In the Latin Church the archdiocese is generally a diocese whose bishop exercises metropolitan authority within a province composed of the archdiocese and several suffragan dioceses; occasionally such a diocese stands by itself outside the provincial structure.
This article confines its attention to the metropolitan see in its relationship to the province and to the suffragan dioceses, and to the reasons for this structural form in the Church.
The relationship to the province and to the individual suffragan dioceses is most easily treated by citing the rights and duties that the archbishop has in the present canon law. It may be noted that there is no uniformity in the number of dioceses grouped within a province.
In regard to the province as a whole, the archbishop's principal duties are found in Codex iuris canonici (Rome 1918; repr. Graz 1955) c. 442 or Codex Canonum Ecclesiarium Orientalium c. 133. The metropolitan is to choose the place for the sessions of a provincial council. It is the archbishop's right also to convoke the council and to preside at its sessions.
In regard to the individual dioceses and bishops of his province, the archbishop's functions are listed in Codex iuris canonici (Rome 1918; repr. Graz 1955) c. 436 or Codex Canonum Ecclesiarium Orientalium c. 133. The principal ones are: (1) to observe the faith and discipline of the suffragan dioceses and in case he notes any abuses to report these to superior authority; and (2) if a suffragan has neglected to do so, to conduct a canonical visitation of the suffragan diocese.
From this it is clear that the archdiocese and its bishop have little right to interfere in the ordinary pastoral direction of the local bishop; in fact there is little that the archbishop can do ex officio except report abuses to superior authority. Outside the time of a visitation, he cannot exercise doctrinal or disciplinary functions within the territory of a suffragan. The Church has for centuries found this grouping of dioceses within provinces under the leadership of one designated archdiocese a useful instrument for safeguarding order and preventing fragmentation that might ensue were all dioceses subjected only and immediately to the Holy See.
In the Eastern patriarchal churches the prestige of the patriarch throughout the region subject to him historically tended to absorb the metropolitan structure, though in recent times there has been a move to restore the province as a functioning unit. In these churches the metropolitan is subject to his patriarch and does not, as in the Latin Church, immediately depend on the one who is at the same time Patriarch of the West and supreme pontiff.
The origins of the archdiocese and the metropolitan arrangement are hard to fix in time. It would seem that such intermediate groupings—between the individual local Churches or dioceses and the Church universal—emerged as recognized units at least in the 3d century, and many trace the metropolitan (as well as the patriarchal) divisions back to the special prestige enjoyed by certain Churches from the first postapostolic generations. Thus the grouping arises out of a combination of factors: some embedded in the Church's own nature, some in the historical development from apostolic times of the Church in a given area, some in the politico-geographical conditions that prevailed in the world in which the Church began its corporate life.
See Also: bishop (in the bible); bishop (in the church) ordinaries, ecclesiastical.
Bibliography: k. mÖrsdorf, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 7:373–375. e. rÖsser, ibid. 3:1066–67. e. valton, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant, 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–) 5.2:1704–05. a. s. popek, The Rights and Obligations of Metropolitans (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 260; Washington 1947).
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