Each State A Province? Or Redrawing the American Ecclesiastical Map

Author: Duane L.C.M. Galles

Or, Redrawing the American Ecclesiastical Map

Duane L.C.M. Galles

In an interesting article in the November, 1995, issue of <Homiletic and Pastoral Review>, Edward Peters, a civil and canon lawyer, prognosticates a shortage of bishops in the American church in a decade. The author points out that there are 260 active bishops in the United States today; by the year 2007 some 165 of them will retire. With the current priest shortage Dr. Peters asks whence will come their successors?

Among Dr. Peters' "modest proposals" for dealing with this problem is the suggestion that some of the present United States dioceses be suppressed or merged with other dioceses in order to spread bishops a bit thinner and match supply to demand. Dr. Peters' suggestion may have real merit.1 We suggest that the boundaries of America's ecclesiastical provinces also be redrawn.

If you look at the statistics on "church workers" (to use the "inclusive language" newspeak) in the American Catholic Church from 1970 to 1994, you find that over that post-conciliar quarter century the number of archbishops has grown by 50 percent and the number of bishops by 40.4 percent. Meanwhile, the number of Catholic parishes was more modestly on the rise—climbing 8.57 percent—and the United States Catholic population jumped 25.04 percent.

But, by contrast, during that same period the number of women religious fell by 41.32 percent, the number of religious brothers dropped by 43.99 percent, the number of religious priests declined by 21.92 percent, and the number of secular (or diocesan) priests shrank by 10.91 percent. At the same time the number of seminarians plummeted by a whopping 80.13 percent.

If you looked just at the statistics and knew nothing else about the problem, you might conclude that some mysterious substitution factor or some sacramental alchemy was at work here. If equilibrium were assumed to exist both in 1970 and 1994, it would follow that, by considerably increasing the supply of miter-wearers in the United States, the church had apparently safely navigated through a quarter century during which her convents and monasteries have been desolated and her rectory populations diminished. Seemingly by some sacramental metamorphosis 114 additional bishops have safely substituted for the 80,485 priests and religious who had disappeared from the rolls during the last quarter century. Of course, Vatican II spoke grandiloquently of the episcopal office in article 27 of its constitution on the church, <Lumen gentium>, calling bishops "vicars of Christ." Seemingly, by adding 114 of those "in whom the fullness of the priesthood dwells," the grace of the sacrament has enabled the American church to supply for the now-lacking 80,485 other church workers. Presumably this is another example of the principle of <ecclesia supplet! Deo gratias>!

But with the coming bishop crunch perhaps it is time to consider <perestroika>, restructuring and redrawing the provincial boundaries on the American ecclesiastical map. At the turn of this century the United States consisted of fourteen ecclesiastical provinces and 82 dioceses. Today there are 31 Latin Rite provinces and 143 dioceses in the 50 states. This does not include the Military Archdiocese, which is a personal and not a territorial unit and the 13 Eastern Rite archdioceses and dioceses.

Once provinces were regional in scope. On the eve of the Second World War the Province of Baltimore extended from Wilmington to Key West and the Province of Cincinnati ranged from Michilimachinac to Memphis. The Province of Portland (Oregon City until 1928) stretched from California's northern border to the North Pole and east to the Rockies! That of New Orleans ranged from the Rio Grande to Mobile Bay. That of San Francisco encompassed all the United States territories westward from Great Salt Lake to Guam. Today by contrast—except for the smaller states, those states in the South and West with only a handful of Catholics, and California, which is the only state with two provinces—each of the American states is by and large an ecclesiastical province.2

There is, of course, no prohibition on this type of ecclesiastical balkanization. Canon 431 merely prescribes that adjoining particular churches (or dioceses) be linked together into provinces "to promote common pastoral action" and sets no minimum provincial size. It is the exclusive prerogative of the supreme authority in the church—in practice the Holy See—to erect, alter and suppress ecclesiastical provinces, after consulting the bishops concerned.

Yet there are reasons why the proliferation of provinces ought not to proceed and, indeed, should be reversed. Once the Holy See has erected an ecclesiastical province, the law itself accords to the province juridical personality and—just like a diocese—the law makes the new province a distinct legal entity. Like any juridical person, a province can <inter alia> acquire, administer and dispose of property. A province, it should be added, is different from an archdiocese, which is merely a diocese headed by an archbishop. A province includes elf the local churches headed by a metropolitan and his suffragan bishops. In short, balkanization of provinces multiplies canonical legal entities and may reduce their effectiveness.

Ecclesiastical authority in a province reposes in the provincial council and the metropolitan (c. 432). In times past metropolitans were considerable figures in the local church. They could summon and preside at provincial councils and usually their access to information, their contacts and the stature and antiquity of their see gave them considerable influence in the council's deliberations. Moreover, in the executive and judicial realms metropolitans had considerable power. It was the metropolitans who, until the pontificate of Benedict XIV (1740-58), confirmed the election of their suffragan bishops and, if necessary, consecrated them. They also had certain powers of visitation over their suffragan bishops to inspect and rectify breaches in canonical discipline. Furthermore, they heard administrative appeals (called extra-judicial appeals) as well as judicial appeals from decisions of their suffragan's tribunals.

As Gerald Fogarty has shown, in the nineteenth century the annual meeting of the archbishops of the United States was a collegial conclave of ecclesiastical magnates and the forerunner of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The "metropolitans club" was a powerful force, setting disciplinary policy for the entire American church. But at the turn of this century the powers of the metropolitans waned and, with the establishment of the National Catholic Welfare Conference in 1919, the suffragan bishops gained admission to the club. A revolution was achieved and the meetings of the metropolitans now ceased.3

The new status of the suffragans was signaled about the turn of the century by an historic change in American episcopal titles. Hitherto, American Catholic archbishops, like their Anglican counterparts, were styled the "Most Reverend" and were addressed "Your Grace." American Catholic bishops, by contrast, like Church of England and Episcopalian bishops, were merely the "Right Reverend." But now all major Catholic prelates—archbishops and bishops alike—became equally "Most Reverend."4

Today canon 436 makes it clear that metropolitans are shorn of any real power and are merely to be vigilant to report abuses in their province to the Holy See. They exercise no real jurisdiction within the dioceses of their suffragans. Under Benedict XIV they lost the right to confirm and consecrate the suffragans, unless this right were protected by concordat. Since 1908, moreover, administrative appeals from diocesan bishops have bypassed metropolitans and gone directly to Rome. As a vestige of their former jurisdiction metropolitans may pontificate in any part of their province. They must, however, notify their suffragan if they intend to pontificate in his cathedral.

Formally, the main duty of metropolitans today is to petition Rome within three months of their consecration or appointment (if already consecrated) for the pallium (c. 437), a woolen liturgical scarf decorated with six black crosses and worn over the chasuble on certain days at Mass. In theory it is the symbol of the metropolitan's share in the pope's primatial authority. In practice it is merely a vestige of the metropolitan's lost glory. Archbishops may also decorate their coat of arms with a green ecclesiastical hat from which depend twenty, instead of the episcopal twelve, green tassels about the shield. They also enjoy precedence within their province over their suffragans. Formerly they had the special privilege of having a magnificent metropolitical cross borne immediately ahead of them, faced towards them, in procession. After Vatican II, however, the simplified rubrics directed that if the metropolitical cross were used, it is to be at the head of the procession so that but a single symbol of salvation be used. The upshot is that the distinctive character of the privilege is somewhat muted.5

The provincial councils over which metropolitans presided are venerable and were once powerful canonical institutions. Already in the year 325 the Council of Nicea had ordered them to meet twice yearly and geography and the decentralized church structures of the early church ensured them considerable importance into the Middle Ages. The Lateran Council of 1215 directed that provincial councils meet annually. Trent, too, was convinced of their utility and, lest reform flag, they were ordered to meet at least once every three years. In fact, in some places it was by the provincial councils that the mighty decrees of Trent were fleshed out and put into effect. Saint Charles Borromeo's provincial councils of Milan enacted famous legislation and the councils of Mexico City and Lima in the sixteenth century put in place canons and decrees which are model legislation. In reading these four hundred year old decrees one sees that much of their wisdom was merely restated in the Second Vatican Council.6

In many places provincial councils were moribund. Nevertheless, in some regions after a period of decline provincial councils enjoyed a revival in the nineteenth century. In our own country the provincial councils of Baltimore—the sole American province from 1808 to 1846—laid down much legislation which is still with us today. In 1852 the first plenary council of Baltimore extended the legislation of the Baltimore provincial councils to the entire United States and some of their decrees were themselves incorporated into later decrees of the plenary councils of Baltimore or into the <Code of Canon Law> itself.

Nevertheless, in this century provincial councils have almost fallen into desuetude and canon 444 of the 1917 <Code> required only that they meet once every twenty years. Recognizing the futility of such regulation the 1983 <Code> does not even attempt to lay down norms on the matter of the frequency of their convocation and in this sense perhaps gives them a silent burial. In fact, except for rare bursts of activity, since Trent provincial councils have been largely obsolescent. Between Trent and Vatican II some 13 plenary councils were celebrated as well as some 200 provincial councils. But the real tale is that the latter figure is only about two percent of the number of provincial councils which should have been held had these been held triennially as Trent had commanded.7

One might have expected that, with its dithyrambs on collegiality and subsidiarity, Vatican II would have led to a revival of provinces and regions as vigorous and vital church structures. Indeed, when the preparatory commission for Vatican II solicited suggestions from the canon law faculties of the Catholic world, the canon law faculty of the Pontifical Gregorian University suggested—in the interest of more flexible church structures—the utility of reviving the offices of primate and metropolitan and the territorial ecclesiastical circumscriptions that go with them—regions and provinces. Actually, Vatican II had shown great enthusiasm for provincial councils and, in <Christus Dominus>, article 36, had hoped that they "may flourish with renewed vigor so that the growth of religion and maintenance of discipline in the various churches may increasingly be more effective provision for the needs of the times." In articles 39 and 40 of the same decree the Vatican council also called for a revision of provincial boundaries for the good of souls and so that the relations between bishops and between bishops and their metropolitan will become "easier and more fruitful." Taking its leaf from these conciliar thoughts the 1983 Code declares provincial councils are "to ensure that the pastoral needs of the people of God in their territory are provided for" (c. 445).

The hope of provincial councils lies in their considerable powers. They have plenary legislative and administrative power, subject only to the universal law of the Latin church and to the proviso, in effect since 1587, that before they promulgate their decrees they must be "reviewed" by the Holy See. This power of "review" is exercised by the Roman Congregation for Bishops and is similar to the power of "disallowance" exercised by the British Privy Council in London over the acts of the American colonial legislatures. By contrast to provincial councils, episcopal conferences, decrees of which are subject to the same "review" as particular councils, are only legislators of limited jurisdiction and can pass decrees only in the areas that the universal law or the Holy See by special mandate expressly allows them to do so. Thus the powers of councils are far greater than those of conferences.

In fact, it would seem that national episcopal conferences have spelt the death knell for plenary or national councils and of provincial councils. Even the group <ad limina> visits, the congeries of neighboring bishops who travel to Rome <en bloc> to gang up on the pope, are nowadays organized by "regions" or supra-provincial groupings of bishops, mute evidence that a provincial group of bishops would be insufficient for the purpose. Further sapping the effectiveness of provinces has been the creation of state episcopal conferences. Besides the National Conference of Catholic Bishops there is in most states a state episcopal conference and these or provincial meetings of bishops have substituted for provincial councils. And so in practice provincial councils have not met and meaningful provinces have not been erected. Change has come merely in the form of further balkanization with some rectification of anomalies like the transfer of El Paso, Texas, from the Santa Fe to the San Antonio province.

The coming bishop crunch provides an opportunity to arrest the ecclesiastical balkanization of America and to redraw provincial lines on a truly regional basis so that once again provinces would be meaningful ecclesiastical circumscriptions. Clearly this is a matter of some delicacy. At the head of each province there is a metropolitan and with the redrawing of ecclesiastical boundaries many of the current archbishops would cease to be metropolitans. Thus, many a pallium would be prospectively lost and Rome would be loathe to initiate so radical a plan. But some American bishops might be willing to sponsor a prudently drafted scheme for redrawing the American ecclesiastical map along the lines envisioned by Vatican II.

The new 1983 <Code> provides some help here. While the 1917 <Code> had assumed that metropolitans and archbishops were synonymous dignities, in the 1983 Code all metropolitans are archbishops (c. 435), but not all archbishops are necessarily metropolitans. Moreover, the Archbishop for the Military Services, for example, has no suffragans and is not a metropolitan and, from 1947 to 1965, the Archbishop of Washington was in the same condition. To make the new (regional) provinces more palatable those sees currently bearing the title of archdiocese might keep that title and thus their bishop would retain the title of "archbishop." But in the new regime only the head of the revised (regional) province would be a metropolitan and so have that distinctive title and be entitled to wear a pallium.

How might these regional ecclesiastical provinces be constituted? Currently the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has a set of thirteen "regions." These are used by the NCCB for internal purposes such as geographic distribution in committee selection and for planning <ad limina> visits to Rome. These "regions" offer reasonable suggestions to the bishops and the Holy See for thirteen reformed and restructured provinces.

The new (regional) provinces would be useful intermediaries between the local churches (dioceses) and the NCCB. Today the conference is often a leviathan unmanageable by its individual members and too large for meaningful discussion and debate, a captive of its staff.8 The new provinces would form meaningful ecclesiastical jurisdictions between the diocese and the NCCB and permit problems which are merely regional in scope to be worked out at the level of the new provinces. This is not less than a putting into execution of the much applauded principle of subsidiarily. At the same time it would relieve some of the pressure on the agenda of the November meetings of the NCCB by permitting some matters to be discussed at provincial meetings of bishops where the size of the assembly is more manageable and discussion could thus range more freely.

And if the procedural administrative law of the church were ever overhauled to be adequate for the task of administrative justice, one might do it by constituting administrative appellate tribunals along provincial lines or even by returning to the old system of extra-judicial appeals to the metropolitan or metropolitan in council (designed like the patriarchal synod in the eastern churches) which surely would secure more uniform, expeditious and collegial discipline in the local churches. The present system is benevolent (or not so benevolent) despotism in the particular church tempered by fear of Roman rebuke in sufficiently egregious cases. Reversals from the Vatican dicasteries and the Apostolic Signatura are few and far between in the experience of the Saint Joseph Foundation and one is inclined to hope that in the new provincial system the club mentality and fear of exposure amongst the brethren would chasten the prelate who would otherwise be "a little pope" in his own diocese. Such, then, is our "modest proposal" for <perestroika>, restructuring, of the American ecclesiastical provinces and reducing them from the current thirty-one to thirteen in number "to ensure that the pastoral needs of the People of God" are provided for.


1. Edward Peters, "The Coming Bishop Crunch," Homiletic and Pastoral Review (November, 1995) 15-19.

2. V. Geiger, "A Miracle of Grace: The Growth of the Dioceses and Archdioceses in the United States," in S. Vicchio and V. Geiger, Perspectives on the American Catholic Church, 1789-1989 (Westminster, MD, 1989), 1-61.

3. Gerald P. Fogarty, "American Conciliar Legislation, Hierarchical Structure and Priest-Bishop Tension," 32 Jurist (1972) 403.

4. The style of "Excellency" for bishops is more recent. It dates only in universal law from a Vatican decree of New Years Eve, 1930. 23 Acta Apostolicae Sedis 22 (1931). Hitherto local custom governed style of address of secular prelates outside the pontifical household. In France and Quebec a bishop was "Sa Grandeur" while in Spain and Italy he was "Excellency." In Germany only the Archbishop of Freiburg was "Excellency"; the other German bishops were "Furst/ Erz/bischofliche Gnaden" or "Prince/Arch/episcopal Grace," depending on whether they were archbishop or bishop and whether their see enjoyed princely rank—as did those of Breslau, Gratz, Gurk, Lavant, Salzburg and Trent. See A. Battandier, "Addresses, Ecclesiastical," I Catholic Encyclopedia (1907) 183-139.

5. Sacred Congregation of Rites, Instruction, Pontificalis Ritus, 60 AAS (1968) 406, art. 20.

6. See my "Mexico City III and Vatican II," 117 Sacred Music (Winter, 1990) 9-10.

7. H. Vorgrimler, Commentary of the Documents of Vatican II (New York, 1968) II, p. 283.

8. It is interesting to note that at Vatican Council II one bishop warned that the new episcopal conferences posed the danger of a national church and of one controlled by an oligarchy of bishops. Another bishop suggested another scenario in which the episcopal conference led to control by a national curia. Ibid., p. 180.

Taken from the April 7, 1996 issue of "Christifidelis". To subscribe to "Christifidelis", please contact: The Saint Joseph Foundation, 11107 Wurzbach, #404, San Antonio, TX 78230-2553, (210) 697-0717, Fax (210) 699-9439.