AskDefine | Define consistory

Dictionary Definition

consistory n : a church tribunal or governing body

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Primarily, a place of standing or staying together; hence, any solemn assembly or council.
  2. The spiritual court of a diocesan bishop held before his chancellor or commissioner in his cathedral church or elsewhere.
  3. An assembly of prelates; a session of the college of cardinals at Rome.
  4. A church tribunal or governing body.
  5. A civil court of justice.


Extensive Definition


Originally, the Latin word consistorium meant simply 'sitting together', just as the Greek syn(h)edrion (of which the Biblical sanhedrin was a corruption).
In the Roman empire, it was specifically applied to a formal meeting of the Comites consistoriales, i.e. those members of the Emperor's court with the title of Comes (the translation count is rather confusing) who were assigned—and this conferred the highest rank amongst Comites—to advise him in official, important matters, such as drafting bills and other written decisions, rather like the privy council of a feudal king. As the senate—in law still retaining the highest constitutional position, as the republic was never formally ended—lost most of its political importance, almost reducing it to a rubber stamp as a single-party state's parliament usually is, they stepped in as an official alternative power besides the throne, but real power could just as well lay mainly elsewhere, depending on the imperial favor and personal machinations.


Catholic Church

The consistory is a formal meeting of the Sacred College of Cardinals of the Catholic Church, except when convened to elect a new pope (then the name is conclave, and specific rules apply, also to its composition). Consistories are held in Vatican City for taking care of the business of the college, which usually involves advising the Pope on important matters concerning the church.
Since the Pope creates new cardinals in the presence of the college, the consistory is where this takes place. The identities of the cardinals-to-be are generally announced some time in advance, but only at the time of the consistory does the elevation to the cardinalate take effect, since that is when the Pope formally publishes the decree of elevation. Some men have died before the consistory date, and if a Pope dies before the consistory all the nominations are voided. However, the cardinal himself does not have to attend the consistory for his elevation to be effective.
Those new cardinals present are presented with their rings, zucchetti (small skullcaps), and birette (four-cornered silk hats) by the Pope. Formerly they also received an elaborate broad-brimmed tasseled hat, the galerum rubrum, at the ceremony, but Pope Paul VI abolished this in 1967 and those cardinals who want these obtain them privately from a maker in Rome.
The zucchetto, the biretta, and the galerum rubrum are all scarlet, the distinctive color of cardinals' vestments. When a diocesan cardinal dies, his galerum rubrum is suspended from the ceiling of his cathedral.
At the consistory cardinals are generally assigned titular churches in the diocese of Rome, though Pope Paul VI abolished their functional involvement in the governance of these churches; the cardinals formally "take possession" of these churches at a later date.

In Protestant churches

In Germany and Scandinavia, the word consistory (Konsistorium etc.) has been used for the chapter of a cathedral.
In the Reformed churches, a Consistory is a congregation's governing body of elected officials that include the Elders and the Deacons, thus making the body similar to the Session in Presbyterian churches.


A consistory in Jewish usage, a body governing the Jewish congregations of a province or of a country; also the district administered by the consistory. The Jews in countries under French influence made use of the term in the beginning of the nineteenth century, when the movement for political emancipation demanded the creation of a representative body which could transact official business with a government in the name of the Jews, and when the desire for reform among the educated classes demanded the creation of a body vested with authority to render religious decisions.


The first attempt to create such a consistory was made by Napoleon I. In 1806 he convened the Assembly of Jewish Notables, whose resolutions were confirmed by a subsequently convened Grand Sanhedrin; after which, by the decree of March 17, 1808, he organized a consistory. According to this decree every department containing 2,000 Jews might establish a consistory. Departments having less than this number might combine with others; but none had more than one consistory. Above these provincial consistories there was a central consistory. Every consistory consisted of a grand rabbi, with another rabbi where possible, and of three lay members, two of whom were residents of the town where the consistory sat. They were elected by twenty-five "notables," who were nominated by the authorities. Eligible to become members of the consistory were Israelites who had reached the age of thirty years, who had never been bankrupt, and had not practised usury. The central consistory consisted of three grand rabbis and two lay members. Every year one retired, and the remaining members elected his successor.
Napoleon demanded that the consistories should see to it that the resolutions passed by the Assembly of Notables and confirmed by the Sanhedrin should be enforced by the rabbis; that proper decorum should be maintained in the synagogue; that the Jews should take up mechanical trades; and that they should see to it that no one evaded military service. The central consistory watched over the consistories of the various departments, and had the right to appoint the rabbis.

French dependencies

This organization was also introduced in the various countries which were under the sway of France during the Napoleonic era, as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Westphalia. In the last-named country, ruled over by Napoleon's youngest brother, Jerome, a consistorial organization was introduced by the decree of March 31, 1808. It was composed of a president (who could be either a rabbi or a layman), three rabbis, two lay members, and one secretary. It was chiefly the outcome of Israel Jacobson's efforts, who hoped to introduce through such a medium his Reform ideas. A circular of this consistory ordered the introduction of confirmation and removed the prohibition against leguminous plants on Passover. None of these organizations survived the Napoleonic era with the exception of that in Belgium.
The desire to introduce reforms, and the difficulty of making them popular so long as they were individual decisions, led to various attempts during the middle of the nineteenth century to introduce either a consistory or a synod which should, by an authoritativevote, settle the difficulties which arose when the demands of the time came into conflict with the traditional law. None of these attempts were successful.

End of the nineteenth century

Since Napoleon's decree of March 17, 1808, various changes have been introduced in the method of electing the delegates, and some of the provisions assigning to the rabbis the role of informers were dropped. The most important changes are contained in the laws of Louis Philippe (May 25, 1844) and of Napoleon III (June 15, 1850, and August 29, 1862), and the law of December 12, 1872, which introduced the system of universal suffrage in the elections of the consistories. In the beginning of 20th century there were twelve consistories: Paris, Nancy, Bordeaux, Lyon, Marseilles, Bayonne, Epinal, Lille, Besançon, Algiers, Constantine, Oran; each is composed of the grand rabbi of the consistorial district and six lay members, with a secretary. Each consistory has a representative in the central consistory, which therefore is composed of twelve members and the grand rabbi of France; its seat is in Paris.


The word consistory (konsistorium) is also used in the sense of "university board" at some universities in Germany, Scandinavia and Finland (konsistori). In other countries another august assembly lends an alternative name to an equivalent body, e.g. senat in Belgium.


In Freemasonry a consistory is the name of the body which houses the highest (non-honorary) degrees of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite. The 31st and 32nd degrees of Scottish Rite Freemasonry (Southern Jurisdiction, U.S.A) meet in a consistory. Often, the Scottish Rite Temple in a town in referred to, by the members, as simply "the consistory".
consistory in Danish: Konsistorium (romersk-katolske kirke)
consistory in German: Konsistorium
consistory in French: Consistoire (catholicisme)
consistory in Italian: Concistoro
consistory in Hebrew: קונסיסטוריה
consistory in Dutch: Consistorie
consistory in Dutch Low Saxon: Garfkamer
consistory in Norwegian: Konsistorium
consistory in Polish: Konsystorz
consistory in Portuguese: Consistório
consistory in Romanian: Consistoriu
consistory in Swedish: Konsistorium
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