In the Catholic Church, a cardinal is a special advisor to the Pope. Cardinals play an important role in assisting the Pope, but they are best-known as the group of people responsible for electing a Pope when this is necessary. The conclave where a Pope is elected is a very old-fashioned and dramatic event, but it is only a small part of the activity of a cardinal.

The cardinals (the etymology of the word is disputed) were originally the leading members of the clergy of the diocese of Rome. Like clergy in other dioceses, they were responsible to advise their bishop and had various rights, including the right to elect the bishop's successor. During the Middle Ages, as the importance of the Bishop of Rome increased, the College of Cardinals became more and more powerful. Naturally, Catholics outside Rome felt that it was inappropriate for a small group of Roman clergy to control the governing of the entire Church, and so the College of Cardinals became increasingly international. However, a person appointed to the College of Cardinals is still given a symbolic rank within the Roman clergy of "cardinal bishop," "cardinal priest," or "cardinal deacon," and the bishops and priests are assigned dioceses or parishes within Rome (although these offices are administered by full-time pastors).

Although the Pope can appoint anyone as a cardinal, it has become understood that the bishops of major dioceses and the heads of the congregations, or Vatican departments, will be made cardinals. The College was heavily dominated by Roman and Italian members until very recently--and Italians are still significantly over-represented in the College. The balance of cardinals was altered after Vatican II. Various Popes increased the number of active cardinals from 70 to 120, and decided that cardinals over 80 lost their right to vote for a new Pope. Thus, more communities in the Third World are represented in the College than ever before.