Bishop (Catholic)

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A Roman Catholic bishop.

In the Catholic Church, a bishop is an ordained minister who holds the fullness of the priesthood. Diocesan bishops, known as Eparchs in the Eastern Catholic Churches, are assigned to govern local regions within the Church known as dioceses in the West and eparchies in the East. Bishops are collectively known as the College of Bishops, and can hold such additional titles as Archbishop, Cardinal, Patriarch, or Pope.



Bishop comes from the Greek word episkopos (επίσκοπος, from επι "over" and σκοπος "seeing"). It can be generally translated bishop, overseer, superintendent, supervisor, the first, leader or foreman. From the word episkopos are derived the English words episcopacy, episcopate and episcopal.

Bishops in the New Testament

The New Testament uses the word episkopos five times.

Words related to episkopos are used in two other verses. Some English Bibles translate this word as bishop (KJV, RSV, NRSV, etc.), while others, attempting to distance themselves from certain types of church hierarchy, use an alternative such as "overseer" (NIV, ESV, etc.).

The ministry of these New Testament episkopoi, according to some writers, was not explicitly commissioned by Jesus Christ as far as the Gospels tell, but appears to be a natural, practical development of the church of the apostles during the first and second centuries AD. Others maintain that the episcopal structure of the Church was present from the beginning, being a direct institution by Jesus, referring to the apostles who clearly lead the first local churches, governed and laid on hands. Supporting this latter view, the portions of the New Testament that mention episkopoi do not appear to be ordering a new type of ministry, but giving instructions for an already existing position within the early Church. In places (particularly in the verses from the Epistle to Titus) it appears that the position of episkopos is often similar or the same as that of presbyter (πρεσβυτερος), or elder and (or) priest. The Epistle to Timothy mentions deacon (Catholic)s (διακονοι) in a manner that suggests that the office of deacon differs from the office of the bishop, and is subordinate to it, though it carries similar qualifications.

In the Acts of the Apostles, episkopoi are mentioned as being shepherds of the flock, imagery that is still in use today. The other passages from the New Testament describe them as stewards, leaders or administrators, and teachers. In 1 Timothy episkopoi are required to be 'the husband of but one wife'. Thus, it is clear that the New Testament has no prohibition against bishops being married and already having children. The most famous example of this is the Apostle Peter himself, who was married and had children. It remains unclear however, whether a kind of celibacy or abstinence had to be practiced by these first bishops and apostles after their appointment or episcopal consecration (see also clerical celibacy).

It is interesting to note that in the second chapter of 1 Peter, Jesus is described as 'the Shepherd and Episkopos of your souls' (τον ποιμενα και επισκοπον των ψυχων υμων).

Bishops in the Apostolic Fathers

At the turn of the first century AD, the church started to acquire a clear organisation. In the works of the Apostolic Fathers, and Ignatius of Antioch in particular, the role of the episkopos, or bishop, became more important or, rather, already was very important and being clearly defined.

"Plainly therefore we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians 6:1.
"your godly bishop" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 2:1.
"the bishop presiding after the likeness of God and the presbyters after the likeness of the council of the Apostles, with the deacons also who are most dear to me, having been entrusted with the diaconate of Jesus Christ" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 6:1.
"Therefore as the Lord did nothing without the Father, [being united with Him], either by Himself or by the Apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and the presbyters." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 7:1.
"Be obedient to the bishop and to one another, as Jesus Christ was to the Father [according to the flesh], and as the Apostles were to Christ and to the Father, that there may be union both of flesh and of spirit." — Epistle of Ignatius to the Magnesians 13:2.
"In like manner let all men respect the deacons as Jesus Christ, even as they should respect the bishop as being a type of the Father and the presbyters as the council of God and as the college of Apostles. Apart from these there is not even the name of a church."Epistle of Ignatius to the Trallesians 3:1.
"follow your bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbytery as the Apostles; and to the deacons pay respect, as to God's commandment" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnans 8:1.
"He that honoureth the bishop is honoured of God; he that doeth aught without the knowledge of the bishop rendereth service to the devil" — Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnans 9:1.
— Lightfoot translation.

It is clear that, by this period, a single bishop was expected to lead the church in each centre of Christian mission, supported by a council of presbyters (now a distinct and subordinate position) with a pool of deacons. As the Church continued to expand, new churches in important cities gained their own bishop, but churches in the regions around an important city were served by presbyters and deacons from the bishop's city church. Thus, in time, the bishop changed from being the leader of a single church confined to an urban area to being the leader of the churches of a given geographical area.

Clement of Alexandria (end of the 2nd century) writes about the ordination of a certain Zachæus as bishop by the imposition of Simon Peter Bar-Jonah's hands. The words bishop and ordination are used in their technical meaning by the same Clement of Alexandria [1] The bishops in the 2nd century are defined also as the only clergy to whom the ordination to priesthood (presbyterate) and diaconate is entrusted: "a priest (presbyter) lays on hands, but does not ordain." (cheirothetei ou cheirotonei [2]

At the end of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 3rd century, we have Hippolytus of Rome describing another feature of the ministry of a bishop, which is that of the "Spiritum primatus sacerdotii habere potestatem dimittere peccata": the primate of sacrificial priesthood and the power to forgive sins [3]

Bishops holding political office

Since the publication of the new Code of Canon Law in 1983 by Pope John Paul II, all members of the Catholic clergy are forbidden to hold public office without the express permission of the Holy See. [4]

Diocesan Bishops or Eparchs

One form for the coat of arms of a Catholic bishop.
See also Ordinary

The traditional role of a bishop is to act as head of a diocese or eparchy and so to serve as an Ordinary or "diocesan bishop," known as "eparch" in many Eastern Catholic Churches. Dioceses vary considerably in their size of area and population. Some dioceses around the Mediterranean Sea which were Christianized early are rather compact; whereas dioceses in areas more recently evangelized, as in some parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, South America and the Far East, are much larger and more populous.


Duties of a diocesan bishop are to "teach, sanctify and govern": that is, to oversee preaching of the Gospel and Catholic education in all its forms; to oversee and provide for the administration of the sacraments; and to legislate, administer and act as judge for Canon Law within his diocese. He serves as the spiritual leader of the diocese and has responsibility for the pastoral care of all Catholics living within his ecclesiastical and ritual jurisdiction. He is obliged to celebrate Mass every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation with the intention of praying for those in his care (pro populo), assign clergy to their posts in various institutions, oversee finances, and make regular ad limina visits to the Holy See every five years.

Only a bishop possesses the power to confer the sacrament of Holy Orders. The sacrament of Confirmation is normally administered by a bishop in the Latin Rite, but any priest has the sacramental power to do so and may under various circumstances. Moreover, it is only within his power to consecrate churches and bless altars.

On Holy Thursday, he presides over the Mass of the Chrism. Though Oil of the Sick for the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, which is blessed at this Mass, may also be blessed by any priest, only a bishop may consecrate Chrism.

Only a bishop or other ordinary may grant Imprimaturs for theological books, certifying that they are free from doctrinal or moral error, as part of his teaching authority.

In former times, it was also the duty of the bishop to consecrate the paten and chalice that would be used during the Mass. Today, a simple blessing is used which may be given by any priest.

Canonical authority

Catholic bishops assembled in front of St. Peter's Basilica for the funeral of Pope John Paul II on April 7, 2005

In both Western and Eastern Catholic Churches, any priest can celebrate the Mass. In order to offer Mass publicly, however, a priest is required to have permission from the local Ordinary - authority for this permission may be given to pastors of parishes for a limited period, but for long-term permission recourse to the diocesan bishop is usually required. A celebret [5] may be issued to traveling priests so that they can demonstrate to pastors and bishops outside of their own diocese that they are in good standing. In the East an antimension signed by the bishop is kept on the altar partly as a reminder of whose altar it is and under whose omophorion the priest at a local parish is serving.

For priests to administer the sacrament of Penance they must have faculties, or permission and authority, from the local bishop (when the penitent is in danger of death, however, Canon Law gives any priest the right and obligation to hear any confession). To administer matrimony, they must have jurisdiction, either from general Canon Law or local diocesan law, or delegation from a competent authority. The other sacraments may be administered with at least the presumed permission of the local pastor or bishop.

Deacons and priests must also have permission, also part of their "faculties," to publicly preach.

The cathedral of a diocese contains a special chair, called a cathedra, in the form of a throne set aside in the sanctuary for the exclusive use of its Ordinary symbolizing his spiritual and ecclesiastical authority.

Additional titles and roles

Bishops may fill additional roles in the Catholic Church including the following:

The Pope is a man who possesses the sacrament of Holy Orders as a bishop and who has been chosen to be Bishop of Rome. Because the Catholic Church holds that the "College of Bishops" as a group is the successor of the "College of Apostles" as a group, the bishops of the Church in general council have the authority to govern the Church. However, the Church also holds that uniquely among the apostles Peter was given a role of leadership and authority, giving him the right to speak for the Church and making his leadership necessary for the completion of the College. Hence, Catholics hold that the Bishop of Rome, as successor of Peter (Peter having been first bishop there and having been martyred there) today possesses this role: the Pope, uniquely among bishops, may speak for the whole Church, and a council of bishops is incomplete without the approval of the pope.
Patriarchs are the bishops who head certain ancient autocephalous or sui juris churches, which are therefore a collection of metropolitan sees or provinces. Some of these churches call their leaders Catholicos; the patriarch or the Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Egypt, is called Pope. While most Eastern patriarchs in the Catholic Church have jurisdiction over a "ritual church" (a group or diocese of a particular Eastern tradition), all Latin Rite patriarchs, except for the Pope, have only honorary titles.
Catholicoi are the heads of some of the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches (sui juris) (notably the Armenian), roughly similar to a Patriarch (see above).
A primate is usually the bishop of the oldest church of a nation. Sometimes this carries jurisdiction over metropolitan bishops, but usually it is purely honorific.
Major archbishop
Major archbishops are the heads of some of the Eastern Catholic Churches. Their authority within their sui juris church is equal to that of a patriarch, but they receive fewer ceremonial honors.
Metropolitan bishop
A metropolitan bishop is an archbishop in charge of an ecclesiastical province, or group of dioceses, and in addition to having immediate jurisdiction over his own archdiocese, also exercises some oversight over the other dioceses within that province. Sometimes a metropolitan may also be the head of an autocephalous, sui juris, or autonomous church when the number of adherents of that tradition are small. In the Latin Rite, metropolitans are always archbishops; in many Eastern churhces, the title is "metropolitan," with some of these churches using "archbishop" as a separate office.
An archbishop is the bishop of an archdiocese. This is usually a prestigious diocese with an important place in local church history. In the Roman Catholic Church, the title is purely honorific and carries no extra jurisdiction, though most archbishops are also metropolitan bishops, as above. In most provinces of the Anglican Communion, however, an archbishop has metropolitical and primatial power.
Suffragan bishop
A suffragan bishop is a bishop subordinate to a Metropolitan. This term is applied to all non-metropolitan bishops (that is, diocesan bishops of dioceses within a metropolitan's province, and auxiliary bishops).
Titular bishop
A titular bishop is a bishop without a diocese. Rather, the bishop is head of a titular see, which is usually an ancient city that used to have a bishop, but, for some reason or other, does not have one now. Titular bishops often serve as auxiliary bishops. In the Ecumenical Patriarchate, bishops of modern dioceses are often given a titular see alongside their modern one (for example, the Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain).
Auxiliary bishop
An auxiliary bishop is a full-time assistant to a diocesan bishop. Auxiliaries are titular bishops, and are often appointed as the vicar general or at least as episcopal vicarof the diocese in which they serve.Source.
Coadjutor bishop
A coadjutor bishop is an auxiliary bishop who is given almost equal authority in a diocese with the diocesan bishop, and the automatic right to succeed the incumbent diocesan bishop. The appointment of coadjutors is often seen as a means of providing for continuity of church leadership.
Bishop Emeritus
This title is usually applied to retired bishops who are given a general license to minister as episcopal pastors under a diocesan's oversight. The title, in this meaning, is not used by the Catholic Church.
A cardinal is a member of the clergy appointed by the Pope to serve in the College of Cardinals, the body empowered to elect the Pope; however, on turning 80 a cardinal loses this right of election. Cardinals also serve as advisors to the Pope and hold positions of authority with the structure of the Catholic Church. Under modern canon law, a man who is appointed a cardinal must accept ordination as a bishop, unless he already is one, or seek special permission from the Pope to decline such ordination. Most cardinals are already bishops at the time of their appointment, the majority being archbishops of important archdioceses or patriarchs, and a substantial portion of the rest already titular archbishops serving in the Vatican. Recent popes have appointed a few priests, most of them influential theologians, to the College of Cardinals and a few have been permitted to decline ordination as bishops.

Ordination of Bishops and Eparchs

The Congregation for Bishops oversees the selection of new Latin Rite bishops with the approval of the Pope. Eastern Catholic Churches are required only to inform the Holy See of the election of a new eparch by the priests of the Eparchy once confirmed by the Patriarch of the church in question. In the Catholic Church a bishop can validly ordain a priest as a bishop provided that permission of the Holy See has been granted.

Apostolic succession and other churches

The Catholic Church has always taught that bishops are descended from a continuous line of ordained bishops since the days of the apostles, the apostolic succession. Since Pope Leo XIII issued the bull Apostolicae Curae in 1896, the Catholic Church has not recognized Anglican orders as valid because of changes in the ordination rites and divergence in understanding of the theology of episcopacy and Eucharist. The Catholic Church does recognize as valid (though illicit) ordinations done by breakaway Catholic sects such as the Old Catholic Church and the Polish National Catholic Church. The Catholic Church does recognize as valid the ordinations of the Eastern Orthodox, Independent Catholic, Old Catholic, Oriental Orthodox and Assyrian Nestorian churches so long as those receiving the ordination conform to other canonical requirements (e.g. is an adult male) and an orthodox rite of episcopal consecration, expressing the proper functions and sacramental status of a bishop, is used:

’’To remove, then, all shadow of doubt, this holy Council solemnly declares that the Churches of the East, while remembering the necessary unity of the whole Church, have the power to govern themselves according to the disciplines proper to them, since these are better suited to the character of their faithful, and more for the good of their souls.’’ [6]

However, Rome does not recognize the orders of any group whose teaching is at variance with core tenets of Christianity (e.g. The Liberal Catholic Church which has a strong theosophist tendency) even though they use the proper ritual. The recent practice of Independent Catholic groups to ordain women has added a definite cloudiness to the recognition of the validity of orders by Rome. The act of ordaining women as priests is incompatible with Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

See also


  1. ^ Clem., "Hom.", III, lxxii; cfr. "Strom.", VI, xiii, cvi; cf. "Const. Apost.", II, viii, 36
  2. ^ "Didascalia Syr.", IV; III, 10, 11, 20; Cornelius, "Ad Fabianum" in Eusebius, "Historia Ecclesiastica", VI, xliii.
  3. ^ Bernard Botte, O.S.B., La Tradition apostolique de saint Hippolyte: Essai de reconstitution, LQF 39 (Munster-Westfalen, 1963). English Translation added at website.
  4. ^ canon 258/3, CIC 1983
  5. ^ canon 903, CIC 1983
  6. ^ Unitatis Redintegratio 16


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