Bishops, Coadjutors, and Auxiliaries

Q: Could you explain the terms “coadjutor bishop” and “auxiliary bishop” for us? I’m thinking particularly of the new Archbishop of Los Angeles. Originally he was an auxiliary bishop in Denver. Then he became coadjutor bishop of Los Angeles, and now he is the Archbishop. What’s the difference between these types of bishops?  –Ellen

A: In “Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals” we looked at the distinctions between Catholic bishops, archbishops, and cardinals. Now let’s take a look at how the Code of Canon Law defines the terms that Ellen mentions, starting first with the definition of an auxiliary bishop.

Canon 403.1 defines auxiliary bishops in an oblique way, noting that when the pastoral needs of a diocese require it, one or more auxiliary bishops may be appointed at the request of the diocesan bishop. In other words, auxiliary bishops are named when a diocesan bishop finds that the needs of his diocese are too great for him to handle alone. An auxiliary bishop, therefore, is and does exactly what his title suggests: he is a bishop who assists the diocesan bishop.

Many dioceses can, of course, be managed by the diocesan bishop on his own. But there are a sizeable number which are simply too large, or have too much activity, for one man to handle! There are also instances of diocesan bishops with health problems limiting their ability to oversee every aspect of their dioceses. In such cases the diocesan bishop can ask the Holy Father for an auxiliary bishop to assist him. Sometimes dioceses are so big that it is necessary for the diocesan bishop to have multiple auxiliaries.

Sacramentally speaking, an auxiliary bishop is truly a bishop, for he receives episcopal consecration just like the diocesan bishop. An auxiliary therefore has the power validly to ordain priests, to confirm, and to consecrate other bishops.

The jurisdiction, or governing authority, of an auxiliary bishop is another matter. Within a given diocese, the diocesan bishop alone has full responsibility for the entire diocese which the Pope has entrusted to his care (cf. c. 381.1). An auxiliary bishop, therefore, is not to be construed as a co-leader of a diocese, as he does not have full authority over that diocese—only the diocesan bishop himself does. Auxiliaries can be given governing power, but it is generally limited to certain geographic sections of the diocese, or to certain aspects of it.  An auxiliary bishop might be given particular authority over all the Catholic schools of the diocese, for example, or he might be entrusted specifically with the spiritual care of an especially large immigrant community. Regardless of an auxiliary’s duties, however, the diocesan bishop retains ultimate authority.

Speaking of authority, canon 403.2 addresses a specific type of auxiliary bishop: an auxiliary with special faculties. The Pope may decide that in a particular diocese, he will appoint an auxiliary bishop who has more specific authority—and the Holy Father will delineate exactly what the nature of that authority is. Note that this type of auxiliary is not necessary appointed at the request of the diocesan bishop (although he might be). Imagine, for example, a situation where a diocesan bishop has demonstrated a particular ineptitude for handling financial matters. The Pope might decide to give such a bishop an auxiliary with power to make monetary decisions that ordinarily could only be made by the diocesan bishop himself. Another example might be a diocese where the bishop has, in Rome’s opinion, failed to address effectively some serious doctrinal issues which have come up in the diocesan seminary. The Pope might name an auxiliary bishop and give him specific powers over all Catholic higher education in the diocese, thereby enabling the auxiliary to discipline seminary professors and pass judgment on the theology books they publish.

The appointment of an auxiliary bishop with special faculties might be viewed as a sign of papal disapproval of an individual diocesan bishop’s handling of his diocese. But this is not always the case, for it could happen that when a diocesan bishop becomes seriously ill, he may be given an auxiliary with special faculties so as to ensure that certain diocesan administrative needs are met. In such a case, this would not happen because the diocesan bishop failed to do a good job, but simply because his health problems were hindering him from carrying out all his duties.

We can see the general nature of an auxiliary bishop’s powers and duties. What is the difference between an auxiliary and a coadjutor bishop?

A coadjutor bishop, as described in canon 403.3, also is given special faculties. In this sense he is much like the auxiliary bishop with special faculties, but there is one big difference: when the diocesan bishop retires or dies, a coadjutor bishop immediately becomes his successor (c. 409.1). The presence of a coadjutor bishop, therefore, ensures that there is no period during which the episcopal see is vacant. Under this arrangement, the transfer of authority to a new diocesan bishop from his predecessor is as seamless as possible.

The exact time when a bishop will be replaced by a successor is not always predictable, of course. Obviously, a diocesan bishop can always die unexpectedly, or find himself obliged to resign (for medical or other reasons) with relatively short notice. In these cases, there is normally a period of time—ranging from months to even years, depending on the circumstances—when the diocese is without any bishop at all. The code provides strict rules about who has authority, and in which situations, during this vacancy (cf. cc. 416-430).

But often it is easy for Rome to foresee that a diocesan bishop will need to step down. Usually this is due to the bishop’s age. Diocesan bishops are required to submit their resignation to the Holy Father when they reach their 75th birthday (c. 401.1). The Pope is not, however, required to accept it, and he may leave the bishop in his diocese for many more years if he sees fit (and, of course, if the health of that diocesan bishop permits). But the Pope can, and frequently does, accept bishops’ resignations as soon as they are submitted—and in these cases a successor naturally has to be chosen as soon as possible.

Appointing a coadjutor bishop is often a way of pre-empting this process. Let’s say that the Pope is aware that Bishop X will turn 75 next December. The Holy Father may decide to name a coadjutor bishop for Bishop X’s diocese right now. The coadjutor bishop already knows that in December, Bishop X will resign and he himself will be the new diocesan bishop. Between then and now, he has a period of several months to become acquainted with the diocese, its people and its problems—and since the soon-to-be-retired diocesan bishop is still present, he can give his successor-to-be some pointers!

This is presumably what happened in the case of Archbishop Gomez of Los Angeles, whom Ellen mentions in her question. For several years he had been serving as an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese of Denver, assisting the archbishop there. (“Bishops, Archbishops, and Cardinals” discusses in some detail the difference between a diocese and an archdiocese.) Gomez was subsequently named Archbishop of San Antonio, Texas, and at that point he became a diocesan bishop in his own right.

In the spring of 2010, Gomez was named coadjutor bishop of Los Angeles by Pope Benedict XVI. Less than a year later, the then-Archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahoney, turned 75 and submitted his resignation, which Pope Benedict accepted. At that point, Bishop Gomez became the new Archbishop of Los Angeles. He had already been engaged in ministry in the archdiocese for eleven months, and so he would understandably have already become somewhat familiar with the people and the territory he was now to govern. In this way, Los Angeles—which is a large and particularly important archdiocese in the United States—did not have to go through a period in which its episcopal see was vacant. The necessarily complicated transition from one diocesan leader to the next was made as smooth as humanly possible!

Readers might be tempted to conclude that this system could, in some situations, lead to competition, friction, or even hostility between a diocesan bishop and his auxiliary/coadjutor bishop. Its purpose, however, is anything but! Canon 407 specifically notes that the diocesan bishop and his auxiliary or coadjutor bishop(s) are to consult with each other on important diocesan matters, and that the auxiliary/coadjutor should exercise his office in such a way that he acts and thinks in accord with the diocesan bishop. All have a significant role to play in the spiritual wellbeing of the diocese to which they are assigned, and are expected to work together for the good of the Church.

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