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What does an Archbishop do?

By John M. Edge
Updated May 23, 2024
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The Catholic faith is composed of a hierarchy of priests, bishops, and the pope. These three positions represent the major divisions, with a few distinctions among them. In this hierarchy, the pope is the head of the Catholic Church, bishops are subordinate to him, and priests are subordinate to bishops and the pope. The term "archbishop" simply refers a bishop who presides over a larger geographic area, such as a major city. As the head of a diocese, or archdiocese, an archbishop is entrusted with certain powers and obligations.

The geographical area over which a bishop presides is called a diocese. Dioceses contain smaller areas known as parishes. A priest presides over a parish but answers to the bishop of his diocese. Bishops may also have assistants, known as "suffragans," in their dioceses.

A common misconception about archbishops is that they are a step above regular bishops. This is not true; archbishops have the same standing and authority as bishops. The only difference between the two is the size of their jurisdictions. Archbishops typically preside over larger or more politically powerful cities. An archdiocese also does not indicate a superiority over a regular diocese but, rather, that the geographical area is larger than average.

Bishops have multiple roles. They are teachers and priests serving a religious leadership function, but they also serve as administrators. One of the most important roles of a bishop is to establish and administer seminaries within the diocese to train future clergy. Although an archbishop has no authority over his suffragans in most cases, it is possible for him to exercise limited jurisdiction over them in cases where a suffragan neglects his duty. Archbishops may also acquire jurisdiction over his suffragans if they bring disputes to him.

Archbishops are nominated through the same process as any bishop. This may be by nomination, an election, or, more typically, by direct appointment by the pope. When a priest is selected to become an archbishop, the priest must be consecrated to the position. If someone who is already a bishop is appointed to an archbishopric, he must only be installed into his new position; a new consecration is not needed.

There are archbishops throughout the world. There also are archbishops in religious faiths other than Catholicism. These archbishops function similarly to Catholic archbishops with a few differences. In particular, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, there are a few autonomous national churches in which the archbishop is effectively the head of the church and, thus, functions much like the pope. There are also archbishops in the Anglican Episcopal Church. These include the archbishop of Canterbury and the archbishop of York. Archbishops in the Church of England function in much the same way as archbishops in the Catholic Church.

Archbishops play a crucial role in the hierarchy of the church. They are often high-profile leaders, because of the importance of the archdioceses they represent. They must function as good teachers, priests, and administrators to guide their priests and followers.

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Discussion Comments
By Steamland — On Oct 21, 2014

@GroundGold, between a pope and bishops/archbishops are a group called cardinals. These cardinals are a group of senior bishops who elect each new pope and help him to administer his authority in the Catholic world. When a new pope is elected he can handpick a select group of bishops to the level of cardinal. These cardinals are trusted and consolidate his authority both in faraway places and Rome.

By GroundGold — On Oct 20, 2014

In answer to your question, throughout history there have been many instances of bishops informing on their peers and even some priests trying to jump the chain of command and inform on other higher ranking members of the church although the latter rarely happens. One of the most recent was in 2005 when Rogue Catholic Bishops Ordained two female bishops who then ordained a group of Women as priests in Ontario, Canada. The church was informed and the women involved were quickly excommunicated.

By CBlizzard — On Oct 19, 2014

It seems as though an archbishop would have a huge degree of independent autonomy from the pope. I mean, how many archbishops are there and there is only ever one pope. What would stop a renegade archbishop from turning his diocese into his own little private kingdom? Is there a network of informants or secret police to keep this from happening?

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