ASK FATHER: If a Pope dies or resigns before a Consistory for the creation of Cardinals, are the designated men Cardinals or not?

Buzz buzz buzz.

  • From his wheelchair Francis issues a list of men he would make cardinals.
  • There are rumors about his bad and worsening health.
  • Archbp. Gänswein sobs his way through a speech in Germany.
  • Various documents are being issued, such as Taurina cacata and one that changed the Code effectively to strip local bishops of their ability to establish new religious groups.

He doesn’t look great and he seems to be in a hurry.  He’s 85.

Frankly, I don’t think Francis will resign. He doesn’t strike me as the type who would give power away. Since 2013, though there was talk of decentralization of power from the Curia to local Churches, the opposite has occurred. Now, with the reduction of Curia entities, more and more is centered on Francis. Let’s not forget that his programmatic slogans in Evangelium gaudii were the governing principles of the Argentinian caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas.

With that as a background, the same question showed up in my mail and in a chat app about the creation of cardinals and the death/resignation of a Pope.


If a Pope issues the list of men whom he intends to make cardinals, but dies (or resigns) before they receive “the red hat”, are they still cardinals?

No.   If the Roman Pontiff dies before he has given or sent or published the name (in the case of a Cardinal in pectore) the nominations are null.

There are times when a Pope will make a secret cardinal, whose name only he knows and keeps “close to his vest” (in his breast – in pectore).  Once his name is made known, he has the seniority in College from then time the Pope chose him.  If the Pope dies before making his name known officially, he isn’t a cardinal.

In John Paul II’s Apostolic Constitution Universi Dominici Gregis (AAS 88 (1996) p. 322) we find:

36. Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae Cardinalis, dummodo creatus
renuntiatusque in Consistorio sit, hac ipsa de causa ius eligendi
Pontificis possidet secundum huius Constitutionis praescriptum
in n. 33, etiamsi nondum ipsi pileus est impositus neque anulus
creditus neque ius iurandum is pronuntiavit. Non tamen hoc
iure fruuntur Cardinales canonice depositi aut qui, consentiente
Romano Pontifice, dignitati cardinalitiae renuntiaverunt. Praeterea
non licet Cardinalium Collegio, Sede vacante, eos restituere.

This is about Cardinal Electors.  Once the cardinal is “created and officially proclaimed in the Consistory”, he has the right to elect a new Pope.  Former cardinals, however, can’t.

There is a case, however, that if a cardinal turns 80 after the Roman See becomes vacant (by death or legitimate abdication), he remains an Elector.

Here’s a video of a public Consistory held by Benedict XVI in 2012. It has English voice over. Note what Benedict says. They WILL enter the College of Cardinals. Even though they are all sitting there in red, they aren’t cardinals until their names are read out. He announces what order in College they belong to, Deacons or Priests. Then they make a profession of faith, receive the hat, ring and bull. As the Pope hands the cardinal the bull, he gives him his “title”, his Roman church. Note also that he says that this concerns chiefly the Church of Rome. This is because cardinals are clergy of Rome. That’s why they elect the Bishop of Rome.

In days of yore, cardinals were created – that’s the verb traditionally used – in a secret consistory (a gathering of cardinals with the Pope), closed to public view.  Then notice was sent to the new cardinals by means of a “biglietto”, as in the famous “Biglietto Speech” of St. John Henry Newman, when he received his official notification.  There is a “biglietto” scene at the beginning of the movie The Cardinal.  If the new cardinal was in Rome, they would go to the Apostolic Palace to receive their biretta.  If the new cardinal was outside Rome, they were sent their gear by a delegate.  Eventually there would be a public consistory in Rome, in the Consistory Hall or maybe the Sistina or the Basilica and there would be the ceremonial dimension of creation of cardinals, their oaths, giving them the real red hat, the galero with the tassels.  They would prostrate themselves as the Te Deum was sung.  Mind you, these guys were wrapped up in a couple of miles of red watered silk and probably needed to be hauled around and lifted off the floor.  They given a sapphire ring.

Part of the ceremony, which We, when We are elected shall bring back, was the aperitio and occulusio oris… the opening and closing of the mouth.   This symbolized the need to be prudent about what one said.

A consistory of Pius XII in 1946

So, a Pope announces the names of men whom he intends to make cardinals. However, if he dies before the Consistory or at least their solemn announcement somehow, the list is null and void.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. JamesM says:

    I’m a little confused Father. Would those men outside of Rome who were sent there gear by a papal delegate become a Cardinal at that point, or only at the point of the ceremony.

    It makes me think men like St. John Fisher who was created a cardinal while imprisoned in the Tower of London and as such never had the opportunity for any ceremony of any sort.

  2. JamesM:

    In olden days, a man would be a cardinal the moment the Pope solemnly read his name in the “secret” consistory. Then he would be notified that he was made a cardinal. Then he would either go get his hat or he would be sent his hat. If he was sent his hat, he had to go to Rome within a year to get his title in person. Later there would be a grander ceremony. But he would be a cardinal even without the ceremonies.

  3. Not says:

    I agree Father, Pope Francis will die as Pope cursing the Traditionalist and leaving orders to not bury him in lace.

  4. Gab says:

    Not only were these newly-minted Cardinals ”wrapped up in a couple of miles of red watered silk” but also in lots of lace!

  5. Paperman says:

    Archbp. Gänswein sobs his way through a speech in Germany. What was the topic of the speech?

  6. Matt R says:

    For better or worse, the author of the commentary on the relevant canons in the “New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law” of the CLSA maintained that there was still a secret consistory, but it doesn’t sound like that’s the case from what active canonists have said recently.

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