Next to the Pope, in the Church’s hierarchy, come the Cardinals. They are the counsellors of the Pontiff in many important matters pertaining to the government of the universal Church, and some of them exercise extensive jurisdiction in the various “Congregations” and tribunals which have been instituted for the administration of Church law. They form, so to speak, the Senate of the Church.
The word Cardinal is derived from the Latin “cardo,” a hinge. They are, as it were, so necessary to the government and discipline of the Church that it may be said to revolve around them as a door on its hinges.
The Princes of the Church. The office of Cardinal is a dignity only; the person who holds it has not received any new Order. It merely makes him higher in rank than other prelates. He is second to none but the Pope, and takes precedence of all other dignitaries in the Church. He is considered equal in rank to a prince of a reigning house, and is often spoken of as a “Prince of the Church.” He is responsible to the Pope only, and may be deposed by him alone.
The Cardinals are appointed solely by the Sovereign Pontiff. By a law made in 1586, the membership of the “College of Cardinals” (or “Sacred College,” as it is sometimes called) is not permitted to exceed seventy, and generally there are several vacancies. They are taken from many nations, although the number of Italian Cardinals is usually greater than all the others combined.
The Grades of Cardinals. They are of three grades: Cardinal Bishops, who are six in number, being the Bishops of certain suburban sees around Rome; Cardinal Priests, so called, although these, nearly always, are Bishops also; they may number fifty; and Cardinal Deacons, of whom there are fourteen; these are priests, or may be merely in Minor Orders.
The garb of Cardinals scarlet, with a biretta or cap of the same color. Chief among their insignia is the “red hat,” which also forms a prominent feature of their armorial bearings. A Cardinal is usually addressed as “Your Eminence.”
Duties of Cardinals. The principal duty of the Cardinals is to assist and advise the Pope in the governing of the Church. This is done in many ways — in “Papal Consistories” (in which details of Church administration are discussed and settled, such as the appointing and transferring of bishops, the division and creation of dioceses, etc.), and in “Congregations,” so called, in which are decided questions of discipline, subject to the approval of the Pope. The Cardinals have also a most important function when the Holy See becomes vacant, for, as explained in the preceding chapter, they elect the new Pope.
The Roman Congregations. The Congregations by which the Holy Father is assisted in the governing of the Church are: The Sacred Consistory, or Consistorial Congregation, composed of the Pope and the College of Cardinals, assembled to discuss the most weighty matters; the Congregation of the Sacraments; the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, which deals specially with the relations of the Holy See and other governments; the Congregation of the Inquisition, often called the Holy Office, which considers cases of heresy and apostasy, supervises certain classes of indulgences, and examines books; the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars; that of the Affairs of Religious; the Congregation of Studies; the Congregation of Rites, which regulates ceremonial details and also is in charge of the process for the canonization of saints; the Congregation of Ceremonies; the Congregation of the Council, which attends to matters of discipline and some matrimonial cases; the Congregation of Seminaries and Universities and that of Oriental Affairs; and the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, (the Propaganda), which supervises the work done in missionary countries. Besides these Congregations there are various tribunals. Three of these are known as “Tribunals of Justice” — the Rota, which means “the wheel,” because its twelve officials, called auditors, are seated in a circle and by turn examine the controversies submitted to it; the Apostolic Camera or Treasury; and the Segnatura or Signature of Justice, which examines petitions for justice and reports on them to the Holy See. There are also three “Tribunals of Grace,” which consider favors asked from the Sovereign Pontiff. These are the Signature of Favor, the Datary, in charge of benefices, etc., and the Sacred Penitentiary. Through this latter Office the Holy See gives absolution from sins and censures specially reserved to it, grants dispensations from vows, etc. The Sacred Penitentiary, under a recent decree, has all to do with indulgences (except indulgences which touch dogmatic teaching, and those attached to new prayers and devotions, which are under the care of the Congregation of the Holy Office).
There are moreover, several tribunals or offices “of Expedition,” through which apostolic letters are sent and other business is done. The more important of these are the Apostolic Chancery and the Secretariate of State. The Cardinal who holds the latter office attends especially to the relations of the Holy See with other governments.
Apostolic Legates. A Legate, in the practice of our Church, is a person sent as a representative of the Pope to a government or to the bishops and faithful of a country. He may be a Cardinal, or a prelate of lower rank. There are several grades. The highest are Legates properly so called, who have jurisdiction in many things which otherwise would be referred to the Pope, and who act as resident ambassadors of the Holy See in capitals where the Papal Government is recognized. Next comes Nuncios, sent to certain European States, whose duties are much like those of the preceding. Some representatives of the Holy See bear the title of Apostolic Delegate, and of these one of the most important is the prelate who represents the Holy Father in this country. He has broad powers, and from his decision there is no appeal to the Roman See; in other words, an ecclesiastical matter may be appealed from a diocesan or metropolitan tribunal either to Rome or to the Delegate, but if the appeal is made to him his decision is final.
Other minor legates of the Holy See, sent for special purposes to various parts of the world, are entitled Apostolic Vicars and Ablegates.