The size of the College of Cardinals has historically been limited by popes, ecumenical councils, and the even the College itself. From 1099 to 1986, the total number of cardinals was approximately 2900 (excluding possible undocumented 12th century cardinals, cardinals appointed during the Western Schism by pontiffs now considered to be antipopes, and subject to some other sources of uncertainty), nearly half of which were created after 1655.[1]


Before 1555

From the 13th to 15th centuries, the size of the College of Cardinals never exceeded thirty, although there were more than thirty parishes and diaconal districts which could potentially have a titular holder; Pope John XXII (1316—1334) formalized this norm by limiting the College to twenty members.[2] In the ensuing century, increasing the size of the College became a method for the pope to raise funds for construction or war, cultivate European alliances, and dillute the strength of the College as a spiritual and political counterweight to papal supremacy.[2]

The conclave capitulation of the papal conclave, 1352 limited the size of the College to twenty, and decreed that no new cardinals could be created until the size of the College had dropped to 16; however, Pope Innocent VI declared the capitulation invalid the following year.[3][4]

The Council of Basel (1431—1437, later transferred to Ferrara and then Florence) limited the size of the College to twenty-four,[5] as did the capitulation of the papal conclave, 1464.[6][7][8] The capitulations of the 1484 (Pope Innocent VIII)[9] and 1513 (Pope Leo X) conclaves contained the same restriction.[10] The capitulation of the papal conclave, 1492 also is known to have contained some restriction on the creation of new cardinals.[11]

The Fifth Council of the Lateran (1512—1517), despite its lengthy regulation of the lives of cardinals, did not speak to the size of the College.[5]

After 1555

Pope Paul IV (1555—1559) capped the College at forty members, but his immediate successor, Pope Pius IV (1559—1565) raised the limit to seventy-six.[2] However, the Council of Trent under Pius IV (session 23, July 15, 1563—session 24, November 24, 1563) did not proscribe a limit to the size of the College, although such a limit had been sought by Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor (who had complained about the size and quality of the College in an October 9, 1560 allocution to his legates, and sought a hard limit of twenty-six in his reform plans) as well as French orators (who preferred a maximum size of twenty-four).[5]

Pope Sixtus V (1585—1590) limited the College to seventy members in his December 3, 1587 papal bull, Postquam verus ille, which lasted until Pope John XXIII (1958—1963), who increased the number of cardinals in successive consistories to seventy-five (1958), eighty-eight (1960), and ninety (1962).[12] Pope Paul VI (1963—1978) increased the size of the college to 105 (1965) and 120 (1967); however, in 1973, Paul VI limited the number of cardinal-electors to 120, having disqualified cardinals from voting in conclaves upon reaching the age of eighty in 1970.[13]

Pope John Paul II officially maintained this limit, but approved "temporary derogations" of it on multiple occasions, even when doing so required him to create new titular churches out of those constructed after World War II on the outskirts of Rome.[13] Pope Benedict XVI also increased the size of the body, and there are currently more than 180 cardinals.


Most cardinals exit the College only by death, although a few leave it by election to the papacy, resignation, or dismissal, and thus changes in life expectancy partly account for the increases in the size of the College.[14]


For the Middle Ages, sources speaking to the size of the College of Cardinals are most frequently those relating to papal elections and conclaves.[14]


  1. Broderick, 1987, p. 11.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Pham, 2004, p. 65.
  3. Baumgartner, 2003, pp. 52-54.
  4. Jugie, Pierre. Levillain, ed. 2002. "Cardinal." pp. 241-242.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Miranda, Salvador. 1998. "Guide to documents and events (76-2005)."
  6. Burkle-Young, Francis A. 1998. "The election of Pope Paul II (1464)."
  7. Baumgartner, 2003, p. 78-79.
  8. Walsh, 2003, p. 109.
  9. Baumgartner, 2003, p. 82.
  10. Baumgartner, 2003, p. 92.
  11. Burkle-Young, Francis A. 1998. "The election of Pope Alexander VI (1492)."
  12. Pham, 2004, p. 65-66.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Pham, 2004, p. 66.
  14. 14.0 14.1 Broderick, 1987, p. 13.


  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. 2003. Behind Locked Doors: A History of the Papal Elections. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0312294638.
  • Broderick, J.F. 1987. "The Sacred College of Cardinals: Size and Geographical Composition (1099-1986)." Archivum historiae Pontificiae, 25: 7-71.
  • Levillain, Philippe, ed. 2002. The Papacy: An Encyclopedia. Routledge. ISBN 0415922283.
  • Pham, John-Peter. 2004. Heirs of the Fisherman: Behind the Scenes of Papal Death and Succession. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195178343
  • Walsh, Michael. 2003. The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History of Papal Elections. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 158051135X.

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