Anglo-Saxon Biscop, Busceop, German Bischof; from the Greek episkopos, an overseer, through Latin episcopus; Italian vescovo; Old French vesque; French évêque.
Bishop is the title of an ecclesiastical dignitary who possesses the fullness of the priesthood to rule a diocese as its chief pastor, in due submission to the primacy of the pope.
It is of Catholic faith that bishops are of Divine institution. In the hierarchy of order they possess powers superior to those of priests and deacons; in the hierarchy of jurisdiction, by Christ’s will, the are appointed for the government of one portion of the faithful of the Church, under the direction and authority of the sovereign pontiff, who can determine and restrain their powers, but, not annihilate them. They are the successors of the Apostles, though they do not possess all the prerogatives of the latter. The episcopate is monarchical. By the Will of Christ, the supreme authority in a diocese does not belong to a college of priests or of bishops, but it resides in the single personality of the chief.
The historical origin of the episcopate is much controverted: very diverse hypotheses have been proposed to explain the texts of the inspired writings and of the Apostolic Fathers relating to the primitive ecclesiastical hierarchy. They are most easily found in the work of von Dunin-Borkowski, on the latest researches concerning the origin of the episcopate. The Apostolic and consequently the Divine origin of the monarchical episcopate has always been contested but especially so since Protestantism put forward the doctrine of a universal Christian priesthood. At the present day, rationalistic and Protestant writers, even those who belong to the Anglican Church, reject the Apostolic institution of the episcopate; many of them relegate its origin to the second century. Loning attempts to prove that originally there were several different organizations, that some Christian communities were administered by a body of presbyters, others by a college of bishops, others again by a single bishop. It is the last named form of organization, he declares, which has prevailed. Holtzmann thinks that the primitive organization of the churches was that of the Jewish synagogue; that a college of presbyters or bishops (synonymous words) governed the Judaeo Christian communities; that later this organization was adopted by the Gentile churches. In the second century one of these presbyter-bishops became the ruling bishop. The cause of this lay in the need of unity, which manifested itself when in the second century heresies began to appear. Hatch, on the contrary, finds the origin of the episcopate in the organization of certain Greek religious associations, in which one meets with episkopoi (superintendents) charged with the financial administration. The primitive Christian communities were administered by a college of presbyters; those of the presbyters administered the finances were called bishops. In the large towns, the whole financial administration was centralized in the hands of one such officer, who soon became the ruling bishop (The Organization of the Early Christian Churches, Oxford, 1881). According to Harnack (whose theory has varied several times), it was those who had received the special gifts known as the charismata, above all the gift of public speech, who possessed all authority in the primitive community. In addition to these we find bishops and deacons who possess neither authority nor disciplinary power, who were charged solely with certain functions relative to administration and Divine worship. The members of the community itself were divided into two classes: the elders (presbyteroi) and the youths (neoteroi). A college of presbyters was established at an early date at Jerusalem and in Palestine, but elsewhere not before the second century; its members were chosen from among the presbyteroi, and in its hands lay all authority and disciplinary power. Once established, it was from this college of presbyters that deacons and bishops were chosen. When those officials who had been endowed with the charismatic gifts had passed away, the community delegated several bishops to replace them. At a later date the Christians realized the advantages to be derived from entrusting the supreme direction to a single bishop. However, as late as the year 140, the organization of the various communities was still widely divergent. The monarchic episcopate offers its origin to the need of doctrinal unity, which made itself felt at the time of the crisis caused by the Gnostic heresies.
J.B. Lightfoot, who may be regarded as an authoritative representative of the Anglican Church, holds a less radical system. The Primitive Church, he says, had no organization, but was very soon conscious of the necessity of organizing. At first the apostles appointed deacons; later, in imitation of the organization of the synagogue, they appointed presbyters, sometimes called bishops in the Gentile churches. The duties of the presbyters were twofold: they were both rulers and instructors of the congregation. In the Apostolic age, however, traces of the highest order, the episcopate properly so called, are few and indistinct. The episcopate was not formed from the Apostolic order through the localization of the universal authority of the Apostles, but from the presbyteral (by elevation). The title of bishop originally common to all came at length to be appropriated to the chief among them. Within the period compassed by the Apostolic writings, James, the brother of the Lord, can alone claim to be regarded as a bishop in the later and more special sense of the term. On the other hand, through especially prominent in the Church of Jerusalem, he appears in the Acts as a member of the body. As late as the year 70; no distinct signs of episcopal government yet appeared in Gentile Christendom. During the last three decades of the first century, however, during the lifetime of the latest surviving Apostle, Saint John, the episcopal office was established in Asia Minor. Saint John was cognizant of the position of Saint James at Jerusalem. When therefore, he found in Asia Minor manifold irregularities and threatening symptoms of disruption, he not unnaturally encouraged in these Gentile churches an approach to the organization, which had been signally blessed and had proved effectual in holding together the mother-church of Jerusalem amid dangers no less serious. The existence of a council or college necessarily supposes a presidency of some kind, whether this presidency be assumed by each member in turn, or lodged in the hands of a single person. It was only necessary, therefore, to give permanence, definiteness, stability to an office the germ of which already existed. There is no reason, however, for supposing that any direct ordinance was issued to the churches by Saint John. The evident utility and even pressing need of such an office, sanctioned by the most venerated name in Christendom, would be sufficient to secure its wide though gradual reception. The earliest bishops, however, did not hold the position of independent supremacy which was and is occupied by their later representatives. This development is most conveniently grasped in connection with three great names: Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian, who represent as many successive advances towards the supremacy ultimately attained. By Ignatius the bishop is regarded as the centre of unity; to Irenaeus he is the depositary of primitive truth; to Cyprian, he is the absolute vicegerent of Christ in things spiritual.
Catholic writers agree in recognized the Apostolic origin of the episcopate, but are much divided as to the meaning of the terms which designate the hierarchy in the New Testament writings and the Apostolic Fathers. One may even ask if originally these terms had a clearly defined significance. Nor is there greater unanimity when an attempt is made to explain why some churches are found without presbyters, others without bishops, others again where the heads of the community are called sometimes bishops, sometimes presbyters. This disagreement increases when the question comes up as to the interpretation of the terms which designate other personages exercising a certain fixed authority in the early Christian communities. The following facts may be regarded as fully established:
To some extent, in this early period, the words bishop and priest episkopos and presbyteros) are synonymous.
These terms may designate either simple priests or bishops possessing the full powers of their order.
In each Community the authority may originally have belonged to college or presbyter-bishops. This does not mean that the episcopate, in the actual sense of the term, may have been plural, because in each church the college or presbyter-bishops did not exercise an independent supreme power; it was subject to the Apostles or to their delegates. The latter were bishops in the actual sense of the term, but they did not possess fixed sees nor had they a special title. Since they were essentially itinerant, they confided to the care of some of the better educated and highly respected neophytes the fixed necessary functions relating to the daily life of the community.
Sooner or later the missionaries had to leave the young communities to themselves, whereupon their direction direction fell entirely upon local authorities who thus received the Apostolic succession.
This local superior authority, which was of Apostolic origin, was conferred by the Apostles upon a monarchic bishop, such as is understood by the term today. This is proved first by the example of Jerusalem, where James, who was not one of the Twelve Apostles, held the first place, and afterwards by those communities in Asia Minor of which Ignatius speaks, and where, at the beginning of the second century the monarchical episcopate existed, for Ignatius does not write as though the institution were a new one.
In other communities, it is true, no mention is made of a monarchic episcopate until the middle of the second century. We do not wish to reject the opinion of those who believe that there are in several documents of the second century traces of the monarchic episcopate, that is to say, of an authority superior to that of the college of the presbyter-bishops. The reasons which some writers allege, in order to explain why, for example, in the Epistle of Polycarp no mention is made of a bishop, are very plausible. The best evidence, however, for the existence at this early date of a monarchical episcopate is the fact that nowhere in the latter half of the second century is the least trace to be found of a change of organization. Such a change would have robbed the supposed college of presbyter-bishops of their sovereign authority, and it is almost impossible to comprehend how this body would have allowed itself to be everywhere despoiled of its supreme authority, without leaving in the contemporary documents the least trace of a protest against so important a change. If the monarchical episcopate began only in the middle of the second century it impossible to comprehend how at the end of second century the episcopal lists of several important bishoprics giving the succession of bishops as far back as the first century were generally known and admitted. Such, for instance, was the case at Rome.
This theory, it must be carefully noted, does not contradict the historical texts. According to these documents, there was a college of presbyters or of bishops which administered several churches, but which had a president who was no other than the monarchic bishop. Although power of the latter had existed from the beginning it became gradually more conspicuous. The part played by the presbyterium, or body of priests, was a very important one in the earlier days of the Christian Church; nevertheless it did not exclude the existence of a monarchic episcopate (Duchesne, 89-95).
During the first three centuries, the entire religious life of the diocese centered around the person of the bishop. The priests and deacons were his auxiliaries but they worked under the immediate direction of the bishop. In large cities, however, like Rome, it was soon found necessary to hand over permanently to the priests and deacons certain definite functions. Moreover, as a result of the spread of Christianity outside the great centres of population, the bishop gradually left to other ecclesiastics the administration of a fixed portion of the diocesan territory. In the East, at first bishoprics were created in all districts where there was a considerable number of Christians. But this system presented great inconveniences. To distant or rural localities, therefore, the Church sent bishops, who were only the delegates of the bishop of the city, and who did not possess the right of exercising the most important powers of a bishop. Such bishops were known as Chorepiscopi or rural bishops. Later on, they were replaced by priests. The establishment of parishes from the fourth and the fifth century on gradually freed the bishops from many of their original charges; they reserved to themselves only the most important affairs, i.e. those which concerned the whole diocese and those which belonged to the cathedral church. However, above all other affairs, the bishops retained the right of supervision and supreme direction. While this change was taking place, the Roman Empire, now Christian, granted bishops other powers. They were exclusively empowered to take cognizance of the misdemeanors of clerics, and every lawsuit entered into against the latter had to be brought before the bishop’s court. The Emperor Constantine often permitted all Christians to carry their lawsuits before the bishop, but this right was withdrawn at the end of the fourth century. Nevertheless, they continued to act as arbitrators, which office the earliest Christians had committed to them. More important, perhaps, is the part which the Roman law assigns to the bishops as protectors of the weak and oppressed. The master was permitted to legally emancipate his slave in the bishop’s presence; the latter had also the power to remove young girls from immoral houses where their parents or masters had placed them, and to restore them to liberty. Newly born infants abandoned by their parents were legally adjudged to those who sheltered them, but to avoid abuses it was required that the bishop should certify that the child was a foundling. The Roman law allowed the bishops the right to visit prisons at their discretion for the purpose of improving the condition of prisoners and of ascertaining whether the rules in favour of the latter were observed. The bishops possessed great influence over the Christian emperors, and though in the Eastern Church these intimate relations between Church and State led to Casaropapism, the bishops of the West preserved in a great measure their independence of the Empire.
The authority of the bishop was even greater after the barbarian invasions; among the Germanic peoples he soon became an influential and powerful personage. He inspired confidence and commanded respect. He was beloved for he protected the young and the weak, he was the friend of the poor, was accustomed to intercede on behalf of the victims of injustice, and especially on behalf of orphans and women. Through his influence, in many spheres, he became the real master of the episcopal city. The only functionaries whose authority was comparable with that of the bishop were the dukes and the counts, representatives of the king. In certain districts the preeminence showed itself clearly in favour of the bishop; in some cities the bishop became also count. In France, as a general rule, this state of affairs did not continue, but in Germany many bishops became temporal lords or princes. Finally, the bishop acquired an extensive civil jurisdiction not only over his clergy but also over the laity of his diocese. Such an exalted position was not without its difficulties. One of the gravest was the interference of the lay authority in the election of bishops. Until the sixth century the clergy and the people elected the bishop on condition that the election should be approved by the neighbouring bishops. Undoubtedly, the Christian Roman emperors sometimes intervened in these election, but outside the imperial cities only, and generally in the case of disagreement as to the proper person.
As a rule they contented themselves with exercising an influence on the electors. But from the beginning of the sixth century, this attitude was modified. In the East the clergy and the primates, or chief citizens, nominated three candidates from whom the metropolitan chose the bishop. At a later date, the bishops of the ecclesiastical province assumed the exclusive right of nominating the candidates. In the West, the kings intervened in these elections, notably in Spain and Gaul, and sometimes assumed the right of direct nomination. This interference of princes and emperors lasted until the quarrel about Investitures, which was especially violent in Germany, where from the ninth to the eleventh centuries abbots and bishops had become real temporal princes. The Second Lateran Council (1139) handed over to the chapter of the cathedral church the sole right of choosing the bishop, and this legislation was sanctioned by the Decretals. The bishops of the Middle Ages acquired much temporal power, but this was accompanied by a corresponding diminution of their spiritual authority. By the exercise of the prerogative of the primacy the Holy See reserved to Itself all the most important affairs, the so-called causae majores, as for instance the canonization of saints, the permission to venerate publicly newly discovered relics, the absolution of certain grave sins, etc. Appeals to the pope against the judicial decisions of the bishops became more and more frequent. The religious orders and the chapters of cathedral and collegiate churches obtained exemption from episcopal authority. The cathedral chapter obtained a very considerable influence in the administration of the diocese. The pope reserved also to himself the nomination of many ecclesiastical benefices. He also claimed the right to nominate the bishops, but in the German Concordat of 1448 he granted the chapters the right to elect them, while in that of 1516 he permitted the King of France to nominate the bishops of that nation. Subsequently the Council of Trent defined the rights of the bishop and remedied the abuses which had slipped into the administration of dioceses and the conduct of bishops. The council granted them the exclusive right of publishing indulgences; it also impressed upon them the obligation of residence in their dioceses, the duty of receiving consecration within three months after their elevation to the episcopate, of erecting seminaries, of convoking annual diocesan synods, of assisting at, provincial synods, and of visiting their dioceses. It also forbade them to cumulate benefices, etc. The same council diminished exceptions from episcopal authority, and delegated to the bishops some of the rights which in the past the Holy See had reserved for itself. Subsequent pontifical acts completed the Tridentine legislation, which is still valid. Protestantism and at a later date the French Revolution destroyed all temporal power of the bishops; thenceforth they were free to consecrate themselves with greater earnestness to the duties of their spiritual ministry.
Two classes of bishops must be distinguished, not with regard to the power of order, for all bishops receive the fullness of the priesthood but with regard to the power of jurisdiction: the diocesan bishop and the titular bishop or, as he was called before 1882 the episcopus in partibus infedelium. The former is here considered. Those belonging to the second class cannot perform any episcopal function without the authorization of the diocesan bishop; for as titular bishops there have no ordinary jurisdiction. They can; however, act as auxiliary bishops, i.e. they may be appointed by the pope to assist a diocesan bishop in the exercise of duties arising from the episcopal order but entailing no power of jurisdiction. Such a bishop is also called vicarius in pontificalibus, i.e. a representative in certain ceremonial acts proper to the diocesan bishop, sometimes suffragan bishop, episcopus suffraganeus. In the proper sense of the term, however, the suffragan bishop is the diocesan bishop in his relations with the metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province to which he belongs, while the bishop who is independent of any metropolitan is called an exempt bishop, episcopus exemptus. The titular bishop may also be coadjutor bishop when he is appointed to assist an ordinary bishop in the administration of the diocese. Sometimes he is incorrectly called auxiliary bishop. He possesses some powers of jurisdiction determined by the letters Apostolic appointing him. Often also, notably in missionary countries, the coadjutor bishop is named cum jure successionis, i.e. with the right of succession; on the death of the diocesan bishop he enters on the ordinary administration of the diocese.
The Council of Trent determined the conditions to be fulfilled by candidates for the episcopate, of which the following are the principal: birth in lawful wedlock, freedom from censure and irregularity or any defect in mind, purity of personal morals, and good reputation. The candidate must also be fully thirty years of age and have been not less than six months in Holy orders. He ought also to have the theological degree of Doctor or at least be a licentiate in theology or canon law or else have the testimony of a public academy or seat of learning (or, if he be a religious, of the highest authority of his order) that he is fit to teach others. The Holy Office is charged with the examination of persons called to the episcopate, with the exception of the territories subject to the Congregation of the Propaganda or to the Congregation of Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, or of those countries where the nomination of bishops is governed by special laws and concordats. We have said that the Decretals recognize the right of the cathedral chapters to elect the bishop. This right has long been long withdrawn and is no longer in force. In virtue of the second rule of the Papal Chancery the choice of bishops belongs exclusively to the pope. Exceptions to this rule, however, are numerous. In Austria (with the exception of some episcopal sees), in Bavaria, in Spain, in Portugal and in Peru, the Government presents to the sovereign pontiff the candidates for the episcopate. It was so in France, and in several South American Republics before the rupture or denunciation of the concordats between the states and the Apostolic See. By the cessation of these concordats such states lost all right of intervention in the nomination of bishops; this does not, however prevent the Government in several South American Republics from recommending candidates to the sovereign pontiff. The cathedral chapter is authorized to elect the bishop in several dioceses of Austria, Switzerland, Prussia, and in some States of Germany, notably in the ecclesiastical province of the Upper Rhine. The action of the electors, however, is not entirely free. For example, they may not choose persons distasteful to the Government. Elsewhere the pope himself nominates bishops, but in Italy the Government insists that they obtain the royal exequatur before taking possession of the episcopal see. In missionary countries the pope generally permits the “recommendation” of candidates, but this does not juridically bind the sovereign pontiff, who has the power to choose the new bishop from persons not included in the list of recommended candidates. In England the canons of the cathedral select by a majority of the votes, at three successive ballots, three candidates for the vacant episcopal see. Their names, arranged in alphabetical order, are transmitted to the Propaganda and to the archbishop of the province, or to the senior suffragan of the province, if the question is one of the election of an archbishop. The bishops of the province discuss the merits of the candidates and transmit their observations to the Propaganda. Since 1847 the bishops are empowered, if they so desire, to propose other names for the choice of the Holy See, and a decision of the Propaganda (25 April, 3 May, 1904) confirms this practice. Analogous enactments are in force in Ireland. The canons of the cathedral and all the parish priests free from censure and in actual and peaceful possession of their parish or united parishes, choose in a single ballot three ecclesiastics. The names of the three candidates who have obtained the greatest number of votes are announced and forwarded to the Propaganda and to the archbishop of the province. The archbishop and the bishops of the province give the Holy See their opinion on the candidates. If they judge that none of the candidates is capable of fulfilling the episcopal functions no second recommendation is to be made. If it is a question of the nomination of a coadjutor bishop with the right of succession the same rules are followed, but the presidency of the electoral meeting, instead of being given to the metropolitan, his delegate, or the senior bishop of the province, belongs to the bishop who asks for the coadjutor. In Scotland, where there is no chapter of canons, they follow the rules as in England; and when there is no chapter, the bishops of Scotland and the archbishops of Edinburgh and Glasgow choose by a triple ballot the three candidates. The names of these latter are communicated to the Holy See together with the votes which each candidate has obtained. At the same time is transmitted useful information about each of them according to the questions determined by the Propaganda. In the United States of America the diocesan consultors and the irremovable rectors of the diocese assemble under the presidency of the archbishop or the senior bishop of the province, and choose three candidates, the first dignissimus, the second dignior, and the third digmus. Their names are sent to the Propaganda and to the archbishops of the province; the archbishop and the bishops the province examine the merits of the candidates proposed by the clergy and in their turn, by a secret ballot propose three candidates. If they choose other candidates than those designated by the clergy, they indicate their reasons to the Propaganda. In the case of the nomination of a coadjutor with right of succession, the meeting of the clergy is presided over by the bishop who demands a coadjutor. If it concerns a newly created diocese, the consulters of all the dioceses from whose territory the new diocese was formed and all the irremovable rectors of the new diocese choose the three candidates of the clergy. Finally, if it is a matter of replacing an archbishop or of giving him a coadjutor with right of succession all the metropolitans of the United States are consulted by the Propaganda. In Canada by a decree of 2 December, 1862, the Church still follows the rules laid down by the Propaganda on 21 January 1861, for the United States. Every three years the bishops must communicate to the Propaganda and to the metropolitan the names of the priests they think worthy of episcopal functions. In addition, each bishop must designate in a secret letter three ecclesiastics whom he believes worthy to succeed him. When a vacancy occurs, all the bishops of the province indicate to the archbishop or to the senior bishop the priests whom they consider recommendable. The bishops then discuss in a meeting the merits of each of the priests recommended, and proceed to the nomination of the candidates by secret vote. The acts of the assembly are transmitted to the Propaganda. In Australia, a method similar to that in use in the United States is followed. Two differences, however, are to be noted: first the bishops still signify every three years, to the metropolitan and to the Propaganda the names of the priests whom they consider worthy of the episcopal office. Second, when the nomination of a coadjutor bishop is in question, the presidency over the assembly of consultors and irremovable rectors belongs not to the bishop who demands a coadjutor, but to the metropolitan or to the bishop delegated by him (Instruction of Propaganda, 19 May, 1866, modified by the decree of 1 May, 1887; Collectanea, no. 44).
Whatever the manner of his nomination, the bishop possesses no power until his nomination has been confirmed by the Holy See, whether in consistory or by pontifical letters. Moreover, he is forbidden to enter on the administration of his diocese therefore taking possession of his see by communication to the cathedral chapter the letters Apostolic of his nomination. From this moment, even before his consecration, the new bishop is entitled in his diocese to all rights of jurisdiction. He is required to make the prescribed profession of faith in the first provincial synod held after his elevation. Finally, he is obliged within the space of three moths to receive episcopal consecration. The right of consecrating a bishop belongs to the sovereign pontiff, who generally permits the newly elected to be consecrated by three bishops of his own choice. However, if the consecration takes place in Rome, he must select a cardinal or one of the major patriarchs residing at Rome. If however, his own metropolitan is at that time in Rome, he would be obliged to choose him. The consecration ought to take place on a on a Sunday or on the feast of an Apostle, by preference in the cathedral church of the diocese or at least within the ecclesiastical province. Before consecration, the bishop must take an oath of fidelity to the Holy See. Consecration by a single bishop would not be invalid but would be illicit. However, the bishops of South America have the privilege of being consecrated by one bishop assisted by two or three priests, if it prove difficult for them to obtain three bishops. Episcopal consecration has the effect of giving to the bishop the full powers of Order.
Rights and powers of the bishop
The bishop possesses, as already stated, the powers of order and jurisdiction. The power of order comes to him through episcopal consecration, but the exercise of this right depends on his power of jurisdiction. The sacerdotal ordination performed by every duly consecrated bishop is undoubtedly valid, yet the bishop can ordain only in conformity with the enactments of canon law. Only the bishop can confer major orders. The question has been discussed, as to whether the pope could delegate to a priest, for example the abbot of a monastery, the power to ordain a deacon. The bishop is the only ordinary minister of the Sacrament of Confirmation. Ecclesiastical law has reserved certain benedictions and consecrations to him, viz., those which are performed with holy oil. The following functions are reserved to the bishop: the dedication of a church, the consecration of an altar, of chalices and patens, and generally of the articles serving for the celebration of Holy Mass, the reconciliation of a desecrated church, the benediction of bells, the benediction of an abbot, the benediction of the holy oils, etc. A bishop is forbidden to exercise the Pontificalia — i.e. to perform episcopal functions in another diocese — without the consent of the ordinary, i.e. the proper bishop.
Besides the power of order, bishops possess that of jurisdiction; they have the right to prescribe for the faithful the rules which the latter must follow in order to obtain eternal salvation. The power of jurisdiction is of Divine origin, in the sense that the pope is held to establish in the Church bishops whose mission it is to direct the faithful in the way of salvation. The bishops have then in their dioceses an ordinary jurisdiction, limited, however, by the rights that the pope can reserve to himself in virtue of his primacy. But this jurisdiction is independent of the will and consent of the faithful, and even of the clergy. In certain important matters, however, the bishop must at times seek the advice, at other times the consent, of the cathedral chapter. In certain countries where chapters are not established, the bishop is bound to consult in some specified cases the consultores cleri dioecesani, or diocesan consultors. On the other hand, certain classes of persons, especially the regulars properly so called, are exempt from episcopal authority, and certain matters are removed from the bishops jurisdiction. Moreover, he has no power against the will of a superior authority, i.e. the pope, the councils, whether general, plenary, or provincial. The Bishop possess also other important powers through “delegated” jurisdiction which is accorded to him either by law, whether written or established through the Roman Congregations. The last named jurisdiction he exercises in the name of the Apostolic See (see below). Certain writers attribute to the bishop a third kind of jurisdiction which they call “quasi-ordinary” jurisdiction, but there are wide differences as to the definitions of this kind of jurisdiction. Several writers think that this distinction is useless; the jurisdiction known as quasi-ordinary is nothing else than an ordinary or delegated jurisdiction granted by written law or by custom.
It is a controverted question whether the bishops hold their jurisdiction directly from God or from the sovereign pontiff. The latter opinion, however, is almost generally admitted at the present day, for it is more in conformity with the monarchical constitution of the Church, which seems to demand that there should be no power in the Church not emanating immediately from the sovereign pontiff. Authors who hold the contrary opinion say that it is during the episcopal consecration that bishops receive from God their power of jurisdiction. But habitually before their consecration the bishops have already all powers of jurisdiction over their dioceses (Bargilliat, I, 442-445). Another question also discussed is whether the potestas magisterii, or teaching authority, is a consequence of the power of order or of jurisdiction (Sägmüller, Lehrbuch des katholischen Kirchenrechts, Frieberg, 1900-04, 24-25). Whatever the conclusion, teaching authority will here be ranked among the powers of jurisdiction. The teaching authority of the bishop and his governing authority (potestas regiminis) will now be successively considered, the latter comprising the legislative, dispensative, judicial, coercive, and administrative powers.
By Divine law bishops have the right to teach Christian doctrine (Matthew 28:19). At the same time, the obligation of instructing the faithful either personally or, if hindered, through other ecclesiastics is incumbent upon them. They are bound also to see that in the parish churches the parish priests fulfill the requirements of preaching and teaching which the Council of Trent imposes on them. The bishop must also supervise the teaching of Christian doctrine in the seminaries, as well as in secondary and primary schools. In virtue of this right of superintendence, and because of the intimate relations which exist between instruction and education, the bishop is empowered to forbid attendance at undenominational schools, at least in those districts where Catholic schools exist, and where attendance at the former schools is dangerous. In virtue of the same right he will very often be bound to erect Catholic schools or favour their establishment. No one is allowed to preach Christian doctrine without the consent of the bishop, or at least without his knowledge if it is a question of exempt religious preaching in their own churches. The Bishop has power to supervise writings published or read in his diocese; works regarding the sacred sciences are subject to his approbation; he may forbid the reading of dangerous books and newspapers. He exercises a special control over the publications of the secular clergy, who are bound to consult him before undertaking the direction of newspapers or of publishing works even upon profane matters. He has the right of special supervision over the manuals used in educational establishments, and as far as possible he will encourage the publication of good books and good newspapers. The bishop is the Inquisitor natus or protector of the faith for his diocese. He has not, it is true, the right to define, outside an ecumenical council, controverted questions with regard to faith and morals, but when a heated discussion arises in his diocese, he can impose silence upon the parties concerned while awaiting a decision from the Holy See. If anyone, however, denies a point of doctrine defined by the Church, even though it be all exempt religious, the bishop will have the power to punish him. He must likewise guard the faithful of his diocese against dangerous societies condemned by the Holy See.
(1) Legislative Power – The bishop can enact for his diocese those laws which he considers conducive to the general good. Though he is not bound to convoke a synod for this purpose, his legislative power is not absolute. He cannot legislate contra jus commune, i.e. enact a law contrary to the general law of the Church, written or established by custom, or to the decisions of general, plenary, or provincial councils. This is on the principle that an inferior cannot act contrary to the will of his superiors. He can, however, enact laws juxta jus commune, i.e. he can urge the observance of provisions of the common ecclesiastical law by penalizing the violation of the same (ch. ii. De constitutionibus, VI, I, ii; Friedberg, II, 937). He can determine the common ecclesiastical law, i.e. he can permit or forbid that which the common law neither forbids nor permits with certitude, and can apply to the particular needs of his diocese the general enactments of the pontifical laws. Many writers say that the bishop has also the power to enact laws praeter jus commune, i.e. to regulate those matters concerning which the common ecclesiastical law is silent; or at least particular points unforeseen by the common law. In any case, if the bishop wishes to add to the enactments of the common law (and the same principle is valid when it is a question of applying to the needs of his own diocese a general law of the Church), he must take care to make no enactment on matters which the common law, in the intention of the supreme legislator, has completely regulated. The common law implicitly forbids any episcopal action in such matters. Thus, e.g., the bishop cannot introduce new irregularities. In his diocesan legislation the bishop must not go beyond the purpose intended by the common ecclesiastical law. Thus, the latter forbids the clergy to take part in games of chance (ludi aleatorii), the aim of the law being to, condemn the love of lucre and to avoid scandal; at the same time the bishop cannot forbid in private houses other games which are not games of chance. On the other hand, if it be a matter concerning which the common law is silent, the bishop may take all necessary measures to prevent and put and end to abuses and to maintain ecclesiastical discipline. He must abstain, however, from imposing on his clergy extraordinary charges and obligations, and from unusual innovations. The legislative power of the bishop præter jus commune, is, therefore, far from being absolute. (Chaeys-Bouuaert, De canonicâ cleri sæcularis obedientiâ, Louvain, 1904, 69-77). Canonical writers discuss the right of the bishop to abrogate a local custom contrary to the enactments of the common ecclesiastical law. He probably has not the right, provided that the custom be juridical, i.e. a reasonable one and legitimately prescribed this custom obtains only because of pontifical consent, it does not belong to the bishop to act contrary to the will of the pope. The power of granting dispensations is correlative to the legislative power. The bishop may, therefore, dispense with regard to all diocesan laws. He may also dispense, in particular cases only, from the laws of provincial and plenary synods; any dispensation of these laws would be almost impossible, if it were necessary on all such occasions to convoke a fresh provincial or plenary synod. The bishop however, cannot dispense from enactments that relate directly to himself, and impose obligations upon him, or from enactments that accord rights to a third party. The bishop cannot dispense from laws made by the sovereign pontiff. To this there are, however, some exceptions. In certain matters, the written law or custom has granted this right to the bishop. He may also dispense from such laws in virtue of an expressly delegated power, or even sometimes in virtue of the consent, presumed or tacit, of the sovereign pontiff. These cases in reality are determined by custom. Canonical writers also admit that a bishop may grant a dispensation, when there is a doubt whether a dispensation is required, though in such a case it may be a question whether any dispensation at all is requisite (Bargilliat, I, 483-491)
(2) Judicial Power – This power is exercised in two ways: without legal apparatus (extra judicialiter) or in a judicial process (judicialiter). In his diocese the bishop is judge in the first instance in all trials, civil and criminal that pertain to the ecclesiastical tribunal, unless the persons be exempt from his authority, or the matters reserved for other judges; such. e.g., are the process of canonization reserved to the pope or the misdemeanors of a vicar-general, which fall under the cognizance of the archbishop. (Ch. vii, De officio judicis ordinarii, VI, I, xvi; Friedberg, II, 988; Council of Trent, Sess. XXIV, De ref., ch. xx.) In ecclesiastical trials he must conform to the general or special provisions of the law. (For matrimonial trials see “Instructio de judiciis ecclesiasticis circa causas matrimoniales” in “Acta et decreta Concilii Plenarii Baltimorensis III”, Appendix, 262; for trials of ecclesiastics see the Instruction of the Propaganda, “Cum Magnopere”, which reproduces substantially the Instruction of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars of 11 June, 1880, op. cit., 287; see also S. Smith, “New procedure in criminal and disciplinary causes of ecclesiastics”, 3d ed., New York, 1898.) The bishop has also judicial power which he exercises extra judicialiter both in foro externo (publicly) and in foro interno (in conscience). He has the power to absolve his subjects from all sins and censures not reserved to the Holy See. Moreover, the absolution from a censure inflicted by an ecclesiastical judge is always reserved for the latter or to his superiors (Bull, “Sacramentum Poenitentiæ” 1 June, 1741 in “Benedicti XIV, Bullarium”, Venice, 1775, I, 22; Const. “Apostolicæ Sedis”, “Collectanea S.C.P.”, 1002). On the other hand, the bishop may reserve to himself absolution from certain sins (Council of Trent, Sess. XIV, “De poenit.”, ch. vii; Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, nos. 124, 127)
(3) Coercive Power – The right to punish is a necessary consequence if the right to judge. Formerly the bishop could and did inflict even corporal punishments and fines. These are no longer customary even for ecclesiastics. The usual penalties for the laity are censures; for ecclesiastics, religious exercises, confinement for a time in a monastery. (Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, nos. 72-73), degradation to an office of less importance (privatio officii ecclesiastici), and censures, especially suspension. The bishop may inflict suspension ex informatâ conscientia, i.e. on his personal responsibility, and without observing any legal formality, but in cases foreseen by the law (Instruction of Propaganda, 20 October, 1884; Conc. Balt. in, Appendix, 298). To the coercive power of the bishop belongs also the right of issuing certain commands (præcepta) i.e. of imposing on a particular ecclesiastic special obligations sanctioned by certain penalties (Constitution, “Cum Magnopere” nos. 4 and 8). He has also the lawful power to remove the penalties inflicted by him. Bishops call also grant indulgences: cardinals 200, archbishops 100, and bishops, 50 days’ indulgence (Decree of Congregation of Indulgences, 28 August, 1903; Acta Sanctæ Sedis. XXXVI, 318).
(4) Administrative Power – The matters to which the administrative power of the bishop extends can only be briefly indicated here:
The foremost is the supreme direction of the clergy. At the present day, generally speaking, it might be said that the bishop has the right to retain in his diocese a priest to whom he has entrusted ecclesiastical functions and given the means of subsistence (Claeys-Bouuaert, 200-244). In case of necessity or great utility, e.g. given the scarcity of priests, the bishop may compel an ecclesiastic to accept ecclesiastical functions, but he will require a pontifical indult to impose upon him the cura animarum, or cure of souls. Ecclesiastics ordained titulo missionis (see HOLY ORDERS, MISSIONS) take upon themselves special obligations in this matter. (See Instruction of Propaganda. 27 April, 1871, and the Reply of 4 February, 1873; Conc. Plen. Balt. III, Appendix, 204-211; decree “De seminariorum alumnis” 22 December, 1905; “Acta Sanctae Sedis”, 1905, XXXVIII, 407.) The bishop may also nominate to the benefices and ecclesiastical functions of his own diocese. Certain nominations, however, are reserved to the Holy See, and in several countries the right of patronage still exists.
The bishop, moreover, intervenes in the administration of ecclesiastical property. No alienation whatever of ecclesiastical goods is possible without his consent, and he exercises supreme supervision over their administration.
He has a special right of intervention in all matters relating to Divine worship and to the sacraments; he authorizes and supervises the printing of liturgical books, regulates public worship, processions, exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, celebration of the Holy Mass, celebration of Mass twice on the same day by the same priest (see Bination), and exorcisms; his consent is required for the erection of churches and oratories; he authorizes the public veneration of the relics of saints and of those who have been beatified; he exercises supervision over statues and images exposed for the veneration of the faithful: he publishes Indulgences, etc. But in all these matters his power is not unlimited; he must conform to the enactments of the canon law.
Bishops have also a “delegated jurisdiction” which they exercise in the name of the Holy See; this power is granted to them a jure or ab homine. Ecclesiastical law frequently accords to bishops delegated powers; but it would be wrong to say, for instance, that every power of dispensation granted by a general law of the Church is a delegated one. Such power is perhaps quite as often an ordinary power. But when the law accords a power of jurisdiction to the bishop, tanquam Sedis apostolicæ delegatus, it is a delegated power that he receives. (See, for example, Council of Trent, Sess. V, De ref. ch., I, ii; Sess. VI, De ref., ch. iii; Sess. VII, De ref., ch. vi, viii, xiv, etc). Writers do not agree as to the nature of the power accorded to the bishop also as a delegate to the Apostolic See, etiam tanquam sedis apostolicæ delegatus. Some maintain that it is in this case the bishop has at the same time both ordinary and delegated power, but only relative to such persons as are subject to his jurisdiction. (Reiffenstuel, Jus canonicum universum, Paris, 1864, tit. xxix, 37); others contended that in this case the bishop has ordinary jurisdiction with regard to his subjects, and only a delegated one with regard to those who are exempt (Hinschius, System des katholischen Kirchenrechts, Berlin, 1869, I, 178; Scherer, Handbuch des Kirchenrechts, Graz, 1886, I, 421, note 36); others maintain that the bishop has the same time both an ordinary and a delegated power over his subjects, and a delegated power over those who are exempt (Wernz, II, 816); finally, others see in this formula only a means of removing any obstacles which might prevent the bishop from using the power accorded to him (Santi, Praelect. jur. can., New York, 1898, I, 259). The delegated powers ab homine are at the present of very geat importance especially in missionary countries. The Apostolic Penitentiary grants those which are only concerned with the forum of conscience. The others are granted by the Congregation of the Propaganda. They are called facultates habituales, because not granted for a determined individual case. These faculties are no longer accorded only to the bishop in his own person but to the ordinaries, that is to say, to the bishop, to his successor, to the administrator pro tem of the diocese, and to the vicar general, to vicars apostolic, prefects, etc. (Declaration of the Holy Office, 26 November, 1897, 22 April, 1898, 25 June, 1898, 5 September, 1900; Acta Sanctæ Sedis, 1897-98, XXX, 627, 702; 1898-99, XXXI, 120; 1900-01, XXXIII, 225). As a general rule the bishop can subdelegate these powers, provided that the faculties do not forbid it (Holy Office, 16 December, 1898; Acta Sanctæ Sedis, 1898-99, XXXI, 635). For further information see Putzer-Konings, “Commentarium in facultates apostolicas” (5th ed., New York, 1898). On the other hand, the bishop can always ask the Holy See for such delegated powers as are necessary in the administration of his diocese. The bishop is also the ordinary and habitual executor of the dispensations which the Holy See grants in foro externo, i.e. for public use or application.
Obligations of the bishop
In describing the rights of bishops we have already in great measure indicated what their obligations are. All their efforts must aim at preserving the true faith and a high moral tone among the people; they attain this end by good example, by preaching, by daily solicitude for the good administration of the diocese, and by prayer. Bishops, in effect, are bound by the Divine law to implore the help of God for the faithful committed to their care. Canon law has determined more fully this obligation, and imposes upon the bishops the obligation of celebrating Mass for the faithful of their dioceses (missa pro grege) every Sunday, on the feast days of obligation and on the abrogated feast days (Const. Leo XIII “In supremâ”, 10 June, 1882; “Collectanea, S.C.P.”, no. 112). The bishop is bound to take special care of the education of youth and of the training of his clergy; he must exercise continual vigilance over the latter and assist them with his counsels. The Church has imposed as special obligations upon bishops the canonical visitation of the diocese and the holding of an annual diocesan synod. The bishop is bound to visit each year the greater part of his diocese either personally or, if prevented, through his delegates. This visit will permit him to administer the Sacrament of Confirmation (Council of Trent, Sess. XXXIV, De ref., ch. iii). The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore grants the bishop three years for making this visitation (Acta et decreta, no 14). The Council of Trent ordered that an annual diocesan synod should be held (Sess. XXIV, De ref. ch. ii). At present, the Holy See no longer urges the strict observation of this legislation (Santi Praelect. Jur. can., I, 360) The Third Council of Baltimore decreed that the bishop should take counsel with the diocesan consultors whenever he wished to convoke a synod (Acta et decreta, no. 20) It is then unnecessary for the synod to assemble every year. However in missionary countries the Holy See desires that these synods should be rather frequent and dispenses the bishop from the observation of the formalities difficult to fulfill, e.g. the convoking of all ecclesiastics who ought to be present at the synod (Letter of Propaganda to the Bishop of Milwaukee, 19 July, 1889, “Collectanea, S.C.P.” no. 117). It is evident, finally, that the bishop cannot fulfill the duties of his office unless he observes the law of residence. The bishop is obliged to reside in his diocese and it is proper that he should be in the episcopal city on the principal feast days of the year. He cannot be absent from his diocese for more than three months, except for grave reason approved of by the Holy See (Council of Trent. Sess. VI, De ref., ch. i; Sess. XXXIII, De ref., ch. i; Benedict XIV, “Ad universae christianae”, 3 September, 1746; Letters of Propaganda, 24 April and 24 August 1861; “Collectanea, S.C.P.”, nos. 103, 105).
The bishop has also obligations regarding the Holy See. Throughout his entire administration he must conform to the general legislation of the Church and the directions of the pope. In this respect two special obligations are incumbent upon him: he must pay the Visitatio ad limina Apostolorum, and present the Relatio de statu diocesis, i.e. he must visit the shrines of Saints Peter and Paul at Rome and present a report on the condition of his diocese. In the time of Paschal II (1099-1118), only metropolitans were bound to pay this visit. The Decretals imposed this obligation upon bishop whose consecration the pope reserved to himself. It has become general since the fifteenth century, and Sixtus definitely ruled in favour of this obligation. According to this Bull the bishops of Italy and the neighbouring islands, of Dalmatia and Greece, must make the visit ad limina every three years; those of Germany, France, Spain, England, Portugal, Belgium, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, and the islands of the Mediterranean Sea every four years; those of other parts of Europe, of North Africa, and the isles of the Atlantic Ocean situated to the east of the New World, every five years; those of other parts of the world every ten years. The bishops of Ireland, in virtue of a privilege of 10 May, 1631, are bound to pay this visit only every ten years. Even in the case of more recently erected sees the years are counted from 20 December, 1585, date of the aforesaid Bull. The bishops must pay this visit personally and for this purpose are allowed to absent themselves from their dioceses. The bishops of Italy for four months, other bishops for seven months. The Holy See sometimes dispenses a bishop from the obligation of paying this visit personally, and permits him to send, as his delegate, a priest of his diocese, especially one of those who have been promoted to a high office (dignitates), or a priest of the diocese sojourning at Rome, or even the agent of the bishop in that city, if an ecclesiastic. While this visit, as stated above, ought to be paid the third, fourth, fifth, or tenth year, the rule suffers frequent exceptions in practice. The Visitatio Liminum includes a visit to the tombs of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, an audience with the Holy Father, and a written report which the bishop ought to present to the Congregation of the Council according to the formula of Benedict XIII in 1725.
Bishops subject to the Propaganda present this statement to the latter congregation. In addition they ought also to send every five years, a report to the Propaganda according to the formulary drawn up by this congregation 24 April, 1861. This obligation had formerly been all annual one.
Finally, mention may be made of certain privileges enjoyed by bishops. They do not fall under suspensions and interdicts, latæ sententia, i.e. incurred ipso facto, unless express mention of them is therein made; those who are guilty of assaults upon them are punished with an excommunication reserved speciali modo to the sovereign pontiff; they possess the right of having a domestic chapel and enjoy the privilege of the altare portabile, or portable altar, etc.
The title of bishop is still retained in certain Protestant churches.
- Alphonse Van Hove. “Bishop”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 29 June 2013. Web. 23 April 2017. <>