This ancient designation for certain major ecclesiastics has undergone, in the course of centuries, changes of meaning in the East and West that make it difficult to explain. Originally, as its etymology suggests, it designated a superior or chief bishop and was applied to bishops who presided over the greater sees. It was not infrequently in the East a title for those who later were called more technically patriarchs.
In the West (Latin Church) at the present time the title is closely allied to that of metropolitan, the head of an ecclesiastical Province (or regional group of dioceses), and it may be said that today in the West every metropolitan is an archbishop. It is by no means true, however, that everyone with the title of archbishop is a metropolitan. We may distinguish three other uses of the term "archbishop." It has been used (1) for the diocesan bishop of a diocese that is outside any ecclesiastical province but itself is not a metropolitan see and hence has no suffragan dioceses. Such for instance was the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., from 1947, when it was severed from the Province of Baltimore, to 1965, when it was made a metropolitan see. The reason for this somewhat unusual disposition is sought in the civil importance of the place or in its former ecclesiastical prestige. The term is used (2) for an ordinary who personally has been given the title by the Holy See. In this case the diocese itself does not change its ecclesiastical status; i.e., it remains within the province to which it already belongs and the successors in that see do not succeed to the title of archbishop. Finally, the term is used (3) for titular bishops who are raised to the dignity because of their special functions as members of the Roman Curia or of the papal diplomatic corps (e.g., apostolic delegates) or because of exceptional service as coadjutor or auxiliary bishops.
With regard to the powers and rights of an archbishop who is a metropolitan see archdiocese. For archbishops who head archdioceses that are not metropolitan sees, the dignity is one of a certain immediate dependence on the Holy See. In the case of ordinaries who are "personal" archbishops and of titular archbishops, the title confers a special honor rather than any ecclesiastical power.
See Also: bishop (in the bible); bishop (in the church); bishop, auxiliary; ordinaries, ecclesiastical.
Bibliography: e. rÖsser, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 3:1066–67. k. mÖrsdorf, ibid. 7:373–375. e. valton, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 5.2:1704–05. a. s. popek, The Rights and Obligations of Metropolitans (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 260; Washington 1947).
[s. e. donlon]