QUAERITUR: Of “Vicars General” and of “Ordinaries” – UPDATED

From a reader:

When Canon Law speaks of diocesan Ordinaries, or those equivalent to them in law – are they speaking of Apostolic Administrators or Vicar Generals or both? I know that pragmatically, an Apostolic Administrator has Ordinary powers but is a vicar general considered the equivalent of an Ordinary?

I believe we refer to “vicars general” rather than “vicar generals”.

First, it’s time for a little Vicar General Humor!  Many years ago I learned some Latin acrostics for various figures in the Church, including the vicarius, who we learn is


It doesn’t have to be great Latin, it just has to be funny. Parochus and Episcopus are also a hoot!  But I digress.

Vicars general are an important group of men for our Holy Church.  They, as a group, are rather like how St. Augustine describes Holy Church herself: “corpus permixtum malis et bonis … a body mixed through with good and bad people.”  God sorts them out in the like, like wheat and chaff.  I have known a couple vicars general who were diligent and prayerful men, classy and kind to boot.  I have known a couple vicars general who might have sub’d for the Prince of Darkness.  They are rather like, therefore, the proverbial box of chocolates.  But they are important.

Let’s get some terms straight.

“Vicar” is from the Latin vicarius, “a substitute, deputy, proxy, a locum tenens”, one who fills in for another. This is in turn from Latin defective noun vicis concerning “change, interchange, alternation, alternate or reciprocal succession, vicissitude” and “the position, place, room, stead, post, office, duty of one person or thing as assumed by another”.  Think of the “Vicar of Christ” (the one who stands in the place of Christ) or a Parochial Vicar (the one who stands in the place of the parochus, the parish priest or, as said in America, the parish’s “pastor”. It has adverbial applications as well. Think of vice versa.

So, a vicarius generalis is one who stands in for the bishop generally, or in all things (“generalis”).

The 1983 Code of Canon Law does not speak of “diocesan Ordinaries”.  The terms used are “local Ordinary” or “personal Ordinary”. Canon 134, defines (and it’s rare for the 1983 Code to give a definition) these ecclesiastical critters:

“In law, the term Ordinary means, apart from the Roman Pontiff, diocesan bishops and all who, even for a time only, are set over a particular Church or a community equivalent to it in accordance with canon 368, and those who in these have general ordinary executive power, that is, Vicars general and episcopal Vicars; likewise, for their own members, it means to major Superiors of clerical religious institutes of pontifical right and of clerical societies of apostolic life of pontifical right, who have at least ordinary executive power.”

Paragraph §2 explains that the term “local ordinary” only refers to the Pope, diocesan bishops and those equivalent to them (e.g., a temporary Diocesan Administrator, an Abbott Nullius, a Vicar Apostolic, an Apostolic Prefect, or an Apostolic Administrator).  You will sometimes read my suggestions here on this blog that people write to their “local ordinary”.

Superiors of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life are “personal ordinaries”. The prelates of a personal prelature are probably in this category, since their jurisdiction is personal, rather than territorial.  The relatively new concept of a personal ordinariate – such as the Anglican Ordinariates – would likely put their Ordinaries into the category of personal, not local.

Hence, ad rem, a Vicar General is not the equivalent to an Ordinary, since he IS an Ordinary.

When the Code say that something is entrusted to the Ordinary, the Vicar General can do it.  If the Code restricts something to the diocesan bishop, the Code explicitly states the restriction (e.g., can. 515  §2 – “The diocesan bishop alone can establish, suppress, or alter parishes.”). Even in many of these cases, those equivalent to the diocesan bishop (the temporary Administrator, Abbott Nullius, Vicar Apostolic, Apostolic Prefect, Apostolic Administrator) are presumed to have the same authority, “unless the contrary is clear from the nature of things or from a provision of the law” (can. 381 §2).

As you can see the choice of a diocesan Vicar General is important.  And since, contrary to the claims of some, vicars general really are also human beings, one should pray that the diocesan bishop chooses not only a capable man, but a good and a prayerful man.  Sadly, that is not always how things work out.

A savage vicar general can – and usually does – hurt people.  That is too well known by priests, I’m afraid, from personal experience.  Of course the contrary is also true. Vice versa they can help a lot of people even while they are helping the local ordinary.

Vicars general lug around a tremendous burden of work and responsibility.  We often pray for bishops.  We should not forget also to pray for vicars general, who are unseen and unsung – which is also only right.  They are, after all, the Umbra Superioris.

Pray for both the “malis et bonis“.


A bishop-reader of the blog has some interesting observations in a comment, below.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. dans0622 says:

    It may be my own deficiency in understanding Fr.’s explanation but it is not clearly stated here that a vicar general and episcopal vicar are also “local ordinaries.”

  2. Bishop Thomas Dowd says:

    Dear Father Zuhsdorf,

    I hope you don’t mind a small correction: I’m not sure your presentation of the definition of “local ordinary” is quite right. [I appreciate the help! It is complicated stuff.]

    Canon 134.1 states that the term Ordinary includes the Roman Pontiff, the diocesan bishop (or equivalent), the vicar general, the episcopal vicar, and the major superiors (generally superior general and provincials) of religious institutes and societies of apostolic life.

    Canon 134.2 states that the term “local ordinary” includes all these titles, except the ones for religious institutes and societies of apostolic life. Therefore, a vicar general and an episcopal vicar are included not only as ordinaries, but as local ordinaries.

    The term “personal ordinary” doesn’t conflict with “local ordinary”, but involves the idea that group over which one has jurisdiction is not simply identified by territory. It is possible to be both a “personal” and a “local” ordinary at the same time. I happen to be one: [!] I am “episcopal vicar to the English-speaking faithful” in the Archdiocese of Montreal. As episcopal vicar, I am a local ordinary. [!] However, my jurisdiction isn’t territorial (e.g. over a region of the diocese), but personal (over a distinct linguistic group regardless of where they are found within the diocese). So I am also a personal ordinary, in addition to a local ordinary.

    Complicated, I know. Somebody should make a table for all of this, just to keep it straight.

    Many thanks, BTW, for your suggestion for prayers for vicars general. We episcopal vicars can use them too, though!

    [I am sure, Eccellenza, that the readers here will stop right now and say a prayer for at least one episcopal vicar!]

  3. Paul M. says:

    dans0622: Fr. Z said,

    Paragraph §2 explains that the term “local ordinary” only refers to the Pope, diocesan bishops and those equivalent to them (e.g., a temporary Diocesan Administrator, an Abbott Nullius, a Vicar Apostolic, an Apostolic Prefect, or an Apostolic Administrator).

    Fr. Z probably just forgot to type the text below in bold,

    Paragraph §2 explains that the term “local ordinary” only refers to the Pope, diocesan bishops and those equivalent to them (e.g., a temporary Diocesan Administrator, an Abbott Nullius, a Vicar Apostolic, an Apostolic Prefect, or an Apostolic Administrator), and vicars general and episcopal vicars.


    This is because § 2 of Can. 134 includes all Ordinaries in the definition of local Ordinary “except the superiors of religious institutes and of societies of apostolic life.”

  4. Supertradmum says:

    I have lived in dioceses where either the vicar general position was a step towards being a bishop somewhere, or, on the other hand, where priests were put because they did not fit anyplace else.

  5. TNCath says:

    I have always been told that being a Vicar General was only as dangerous as the bishop of the diocese lets him be. That said, the Vicars General I have known have been a mixed bag. At one time, our diocese had…TWO…Vicars General. One was a certifiable…character…who ran around town being a…character…The other was a living saint who doubled as chancellor. And yet, strangely enough, it worked because, between the two of them, things got done. As it stands now, our current Vicar General pretty much runs the show in our diocese.

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  7. CharleyCOllins says:

    Of course, in the United States, Vicars General have historically been overshadowed by the Chancellor. According to canon law, the chancellor is merely a notary (although he should be an expert canonist, since he usually also draws up the documents to be signed), but many US bishops in the 19th and early 20th century feared the (ordinary) power of the Vicar General, so appointed an old, retired priest to the position (since it is required by law that every diocese have a VG). The bishop then delegated the usual powers to the Chancellor, since he did not have ordinary power (a similar thing happened with the cathedral chapter, where the US bishops constantly said it was an “inopportune time”, even though chapters were established in other areas where Catholics were even more disadvantaged, such as England, Ireland, and Australia, but I digress). Although these Chancellors were delegated many powers, they still deferred to the bishop on many matters. For example, in many European dioceses (especially those with many parishes and priests), the Vicar General handles almost all personnel decisions and, in effect, “runs” the diocese. An inexact comparison could be made with the Judicial Vicar, who has been delegated judicial power. How many annulment cases does a bishop adjudicate (even though he could reserve cases to himself)? Usually none. Yet when it comes to day to day administration, most US bishops are much more involved, with the VG more involved in running the Chancery. This is the culture of the Church in the US, which was inherited from previous generations.

  8. In my diocese, the vicar general seems like the sort one might pick to hear his confession. I don’t know him personally, but I’ve always liked him; he seems like an ordinary guy. ;)

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