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Cardinal (Catholicism)
CardinalCoA PioM.svg
Coat of Arms
The coat of arms of a cardinal are indicated by a red galero (wide-brimmed hat) with 15 tassels on each side (the motto and escutcheon are proper to the individual cardinal).
College and orders of cardinalate
Titular church
Title and reference style
Special types of cardinals
Cardinals in pectore or secret cardinals
Vesture and privileges
Cardinals in popular culture
Article discussion

In the Roman Catholic Church, a "lay cardinal" was a cardinal who had not been given major orders, i.e. who had never become a deacon or a priest.

Properly speaking these cardinals were not laymen, since they were all given what was called first tonsure, by which at that time one became a cleric, and cease to be a layman.[1] In addition they were given minor orders, which were no obstacle to marrying or to living in a marriage previously contracted. The freedom to marry and to live in marriage is doubtless the reason why cardinals who were not in major orders were popularly, though inaccurately, referred to as lay cardinals.

A famous example of confusion in the opposite sense is that of the composer Franz Liszt, who was known as the "Abbé Liszt", although he had only received tonsure and minor orders. He was thus a cleric, but never became a priest, as the title of " Abbé" would wrongly suggest.


Ferdinando I de' Medici, was a lay cardinal for twenty-six years. Even after he succeeded his brother Francesco I de' Medici, as Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1587, he nevertheless remained a cardinal until he married Christina of Lorraine two years later.

Teodolfo Mertel, a lawyer and layman was named cardinal by Pope Pius IX in 1858. He was not a lay cardinal for long, as he received ordination to the diaconate the same year. When he died in 1899 he was the last non-priest cardinal.[2] (Giacomo Antonelli, who died in 1876 as Pius IX's Cardinal Secretary of State, remained a deacon when named cardinal in 1847.)

In 1968 Pope Paul VI seriously considered appointing the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain a lay cardinal.

Confusion concerning the title of "cardinal"

It is perhaps commonplace to think that the title of "cardinal" is the next order after "bishop" to which a man may be ordained, as "bishop" comes after "priest" and "priest" after "deacon". In fact, however, the position of cardinal is not an order to which one can be ordained, but simply a high office in the Church.

Changes in canon law

The 1917 Code of Canon Law decreed that from then on only those who were priests or bishops could be chosen as cardinals,[3] thus officially closing the historical period in which some cardinals could be clergy that had only received first tonsure and minor orders.

The same rule is repeated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, which adds that those who are not already bishops are to receive episcopal ordination.[4] Sometimes a priest who has been appointed a cardinal asks for and obtains dispensation from the obligation to be ordained a bishop.

With the motu proprio Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972 Pope Paul VI ended the conferral of first tonsure and laid down that entry into the clerical state would instead be by ordination as deacon.[5]


See also