Cardinal Bishop, Cardinal Deacon, Cardinal Priest: What’s the Difference?

A group of U.S. cardinals returned from Rome after a two-day conference with the pope. What are a cardinal’s duties, and what do their ranks mean?

The title of cardinal is bestowed by papal appointment. Cardinals perform two primary duties: to act as advisers to the pope at his request, and to eventually elect his replacement. Upon a pope’s death or resignation, the College of Cardinals elects a member of the church to serve as the new pontiff (cardinals over age 80 may not vote). While a two-thirds majority vote is initially required to elect, a pope may be elected by a simple majority vote if nine days of voting produce no winner.The voting process last occurred in 1978 with the election of Pope John Paul II.

The three ranks of cardinals are cardinal bishop, cardinal deacon, and cardinal priest. Only six cardinals hold the title of cardinal bishop. Each cardinal bishop holds jurisdiction over a church in a suburb of Rome. These cardinals work in departments of the Roman Curia, the central administration of the church.

Often called “the pope’s cabinet,” cardinal deacons also work full-time in the curia. The senior cardinal deacon has the honor of ceremoniously announcing the newly elected pope from the balcony of the Vatican.

Cardinal priests are bishops who serve in dioceses outside Rome. The overwhelming majority of cardinals are cardinal priests, including U.S. cardinals.

Bonus Explainer: So, why do some cities have an archbishop but not a cardinal? Each of the 32 ecclesiastical provinces in the United States has a ruling archbishop, who is appointed by the pope, but it’s up to the pope to decide whether to make each archbishop a cardinal. So far, Pope John Paul II has promoted 12 U.S. archbishops; before his death in 1978, Paul VI promoted one. Of those 13, five are either retired or based at the Vatican. The other eight represent New York City, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, Detroit, Philadelphia, and the District of Columbia.

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Explainer thanks the Vatican Web site, writer Michael Sean Winters, and Adam D. Pederson for asking the question.