– Rev. Fr. A. Rayappan


Though laws made by the supreme authority of the Church make most of the offices in the diocesan Curia obligatory, some of these remain vacant for too long in some diocese. But the office of Vicar General is rarely vacant and this speaks volumes for the importance and attention it receives from bishops, priests and other members of the people of God. If the 1983 Code can be called “an Episcopal code” because of a number of references to the bishop, their immediate collaborators i.e. the Vicars General and Episcopal Vicars have also received their due in the same Code. They are mentioned at least 337 times in the CIC in some form or other.1 By this paper, I am making an attempt to unravel the significance of the office from a historical, juridical and pastoral perspective. I shall try to examine the descriptions of the office as found in CIC 1983 and CCEO and focus on some of the changes that have been effected in them in comparison to their predecessors CIC 1917 and Motu Proprio, Cleri Sanctitati. The paper begins with a brief historical note on both Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar and then proceeds to explain their appointment, required qualifications, extent of their power and their cessation from office and ends with a few concluding reflections.

A brief Historical

The archdeacons who were freely designated by the bishops for the administration of temporal goods from 6th century began to usurp a real jurisdiction, especially in the rural areas in both contentious and administrative cases. Such a jurisdiction was ordinary and they even formed a real tribunal of I instance in the 11th century. To check the abuse, bishops appointed officials who were dependent in them in the 12th century though such practices can’t be considered universal. There was “Officialis principalis” in the city and many vicars or Officiales foranei” in the rural areas. The Officialis principalis became a superintendent assuming the name “Vicarius Generali” (used frequently), whose role was highlighted in the council of Trent and the office of archdeacon was reduced to merely an honorary office.

1. Vicarius Generalis 40; Vicarius episcopalism 34; Ordinarius 86; Local Ordinarius 127; Licentia Ordinarii 24; ludicium Ordinarii 12; Coran Ordinario 5; Auctoritas Ordinarii 5; Ordinarius competens 4; Cf. Xaverius Ochoa, Index Verborum ac locutionem Codicis luris Canonici, Libreria Editrice Lateranense, Citta del Vaticano, 1984, p. 322ff.

There is also another hypothesis that attributes an autonomous origin to the office of Vicar General. According to this view, since some bishops were frequently absent from their dioceses they appointed “Procurators General” to take their place especially in matter regarding finance. Between the 12th and 14th Century the Vicar General, was similar to the Procurator General, who was merely a delegate of the bishop.2 The Vicar General represented the (absent) Bishop as his delegate with power throughout the diocese. The Officialis was normally distinct person who exercised judicial power. The Officialis was also appointed Vicar General in which case one and the same person exercised both the offices. When two persons exercised the office, the Officialis was subordinate to the Vicar General. Except in Italy, most of the dioceses had two separate offices.

By the 14th century, the office of the Vicar General was no more a temporary substituted, but a permanent office and the immediate collaborator of the bishop. But even during this period his powers and functions were not clear. Sometimes there were the officials to exercise judicial powers. At other times Vicar General himself exercised both powers. It is only the 1917 code that removed the confusion, attributing to the Vicar General purely executive functions.

In the East the custom of choosing the bishops from among the monks was commonly practiced. The bishops often continued to maintain their monastic life by taking a companion with them. This companion, who shared a cell or apartment with the bishop naturally, acquired a great deal of influence in the local church because of this proximity to the bishop. When the Eastern catholic churches came into contact with the juridic figure of the Vicar general, the Syncellus was endowed with the same responsibility.3

The office of Episcopal Vicar is on the other hand entirely new. The antepreparatory commission of Vatican II receives a number of suggestions form bishops, religious superiors and faculties of Catholic Universities for the improvement of the diocesan administration. Among these was a creation of a new office to aid the diocesan administration and pastoral labours. The schema De Cura animarum and more especially De Episcopis ac de Dioecesium proposed the refirm or even change of the juridical figure of Vicar General or Syncellus in order to have many vicars who could be called episcopal vicars. The final schema De Pastorali Episcoporum Munere in Ecclesia after much discussion retained the preeminent role of the Vicar General and the possibility of many Vicars general in special cases; the new juridical figure of Episcopal vicar was highly recommended for particular categories of people or ministry with ordinary executive power of governance for the said territory, group or ministry. On 6th August 1966, the Motu Proprio Ecclesiae Sanctae no. 14 implemented this decision Bishops issued on 22 February 1973 by the Sacred Congregation for bishops repeated those matters already contained in Christus Dominus and Ecclesiae Sanctae.4 The CCEO too accepted the suggestion of Vatican II for one Vicar General in principle and many Episcopal Vicars and calls the Vicar General protosyncellus and gives the name Syncellus to Episcopal Vicars.

2. Cf. E. Labandeira, Trattato di diritto amministrativo canonico, Milano, 1994, p. 110.
3. John D Faris, Eastern Catholic Churches: Constitution and Governance”, Saint Maron Publications, New York. 1992, p. 516.
4. Cf. Joseph P. Penna, “The office of Episcopal Vicar”, CLSA Proceedings, Washington, 1990, pp. 107-119.

Appointment of Vicar General

The Code of 1917 wanted a Vicar General to be appointed by the Bishop when the office was required for the right governance of the diocese (Quoties rectum diocesis regimen id exgat). The judgement concerning the need of the Vicar General for such right governance was also to be left to the prudence and discretion of the bishop who had a grave obligation to appoint one. In case of negligence, the consistorial congregation could intervene. The importance of both Vicar General was affirmed by Christus Dominus No. 27 :

“In the diocesan curia the office of Vicar General is prominent. When, however, the good government of the diocese requires it, the Bishop, may appoint one or more Episcopal vicars who by the very fact of their appointment will enjoy in specified parts of the diocese, or in specific types of affairs, or in regard to the faithful of particular rites, that authority which is conferred by the general law on the vicar general.”

Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of the Bishops emphasized the same concern as it highlights the role of the Vicar General, when it says,

“The Vicar General, whose office is the highest in the diocesan curia (CD 27) is appointed wherever, in the bishop’s judgement, the proper government of the diocese would require it, and indeed several vicars may be appointed (ESI, 14). Besides the other virtues and abilities called for by law, the Vicar General should possess the appropriate pastoral experience and skill.”

According to can. 475, “In each diocese, the diocesan Bishop is to appoint a Vicar General to assist him in the governance of the whole diocese.” Thus the new code makes the appointment obligatory unlike C. 366 of 1917 code which made the appointment dependent on the effective necessity for proper governance. It does not matter whether the diocese is small or big.5

If the Vicar General is absent or lawfully impeded the diocesan bishop can appoint another to take his place, the competent authority to nominate is the Diocesan Bishop and those equivalent to him.

5. Communicationes, 13 (1981) pp 118, C. 288. For a corresponding change in CCEO, compare C. 245 and CS. 432#1

In the Governance of the Whole Diocese

We can’t speak of a Vicar General if he doesn’t have general jurisdiction throughout the diocese. When there is more than one Vicar General, their jurisdiction should be understood to be in solidum, even if in fact it is exercised in determined zones or sectors as determined by the bishop for an orderly distribution of work. Such a division of labour would be opportune to avoid confusion and conflict.

The definition underlines principally the Vicarious and General character of the jurisdiction of Vicar General and distinguishes him from other vicars in the diocese. The pride of place that the Vicar General has in the diocese can be gauged from the extent of his jurisdiction over men and matters, while the power of the other vicars was limited to “temporal goods” or “to spiritual matters” or to a determined territory.

One Vicar General

The code of 1917 was clear in stating that only one Vicar General is to be appointed (unus tantum constituatum). Plurality of Vicar General in the same diocese was allowed in two cases: 1) The diversity of Rite and 2) Vastness of the Diocese. The possibility of appointing Vicar Generals for “different matters” (negotia), was not explicitly foreseen in the code. While prohibiting in general plurality of Vicar General, it allowed the contrary practice with the tacit consent or tolerance of the Apostolic See. The code did not specify whether the jurisdiction is to be exercised in solidum or their jurisdiction is limited according to the competence given by Bishop.

The pastoral experience in many countries led many authors to propose the presence of many Vicar General including Co-adjutor and auxiliary bishops before Vatican II. The proposal was accepted in principle and a number of Council Fathers confirmed the need in their interventions and left the matter of precise elaboration to the CIC which was in revision.6

Ecc;ediae Sanctae No. 14#1 says, “The new office of Episcopal vicar was established in law by the council in order that the bishop with the assistance of new helpers may be enable to exercise the pastoral care of the diocese in the best possible manner. For this reason the bishop of the diocese is free to choose one or more episcopal vicars in accordance with particular needs of the place; and he also retains the power to nominate one or more vicars general in accordance with cannon 366 of the Code of Canon Law”.

The mew code also affirms the general principle of one Vicar General and the exceptions it allows for more Vicar General are more: 1) Vastness of the diocese, 2) Number of inhabitants and 3) Any other pastoral reason. While retaining “the vastness of the dioceses” it includes the number of inhabitants, though it does not explicitly speak of Vicar General for a different Rite, it is implied in any other pastoral reason.

6. Bux P., Direzione e coordinameno delle attivita nella Curia Diocesana, roma 1995. Pp. 151-154.

CS C. 432 # 3 speaks of vastness of the diocese and another reasonable cause. While C. 432 # 4 speaks of Syncellus for the faithful of oriental Rite. CCEO is silent on the number of Vicar General.

The code wants the Vicar General to be distinct from the Judicial Vicar (1573 # 1 CIC 1817; C. 1086 # 1 in CCEO; C. 1420 # 1 in CIC 1983). But the smallness of the diocese and limited number of cases can suggest otherwise. The office of Judicial Vicar is autonomous and independent. There can be only one Judicial Vicar and if necessary many Vice-officials and Judges.

Special relationship with the Bishop

C.369 # 1 of the 1917 code speaks of the special relationship. Positively he is to assist the bishop in the proper governance of the diocese. The Vicar General has to refer to the bishop the principal acts of the Curia i.e. all acts of some importance. Besides he has to apprise the bishop concerning what he has done and what he intends to do. Like all the members of the Curia, the Vicar General has to transact his respective duties under the authority of the bishop according to the norms of law. n.2). He should take care not to use his powers against the mind and will of the Bishop without prejudice to C.44. ESI, 14 # 3 & DPMR 202 reaffirm this prescription and C.480 (CCEO C. 249) emphasizes this once again. “The Vicar General and episcopal Vicar must give a report to the diocesan Bishop concerning more important matters, both those yet to be attended to and those already dealt with. They are never to act against the mind and will of the bishop.” The power of the Vicar General though ordinary is not proper and is subordinate to the power of the Diocesan Bishop. He is obliged both from a theological (by virtue of ecclesial communion) and juridical (by virtue of the force of law) point of view to act in perfect harmony with the bishop who is responsible for the governance of the Diocese. C. 480 mentions all important matters (Praecipuis notiis) while the old code spoke of only principal Acts of the curia (Praecipua Acta Curiae) “Nec unquam” is very emphatic and not even once they are to act against the will and mind of the Bishop.7

C 473 is significant with regard to the role of Diocesan Bishop in coordinating the activities of all in the curia for the good of the Diocese. “The diocesan Bishop must ensure that everything concerning the administration of the whole diocese is properly co-ordinated and is directed in the way that will best achieve the good of that portion of the people of God entrusted to his care.” The fundamental unity of the ministry of the Bishop must be reflected in the unity of the curia. In this context the office of the moderator of the curia whose appointment is left to the discretion of the Bishop is important. Normally, the Diocesan Bishop appoints the Vicar General to that office and the one appointed is to coordinate under the authority of the Bishop all administrative activities and ensure that those attached to the curia fulfill their office. The Episcopal Council can be constituted by the Bishop and it will facilitate co-ordinated pastoral action. It can promote relationship and solve problems of conflicts of competence.

7. Davide Mussone, L’ufficio del Vicario Episcopake, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Citta del Vaticano, 2000, p. 65.

There can be a kind of Curial Council too that can meet informally with all the members of the curia. Statutes of the Curia, norms concerning each Curia office and the directive of the bishop should take care that there is unity and collaboration among all the immediate co-workers of the Diocesan Bishop.

Auxiliary and Co-adjutor Bishops

The code of 1917 (CC. 350-355) had provision for two kinds of co-adjutor bishops i.e, those given to the See (who had the right of succession) and those given to the person. The new code has suppressed such distinction and endows all coadjutors with the right of succession. In addition there can be auxiliary bishops with general faculties and these are given to the Diocesan Bishop at his request. The motivating reason should normally be the pastoral necessity and not the personal needs of Diocesan Bishop. An auxiliary bishop with special faculties can be appointed ex officio by the Holy See when there are some grave reasons. The code obliges the Diocesan Bishop to appoint the co-adjutor and the auxiliary with special faculty as Vicar General and to entrust them more important functions in preference of others especially those that require a special mandate.

A simple auxiliary is also to be appointed Vicar General or at least Episcopal Vicar for an indeterminate time and he is not to be made dependent on other priests. This norm has been inspired by CD 26#2 and the fathers of the council wanted to protect the dignity of Episcopal and avoid the anomaly of making the person dependent on others who are not bishops. The law giver underlines the need of consultation, harmony and faithful fulfillment of the tasks by the coadjutor and auxiliary bishops.8

Requirements for appointment

Even before 1917 code, history confirms the prerogative of the Diocesan Bishop in the appointment, removal, determination of their number and extension officer faculties. He reserved the right to appoint the Vicar General freely and without the interference of civil authorities. Due attention was given to his qualifications, the need of ordination, expertise in Canon Law, freedom from other offices that can be incompatible. There was no unanimity regarding his origin from the same diocese.

The general requirement for any ecclesiastical office is prescribed by C. 149: “In order to be promoted to an ecclesiastical office, one must be in communion with the church, and be suitable, that is, possessed of those qualities which are required for that office by universal or particular law or by the law of the foundation.”

8. Cf. Directory on the pastoral ministry of the bishops, no. 199.

The person must be in communion with the church that is to say, in accordance with C. 205 the person must be united through the bonds of profession of faith, sacraments and ecclesiastical governance. The opinion of some canonists that the code speaks of communion and not full communion and consequently baptized non-Catholic can exercise ecclesiastical office is not acceptable to many others. The juridical reason in support of full communion is clear. In principle on who is not in full communion is not subject to the canonical discipline (C. 11) and every ecclesiastical office with its rights obligations requires submission to the norms of Canon Law.9 Besides the non-Catholics heretics, Schismatics and Apostates are also not in full communion.

The second requirement concerns the suitability of the candidate i.e., possessing qualities that are necessary by universal law or particular law or law of the foundation. Some qualities may be required for validity and other may be only far liceity. By a decree of competent authority or by a judgment of an administrative tribunal the appointment of an unsuitable person can always be rescinded.

C. 478 # 1 of the new code enumerates the qualities required for the office of Vicar General. It was inspired both by 367 # 1 of the 1917 Code and DPME 201. C. 478 # 1: “The Vicar General and the episcopal Vicar are to be priests of not less than thirty years of age, with a doctorate or licentiate in canon law or theology, or at least well versed in these disciplines. They are to be known for their sound doctrine, integrity, prudence and practical experience.”

“Sint Sacerdotes”: For many offices, the candidate must be a cleric and in the case of Vicar General the candidate must be a priest and that means though a cleric, a deacon can’t be appointed Vicar General. Though the canon does not contain an explicit reference to validity, a number of commentators opine that the subjunctive ‘sint’ is an example of implicit requirement of validity. The requirement of priest by orders for Vicar is usually related to their significant representative role in relation to the Diocesan Bishop as his executive “alter ego”.10

CCEO. 247 # 2 requires the Vicar General must be a celibate priest and must be incardinated in the diocese unless particular law provides otherwise.11 CIC. 83 makes the choice free. The Vicar General can be Religious Priest or even a priest of another diocese. The suggestion of some of the consultors that the Vicar General should be chosen from among the diocesan clergy was not accepted.12 The old code allowed a religious priest to be Vicar General when the diocese was entrusted to a religious congregation.

9. Cf. Julio Garcia Martin, Le norme generali del Codex luris Canonici, Ediurcla, Roma, 1999, p. 542.
10. Barbara Anne Cusack, “The Internal Ordering of Particular Churches”, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, Paulist Press, New York, p. 631.
11. The syncellus shall be a celibate pries of the secular clergy, not younger than thirty years, a doctor or master in theology or canon law, or at least truly versed in these disciplines, commendable for sound doctrine, probity of life, prudence and experience: CS. C. 433 # 1.
12. Communicationes, 13 (1981) 119.

Not less than 30 years of age

The Vicar General must be not less than 30 years of age. Some say that the person must have completed 30 years while others say that it is enough if the 30th year has begun since the text of the Canon “annos nati non minus triginta” is not very clear. In practice most of the Vicar General are more than forty and no one can deny the need of reaching adequate human and priestly maturity before one assumes an office that involves great juridical and moral responsibility.

Doctorate or Licentiate in Canon Law or Theology

The code of 1917 wanted the Vicar General to have Doctorate or Licentiate in Theology and Canon Law. (367 # 1). Most likely it was a mistake since one should not require from the Vicar General more academic qualification than from the bishop himself. CS 433 # 1 corrects the oversight of the 1917 codificators, by saying Theology or Canon Law. Now in the 1983 code it is doctorate or licentiate in Canon Law or Theology. The change of order presumes that one qualified in Canon Law has sufficient knowledge of Theology. CCEO simply says that the candidate should have doctorate or licentiate in Some Sacred Science. The degree is not rigorously required for the office of Vicar General if the person is really well versed in the above disciplines. On the other hand academic titles are essential for teachers in the seminary (C 253 # 1) Judicial Vicar and Defender of the Bond (C. 1435).

With regard to the other human and Christian qualities, both CIC 1917 and CIC 1983 express the same requirements; Sound doctrine, integrity, prudence and practical experience. DPME 201 underlines the importance pastoral experience and skill. Though the proposal to include it was not accepted, it is very useful.13

Modality of Appointment

C. 477 # 1 states that Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars are freely appointed by the Diocesan Bishop and are freely removed by him without prejudice to C. 406. It is but natural that the Vicar General holds office at the pleasure (will) of the bishop when we consider the close rapport that should exist between them., the proposal to involve the Presbyteral Council in the appointment of Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars was rejected unanimously by the study group on “De Sacra Hierarchia”. The response was that the matter concerns the bishop’s Vicar and not that of priests “Agitur de Episcopi Vicario, Non de Vicario Presbyterii”.14 Since there is no explicit prohibition according to some authors even the diocesan administrator can appoint a Vicar General if needed.15

13. Communicationes, 14 (1982) p. 265, 213.
14. Communications, 19 (1987), PP. 125-128, Can 3
15. Luigi Chiappetta, II Codice di diritto Canonico, Edixione Dehoniane, Napoli, 1988, p. 572.

With regard to the term of office of the Vicar General, it can be either for a determinate time or indeterminate time. As R. Page says, “The code does not speak explicitly about the appointment of the Vicar General ‘ad tempus’ but at the same time it does not prohibit it either. Such an indication is proof of its possibility”16 on the other hand in the case of coadjutor and auxiliary bishops a limited term is not possible. Once the appointment is made, the Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars have to make the profession of faith in accordance with C. 833 and also take the oath of fidelity in the presence of Diocesan bishop or his delegate of fidelity in the presence of Diocesan bishop or his delegate as prescribed by the Congregation of Doctrine of Faith.

The code of 1917 outlined a number of honorary rights and privileges, which belong to the Vicar General. He took precedence over the whole clergy of the diocese at public and private occasions, even if the bishop was present and over all dignitaries and Cathedral Canons in Choir as well as in chapter meetings unless here was someone with episcopal character. If the Vicar General was a bishop, he enjoyed all the honorary privileges of the titular bishop. If he was not a bishop, he was entitled, “durante munere” to all the privileges and insignia of the titular protonotary apostolic. The new code has not confirmed any such rights and privileges for the Vicar General. The Proper bishop if he considers opportune may stabilize some of these rights always keeping in mind that they are not contrary to pastoral spirit of Vatican II. C. 250 of CCEO however, retains such privileges for protosyncellus and syncellus as long as they hold office.17


C. 152 of CIC 1983 states that two or more offices, which are incompatible, that is, which Cannot be exercised at the same time by the same person, are not to be conferred upon anyone. Some of the causes for the incompatibility may be the following: i. Residence: the two offices may require residence in different places. ii. Enormity: one office impedes dedication to the other. iii. Uniformity: two equal offices in the same place. iv. Inconvenience: both can’t be exercised by the same person because of the specific nature, matter of the office.

C 367 # 2 of 1917 code excluded three kinds of otherwise qualified priests from the office of Vicar General. Canon Penitentiary, blood-relatives of the bishop in the first degree or in the second mixed with the first and parish priest and others who have care of souls except in case of necessity. C 478 # 2 of 1983 code continues to exclude the first two category of priests.

16. R. Page, Les Eglises Particulieres, 1, Montreal-Paris, 1985, p. 95.
17. “The Protosyncellus and the syncelli who are presbyters have, during the time they hold office, the privilegesnd insignia of the first dignity after the Episcopal dignity: CCEO C.250.

The reason for excluding the canon penitentiary from the office of Vicar General is understandable since the former deals with the internal forum while the latter with external forum. To prevent favoritism and nepotism, the close blood relatives are excluded from the office. There is no explicit prohibition against parish priests and others who have care of souls. In some sense, the Vicar General is the parish priest of the diocese and it is for the advantage of the whole diocese if he does not identify himself with a particular parish. As it was already pointed out, any religious priest even if the diocese is not entrusted to the religious congregation can be appointed Vicar General.18 Before the promulgation of the 1917 Code, particular law in some regions demanded that Vicar General must be from outside the diocese. CIC 367 # 3 of the Old Code stated that bishop is not forbidden to appoint as Vicar General a priest of his own diocese. As a general rule, the Vicar General should not be at the same time Judicial Vicar (C. 1420 # 1).

CIC 1917 speaks of blood relatives in the first degree or in the second degree mixing with the first (third degree according to present counting) i.e., Bishop’s Brother, nephew in the collateral line, or bishop’s son or father in the direct line (this can be very rare). CS also stated the same by saying that blood relatives of the bishop up to the third degree inclusive should not be appointed Vicar General. CCEO has broadened the clerical of ‘close relative’ since it excludes consangunei up to fourth degree inclusive. CIC 1983 says merely upto fourth degree without the word “inclusive” while it adds the word in C 1091 # 2. The omission of the word inclusive has led many commentators to say that the offices of Vicar General, Finance Council membership can be lawfully given to first cousins and grand nephews of the bishops in CIC. CCEO consistently uses the word inclusive and excludes those related in the fourth degree from a number of offices.19

IV. The Power of the Vicar General

Power is understood as a faculty to do something. The power of governance (potestas regiminis) is that public power with which a society is endowed in pursuit of the public good. Canonical doctrine is used to define such power as the right to command/and oblige offers in order to achieve the public good (ius imperandi seu obligandi alios in ordinem ad finem publicum). The church is a hierarchically established society by Christ and the power given to the church has its origin not from the merely will of the people but from the will of Christ to accomplish this mission. Power of governance is defined as the public power ordained towards the governance of others. Power of ecclesiastical governance is defined as the public power of the church by means of canonical mission par governing the baptized in view of their eternal salvation. The power of governance includes legislative executive and judicial functions and to the extent it is meant far salvation it is also closely unified to the power of order. The liceity and at times even the validity of ministerial and priestly actions depend on the power of governance.20

18. The schema contained the prohibition against religious priests, but it was decided to give greater freedom to Diocesan Bishop; Communicationes, 1981 p. 119 C. 291.
19. Cf CCEO 247 # 3, 263 # 3, 1106 # 1: C. 1041 surprisingly does not use the word inclusive.
20. Eduardo Lambandeira, p. 45.

C. 479 # 1. Describes the power of the Vicar General as following: “In virtue of his office, the Vicar General has the same executive power throughout the whole diocese as that which belongs by law to the diocesan Bishop: that is, he can perform all administrative acts, with the exception however of those which the Bishop has reserved to himself, or which by law require a special mandate of the Bishop”.

According to C. 131 # 1., Ordinary power of governance is that which by virtue of the law itself is attached to a given office. Both codes affirm that ordinary power is by law itself attached to an office. That means i) that connection between the office and power is antecedent to the appointment of the person to the office. One does not acquire power by a subsequent act of concession by the superior. It also means that one cannot think of ordinary power without an office in question.

C. 131 # 2 says that ordinary power of governance may be proper or vicarious Traditional doctrine affirms that proper power is exercised in one’s own name (nomine proprio) while vicarious power is exercised in the name of another (nomine at vice alterius) as a substitute as collaborator. Such a distinction is more theological than juridical in as much as ecclesiastical organization is founded on divine law. Some of the ‘principal’ offices are generally considered proper: The Roman Pontiff (C 331) the diocesan Bishop (C. 381) the parish priest (C 515) supreme moderators and provincials (C 620, C 622).

There are other offices, which are subsidiary to the principal offices. We have for instance Vicars of the Roman Pontiff in the governance of the universal church. 1. The dicasteries of the Roman Curia (C 360), Legates (C 362 ff.) Vicar Apostolic, Perfect Apostolic (C. 371). We have Vicar of Diocesan Bishop in the particular churches: Coadjutor and auxiliary bishop (C. 405) Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar (C 391, C 475 ff). During the vacant on impeded see Diocesan Administrator? (C 419). We have Vicars of the Parish Priest too: Parochial administrator (C 540) Parochial Vicar (Assistant Parish Priests) (C. 545). In religious institutes, there are also Vicars of the superiors general and Provincials. In all these offices, the persons act in the name of another principal office and participate in its functions. But all the offices are not similar while appointment to some of these offices is the prerogative of the principal office holder. (Vicar General, Episcopal Vicar, Judicial Vicar), over some other offices he has no hold. Some offices depend on the authority of the principal office (Vicar General, Assistant Parish Priest). Other offices have greater autonomy (Judicial Vicar or Diocesan Administrator, Parochial Administrator).

Executive Power

C. 135 # 1 The power of governance is divided into legislative, executive and judicial power. Legislative power is the most important one since it regulates the judicial order and all acts of administration and judiciary must correspond to it. At the same time executive power puts the law into practice without that the other two power will not have real efficacy. While the Diocesan Bishop has all three powers, he exercises executive power by himself. He exercises executive power either personally or through Vicar General or Episcopal Vicar in accordance with the law. C 479 # says, “In virtue of his office, the Vicar General has the same executive power throughout the whole diocese as that which belongs by law to the diocesan bishop”.21 In accordance with C. 136 the Vicars General can exercise executive power over his subjects when either he or his subjects are outside the territory. The very definition of Vicar General in C. 475 speaks of his assistance in the governance of whole diocese. This confirms his executive power throughout the diocese over persons and things. His power is the highest possible expression of participation in the power of the Diocesan Bishop and that assures unity of governance. It is his task to help the bishop in governing the diocese better.22

Power to perform all administrative Acts

C. 479 # 1 elaborates on the exercise of executive power by the Vicar General and mentions his power to perform all administrative acts. First of all, he can issue within the limits of his competence general executor decrees i.e. decrees which defines more precisely the manner of applying a law or which urge the observance of the law. He can also issue General Instructions in accordance with. C. 34 # 1. These set out the provisions of a law and develop the manner in which it is to be put into effect. They are given for the benefit of those whose duty it is to execute the law. They need to be published though promulgation is not necessary.

The executive power of Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar is exercised above all by issuing singular administrative acts through which laws are applied to particular persons or group of persons. In accordance with the provisions of CC. 35-93 they can issue singular Decrees and precepts and grant rescripts which contain privileges and dispensations. While the legislator normally grants privileges, Vicars General share with diocesan bishop the power to grant most of the dispensations. eg. From impediments to marriage: CC. 1078 # 1; 1079 #1; 1080; 1127 #2.

Ordinary and Local Ordinary

The Vicar General who enjoys ordinary vicarious power is called ordinary and more precisely local ordinary. C. 134 # 1 enumerates those who are called ordinary in law and # 2 makes it clear that excluding superiors of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life others in the list including Vicar General or local ordinary. We should remember that all who have ordinary power i.e., power attached to the office are not called ordinary nor does it mean that all ordinaries have the triple jurisdiction i.e., in legislative executive, judicial spheres. Some like Vicar General have only executive power. The criterion for determining ‘local’ ordinary is the “territory”. Local ordinaries have power in a determinate territory over persons and things. Heads of particular churches and their vicars are called local ordinaries in law.

21. C. 368 # 1 of the old code also spoke of his power in the whole diocese in temporal and spiritual matters.
22. The Code confers on the VG considerable discretionary power in the penal matters. Ff. CC. 1717 – 1724, 1339, 1350#2, 1340#3, 1355#1, 1356#2.

Reservation and special mandate

While the Vicar General has executive power of governance in the whole diocese, the diocesan bishop can reserve certain matters because of their importance exclusively to himself. Obviously the Vicar General has no competence whatsoever in dealing with those matters. Such a reservation should be an exception and it would not be advisable to resort to it arbitrarily on a regular basis. Any reservation should be interpreted strictly since it is a restricted on the exercise of the executive power by the Vicar General.

Even in the executive sphere, to perform certain administrative acts the Vicar General requires a special mandate. C. 134 # 3 states: “Whatever in the canons, in the context of executive power, is attributed to the diocesan Bishop, is understood to belong only to the diocesan Bishop and those others in c. 381 # 2 who are equivalent to him, to the exclusion of the Vicar General and the episcopal Vicar except by special mandate.” It is often discussed whether such a mandate can be conferred in a general way or there is a need for a mandate case by case. Many seem to opine that a general mandate is sufficient, though it may not be opportune since there is no explicit prohibition in the code against it. The power derived from the special mandate whether it is general or specific seems to be ordinary power since it is a kind of extension of the office of the Vicar General unless the Diocesan Bishop gives the special mandate for his “industria persona”.

Habitual Faculties and Rescripts

Habitual Faculties may be described as powers granted not by virtue of the law, but by an act of a higher ecclesiastical authority. Both Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar possess the same faculties unless it is expressly provided otherwise or unless the bishop is granted such faculties on a personal basis. In case of doubt it is presumed that the habitual faculty is granted to the bishop. “Ratione officii”. Similarly, the Vicar General and the Episcopal Vicar can execute rescripts keeping in mind the two exceptions mentioned above.

Other “powers”

The diocesan bishop is obliged to call as members of the synod among others the coadjutor and auxiliary bishops, Vicars General, Episcopal Vicars and the Judicial Vicars. C. 463 # 1 All these persons assist the Diocesan Bishop in the governance of the diocese and their role in the synod is in accord with the real purpose of the synod. By virtue of C 462 # 2 the Diocesan Bishop may delegate Vicar General or Episcopal Vicar to preside at individual sessions of the Synod.

With regard to the participation in particular councils, the coadjutors and auxiliary bishops have the right to be summoned and have the right to a deliberate vote. The Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar are to be invited and they have only a consultative vote (C. 443 # 1, 3).

Normally the Diocesan Bishop is bound to visit his diocese in whole or in part each year so that at least every five years he will have visited the whole diocese; if the bishop is lawfully impeded he can delegate coadjutor, auxiliary bishop, the vicar general, Episcopal Vicar or some other priest (C. 396 # 1 ).

When the Episcopal See is impeded, in the absence of the coadjutor, the Vicar General may have to take up the interim governance of the diocese if his name is preferred in the list prepared by the bishop for such an eventuality. C. 413 # 1.

All actions taken by the Vicar general and Episcopal vicar have effect until they receive certain notification of the death of the Diocesan Bishop or notified of the vacancy through the papal acts i.e., (resignation, transfer, deprivation) CC. 417, 416.

The provisions of C. 65 # 2-3 have to be kept in mind in the granting or refusing of favours. First of all, the Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar must remember that they exercise vicarious power of the same Bishop and avoid all contradictions and conflicts. C. 65 # 2 says, “A favour refused by a Vicar General or an Episcopal Vicar cannot be validly granted by another vicar of the same bishop, even when he has learned from the Vicar who refused the reason for the refusal.”

While the code affirms the primary responsibility of the Diocesan Bishop, it equally emphasizes until of governance and the principle of substituting rightly then. C. 65 # 3 states “A favour refused by a Vicar general or an Episcopal Vicar and later without any mention being made of this refusal, obtained from the diocesan bishop, is invalid. A favour refused by the diocesan Bishop cannot, without the Bishop’s consent, validly be obtained from his Vicar general or episcopal Vicar, even though mention is made of the refusal.”

Substitute Vicars

In the case of legitimate absence or impediment of Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar, the diocesan Bishop can appoint another to take his place. The appointment can be made either in a stable manner or every time he is absent or impeded. In both the cases the power of the so-called pro vicar is ordinary, unless a mere delegate is appointed and his power will naturally be not ordinary.


We can see certain limitations in the powers of the Vicar General: 1. First of all he is not endowed with Episcopal dignity since he has not received the fullness of priesthood as a bishop. He is not to attempt to perform acts, which require episcopal consecration. 2. He is excluded from performing acts of legislative power and judicial power. His competence is limited to acts of executive power. 3. Even with regard to the acts of executive power, the bishop can reserve certain matters either to himself or to some other persons. 4. Certain other acts of executive power cannot be performed by him without a special mandate.

Loss of Office

An ecclesiastical office can be lost on the expiry of a predetermined time; on reaching the age limit defined by law; by resignation; by transfer; by removal; by deprivation; C. 184 # 1. Some of the causes are natural i.e., the loss is independent of the will of the office holder for instance: Death, cessation from the office of the superior who conferred it, expiry of term. Other causes are voluntary: e.g. resignation. A third category of causes is a forced one a willed or commanded by the superior e.g., transfer, removal and privation.

C. 481 # 1 says “The power of the Vicar General or Episcopal Vicars ceases when the period of their mandate expires or by resignation, in addition but without prejudice to cc. 406 and 409, it ceases when they are notified of their removal by the diocesan bishop or when the Episcopal See falls vacant” (Cf. C. 371 of CIC 1917).

Natural causes

The vacancy of the office of the Vicar General occurs through his death since the office cannot pass on to his descendants. Though both CIC 1917 & 1983 do not speak about death explicitly, it concerns the Vicar General also. Other natural causes like grave ill health or mental insanity are not equal to death and they are not sufficient to presume the vacancy of the office. The person in these cases has to resign or be removed from the office. (cf. C. 401 # 2).

In certain cases the office can be lost when the authority that conferred the office losses it. The general principle is stated in C. 184#2. An ecclesiastical is not lost on the expiry, in what ever way of the authority of the one by who it was conferred, unless the law provides otherwise”. The corresponding cannon of the old code spoke on addition of the phrase “ad beneplaxitum nostrum” vel alia accquipollens”, which has been omitted in the new code. Some say that the omission leads to the inference that hence forth only privileges can be granted “ad beneplacitum nostrum” and not ecclesiastical offices. In the case of Vicar General, the law expressly provides that his office is lost with the vacancy of the Episcopal See.

Expiry of the period of mandate

The Vicar General loses office ‘expleto tempore mandati’ when he is appointed for a determinate term. While the Episcopal Vicar who is not auxiliary bishop is always appointed for a fixed term, the Vicar General can be appointed either for a fixed term or indefinitely. Once the term is over, and if the term is not prorogued either by law or by authority the office holder ceases from office.23 We should keep in mind the norm of C. 186 which states: “loss of office by reason of age limit or by reason of the expiry of predetermined time has effect only from the moment that this is communicated in writing by the competent authority”.

23. Judicial Vicar and judges (C. 1422): Financial administrator (c. 492 # 2) member of senate (501 # 1) College of Consultors (502 #1) Parish Priest (522) Vicar Forane (554 # 2) all are appointed for a fixed term.

The code does not speak about “reaching the age limit” with reference to the Vicar General though it mentions it in C. 184. Some commentators consider it included in “expleto tempore mandate” which is not merely the years determined in the mandate, but also biological in age limit fixed by law or by authority though it can be extended depending in the health and efficiency of the person. While the code asks for the resignation (rogatur) in the case of many other offices, it is silent about the resignation of the Vicar General on completing 75 years.

Voluntary causes

Resignation: C. 187 states that anyone who is capable of personal responsibility can resign from a ecclesiastical office for a just reason. The judicial structure of the church respect liberty of human person and the Vicar General also can resign for a just reason or can be asked to resign also. The provision of CC. 187 – 189 is applicable to the resignation of Vicar General. His resignation would be invalid if it is more out of a grave fear unjustly inflicted or of substantial error or simony. It must be made to Diocesan Bishop and it is to be in writing or orally before two witnesses. CIC. C 481 merely states that the Vicar General loses office by resignation. This has led some authors to say that it does not require acceptance by the Diocesan Bishop.24 The corresponding canon in the CCEO expressly says “renunciation ab Episcopo Eparchiali acceptata”. More probable is the opinion that even in the Latin Church the resignation of the Vicar General requires acceptance for the office to become vacant. Without doubt the Diocesan Bishop has to accept the resignation only when there is a just and proportionate reason.

Forced causes

1. Transfer: The Vicar General can be transferred from his office to some other ecclesiastical office by the Diocesan Bishop who has the right to provide for both the offices in question. The Diocesan Bishop should not act arbitrarily and keep in mind the good of souls and the necessity and advantage for church (C. 1748). The new code implicitly preserves the distinction between voluntary transfer and forced transfer. There should be a just cause and the office holder is right to present reasons against the transfer remains intact. For the transfer to have effect it must be notified in writing.

2. Removal: The Vicar General loses office when he is removed by the bishop (Remotione ab eposcopo diocesano intimate) C. 481 the Diocesan Bishop must evaluate the causes and have sufficient reasons. Care must be given to see whether the office is conferred whether for a determinate term or indeterminate time. In the case of Vicar General, the office is conferred at the prudent discretion of the Diocesan Bishop (C. 193 # 3) and he can be freely removed by him for a just reason and not necessarily for a grave reason. There is no obligation to follow a prescribed procedure. The Vicar general is removed by law itself like any other ecclesiastical office holder in accordance with prescriptions of C. 194 eg: Loss of Clerical State. Defection from catholic faith attempted marriage. in such cases the Diocesan Bishop has to declare that the Vicar General has lost the office and that would facilitate another priest to be appointed to the same office. The removal of coadjutor and auxiliary bishops does not come under the competence of Diocesan Bishop. The Vicar General can also be deprived of his office as penalty in accordance with C. 196.

24. Cf. Barbara Anne Cusack, “The internal ordering of particular churches”, p. 634.

Vacancy of the Episcopal See

C. 416 says that the Episcopal See becomes vacant by the death of the Diocesan Bishop by his resignation accepted by the Holy See by transfer or by Deprivation notified to the Bishop. The office of the Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars who are not bishops are bound essentially to that of Diocesan Bishop and they cease with the vacancy of the See. Law itself prorogues the competence of the Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars till they receive certain notification of Diocesan Bishop’s death or the other pontifical acts through which the Diocesan Bishop loses office.

The Diocesan Bishop is obliged to take possession of the new diocese within two months of receiving notification of the transfer. The bishop has only the power of diocesan administrator during the interim period. All powers of Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars ceases unless they are coadjutor or auxiliary bishops.

Suspension of Diocesan Bishop

According to C. 481 # 2, when the office of the Diocesan Bishop is suspended, the power of the Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars is suspended unless they are themselves bishops. Unlike the 1917 code which provided for even expiatory suspension. The new code prescribes only medicinal suspension, a penalty that is divisible in as much as it can affect all or some of the power of order or power of governance. Since the power of Vicar General and Episcopal Vicars is always ‘vicarious’ their power is suspended when the office of Diocesan Bishop is suspended. The Vicar General can also be directly suspended from exercising his office like any other cleric.

Comparison of Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar

The episcopal Vicar has the same functions and the same power (ordinary vicarious) as the Vicar General. From a close examination of the text of the Code we can cull out the following differences: 1. The institution of the office of Episcopal vicar is not a juridical obligation. At the most it can be a moral obligation if the office is required for the proper governance (rectum diocese regimen). 2. The Episcopal Vicar exercises his office for a specified territory (some particular part of the diocese), or specific type of activity (Education, work of charity, apostolate of laity) or specific group of faithful (Rite, language, nationality). In fact it is not in the nature of the power but in the extension of the exercise of the same ordinary executive power that the Vicar General and Episcopal Vicar are different. 3. According to CIC, as a general rule there is to be only one Vicar General while there can be many Episcopal Vicars. (Concerning the general rule for having one Protosyncellus, and the possible exceptions to that rule CCEO is silent though Cleri Sanctitati mentioned it) 4. The episcopal Vicar of CIC is to be appointed for a definite period of time. The term of office of the Vicar General is wide open since the Code does not limit it.

Concluding Reflections

# All authority comes from God and it is to be exercised in the spirit of the service. The inspiring teaching contained in CC. 618-619 of the CIC. 1983 regarding the manner of its exercise and the exemplary conduct of those who exercise it are applicable even to diocesan Bishops, their Vicars and all those who hold positions or responsibility in the church.

# Vicars General and Episcopal vicars should remember the limitations of their power and its exercise. They are neither legislators nor judges. They exercise only executive power, and that too in the name of the bishop before whom there are to be responsible. They hold office ad nutum episcopi. They are not to act against the mind and will of the bishop, nay, they should not run a parallel diocese within the diocese.

# One often asks the questions why should we have two vicars general or more (like two deputy Prime Ministers)? The ecclesiastical office of vicar general and episcopal vicar must meet the criterion of assisting the bishop in the governance of the whole diocese for the spiritual welfare of the people of God. It should not become a tool in the hands of the bishop to assuage the hurt feeling of aggrieved or an ambitious priest. Normally a single individual has to represent and substitute the diocesan bishop. When there are two vicars general or more their area of activities are to be specified by the bishop though dei iure they might have power over all persons and matters. In the absence of such division of responsibilities there would be disorder, confusion and conflict among the co-operators of the bishop. With the provision of the new office of episcopal vicar and syncellus, more than one vicar general for a diocese should be a rarity.

# The Vicar general is not the hierarchical superior of the episcopal vicar. There is some kind of equality of dignity of office between the vicar general and the Episcopal vicar. For instance when the code says that the vicar general cannot grant a favour refused by another vicar of the same bishop, it includes not only the favour refused by another vicar general but also that refused by another episcopal vicar.

# There is a need for greater decentralization and practice of co-responsibility at the level of the diocesan curia. We are living in a era of specialization. Except when there is a shortage of priests, more Episcopal vicars have to be appointed especially for the faithful of another church Sui Iuris, members of Institutes Of Consecrated Life And Societies Of Apostolic Life, for the faithful of another language, for the education, for clergy etc. in this way the diocesan bishop can prevent undue delay in attending to some of the pressing problems.

# However, without proper co-ordination, division of power or rather sharing of responsibility can at times be disastrous. It is for the moderator of the curia and more especially for the diocesan bishop to ensure that the pastoral vitality of his collaborators is not dissipated but contributes to the hastening of the kingdom of God.