Auxiliary bishops and why they are (not) needed

It is well known how auxiliary bishops came into existence: When a Christian community was expelled from its home – e.g. by a natural disaster or a war – the community members migrated to another place, and sometimes they found a new home among other Christians. The bishop became an other bishop’s guest and assisted him in some episcopal tasks, keeping his former homeplace as his title (titulus in Latin). His former cathedral, which had turned into a dwelling, a mosque, or just a pile of stones, remained as his titular see: a lost diocese that the Christians wanted to restore whenever possible.

Next step: The titular bishop dies. The Christians still claim their lost see, so a new bishop is ordained on the old title to keep the claim alive.

Next step: The host bishop gets used to always having an assisting bishop around him, to whom he can delegate several tasks (parish visitations, confirmations, etc.). Nobody remembers the historic reason. There are two or even more bishops in one place, one of them being the leader of the diocese, the others doing episcopal things, but somehow subordinate. This is the current situation in the Catholic Church (in many places): One diocesan bishop is the only leader of the diocese, and auxiliary bishops in the same diocese hold a titular see, often in North Africa or the Middle East.

The Second Vatican Council adhered to the principle of mon-episcopacy: Any local church is led by a single bishop. He presides over the liturgy, he teaches the Gospel, he is judge and lawgiver (within general boundaries). His office represents the apostles’ office. Monepiscopacy is supposed to guarantee and make visible the unity in faith and the unity with other local churches and their bishops.

Now if this is the theology of episcopacy, why do auxiliary bishops still exist? The Catholic Church clearly shows that it does not seriously want to restore the titular sees: Many titular sees could be restored without any problem, e.g. in countries without any prosecution of Christians, such as Germany (titular diocese of Chiemsee), Austria (Teurnia), Ireland (Roscrea), or Italy (Formiae). Over the last decades titular sees have even been invented on the base of an excavated pile of stones which looks like an ancient Christian cathedral (such as Teurnia, a lovely excavation place by the way). More than that: The 1917 Code of Canon Law (canon 348) banned titular bishops from actually restoring their titular sees! In most cases today, titular sees are just needed as legitimation for the ordination of bishops without dioceses.

A diocesan bishop can delegate a lot of his tasks to other people, mainly to priests, but in some cases even to deacons or laypeople (he does it every day, when priests preside over Mass in unity with him, commemorating him in the Eucharistic Prayer). The only task that strictly needs a bishop is the sacrament of ordination.

So why are there still auxiliary bishops? Why do diocesan bishops ask the pope for auxiliary bishops? Why does the pope fulfill these wishes? I think the answer has much to do with liturgy: Parishioners expect the presence of a bishop on several occasions, for anniversaries, for the blessing of a new organ, etc. They feel respected and they enjoy the solemnity of a Eucharist presided by a bishop in all his vestments, all the distinctive features of episcopal liturgy, and all the affectionate efforts by musicians, altar servers and all who take care of such a celebration, and all media attention around. But for most people it is not decisive who this bishop is: the diocesan bishop, an auxiliary bishop, a bishop from somewhere else, or even an abbot who is no bishop but looks like one. A diocesan bishop knows that he cannot fulfill all these expectations on his own, so he needs auxiliary bishops who give the liturgy a sort of – and I do not mean this disrespectfully – episcopal glamor.

This mindset is understandable, but in my eyes it is unadequate to the theology of episcopacy (even if the Council itself permitted auxiliary bishops when necessary). If it is a bishop’s vocation to preside over a local church, then there is no reason for the existence of bishops without local churches they could preside over. Why are merited priests virtually sent away from their dioceses to a pile of stones somewhere in the world and then virtually retrieved to their home dioceses to become auxiliary bishops, doing things that regular priests could do as well, only with episcopal vestments and ceremonies? Is it not respectless to parish priests if it needs a man in episcopal vestments to make a celebration more solemn? The parish priest already is the diocesan bishop’s representative, every Sunday, every day.

The meaning of episcopacy could be clarified if diocesan bishops abstained from asking the pope for new auxiliary bishops, and vice versa, the pope abstained from installing them.

My suggestion on the adequate size of a diocese is the following: If the bishop is supposed to be father to his priests and good shepherd over the flock (as the Council says in Lumen Gentium 27–29), he should be able to a) know all diocesan priests, deacons, and other full-time workers in pastoral care personally and have regular talks with them, b) be reachable for any of them in urgent cases within short term, c) visit all his parishes every two or three years, for visitation, confirmation, and the consecration of new altars.

The Catholic Church has about 1.2 billion members worldwide, about 500,000 priests, and a little more than 5,000 bishops, 3,000 of them being diocesan bishops, the others auxiliary bishops or retired: about 2,400 people per priest and 100 priests per bishop. If every bishop was a diocesan bishop, we would have an average of 240,000 catholics and 100 priests per diocese, without any auxiliary bishop. Does that sound reasonable? I think it does.


  1. I strongly agree.

    There are administrative aspects of dioceses that could be effective rolled up into the metropolitan province level, and have metropolitan archbishops simply be the most senior ordinary within a province at any given point of time.

    Also, we should consider making the vicariate forane/deanery a more robust thing: at least in non-rural places, to have parish priests live together in a house of religion for a deanery rather than in rectories.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur:
      I had the same thought about the metropolitan level, but that would have been too much for one article. Some bishops in Germany make their auxiliary bishop so-called “regional bishops”, being de-facto-bishops for several regions of the diocese. In some regions, the diocesan bishop and the regional bishop are commemorated in the Eucharistic prayer. This makes somehow sense, but it is not de-iure, only de-facto. It would make more sense if those regions became dioceses with the former diocesan bishop as archbishop/metropolitan. Many administrative aspects could remain at the archbishop/metropolitan.

      I also hear that in the bishops’ conferences the auxiliary bishops sometimes seem to be the ones with more pastoral experience, so their expertise is very helpful. But it would be more honest (theologically-ecclesiologically) if they were real diocesan bishops.

  2. Agreed, and with the comments as well. KLS’s comment about the senior ordinary within a province I like, with perhaps one exception. A diocese struggling with scandal should perhaps not have its bishop designated as “metropolitan.” More consideration, too, for more bishops (perhaps 75 to 95%) raised from the presbyterate of a diocese.

    Pope Francis seems to have begun this, but cardinals chosen exclusively from sees that have shown extraordinary holiness or who have undergone significant persecution. Large city (arch)bishops have enough on their plates. They don’t really need more frequent flier miles. Higher service in the Church should be less connected with a population center or its money, and more with spiritual qualities that uplift the entire Church.

  3. I’ve never fully understood why the administration of certain sacraments, notably parish confirmation, are not more frequently delegated to pastors. Of course, bishops would still be the proper ministers of the sacrament, but not to the exclusion of pastors. Pastors became the primary ministers of confirmation in areas of Europe where sees were few and far between, such as Scandinavia even before the Reformation. At least where I live, auxiliary bishops mainly confirm. This shouldn’t be their primary task, but a certain pragmatism has set in perhaps. In my experience, the presence of an auxiliary bishop compels parishioners to view the auxiliary as a foreign intrusion on the community.

    I was confirmed at school. The entire process was conducted in an unsatisfactory assembly-line manner. In retrospect, I should have been confirmed in my neighborhood parish. However, students were encouraged to receive confirmation at school since we completed our confirmation catechism there. Yes, the presence of the confirmandi and their families created a liturgical assembly, but a rather plastic assembly.

  4. I concur with Todd’s exception to my notion about metropolitan archbishops.

    I also concur with Jordan’s thought. I remember my confirmation in the early 1970s: the ministering bishop was an American-born auxiliary of a diocese in Brazil that performed the service as a way of garnering funds for his diocese. The only thing I remember of what he said was a joke about bacalao (Portuguese – I can’t recall any Lusophones in my parish) and bacala (Italian – he knew we had many Italian-American parishioners, though at that point more German-American and Irish-American, who were mystified…)

    Because my parish then only had a school and no church building, liturgies were held in the school auditorium. (I was a public school kid from K-12, mercifully.) It was a classic assembly line of the era. My parents, however, pointedly did not share the consumption-celebration habits of most of my peer’s families (for my family, confirmation meant a small religious gift and choice of dinner out – period; nothing like the Gentile ersatz bar-mitzvahs of other families).

  5. I seem to remember that there was a period of years some time back (others will remember and can remind us when it was) when Rome stopped appointing auxiliary bishops altogether. This was not, however, for any theological reason but to do with numbers. Apparently one day someone realized that, if a Council were to be called the next day, the auxiliaries could outvote the diocesan ordinaries. This was thought to be a bad thing, and thus the pause on new appointments of auxiliaries until the number of ordinaries had been boosted.

    Of course this may be completely apocryphal, but it does seem plausible.

  6. What a wonderful post. I have always wondered where auxiliary bishops came from, and to be honest with you I think it is one of the best kept secrets in the church — or, as we called it humorously in the catechetical guidelines committee I was once a part of, an “unsolved mystery” like the designation of monsignors.

    The way I have seen it function is very regional indeed, which raises the question of whether when a given region has “their” bishop who is an auxiliary, wouldn’t it make sense to make that region its own diocese.

    Services that now operate on a diocesan level in large dioceses could be maintained as part of a metropolitan support structure, so each diocese would not need to duplicate everything — from marriage tribunals to cemeteries to pastoral support services. I think an economy of scale is envisioned by keeping large dioceses together, but there could be other ways of doing this.

  7. There are some odd considerations here and there, such as the Archdiocese of Military Services. It’s hardly a typical diocese; while I don’t know nearly enough about titular sees to comment on it, I don’t think Archbishop Broglio could meet the needs of the AMS by himself, nor does it make sense to break the AMS up.

  8. The continued presence of auxiliaries is, indeed, a mystery. To a very large extent, though, I think it has a lot to do with recognizing and approving the work of the diocesan bishop. For him, the request for and nomination of one of his priests as an auxiliary is the biggest thank you gift that can be given. It is no secret that many current diocesan bishops were once auxiliaries who were once secretaries or chancellors or something else a bishop deemed worth “advancing.” I’m sure there are no statistics on how grateful and happy the episcopal nominees actually were/are because of the call to the fullness of Orders. Whatever has been the motivation and practice, we shouldn’t be surprised that Pope Francis “sees through it,” and has told the Congregation for Bishops and bishops themselves, just what he is looking for in candidates for the episcopacy. He’s not interested in what they’ve done – their desk job – so much as what they have done pastorally. There is an obvious “working relationship” between bishops and pastors, but some pastors can also be “problematic” in their understanding and exercise of their role, even in relation to their priest associates/ parochial vicars. The Church belongs to no one, hatted or not, but to all the faithful, including and served by the ordained. The more we make theory into practice, the better and richer the People of God will be for the experience

  9. Auxiliary Bishops are mostly unnecessary in most U.S. dioceses because most baptized Catholics don’t even go to Sunday Mass. The Archdioceses of Boston, Chicago, & NYC historically and still today average 5 auxiliaries, way too many. Boston got two more this past year and they don’t deserve them when only 10% of the baptized Catholics bother attending Sunday Mass. These two new auxiliaries also have been named pastors of parishes. Are we going to make every town a diocese?

  10. I don’t disagree with most of the conclusions drawn, but I am not completely sure about the history traced for auxiliary bishops. Is this really the only and sole way in which auxiliaries came about? It doesn’t seem clear to me from the information given whether there may have been already some kind of existing auxiliary office which displaced bishops simply filled, as opposed to a new creation. I am also wondering about other similar institutions such as that elastic Near-Eastern office of chorepiscopus – it seems to have meant different things at different times, but it would seem that at some periods it encompassed a function not unlike what a modern auxiliary might do.

  11. I’m late to this discussion, just saw it on the National Catholic Register’s weekly blog round up.

    If you look up the definition of auxiliary, you’ll see that it means “helper”. Which is what I’ve always thought they were supposed to be. That and maybe for training purposes.

    How many is too many? That seems to be a personal perspective. NYC has over 8 million people spread over 5 large counties, most of which are not catholic I grant you. But still, in archdioceses and large dioceses I see no reason for not having auxiliaries.

    Of course the lead bishop must get to know their priests and parishes but if there are auxiliaries involved, he is likely also very busy administering a large diocese. I would think an auxiliary would take some of the low level administrative headaches off the bishop’s plate allowing him to focus more on leading the diocese.

    I guess I just don’t see the problem with auxiliaries, as long as they are appropriate for the situation.

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