Formally speaking, a titular church is a church in the diocese of Rome allocated to a cardinal priest. In the Early Christian period, titular churches were private dwellings in Rome where the sacraments of baptism and penitence could be administered. This network of churches became the parish system of the Roman diocese. Most tituli originated from private donations – the Roman legal term literally referring to ownership. Other tituli originated at places connected to the martyrdom or burial of an Early Christian saint. Early modern treatises assumed that priests were permanently allocated to this church – the term used was “incardinated,” or “hinged” and this is the origin of the word “cardinal.” In this way early modern authors used the building, the “Cardo dignitatis nostrae,” to trace the function of the cardinal from its roots in the early Christian Church. The titular church was also fundamental in defining a particular cardinal’s position within the College of Cardinals. Technically only cardinal priests had titular churches: cardinal bishops were assigned to a suburbican diocese while cardinal deacons were affiliated to deaconries, originally hospices for the poor and needy. However, the differences in status between tituli and deaconries remained important for the Sacred College throughout the early modern period, as it represented prestige and income. It also meant duties, expenditure and obligations, and this explains why cardinals paid particular attention to their deaconry and titular church during their entire career.
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