The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) provides great resources for covering the Catholic Church. Here is a portion of
How to Cover the Catholic Church
Covering the Local Church
The Second Vatican Council described the local or particular church as a “community existing around an altar, under the sacred ministry of the bishop” (
no. 26). The universal (catholic) church is a communion of all those particular churches. In other words, the archdiocese or diocese, as a local community of Christ’s followers led and served by a bishop with the assistance of his priests, is one of the core realities in the Catholic understanding of what it means to be a church.
For those not familiar with the intricacies of how the Catholic Church operates at the diocesan or parish level, this chapter is intended to be a brief roadmap to the most salient parts of that structure. See the Glossary in this book for a definition or description of many of the terms you may run across here.
Dioceses and Archdioceses
In their internal operation, dioceses and archdioceses are virtually alike. But an archbishop, head of an archdiocese, has additional responsibilities because he is also head of an ecclesiastical province. The province compromises the archdiocese and the diocese under it. In a province, the archdiocese is referred to as the
and the dioceses are
The diocese is headed by a bishop or, when one bishop has died or retired and his successor has not yet been installed, an administrator. Theologically, for Catholics the bishop is a successor of the first apostles, the chief teacher and guardian of faith and morals for the people entrusted to him. He has the duty of ministering to his people, leading them to holiness by his own example, by teaching and preaching, and by administering the sacraments.
The central offices of a diocese – called by a variety of names such as
chancery, Catholic center, pastoral center
– are usually located in the
the city after which the diocese is named. But there are exceptions. For example, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe’s Catholic center is located in Albuquerque, N.M.; the chancery office of the Diocese of Baker, Ore., is located in Bend.
The way diocesan offices are structured varies widely from one diocese to the next. But there are some offices every diocese must have by church law, such that vicar general, chancellor, finance office and tribunal; and there are some offices that virtually every diocese needs as a practical matter, such as offices for Catholic schools, religious education or catechetics, Catholic Charities or social services, and liturgy or worship.
The bishop who heads a diocese is called the
. He is the chief legislator, executive and judge in the diocese. He alone can legislate. He can exercise executive power personally or through vicars general or Episcopal vicars. He can exercise judicial power personally or through a judicial vicar and judges.
If the diocesan bishop has other bishops assisting him, they are called
. In some circumstances, especially if he has health problems that limit his ministry or if he is nearing retirement, a diocesan bishop may ask for a coadjutor. A
has a right of succession; that is, upon the death or retirement of the diocesan bishop, the coadjutor immediately becomes the new diocesan bishop. Auxiliary bishops do not have the right of succession.
Auxiliary bishops always have the title of bishop –
Auxiliary Bishop John Smith, Bishop Smith
– whether they serve in a diocese or archdiocese. When a coadjutor is appointed to an archdiocese, however, he has the title of archbishop:
Coadjutor Archbishop John Smith, Archbishop Smith
Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars
The bishop’s chief administrative aide, the
must be a priest or bishop, ordinarily with a licentiate or doctorate in canon law or theology. Small dioceses typically have only one, but larger dioceses may have several. A vicar general has the same ordinary executive powers over the whole diocese as the diocesan bishop, with the exception of those powers the bishop has reserved to himself and those reserved to the bishop alone by church law.
Ordinarily the priest or bishop designated as moderator of the curis is also a vicar general. If there is a coadjutor bishop, church law says he is to be made a vicar general. If there is an auxiliary bishop, he is made to be a vicar general.
If there are several auxiliaries, as there typically are in very large dioceses or archdioceses like Chicago, New York, or Los Angeles, those auxiliaries not designated as vicars general are to be made
. Priests may also be named episcopal vicars. Within the geographic area or type of affairs entrusted to him, an episcopal vicar has the same executive powers that a vicar general has over the whole diocese. Often episcopal vicars are responsible for a particular geographic region of the diocese.
The chancellor is the official keeper of the diocesan records and archives and is the diocesan notary. He or she is responsible for recording all official diocesan actions and overseeing parish record keeping. Once only priests could be chancellors, but under the new
Code of Canon Law
adopted in 1983, ordination is no longer a prerequisite. Since then a number of women have become chancellors in the U.S. dioceses; it is the highest-ranking diocesan position open to women.
Judicial Vicar and Tribunal Officials
Although the diocesan bi shop is the chief local ecclesiastical judge in church law, he can and ordinarily does delegate that responsibility to a
and to judges who sit on the diocesan
, or court. The judicial vicar oversees the activities of the court and is one of its judges. Most court cases in a diocese concern petitions by civilly divorced Catholics to have their former marriage declared null – commonly called an
Sometimes the diocesan courts are referred to as
This term is technically inaccurate since they do have jurisdiction over other cases as well, but it is fairly accurate as an empirical description of what most of these courts actually do most of the time.
The judicial vicar must be a priest. Although some other judges on the tribunal need not be ordained, on any three-judge panel (the normal number to hear any case) at least two must be priests. Apart from judges, other key tribunal officials include the
defender of the bond
– in essence the church attorney charged with advocating the validity of a marriage against any claim that it was not valid – and the advocate for the person claiming a previous marriage was null. Judges must have graduate degrees in canon law.
“Vicar” – from a Latin word for “substitute” – is used in a variety of context in the Catholic Church, mainly to refer to officials who can substitute for a bishop in his various duties. IN addition to the vicars general, vicars and judicial vicars mentioned above, “vicar” can be used for various officials in the diocesan offices who are charged with overseeing a particular region or ministry or other function on behalf of the bishop. Examples are vicar for priests, vicar for religious, vicar for Spanish-speaking Catholics, regional vicar, vicar for ethnic ministries. In each case, the person holding the title acts as the bishop’s chief representative in a particular region of the diocese, particular area of ministry, or oversight of ministries. Some dioceses divide their geographic regions as
assigning a vicar to head each one.
Financial Officer and Council
A bishop is required to have a financial officer and financial council. For diocesan financial transactions exceeding a certain amount, he must consult with the council; at a higher threshold, he must have the council’s consent; at a still higher threshold, he must obtain consent from the Vatican. These figures have come into prominent news play several times in recent years in bankruptcy protection dealings by several U.S. dioceses to settle lawsuits over the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, including a notable case in which the Boston archdiocesan financial council rejected a proposed settlement that required its approval. The dollar amounts for each threshold have been set by the USCCB with confirmation by the Vatican, but over the years they have changed.
Other Typical Diocesan Offices
Most dioceses will also have offices for some or all of the following:
Presbyteral Council and College of Consultors
- Catholic Charities and/or social services
- Catholic schools
- Religious education
- Liturgy or worship
- Pro-life activities
- Ecumenical and interreligious relations
Each diocese has a
– called a
in church law – which serves as a consultative body of the bishop. About half the priests on the council are elected by their fellow priests. In addition, some priests, such as certain diocesan officials, may belong to the council automatically, and some may be appointed by the bishop. The statues of the council determine whether or to what extent priests in religious orders residing in the diocese are also represented. From among the members of the priests’ council the bishop selects six to 12 priests to serve as the diocesan
college of consultors
. When the diocesan bishop dies, retires or is transferred, if there is no auxiliary bishop, the college of consultors is responsible for the governance of the diocese and elects a diocesan administrator from among the priests of the diocese. ON certain matters the administrator must consult with the college. The priests’ council is automatically dissolved when a diocese is vacant, but the college of consultors is not.
A consultative body to the bishop, a diocesan
is made up mainly of laypeople but typically includes representatives of the diocese’s clergy and religious as well. Church law says it is to be convened at least once a year. It is automatically dissolved when the diocese is vacant.
Local Diocesan Director
Most dioceses produce an annual directory of their diocesan offices and all parishes, including staff personnel at the diocesan and parish level. A number of dioceses have this information on an Internet site, but Internet savvy varies widely from diocese to diocese. If you are new to covering religion, contact your diocesan communications officer to find out what directory resources the diocese has online or in print to help you do your job.
The priest who heads a parish is its
and is appointed by the diocesan bishop. Sometimes between pastors a parish may be headed temporarily by an administrator, also appointed by the bishop. In dioceses where they are insufficient priests to have a resident pastor in every parish, some parishes may be administered by a deacon, sister, brother or lay person. In such cases a priest who resides elsewhere must be named the
. The canonical pastor ordinarily provides sacramental ministry to the community. If someone who is not a priest is appointed to coordinate other parish activities, he or she may be in charge of a wide range of things such as adult and child religious education and formation, sacramental preparation, coordination of music ministry and other liturgical ministries, oversight of social and other outreach ministries, and worship services such as the Liturgy and the Hours or a Liturgy of the Word on weekdays or on Sunday when there is no priest available to celebrate Mass.
Parishes without resident priests have become more common in recent years in town-and-country America, especially rural or semi-rural dioceses in the Middle West and Upper Midwest, where previously there were many parishes with only one priest and where no a lack of priests leads to parishes being served sacramentally by a nonresident priest.
On the opposite end of the parish spectrum are many urban, suburban and exurban parishes – especially in the East and in larger metropolitan areas across the country – where parish size and diversity has led to multiple ministries, many led by lay ecclesial ministers. Those parishes may include priests who are
, also sometimes called
. They may also have lay pastoral associates, religious education coordinators, parochial elementary or high school principals, teachers, youth ministers, liturgy coordinators, music coordinators, office managers and a variety of other people working in paid positions full-time or part-time.
In addition to paid staff, Catholic parishes large and small have numerous volunteers – parishioners involved in social ministries, catechists, leaders of Bible study or prayer groups, youth ministries, people who visit the sick or homebound, and so on. For Mass, and other liturgical services, volunteers may include altar servers, musicians, choir members, readers, ushers or greeters, extraordinary ministers of Communion, and others.
Provinces and State Catholic Conferences
In the United States, two states have two Latin rite archdioceses and hence two ecclesiastical
– California, with the Archdioceses of Los Angeles and of San Francisco, Texas, with the Archdioceses of San Antonio and of Galveston-Houston.
In a number of the country’s more populous states, the ecclesiastical provinces is co-extensive with the state boundaries. New York (Archdiocese of New York), New Jersey (Newark), Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), Florida (Miami), Ohio (Cincinnati), Illinois (Chicago), Michigan (Detroit), Indiana (Indianapolis) and Wisconsin (Milwaukee) are examples.
In other areas the dioceses of two or more states are united in a single province. For example, the Boston ecclesiastical province covers the other three dioceses in Massachusetts plus those in Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire; the St. Paul and Minneapolis province includes the four dioceses of North and South Dakota as well as the other dioceses in Minnesota.
The relationship of the archdiocese, or
, to the dioceses under it (called
in this context) rarely comes into play in news coverage. The limited authority an archbishop has over the other diocesan bishops in his province is largely in terms of internal church affairs. The bishops of a province meet periodically, for example, to discuss common policy on various pastoral matters and to draw up lists of priests who may be suggested to Rome as potential candidates to be made bishop.
State Catholic Conferences
As the public policy arm of a state’s Catholic bishops, a state Catholic conference may often b in the news, especially if religious freedom or moral and social values espoused by the church are at issue in state executive or legislative proposals or judicial proceedings. In a few small states that have only one dioceses, such as Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, there is no state Catholic conference, and the diocese itself has some form of public policy or government liaison office that deals with such issues. Most states, however, do have a state Catholic conference. Its headquarters are usually located in the state capital, even if that is not the most populous city or the seat of the most important diocese in the state. The New York State Catholic Conference, for example, is located in Albany, not New York City; the Catholic Conference of Ohio is in Columbus, not Cincinnati. Typically the bishops of the state are the members of the conference, but the executive director is a layperson, often someone with a background in law.
Other Local Catholic Resources
Catholic Colleges and Universities
There are more than 230 Catholic colleges and universities in the United States, most of them sponsored by religious orders, though often government by lay majority boards. Their faculty, especially those in theology or religious studies departments, may be an important news resource not only on church issues but also on broader community issues with a moral or religious dimension, from medical ethics to prison reform, from immigration to capital punishment.
By its nature, a
– which offers a four-year post graduate program in theology for future priests – will have on its faculty experts in Scripture, systematic theology, moral theology and ethics, historical theology, liturgy, sacramental theology, church history and a range of related disciplines.
are also likely to have experts in theology and other religious fields on their faculty.
Catholic health care institutions are bound by a code of ethical and religious directives established by the U.S. bishops. Doctors and other health care staff familiar with those directives and their application in complex situations can be a source of insight and experience about church teachings on human life and dignity in areas where life and dignity face some of the greatest challenges.
Every diocese has communities of men and women religious monasteries, convents, priories or other religious houses. Many of those priests, brothers and nuns have academic and experiential backgrounds and areas of expertise that would surprise an outsider unfamiliar with the emphasis that religious orders have placed on education for their members.
Eastern Catholic Churches
Parishes of Eastern Catholic churches are spread throughout the United States, although most of them are in more urban areas. In many of these parishes the pastor or some of the parishioners may have extensive knowledge of their country of origin and expertise on the religious, political and cultural situation there. For example, in Detroit there is a large community of Chaldean Catholics, whose roots are in Iraq. Many Ukrainian and Ruthenian Catholics immigrated to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Ohio, but there are Ukrainian and Ruthenian parishes scatted elsewhere across the country as well. It’s worthwhile to find out what Eastern rite Catholic churches have a presence in your community and how they might serve as news resources.