Precedence Among Cardinal Bishops

by Anura Guruge

Five Related Articles: 1. Over 80 Rule 2. Dean may be excluded
3. Camerlengo and The Major Penitentiary
4. The Next Conclave — Those That Will Officiate
5. Follow-up to Precedence Among Cardinal Bishops
6. College of Cardinals, the jus optionis preferment rules

This all has to do with precedence within the College of Cardinals, particularly come a conclave, and you should please refer to the above 4 articles for more background and context.

The Dean of the College of Cardinals and the Sub-Dean of the College, both of who have to be Cardinal Bishops, are the two most senior members of the College, by definition.

On February 24, 1965, Pope Paul VI (#263) with motu proprio, Sacro Cardinalium Consilio, decreed that seniority would no longer be the basis for who would be the Dean and Sub-Dean of the College of Cardinals when these posts became vacant (though this long standing tradition had been incorporated into the 1917 Code of Canon Law). Instead, when a new Dean or Sub-Dean was required, the cardinals bishops would elect one from among their ranks – independent of seniority, albeit subject to the person elected being approved by the pope.

[What motivated Paul to make this change is unknown. It was a full 5 years prior to his momentous Ingravescentem aetatem motu proprio, that deemed that starting January 1, 1971, cardinals over the age of eighty would not be eligible to participate in a conclave and thus be papal electors. By making it possible for the Dean and the Sub-Dean not to be the oldest, this change made it possible that the Dean and Sub-Dean had a shot at attending a conclave — as was the case when the then Dean, Cardinal Ratzinger [now, Pope Benedict XVI (#266), attended as a 78 year old. However, the Dean nor the Sub-Dean could attend either of the 1978 conclaves since they were both over 80.]


But in addition to the Dean and Sub-Dean, we have 4 other suburbicarian see Cardinals Bishops and three (or possibly more) Oriental Rites Patriarchs.

This posting is all about the precedence among the 4 other Cardinal Bishops — since the one with most precedence will deputize for the Dean and Sub-Dean if both of them are precluded from participating in a conclave — which is the case right now, since both incumbents are over 80. Please refer to article #4 in the list at the top.

Per another Paul VI 1965 motu proprio, this one, Ad Purpuratorum Patrum, on February 11, it had been established that the Oriental Rites Patriarchs, would always be classed as Cardinal Bishops, but would be ranked below the Cardinal Bishops who had title to a suburbicarian see.

So far, so good. Right? But, this where it starts getting complicated and, alack, messy.


In the case of Cardinal Priests and Cardinal Deacons precedence within the College is determined by when they were created a cardinal (even when a cardinal deacon, after 10 years as a cardinals, requests an elevation to the order of Cardinal Priests). Makes sense. This is the seniority-based precedence that applies in most organizations.

However, there was a January 10, 1731 constitution by Pope Clement XII (#247), Pastorale officium, that said DIFFERENT when it came to Cardinal Bishops. In its §5 it said that in the case of Cardinal Bishops their precedence would be based upon their original date of episcopal consecration.

In the Latin it goes as: ‘Quod vero attinet ad alteram controversiam, aliàs circa ipsum decanatum excitatam, num scilicet in eius assecutione cardinalis anterior in ordine episcopali, sed posterior in cardinalatu, praeferendus esset cardinali posteriori in ordine episcopali, sed anteriori in cardinalatu, declarationem a Benedicto praedecessore in litteris suis praefatis desuper editam tenore praesentium approbantes, pro maiori illius firmitate ac potiori cautelb, iterum statuimus, antiquitatem inter episcopos cardinales in dictâ Curiâ praesentes non esse metiendam sive ducendam a tempore suae promotionis ad cardinalatus honorem, sed a tempore eorum ingressus in ordinem episcopalem, itaut decanatus eiusdem sacri collegii ad antiquiorem in ordine episcopali, tametsi posteriorem in cardinalatu, pervenire debeat, et qui prius alicui ex dictis sex ecclesiis suburbicariis praefectus fuerit, praeferatur in assecutione decanatus huiusmodi alteri, qui ante ipsum ad cardinalatus dignitatem promotus fuisset.’

The 1913-1914 Catholic Encyclopedia, which didn’t get much wrong, now available online at www.newadevent.com, confirms this precedence for the Cardinal Bishops. You can find it in the last paragraph here, and you will see that it clearly reference the 1731 constitution — including §5.

Thus, we know, incontrovertibly, that the 1731 precedence ruling applied, at a minimum, between 1731 and 1913.

At the time Clement XII would have sought this rule of precedence for Cardinal Bishops, you did not have to be a priest, let alone a bishop to be made a Cardinal Deacon. Then, per the preferment rules of that time cardinal deacons could, using jus optionis, seek to become Cardinal Bishops after ten years — of if you were the senior most Cardinal Deacon, the third time a suburbicarian see became available during his tenure as a cardinal.

If you look at Web sites that lists cardinals, particularly in the context of conclaves, between 1731 and 1913, you will discover, to your dismay, that they do NOT reflect the Cardinal Bishop precedence rule. So much for veracity. No excuses. No caveats. We know, for a fact, that the 1731 rule applied up to 1913. So, if people didn’t pay heed to it … they GOOFED. Simple as that.

So far, so good? Get it? 1731 precedence for Cardinal Bishops applied, without exception till at least 1913 since the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia quotes the rule without ambiguity.


A number of us spent much of yesterday afternoon looking. We can not find a papal edict that changed the 1731 ruling. You would have to have a papal edict to change it.

It is unlikely to have been changed by the 1917 Code of Canon Law. Nothing had changed between 1731 and 1917 when it came to Cardinal Bishops to motivate such a change, though the 1917 Law required that all cardinals be priests, at a minimum.

It was in 1962 that John XXIII (#262) issued a motu proprio requiring that all cardinals be consecrated as bishops — unless an explicit dispensation was provided by the pope.

But, in 1961, John XXIII made another major change. This time to the jus optionis rules related to preferment. The senior most Cardinal Priest nor Cardinal Deacon could no longer seek elevation to be a Cardinal Bishop. The pope had total prerogative as to how he filled a vacant a suburbicarian see. He could create a new Cardinal Bishop or elevate an existing cardinal. However, the motu proprio, Ad suburbicarias dioeceses, that implemented this change does not mention that the rules of precedence were changed. But, as of these two 1961-1962 it would make sense if precedence for Cardinal Bishops were aligned with those for the other cardinals.

Yes, after this juncture it would make sense if the 1731 ruling was annulled and Cardinal Bishops, like the other cardinals, enjoyed precedence based on simple seniority as to when they were created.

BUT, we can’t find any papal edicts stating this.


Yesterday afternoon there was a flurry of activity on this front (because a person, IGNORANT of the 1731 ruling, questioned me as to the precedence of Cardinal Bishops).

My friend, Salvador Miranda, who runs the incomparable ‘Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church,‘ made this annotation to reflect what is going on.

Mr. Miranda is using the Annuario Pontificio as to why he no longer reflects the 1731 rule. [But, the 1731 rule is a lso not reflected between 1731 and 1913 … let alone 2006.]

The Annuario Pontificio, as far as I know,is NOT a Vatican publication. They can’t change the rules. Actually neither can the Vatican per se. Precedence can only be changed by a pope.

There is a LOT of confusion here.

What I am doing is giving YOU all the facts … as I can find.

In my limited experience, Rome might be good at many things, but competence isn’t one of them. < smile, smile > Just go check their College of Cardinal statistics. If they can’t get those right, I can envisage that they could also have overlooked the 1731 rule.

Basically, this ongoing. I have no axe to grind. I am only interested in accuracy, veracity and credibility. IF you can help, PLEASE do so.

Many thanks.

Please also read this May 15, 2010 Follow-Up Article.

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