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Why Do the Cardinals and the Pope Wear Beanies?

As I am writing this, John Paul II has just died and the cardinals are assembling in Rome to elect the next pope. A lot of people have noticed from the television coverage that the pope and the cardinals wear little beanies on their heads in a color that corresponds to their office: the pope wears a white one, and the cardinals wear red ones.

That ‘beanie’ has a practical, not a religious origin. It’s officially called a ‘zucchetto,’ which is Italian for ‘skull cap.’ It developed to solve a problem caused by the convergence of two rules of church discipine:

The tonsure

‘Tonsure’ is a fancy word for haircut.

It used to be required for any man entering the monastery or the clergy to be have their head partially shaved as the first part of the ceremony. The style of the tonsure varied from order to order and from region to region, but one common form was to shave the crown of the head, sort of like imposing male pattern baldness. Long hair was fashionable for men throughout most of history, so the idea behind the tonsure was to defer to Paul:

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him…
—1 Corinthians 11:14

The requirement for the tonsure was gradually relaxed in the west until it became a symbolic snipping of the hair. The Catholic Church abolished the tonsure in England and America quite some time ago. In Orthodoxy, on the other hand, the tonsure is still very much alive today. When the Orthodox speak of the day on which a priest was ordained or a monk entered a monastery, they routinely say that he was tonsured on such and such a date.

The cope lost its hood

It used to be that people wore copes in cold weather; a cape with slits for the arms and a hood for the head. Toward the thirteenth century, the cope lost its hood, leaving tonsured clergymen shivering in the cold, especially if they were elderly. Because of the passage I just quoted, it didn’t seem right for men to wear hats in church. So the skull cap solves the problem of shivering clergymen without having them put on hats. (Those big cathedrals had dirt floors and no heating system, and they were drafty since the doors were normally open.)

The Solution

It comes down to this: the tonsure and the hoodless cope create a problem (cold clergyman) that the skull cap solves (it keeps his head warm). Clergy tend to be very long-lived, and elderly clergy tend to be very high ranking, so only the higher ranks of clergy wear skull caps.

The need for the skull cap has gone, but the custom remains. Churches tend to do things like that. In your church, the minister probably doesn’t need candles to read the scriptures, but you light them anyway.