Well, they can wear feathers but just to be clear, this is about the venerable Princes of the Church. While looking into the topic of who can be a Cardinal and what is a conclave, I learned even more about the vast amount of misinformation floating around the world. A delightful example appeared in Wiki.answers under the Related Answers section: “Must Catholic Cardinals be homosexual?”
Further on was a section of questions still looking for answers, one of which was, “What is the corona’s job?” It was in the science category but I suspect a spelling mistake. Surely it should be in the legal or medical category.
But back to the subject at hand. A Cardinal is appointed by the Pope to assist him in administration of the church’s affairs. They form what is officially known as The College of Cardinals. As a side note, there a 3 collective nouns for cardinals: a college, a conclave and, just like the birds, a radiance. Guess which one I like.
Coincidentally, there are 3 official divisions of cardinals: bishop, priest and deacon. These designations have nothing to do with what they did before they were appointed but their parade rank when the College goes for a walk. Yes, I’m being glib but the technical details behind it are relatively complex and, ultimately, only affect processional order. There used to be a lot more fine hairs to split in terms of names for cardinals but we’re down to these main 3 now.
The category that most people are interested in is the ones who get to vote for a pope. The age limit is 80, so out of the current total of 217 Cardinals, 119 qualify as electors. While there is no maximum on the number of Cardinals in the College, only 120 are allowed to vote. So, if, just for argument’s sake and because I know you’re thinking it, Pope Francis appoints 3 more Cardinals under the age of 80 bringing that total to 122, who gets to vote? From what I’ve read, if he goes over the limit, well, then there’s a new limit; his papacy, his rules. For now. It’s not like this line item is worth playing the infallibility card over, seriously.
Confused yet? Trust me, it looks way worse in latin.
Finally, who can be a Cardinal? The simple answer gets a few people hot under the collar but, simply put, you have to be male, a Catholic in good standing and, since 1917, a priest. Before 1917 men from minor orders (ordained but not priests, e.g. deacons) could also become Cardinals. There is the idea only bishops can be appointed but that is essentially not right. There are priests who have been appointed and they apply for special dispensation to not be elevated to the order of bishop. Very confusing and I really don’t want to get into these details. The simple basic rule is male, Catholic and an ordained priest.
I know I haven’t covered much ground here but hopefully it answers a few questions and lays part of the foundation for conclaves and fun facts about papal elections of the past. Hard to believe there are fun facts but I will do my best.