duty to elect new popes?

From the 8th century, popes were exclusively elected by the Roman clergy. Before that, they were elected by the clergy and the faithful or perhaps in some cases, appointed by their predecessor. Cardinals remained what they were: deacons, priests, and bishops with special duties in the Archdiocese of Rome.

Then Pope Leo IX (1049-1054) began appointing non-Italian cardinals. This was also when cardinals obviously began serving as the principal advisers of the Pope –that is, they began to have power.

And because they had powers, and because being a Cardinal was more of a title of nobility than what it originally was, Popes creating Cardinals became characterized by politics. It conferred prestige on foreigners, and allowed Popes to reward relatives and allies.

History is filled with powerful Cardinals who were more statesmen than clergymen.

Cardinal Mazarin, Prime Minister of France.

And Cardinal Richelieu, Prime Minister of France, too.

Because many Cardinals came to combine political and spiritual power, Cardinals sometimes had veto power in papal elections. The last time used was in 1903, when John Cardinal Puszyna, archbishop of Krakow, opposed the election of Mariano Cardinal Rampolla. Pius X, who was elected at that conclave, abolished the “right of exclusion” or veto power of some Catholic kings exercised through Cardinals.

Examples of how ridiculous things could get was how, in 1731, Louis Bourbon, son of Philip V of Spain, became a cardinal at age 8, but he eventually married. Giovanni de’ Medici became cardinal at age 13, and became Pope Leo X in 1513.

Meetings of Cardinals with the Pope are called Consistories. Consistories until 1588, were the consultative meetings between Pope and cardinals, then suppressed. Thereafter, it became a term for the ritual in which Popes would announce the creation of new Cardinals.

In 1979, consistories were revived as means of consultations between the Pope and Cardinals. When bishops are consulted by the Pope, the gatherings are called synods; in a sense, the synods are the lower house and the consistories the upper house of Church governance.

Indeed, for the government of Rome, the College of Cardinals served as the Senate of Rome; only in 1983 was the term senate dropped in the Code of Canon Law, adopting instead the term, “special college.”

The Code of Canon Law, in its latest form from 1983, also defines two types of consistory: ordinary and extraordinary. The former, for cardinals present in Rome and the latter, for all cardinals in the world.

Together, Cardinals comprise the College of Cardinals. It is as a College that they come together, to attend to the funeral of a Pope, and elect a new one. They do so in what’s called a Conclave, which means, “locked with a key,” the process of closed-door elections that began in 1274.

Which brings us to the exclusive privilege of Cardinals, which is to elect a Pope.

This is because in 1059, cardinals became the sole electors of the Pope. At first, the cardinal bishops would meet and propose a candidate and ask the cardinal priests to vote on it.

Since 1179, the cardinals together have exclusively elected popes, with one exception, in 1417 when the Western Schism was ended when two sides joined together with representatives bishops and cardinals to elect a new pope.

True internationalization of College of Cardinals began with Pius XII, St. Bernard of Clairvaux had asked in the 12th century isn’t it reasonable that cardinals be selected from every nation whose office it is to judge all nations.

John XXIII abolished allowing laymen to become Cardinals, though the last to consider creating one was Paul VI, who thought of making the lay theologian Jacques Maritain, a Cardinal. John XXIII also made all cardinals bishops to give them precedence over patriarchs in Vatican II. Exception are priests created cardinals past the age of being an elector, who then choose to remain priests.

How many Cardinals are there?

In the 12th Century, the number was 53, normally 20 to 30; sometimes, below 10; in 1586 Sixtus V set the maximum number at 70 in imitationof the 70 chosen by Moses (Exodus 24:1) and Jesus (Luke 10:1).

From 1856-1958 60-70 cardinals; John XXIII created more than 80; Paul VI reformed the College of Cardinals in 1970 and increased the number to 120, not counting those over 80, whom he excluded as electors.

And from where do Cardinals come from?

In 1875, the first Cardinal from the Western Hemisphere, John Cardinal McCloskey of New York was created; Pius XII created the first cardinals in Africa, India, and China.

John XXIII created the first cardinals in Japan and the Philippines. The first Filipino Cardinal was Rufino Cardinal Santos; and to mark the event, the plaza in front of the Manila Cathedral was renamed Plaza Roma.

Paul VI created Cardinals from the Eastern Rite churches: Maronite, Melkite, Coptic, Ukranian, Chaldrean-Malabar churches in communion with Rome.

When we return, a short gallop through the history of Cardinals in the Philippines, and who might be candidates to be created future cardinals.


II. A Filipino Primate


That was another scene from “Conclave,” showing the political dynamics of a Renaissance election of a pope.

Under Spain, there was the patronato real, or royal patronage in which the Spanish monarch had a say in who would be made a bishop where. Because the Philippines was a missionary area, its territory was carved up between competing religious orders, who became an essential part of Spanish control over its colony.

This painting, showing the assassination –in truth, the lynching- of Governor-General Bustamante, at the hands of an enraged mob of clerics, points to the dangers of an incestuous relationship between Church and State.

Yet since the end of the Spanish era, marked by the surrender of the last Spanish Governor-General, Basilio Agustin shown here, to the Americans, and with the anti-friar legacy of the Philippine Revolution in mind, the separation of Church and State has become a fixed part of our political consciousness.

American sovereignty meant that the Vatican and the religious orders began sending non-Spaniards: the last Spanish Archbishop of Manila, Bernardino Nozaleda, resigned in 1901 and Manila was administered by Cebu until the first American Archbishop of Manila, Jeremiah J. Harty, arrived in 1904.

In 1916 he was succeeded by Michael J. O’Doherty who established the Archbishop’s Palace after World War II in Villa San Miguel, because he loved playing golf and living in Mandaluyong placed him close to the Wack-Wack golf club. Archbishop O’Dougherty liked to claim he was the Primate of the Philippines, which wasn’t true. Some dioceses, as the capital dioceses, have that distinction, but the Philippines has never had any diocese entitled to that distinction.

In 1949, Manila gained its first Filipino Archbishop, Gabriel Reyes, who died in 1952. In 1960,  his successor was Rufino Cardinal Santos, who’d been Archbishop of Manila since 1953. Then his successor from 1974, was created Jaime Cardinal Sin, in 1976; and in turn, his successor, from 2003 when Sin’s retirement was accepted, was created Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales in 2006. Cardinal Rosales’ titular church is the Santissimo Nome de Maria church in the Via Latina, Rome.

Cebu gained its first Filipino bishop much earlier than Manila, in the person of Juan Bautista Gorordo in 1909. In 1933, the diocese of Cebu was made an archdiocese, with Archbishop Gabriel Reyes as the first Filipino archbishop.

Julio Cardinal Rosales was created the first Cardinal Archbishop of Cebu in 1969, followed by the creation of Ricardo Cardinal Vidal in 1985.

There have been a total of five Filipino Cardinals: Rufino Cardinal Santos, Jaime Cardinal Sin, and Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales of Manila; Julio Cardinal Rosales and Ricardo Cardinal Vidal of Cebu; and Jose Cardinal Sanchez, a Filipino whose career has been spent in the Vatican bureaucracy, or the Roman Curia. Of the three living Filipino Cardinals two, Rosales and Vidal, are Cardinal Priests while Sanchez is a Cardinal Deacon.

So, to address Senator Arroyo’s question, in case the Pope decides to create additional Filipino cardinals, which dioceses would be the prime candidates?

First, they would have to be archdioceses; second, they would have to be among the most ancient dioceses in the country.

In terms of antiquity, the oldest diocese in the Philippines, 400 years old each, are:


The Archdiocese of Manila, which already has a cardinal.


The Archdiocese of Cebu, which also already has a cardinal.


The Archdiocese of Nueva Caceres in Naga, which has no cardinal.


and  the Archdiocese of Nueva Segovia in Vigan, which also doesn’t have a cardinal.


The Archdiocese of Jaro, in Iloilo, is the fifth-oldest diocese in the country, dating to 1865. It also doesn’t have a cardinal.

A second possibility would be, an additional cardinal for Mindanao, since Luzon and the Visayas already have cardinals.


The oldest diocese in Mindanao is the Archdiocese of Zamboanga, which dates to 1910.

So, there might be room for four additional Filipinos in the College of Cardinals.

When we return, the evolving role of Cardinals in the governance of the Catholic Church.


My view


We like to think of ourselves as the only predominantly Catholic country in our part of the world. We aren’t. There’s East Timor.

They say of the Chinese, that their officials think in terms of centuries. The same could be said of the Roman Catholic Church. Like it or not, Catholic prelates, by virtue of their positions, have influence on our national life. And those with red hats, the Cardinals, are often looked to, as the senior churchmen of the Philippine episcopacy.

But the power of the Pope to create Cardinals is something exclusive to a Pope, and not subject to appeal. It is definitely something that officials of our government shouldn’t comment on, or concern themselves with.


Manuel L. Quezon III.

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