CONSISTORY (Lat. consistorium, literally, a standing place, hence meeting place, waiting or audience chamber), a term which, like many other expressions, has undergone a regular evolution in the course of centuries. It was first applied to the audience-chamber in which the emperors received petitions and gave judgment; it soon came to mean also the persons who took part in the deliberation, and, by an extension of meaning, a tribunal or jurisdiction (see Du Cange, Glossarium, s.v.). But the expression has now long been exclusively applied to gatherings of ecclesiastical persons for the purpose of administering justice or transacting business.
In the Western Church the episcopal consistory was simply the bishops’ tribunal, the proceedings of which took a more or less strictly judicial form. But the name has disappeared almost everywhere; the only episcopal consistories outside England (see Consistory Courts) which survive are in Austria and in certain dioceses of Bavaria and Germany (see Vering, Kirchenrecht, § 149). Thus the name consistory has come to be applied almost exclusively to meetings of the college of cardinals with the pope as president, formerly for deliberative purposes, but nowadays purely formal. These meetings used to be frequent, but are now held very seldom, taking place only three or four times a year.
The cardinals (q.v.) form the pope’s council and senate; before it became the custom to entrust the management of various kinds of business, grouped according to their nature, to commissions composed of cardinals, the pope used to consider and discuss with the whole sacred college matters of general interest or those which were specially referred to him, notably the questions submitted to him by bishops from all parts of Christendom. To this are due a good number of the decretals which have found a place in the Corpus juris canonici. In the middle ages, when the cardinals were few in number, consistories were held very often. Thus the Gesta of Innocent III. tell us that this great pope “held publicly, three times a week, according to the usage then established, a solemn consistory; in it he heard complaints from all men, and examined in person even affairs of the least importance with a prudence and perspicacity which were the admiration of all.” Later we have recorded only one consistory a week; in the 16th century, according to Cardinal De Luca, it usually took place only twice in a month; and soon the consistories were held at still greater intervals; they were held more or less regularly during the Ember weeks, but now they have no longer a fixed date.
Whatever be their form, they are nowadays merely ceremonial, the business upon which they are supposed to meet being discussed and decided previously; consequently, they are merely a kind of solemn promulgation. The preparation of the business is entrusted to the commission of cardinals known as the Consistorial Congregation.
There are three kinds of consistory: the secret consistory, in which only the cardinals take part; the public consistory, to which are admitted persons from outside and a fairly large audience; and finally, the semi-public consistory, in which the bishops present in Rome take part with the cardinals, and are allowed to state their opinion. The last form is only used in the case of the consistory preceding a canonization. The public consistory is now only held for the ceremony of conferring the hat on newly created cardinals; formerly the popes used to receive in public consistory sovereigns and certain other great persons, but in this case the consistory was not deliberative in form.
Finally, in secret consistories were discussed matters of general interest, such as the creation of cardinals, the provision of cathedral churches and other higher benefices,—hence called consistorial,—the creation, union or division of dioceses, the conferring of the pallium (q.v.), and other matters of importance. In these consistories takes place the “preconization” of bishops appointed since the last consistory. The custom is for the pope to open the meeting by a discourse, or “consistorial allocution,” in which he deals with the position of the Church, either in general or in some particular country; or again, he may denounce some danger which is threatening at the time either the faith or discipline, or protest against attacks upon the rights of the Church. Such, for example, were the allocutions of Pius IX. against the successive invasions of his temporal domain, or that of Pius X. against the breaking of the Concordat by the French government.
In the consistory, the cardinals are seated in a circle around the pope; on his right sits the chief cardinal bishop, after whom are placed in order all the others; on the left of the pope stands the chief cardinal deacon; the chief cardinal priest comes next to the last cardinal bishop, and the last cardinal priest next to the last cardinal deacon. As in the old imperial consistorium, the cardinals assemble in the hall of the consistory, and there await the pope, who takes his place upon his throne; in former days he used first to give audience to those cardinals who had to submit certain matters to him, after which the doors were shut and the consistory became secret.
Authorities.—Bouix, De Curia romana, pt. ii. c. 1 (Paris, 1859); Plattenberg, Notitia congregationum, cap. 3 (Hildesheim, 1693); Cardinal de Luca, Theatrum veritatis, lib. xv. p. 2 (Rome, 1671). (A. Bo.*)