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College of Cardinals: The Jus Optionis Preferment Rules.

by Anura Guruge


Role of cardinals in papal elections, culled from Anura Guruge’s ‘The Next Pope’ book. Click to ENLARGE.


Precedence (or seniority) within the College of Cardinals is artificial and basically to do with status and standing, particularly so when it comes to ceremonial purposes — given that as of 1962 all cardinals, unless explicitly exempted by a pope, have to be consecrated bishops (and as such are, in the main, distinguished senior prelates to begin with). Precedence thus determines factors such as the order in which ballots are cast during a conclave and who gets to go ahead of whom when paying homage to a newly elected pope.

Precedence is based on the three ‘orders’ of cardinalate, viz. bishops, priests and deacons – in descending order, starting with the cardinal bishops, with the Dean and Sub-Dean of the College (who are always cardinal bishops) being the most senior.

Each new cardinal is created within one of the three orders based on his then ecclesiastical function. Cardinals appointed from dioceses, around the world, typically bishops or archbishops, are made cardinal priests. Curial officials and eminent theologians are created as cardinal deacons. The most senior of curial officials (in some cases retired) are assigned to one of the six suburbicarian sees – thus making them (along with any Eastern Rites Patriarchs) cardinal bishops.

Since the early thirteen century there has, however, been a preferment mechanism, known as jus optionis (right of option), which enabled the senior most cardinals to move up to a higher order when titles became vacant (or even move to different titles within the same order) – subject, of course, to papal approval. This enabled cardinals gain precedence, or in the case of a transfer within an order, to be associated with more ‘desirable’ title – ‘desirable,’ in this case, most likely having to do with the potential revenues/assets, status or location of a title.

The pope, however, has always had the power and the right to promote cardinals, unilaterally, independent of jus optionis. A curial cardinal deacon if appointed as Archbishop (or possibly the Patriarch of Venice or Lisbon) will most likely, possibly even ‘automatically,’ be elevated to being a cardinal priest — with a fairly good chance that his existing deaconry will be elevated, for the duration of his tenure, pro hac vice into a title. [Refer to this post for more on pro hac vice elevations.] Italian Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe (b. June 2, 1943) provides a recent example of this. In February 2001 he was created a cardinal deacon while holding a curial post. Two months later he was the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. In May 2006, Benedict XVI named him the Metropolitan Archbishop of Naples [Italy]. He was at the same time elevated to a cardinal priest, his deaconry, Dio Padre misericordioso, elevated to a title pro hac vice.

John XXIII Changed The Rules In 1961
In 1961, John XXIII (#262), with his Ad Suburbicarias Dioeceses motu proprio, overrode the jus optionis scheme that had been in place since 1586. Per Ad Suburbicarias Dioeceses the senior most cardinal priest or deacon no longer had the right to opt for a vacant suburbicarian see [i.e., to seek promotion to be a cardinal bishop]. Henceforth, the filling of a vacant suburbicarian see would be a prerogative of the pope, who could do so by creating a new cardinal or by promoting any of the existing cardinals, irrespective of their seniority.

John, with his characteristic flair, demonstrated the new norm by immediately promoting Cardinal Giuseppe Antonio Ferretto to be a Cardinal Bishop [of the see of Sabina e Poggio Mirteto] – though he, having been created a cardinal priest just three months prior, was the most junior of the cardinals.

This decree by John is still the prevailing norm.

This was another one of John’s very incisively astute moves. It ensured that he, and hopefully his successors if they too were so inclined, could globalize the highest echelons of the College. Between 1900 and 1961 there had only been ONE non-Italian cardinal bishop, that being France’s hugely talented and bearded Eugène Tisserant [1884-1972]. Since John’s ruling, 11 of the 25 cardinal bishops have been non-Italian.

In total there have been 60 cardinal bishops since 1900. 48 have been Italian. So John’s change to jus optionis has made quite a difference.

Of these 60 cardinal bishops since 1900, none were created cardinal bishops to begin with, though the pope had always had the option of creating cardinal bishops, provided that there were vacant suburbicarian sees, even prior to the 1961 edict. The last time a pope appeared to have created a cardinal bishop was in April 1449 when Nicholas V (#209) made his one-time rival, antipope Felix (V), the Bishop of Santa Sabina, when the antipope renounced his title and retracted his prior condemnations. [It is possible that there have been other cardinal bishop creations since then, but I have yet to find them, in what, at best, has been somewhat cursory, haphazard research. Come on, there is only so much I can look into at any one time. Working on about five parallel streams right now.]

In 1914, Pius X (#258), had made a smaller change to jus optionis – albeit this time overriding a right that had existed from the original thirteen century rules. As of 1914 there would be no inter-see translations for the cardinal bishops – albeit with Ostia always being assigned to the new Dean, per the by then well entrenched tradition. Pius X also pooled together the assets and revenues of all seven suburbicarian sees and decreed that these would be centrally managed via the Congregation for the Propagation of Faith. The suffragan (‘auxillary’) bishops, tasked with administering these sees as of 1910, were each assigned an annual of remuneration of 6,000 lire (~US $1,200 per then exchange rate). The remaining income was then divided into seven parts, the Dean getting two of these (for his two sees) and the other five bishops one part each.

Meteoric Elevations Prior To John XXIII’s 1961 Rule Change
The first half of the twentieth century appears to have been a great time to have been a cardinal. The maximum size of the College, per Sixtus V’s (#228) landmark 1586 Postquam verus constitution, was being maintained at 70 (until John XXIII serenely dismissed this cap at his very first consistory in 1958). To have less than 65 cardinals was not unusual during this era. Pius XII (#261), in particular, was unusually parsimonious when it came to creating cardinals, only creating 56 during his nearly 20 year (235 month) papacy. << Read this article >> At the end of Pius XII’s reign there were only 53 cardinals.

The near constant vacancies within the College during this period permitted cardinals to exploit jus optionis to rise very quickly through the ranks, particularly if you were an Italian cardinal living in or around Rome. [In 1939 35 of the 62 cardinals were Italian].

Italian Cardinal Gennaro Granito Pignatelli di Belmonte was created a cardinal priest in November 1911. He opted to become a cardinal bishop, four years later, in December 1915.

Italian Cardinal Francesco Marchetti Selvaggiani was created a cardinal priest on June 30, 1930. He opted to be a cardinal bishop on June 15, 1936.

The above mentioned French cardinal Eugène Tisserant went from cardinal deacon to cardinal bishop in just under 10 years between 1936 and 1946.

Italian Benedetto Aloisi Masella was created a cardinal priest in February 1946. He opted to be a cardinal bishop in June 1948. He was a cardinal priest for but 28 months.

Italian Clemente Micara was created a cardinal priest on February 18, 1946. He opted to be a cardinal bishop, of Velletri, but also retaining his original title (at the indulgence of the pope), on June 13, 1946. He was a cardinal priest for 146 days!

Jus Optionis In The 1983 Code Of Canon Law
The jus optionis rulings of Pius X and John are now reflected in Canon 350 §5 & §6.

Per this Canon, cardinal priests may transfer to another title and cardinal deacons to another diaconia – based on seniority and papal approval.

A cardinal deacon with ten full years of tenure can request to be made cardinal priest – with his precedence within the new order being based on his original day of creation. This option of getting promoted to the presbyteral order [i.e., priestly] is very popular and has been widely used – cardinals, since 1961, no longer having the right to seek promotion to the episcopal [i.e., bishopric] order.

Suffice to say that as of 1961 elevation within the College has been more sedate and more cosmopolitan.

The Evolution of Jus Optionis
The major milestones when it comes to jus optionis are as follows:

> Early thirteenth century: the original rules come to be.

1555Paul IV (#224), with his Cum venerabiles constitution, specifies new rules for the Dean and Cardinal deacons.

> 1586: Sixtus V (#228), with his far-reaching Postquam verus constitution, lays out more stringent requirements for cardinal deacons and their preferment – possibly, in part, to atone for the creation of his fourteen year old grand-nephew who as far as can be seen was never ordained, though he went on to become a cardinal bishop

> 1731: Clement XII (#247) formulated the precedence structure for the College.

1914: The Pius X change discussed above.

1961: The pivotal John XXIII change discussed above.


1965: Paul VI (#263) dictates that Dean and Sub-Dean should be elected from within the ranks of cardinal bishops by the cardinal bishops rather than it being based on seniority. See reference ‘2/’ at the bottom.

1984: The new Code of Canon Law with Canon 350 §5 & §6 as discussed above.

The Initial Thirteenth Century Rules
Whenever a cardinalate was vacant, the most senior of the cardinals residing in or around Rome could opt for that title. In the case of cardinal bishops, they could, per this scheme, opt for one (and only one) transfer of bishopric during their lifetime – albeit with Ostia always reserved for the Dean.

Cardinal priests and cardinal deacons could use this option either within their order or, more significantly, to opt for a title in a higher order.

These rules made sense within the context of that time, bearing in mind:

1/ The College of Cardinals was still rather new, having only come to be as of 1150.

2/ It was only between 1139 and 1179 that all cardinals, irrespective of their order, got the right to vote in papal elections.

3/ The notion of non-resident titular cardinals had only really come to pass as of 1163.

It is, however, also worth noting that it this juncture, of the cardinals residing in and around Rome, only the cardinal bishops would have been consecrated bishops. Many of the cardinal deacons were unlikely to have been priests.

1555 Paul IV & 1586 Sixtus V Changes
Paul IV deemed that the most senior [i.e., earliest consecrated] cardinal bishop residing in or around Rome would automatically become the new Dean of the College of Cardinals (whenever that vacancy arose).

This constitution also modified jus optionis rules so that a cardinal deacon with ten years of tenure would get precedence when it came to preferment over cardinal priests created since his creation – provided that his ‘opting up’ would not reduce the number of cardinals deacons in the College to less than ten.

Sixtus V, in 1586, deemed that one needed to be at least 22 years old in order to be created a cardinal deacon and, moreover, be prepared to be ordained within a year of their creation. If they did not satisfy the ordination criteria, they would (in theory) lose their appointment. Upon being ordained, a cardinal deacon would be re-assigned as a cardinal priest (with a new title) – but only when a new cardinal deacon was created to backfill the resulting vacancy. [As in 1555, there appears to have been an underlying concern about depleting the ranks of cardinal deacons.]

The jus optionis preferment rules were also updated to state that cardinal deacons must have ten years of tenure before they could request a vacant suburbicarian see [i.e., be a cardinal bishop]. However, the cardinal protodeacon [i.e., the earliest created], provided that he was 30 years or older, could opt for a suburbicarian see if it became vacant for a third time since his creation.

In 1731 Clement XII formulated the now familiar rules of precedence within the College. Seniority within the two lower ranks is based on the date of creation (even after a jus optionis preferment to the order of priest), whereas in the case of the bishops, it is determined per the date of episcopal consecration.

Then came the 1914, 1961 and 1984 updates.

In 1965, Paul VI (#263), 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.


Also refer to these four related articles:

1/ Precedence Among Cardinal Bishops – Rationalization << click here >>


2/ Precedence Among Cardinal Bishops << click here >> Reference here to the 1965 ruling for the election of the Dean and Sub-Dean.


Related posts:
++++ Search ‘popeor ‘cardinal’ for MANY other posts >>>>
++++ Check Category ‘religion’ >>>>


by Anura Guruge

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About Anura Guruge

See 'The Blogger' on my https://nhlifefree.com/ blog.

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