QUAERITUR: Bishops and Titular Sees

From a reader:

Recently, you had a post up regarding Archbishop Nienstedt’s defense of traditional marriage.  As a curious person, I looked up the Archbishop’s background and discovered he once held the titular see of Alton, in Illinois, when he was serving as an auxiliary bishop.  As you may or may not know, the “old cathedral” of the now defunct Diocese of Alton still stands and is still in use as a parish by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield, IL.  From what I recall, the old “bishop’s chair” is still present in the sanctuary. 

Now my question:  If a bishop who is titular see, such as Archbishop Nienstedt formerly was, visits the old cathedral of his defunct diocese, or Alton in Archbishop Nienstedt’s case, would it be proper for him to use the bishop’s chair?

I had long thought most, if not all, of the titular sees were long defunct dioceses where there would be little remnant of the old diocese.  But seeing Alton as Archbishop Nienstadt’s former titular see made me realize there are at least a few exceptions.  Any details you can provide about titular sees would be appreciated.

You raise an interesting question.

The main point we must consider is that a bishop isn’t just a bishop on his own. He is a bishop of a Church and that Church must be somewhere.  In ancient times there were very many more dioceses, which were effectively swept away either by invasion of Muslims or the erosion of demographics, etc.  In more modern times, in the “propaganda” countries, Sees were sometimes established, but the town lost importance for one reason or another and it became impractical to maintain the see there.

I am reminded of the story about the Diocese of Lead, South Dakota, which was set up in 1902.  Many bishops traveled from the East out to the wilderness to install the first bishop of Lead.  They had a nice supper and everyone went back to the train station for their return to civilization.  As the train pulled away from the platform and the prelates waving from the end car and windows could no longer be seen, silence fell.  The new bishop turned to his secretary and said, “And they closed the tomb, and all withdrew.”

The great Bishop Perry, auxiliary bishop in Chicago, is now the Titular Bishop of Lead.   Lead, however, was supressed and the Diocese of Rapidopolis (Rapid City) was created in its place.

There are a number of titular sees in the USA, and one is mentioned in the question.  Off the top of my head I can think also of Walla Walla, Bardstown and Natchez.  It can be rather diverting to look at the titular sees of some of the more interesting figures in the Church.

Keep in mind that Curia Cardinals, who don’t have a see of their own, if they were once diocesan bishops are now emeritus bishops of those dioceses.  Card. Burke, for example, is the Archbishop Emeritus of St. Louis.  He is also, however, the holder of the ancient Roman titulus Sant’Agatha dei Gothi.  The Roman tituli were the first parishes and they were held by deacons or priests.  This distinction in maintained in the College of Cardinals so that even today all Cardinal Deacons and Priests have titular churches in Rome.  They don’t have much influence over those churches, because there are rectors or parish priests, pastors, assigned to them.  There are also, however, Cardinal Bishops who are assigned titular dioceses very close to Rome.  These ancient sees now have their own ordinary bishops.  Once upon a time, the Cardinal Bishop really was the actual bishop of the diocese.  Now, however, he is just the “bishop” in an honorary sense.  This is the only situation, I believe, where there is simultaneously a titular bishop of a diocese which is still a real diocese which also has a bishop.  Very odd, but wonderfully Catholic.  We don’t have a problem with these niceties any more than we have a problem with two statues of Christ in the same church or multiple Hosts being distributed at Holy Communion.  It all works.

Some of the titular dioceses have some real history.  For example, just to stick to St. Louis, back in the 80’s the brand new auxiliary of St. Paul and Minneapolis Robert Carlson, now in St. Louis, was titular bishop of Avioccala, a remnant of the great Church of Proconsular North Africa, present day Sidi-Amara in Tunisia.  This is as much in the middle of nowhere as you can get.  There is an early 4th century Donatist sermon about the death of Donatus of Avioccala, who probably was not the more famous Donatus of Carthage, Donatus being a common name.  Donatists were being expelled after an edit of Constantine to return churches to Catholics.  Soldiers massacred some Donatists in their basilica, which because a cause célèbre for the Donatist schismatics.  In another case, still in Proconsular North Africa, a fine auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché in St. Paul and Minneapolis has the Titular See of Tamata, under the See of Byzacena, which once had the Titular Bishop Franciszek or Frank Musiel once Auxiliary of Czestochowa, Poland, though that Frank Musiel was neither a Cardinal, nor in St. Louis.

I digress.

Titular dioceses are in some sense preserved from being entirely obliterated, lost even in memory, by being maintained in a kind of “suspended animation”.  They exist, but they are sleeping, rather like Briar Rose waiting for her prince to come.

But the fact is that these titular dioceses are not territorial in the sense that the true, presently established diocese is territorial.  The titular bishop doesn’t have any jurisdiction in the sense that the local ordinary bishop has jurisdiction.  If a titular bishop goes to his quondam cathedral church, he is just a visiting bishop as any other.  To put this in terms of Thomistic philosophy, they have jurisdiction in potency but not in act.

However, one could imagine a situation wherein were there huge growth of Catholic population around, for example, Lead, that diocese could be revived.  I know… I know… rather like the fairy tale with Briar Rose.

An interesting point about these titular sees.  Until the late 1800’s they were identified as being dioceses “in partibus infidelium” (“in the regions of unbelievers”).  This term was probably dropped because of any ecumenical concern.  More likely was the fact of expansion into areas that were Christianized but still mission territories, as in the New World.  That is my guess and I happy to be corrected on this point.  Then again, in this age of the “New Evangelization”, that is, the re-evangelization of formerly Christian lands, it might be a good idea to go back to “in partibus infidelium” just to remind us of the steep hill we have to climb.

Finally, take this away from this entry.

While the Lord promised that the hell would in the end not prevail, He did not promise it would not prevail in, say, your home town, your country.  Think of the mighty Churches of ancient times, in Turkey and North Africa.  They are gone and now we have echos of their memory in certain bishops who serve the Church everywhere but where those sees were.

Whole regions of Churches can be broken and swept away like sand.  Parishes close in dioceses.  Jesus did not found your parish.  He didn’t promise that it would last until He returned.

Get involved.

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  1. Another bit of Catholic oddity is that here in Ireland all the dioceses (26) have access to the see and some of them have parts of the diocese entirely within another diocese (e.g. Tuam has territory within Clonfert). There are at least 7 dioceses which have been absorbed by a neighbouring diocese. The last was Ross which is now part of Cork – up until about 20 years ago there was a priest who refused to accept the bishop of Cork as his bishop!

    Interesting post.

  2. Sorry, typo that was meant to be ‘access to the sea”. I believe Emly has claim to be older than the arrival of Patrick, too.

  3. ray from mn says:

    Jamestown was the original diocesan see of all of North Dakota, created in 1889 from the Vicariate Apostolic of Dakota. They have a beautiful Basilica of St. James there. Later, the state was divided into two dioceses, Fargo and Bismarck in 1909 Apparently, the Bishop of North Dakota moved to Fargo soon after his consecration.


    According to Catholic Hierarchy, nobody has ever occupied the titular see of Jamestown. But he depends upon local knowledgeable people for his older information.

  4. “but they are sleeping, rather like Briar Rose waiting for her prince to come”

    That put a great big smile on my face today, thank you Father! It could happen. There’s other thrones out there in a similar situation waiting for jurisdiction in potency to become reality.

  5. Titus says:

    Of course, Father, you didn’t answer the question about the ceremonial privileges of a bishop in his titular cathedral. I’m still curious about that. But the history is fascinating, thanks for that of course. [I think I did. There are no privileges. He has none. He is a visiting bishop with whatever additional privileges (e.g., use of the crozier) the local ordinary grants.]

    I didn’t know that mission dioceses were referred to as being in partibus infidelium: I had always thought the term referred just to those destroyed by non-Christian invaders. Interesting.

    The former diocese of Bardstown was really something: it stretched from Quebec to Florida and from the Appalachians to the Mississippi. The proto-cathedral there is very beautiful. A bit protestant-looking on the outside (at least from a distance), but really quite nice on the inside.

  6. Alex S. says:

    Here’s another example from the United States. In 1876, the Diocese of Allegheny was created out of the already-existing Diocese of Pittsburgh. At the time, Allegheny was its own town, just across the Allegheny River from the Golden Triangle where downtown Pittsburgh is today. (Sort of like how the towns of Buda and Pest combined to become Budapest, Hungary.) The area had enough Catholic population to justify having its own diocese, and Bp. Michael Domenec was appointed its first bishop. It took him a little less than a year to resign and he ended up in Rome, representing his case that having two dioceses was unnecessary. Meanwhile the financial strain of supporting the now-bishopless diocese of Allegheny was killing Pittsburgh Bishop John Tuigg. It was 1889 before the See of Allegheny was finally suppressed.

    Nowadays Allegheny isn’t even its own town anymore. What used to be Allegheny is now the North Side of Pittsburgh. (That’s where Heinz Field and PNC Park are now.) The old cathedral of Allegheny, St. Peter’s, still stands. It’s currently a humble parish church in a not-so-great neighborhood.

  7. The Diocese of Alton moved to Springfield in 1923, after development of transportation made overland travel to the interior of Illinois convenient. But there are still plenty of traces of big-time Catholicism evident in Alton even today. If you ever visit Saint Louis, by all means take the short drive up to Alton; it is quite scenic with steep streets that rival San Francisco.

    The colonial settlement in the mid-Mississippi Valley was almost always on the banks of the great rivers, and it was here that Catholics settled. The interior of the country was mainly settled by Scots-Irish. To this day we mainly find Catholics near the rivers. I suppose I’m not too surprised that Rome erected three sees only a short distance from each other along the Mississippi. Alton is only about twenty road miles from downtown Saint Louis; the Cathedral of the current Diocese of Belleville in Illinois is less than twenty miles away from downtown. A pilgrim could easily visit three current Catholic cathedrals and three former cathedrals or pro-cathedrals in a single afternoon.

  8. Centristian says:

    “The main point we must consider is that a bishop isn’t just a bishop on his own. He is a bishop of a Church and that Church must be somewhere.”


    Yes, well, at any rate…mightily resisting the temptation to open a rabbit hole…friends of mine, priests of the diocese I live in, have recalled to me various interesting tales of former bishops and auxiliary bishops. I am told of a late auxiliary who had a bit of a tendency toward excessive pomp, who went so far as to maintain a throne room at his rectory. A bit of an overreach, it seems to me, considering that the ordinary did not likewise maintain such a room at his official residence.

    I wonder if this auxiliary justified the throne as somehow representational of his titular see, or if it was actually just an outdated courtly practice once common to even auxiliary bishops. Ordinaries, I understand, particularly in Europe, maintain (or once maintained) thrones and throne rooms at their palaces/mansions, but it seems a bit much for a titular bishop.

    If I recall correctly, auxiliary bishops were once required to pontificate with their croziers facing backwards, and only the ordinary could pontificate with his facing forwards. Auxiliaries also pontificated from the faldstool rather than from the throne. I am unsure of what they’re meant to do today. I think they just use the sedilia/presidential chair.

  9. Tim Ferguson says:

    Of course a titular bishop is not obliged to offer Mass for the intention of the people of his diocese on Sundays and Holy Days, as is a diocesan bishop (canon 388). However, I recall a conversation many years ago with a very holy auxiliary bishop (now and archbishop) who said that, if he did not have an intention for a given day, he would sometimes offer the Missa pro populo for his titular diocese, which is currently under the sands of the Sahara. He said that he often wondered if some lone Bedouin, wandering through with his camel, ever got “zapped” with the graces of the Masses he offered and would come to the acknowledgement that Jesus is Lord.

  10. Titus says:

    [I think I did. There are no privileges. He has none. He is a visiting bishop with whatever additional privileges (e.g., use of the crozier) the local ordinary grants.]

    Well, I can that being implicit in the explanation in the original post, if one knows what ceremonials a visiting bishop is generally entitled to. I didn’t. Thank you for the clarification, Father.

  11. Oneros says:

    Possible room for liturgical development?? Perhaps titular bishops could be granted some privilege by the Vatican to use the throne and crozier in their old Cathedrals or whatever, or be required to say a Mass for the (deceased, at least) souls of their titular diocese at least once a year or something like that.

  12. John V says:

    Picking up the Pittsburgh thread inserted by Alex S., the recently ordained Auxiliary Bishop of Pittsburgh,William Waltersheid, is Titular Bishop of California. I’m not sure what was the territorial reach of the diocese so named, but the State of California presently has two archdioceses and ten dioceses, with two archbishops, two archbishops emeritus (one a cardinal), nine bishops, five bishops emeritus, one coadjutor bishop, twelve auxiliary bishops, and three auxiliary bishops emeritus. Several eastern rite eparchies (with their eparchs) are also headquartered there.

  13. Fr. Z – Thanks for taking time to answer my question regarding titular sees. Very interesting stuff.

  14. jesusthroughmary says:

    I thought that all sees were given the name of the city in which the cathedra is present. I thought only Protestants named dioceses after regions.

  15. Josephus Muris Saliensis says:

    Fr Z, it’s for comments like this that we love you:

    “Very odd, but wonderfully Catholic. We don’t have a problem with these niceties any more than we have a problem with two statues of Christ in the same church or multiple Hosts being distributed at Holy Communion. It all works.”

  16. smad0142 says:

    Is there anywhere (books. websites, articles etc) that goes into more depth to explain the theology and reasons for why the Bishop is the local Church and why “where the Pope is there is the Church”? I believe both of these to be true, but I always wondered why. Is it because bishops can impart all of the Sacraments? Anyway any help would be greatly appreciated!!

  17. Centristian says:


    I don’t know whether your speculation is accurate or not but I was under a similar impression, so I was surprised to hear of a former see of “California”, as such. Although, as John V indicates, “California” is, in fact, a titular see (currently held by Bishop Waltersheid), I can’t seem to find (via Google, at any rate) any history of a former “Diocese of California” as such. It seems that there was, however, a “Diocese of the Two Californias” at one point, subject to the Metropolitan See of Mexico City. The American part of the diocese later became the Diocese of Monterey. Perhaps the Mexican part became the “Diocese of California” (making it a Mexican title rather than an American one). Not sure.

  18. amenamen says:

    jmj – That sounded strange to me too. Apparently the Diocese of “the Californias” was based – briefly – in the Mission of Santa Barbara.

    The history page on the website for the Diocese of Fresno includes this information

    1779 Guadalajara becomes an archdiocese, with a suffragan diocese, Sonora. This includes the Mexican States of Sonora, Sinola, and Upper and Lower California.

    1834 The Catholic hierarchy of Mexico proposes the “Diocese of the Californias” which includes Upper and Lower California. The See city is located in Santa Barbara. The first and only bishop of the new diocese is Francisco Diego y Moreno.

    1850 Rome erects the Diocese of Monterey to embrace the entire State of California. The first Bishop of the Diocese is a Spanish Dominican, Rev. Joseph Sadoc Alemany. He had become a naturalized American citizen.

  19. Random Friar says:

    Knowing of your interest in space, Fr. Z, has there ever been talk of what would happen if a new city were to be established on the Moon, or say, Mars, esp. outside of national civil governance?

  20. Random Friar says:

    Those of you who are wanting to make particular suggestions for appointments for bishops who should go to deep space should hold your tongues…

  21. Dr. Eric says:

    I thought that the moon was under the jurisdiction of His Exellency Bishop John Noonan of Orlando, FL.

    I heard that after the moon landing, Bishop Borders remarked to Paul VI at a meeting in Rome that he was the Bishop of the moon.

  22. James Joseph says:

    Fr. Z.

    Major digression that makes for a fancy footnote:

    If I am not mistaken, there is an interesting history about the Donatists that goes like this. There was a high-concentration of Donatists among the Berbermen. The Berbers covered two sub-groups: Mauretania in the western part, and Musulmanii in the eastern part. Both were originally Catholic peoples, but fell into heresy in due part to a particular aggressiveness found in their culture. The Mauretania people are likely those of Mauritania, but the Musulmanii have a sorted history, having been impressed into servitude and brought to the Mid-East, much the same way as enslaved, eunicized Christian Mamelukes and also like the impressed Christian Janisseries. Last, I have seen of them they fought directly under the command of Suleman in Jerusalem.

    …or it could be wrong. It would be exciting to verify it.

  23. James Joseph says:

    …And thank you for using the word ‘diverting’ instead of that paltry word known as ‘fun’.

  24. Dr. Eric says:


    Commenters in the above website suggest that NASA could have been under the Archdiocese of New York as the Archdiocese of the Military didn’t exist yet and the question is whether NASA is part of the military or not.

  25. A) By an ancient custom titular bishops were FORBIDDEN from visiting the territory that makes up their titular See precisely because it could be construed that they were attempting to take possession of it. So, the question of ceremonial privileges is not supposed to arise ever.
    B) In a church that used to be a cathedral but no longer is especially because there is no longer a diocese for which it could be the cathedral church there should no longer be a bishop’s chair of any kind.

    Also to Ray from MN: Bishop Donato, auxiliary of Newark is currently titular bishop of Jamestown and before him the titular bishop was Bp. Zubik, now of Pittsburgh.

  26. JaneC says:

    I have always been enamored of the story of the now-suppressed Diocese of Grass Valley in California. Before its elevation to a diocese, it was the Vicariate Apostolic of Marysville. The newly appointed bishop of Grass Valley refused to move from Marysville. It was only a diocese for twenty years before the see was moved to Sacramento. It is now the titular see for an auxiliary bishop of Hartford.

    When I moved into the diocese of Raleigh, the first thing I did was look up the history of our very good Bishop Burbidge. I giggled a little when I saw that when he was an auxiliary in Philiadelphia, his titular see was Cluain Iraird. My husband remarked, “Is that in Middle Earth?” No, just Ireland! I believe it now belongs to an auxiliary of Melbourne.

    Is there any rhyme or reason to how titular sees are handed out? Is it just whatever happens to be unoccupied?

  27. Chatto says:

    This might be of interest to our Irish Br. Tom OFM Cap! Our Cathedral Dean was regaling us with a tale of the titular see of Tre Taverne, I think currently held by his brother Franciscan, Bishop Fiachra Ó Ceallaigh. Apparently, this is named after (and may even be) a place where St. Paul stopped on his travels, recorded in Acts (I haven’t checked this out for myself). So, in Ireland, there’s literally a ‘Bishop of Three Taverns’!

  28. Random Friar says:

    Well, Bishop Borders claimed for himself the title of Bishop of the Moon. I don’t know if the Holy Father ever ratified it. I don’t believe we really claimed it for the US, in spite of flag planting and all. Although that meant man had first football under his watch, I wonder about the Moon and other planetary bodies, for are they not, by treaty, not claimable by any Earthly political body, but as a “gift for all Mankind” or some such title? Can a bishop claim an international territory? Speaking of which, I can’t remember Antarctica’s status, but isn’t it off-limits to all claims?

  29. RichardT says:

    Br. Tom Forde OFM Cap said (10:08 am):
    “Another bit of Catholic oddity is that here in Ireland … some [of the dioceses] have parts of the diocese entirely within another diocese”

    It used to be very common, at least in England, for a county to have “exclaves”, detached parts that were entirely within another county. Often they were because a great lord had manors or property in another part of the country, so originally it made sense for them to be administered as part of his lands, but as the lords became less powerful it became less sensible. Most of these were tidied up by the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844, but some continued much later (the last ones finally going in the local government reorganisation in 1974).

    Fr Z will have heard of at least one of these – the Liberty (or Precinct) of the Savoy, which was in the middle of London but legally part of Lancashire (in the far north of England). Since Lancashire was a County Palatine, with its own courts, that meant that there was a little patch of London that was subject only to the courts of Lancaster, not those of London or the rest of England. This crops up in Patrick O’Brian’s novels, when Captain Aubrey stays there in order to avoid being arrested for debt.

    The same was also true of dioceses, which had their own exclaves (usually known as ‘peculiars’), both before (Catholic) and after (Anglican) the Reformation. These didn’t necessarily follow the county exclaves, because some were related to property that the diocese owned in different dioceses. For example there were several in London, where important rural bishops had their London Palace, which would be part of their diocese (Ely Place, where St Etheldreda’s church is happily once again Catholic, is one of these). In the days of Church taxes and fees, these could be very important.

    Like the civil counties, the Anglican church generally tidied these ‘peculiars’ up in the 1840s.

    After the Reformation, when Catholic dioceses were finally restored in England, they generally followed the county boundaries. But because the restoration was not until 1850 – after the Counties (Detached Parts) Act 1844 – they didn’t have exclaves.

  30. vetusta ecclesia says:

    In England Auxiliary bishops and retired ones are sometimes given Saxon sees. When one was made Bishop of Glastonia an organisation called “The Orthodox Church of the British Isles” objected that Glastonbury was their Metropolitical See. Rome sensibly said that their chap was Glastonia!

    Former Abbots of the Venerable English Congregation take the titles of reformation dissolved houses – so there are Abbots of Westminster , Lindisfarne, Tewkesbury etc. There are also Cathedral Priors of the houses that were Benedictine cathedrals. The cathedral priory was, I think, unique to England and was revived in the 19 century at Belmont.

  31. Kerry says:

    Hmm…“in partibus infidelium”, sounds like certain buildings in the District of Columbia.

  32. Maltese says:

    Father, you are a great writer! You, sua sponte, can just generate such great stuff without weeks of editorial review! I recognize that, and congratulate you for that ability!

    Many respects!

  33. Oneros says:

    “By an ancient custom titular bishops were FORBIDDEN from visiting the territory that makes up their titular See precisely because it could be construed that they were attempting to take possession of it. So, the question of ceremonial privileges is not supposed to arise ever.”

    I’d be fascinated to see a source on this!

  34. Imrahil says:

    The titular bishop of Wiener Neustadt (now Archdiocese of Vienna) holds the Cathedral of Wiener Neustadt as the cathedral of the Military Ordinariate of which he is the ordinary.

  35. catholicmidwest says:

    Fr. Z,
    It’s interesting that there are no comments on your “take-away” point, which I thought was the interesting part.

  36. Random Friar: About the moon. I will create a new entry about that.

  37. catholicmidwest: That is very often the case here, I find.

    It may be that with all the burdens people carry in their daily lives, they just don’t want to focus on the heavy and the hard.

  38. MattCouv says:

    When the diocese of Alexandria celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2003, they opened the year long celebration at the protocathedral in Natchitoches, which was the original name of the diocese. One of the visiting bishops was Bp. Marini, auxiliary of Montreal, who held the titular see of Natchitoches.

  39. Joe in Canada says:

    I agree with what Fr Selvester wrote but I understand that this is no longer the case.

  40. uptoncp says:

    In a church that used to be a cathedral but no longer is especially because there is no longer a diocese for which it could be the cathedral church there should no longer be a bishop’s chair of any kind.

    Except when a bishop entitled to use it visits, as in any other church.

  41. Winfield says:

    Constantinople fell to the Turks 558 years ago May 29, three weeks ago tomorrow. Catholicmidwest: I had the same thought. There has been a resurgence in interest in Byzantine studies over the past 10-15 years, spurred in part by 9/11, which has driven home the historical truth that, as Fr. Z says, “whole regions of Churches can be broken and swept away like sand.”

  42. PacoG says:

    Now the opposite of most diocese stories in the United States is South Texas. Originally, in the 1840s, all of Texas was under the Diocese of Galveston (now the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston). Texas was then divided into Galveston, the Diocese (now Archdiocese) of San Antonio and the Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville. However, different vicars apostolic had different preferences among the different climates of South Texas or belonged to an order that had a rectory in one of those towns. So at different times during the Vicariate’s history, the vicar resided and had his main church (his cathedral?) in any of the three big towns: the desert-like Laredo, sub-tropical Brownsville and the coastal Corpus Christi. When Rome upgraded the vicariate to a diocese, the see was erected in Corpus Christi (leaving the people in Brownsville exceptionally bitter). At different times during Corpus Christi’s history, a coadjudator bishop and then an auxillary were stationed at the Brownsville former vicar’s cathedral. Then in 1965, the Diocese of Brownsville was erected. In 2000, the Diocese of Laredo was carved out of the westernmost counties. (The Diocese of Victoria became the third see carved from the former Vicariate Apostolic of Brownsville/Diocese of Corpus Christi around that time also.)

  43. Michael J. says:

    Does anyone know if there is a Bishop of Antarctica, be it a Diocesan Bishop or a Titual one? Or, is it like someone posted, off -limits? Thank you.

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