Is there any official Church document that sets out the order of precedence that is to be observed among Latin Catholic Bishops according to their different ecclesiastical ranks?

Recently, I contacted my Episcopal Conference to pose the same question. Their reply said all the bishops were equal. From that I can only conclude they mean they are the same because they all belong to the same sacred order _ Bishop. However, I am quite sure our Metropolitan-Archbishops outrank the diocesan Bishops. Diocesan Bishops must outrank auxiliary Bishops, and so on.

Thus, I would like to know what the order of episcopal precedence is and where this is supported by any authentic, current Church document.

Order of precedence for what though? I’m not sure you’d be looking at a single, universal document. Normally, when we refer to an “order of precedence” we’re talking about at court (the Papal Court, the Court of St. James, &c). It has a formal diplomatic connotation. Otherwise an order of precedence might be issued for a specific event or liturgy.

In most countries having monarchies, there will be a standing order of precedence. Oftentimes, the Roman Catholic hierarchy will be included in that order of precedence. It will vary from court to court, obviously. In Spain, a Catholic archbishop will rank higher than he will at, say, the Court of St. James (unless the doyen of the Diplomatic Corps happens to be a Catholic archbishop). There are so many nuances to consider.

As far as simple ranking, however, diocesan bishops-in-ordinary would tend to be on par with one another, whereas auxiliaries rank below them as they have no jurisdiction. Archbishops with metropolitan jurisdiction would generally rank above bishops with ordinary jurisdictions or above honorary archbishops, except in the case of, say, papal nuncios, who tend to be archbishops without metropolitan sees. A papal nuncio who is an archbishop would, in any given social setting, rank above an archbishop-in-ordinary, in any case, because he represents the Pope. But that might not be true liturgically speaking in every case. Particularly if the archbishop is also a cardinal.

It’s difficult to just say…


…because there can be any number of nuances that might make the order less than black and white. One can say that all ordinary bishops, for example, are equal and on a par with each other, but what if one of those bishops in attendance at a particular liturgy or social event happens to be the president of the national conference? Obviously, he is given higher precedence than his peers, even over archbishops-in-ordinary who are not also cardinals.

Let’s say you have three cardinals in attendance at a given event. Are they all on an equal par? Perhaps. On the other hand, perhaps one cardinal is a patriarch, one is a primate, and one is a the head of a Vatican dicastery with no see of his own. Who ranks first in such a scenario, and does it depend on what sort of event it is?

So there would not be one, universal, order of precedence. It will change depending upon what the event is, or what the setting is, and who is in attendance.

I don’t know what you mean by precedence. If you mean the order in which they would process at a Mass they all celebrate, say at St. Peter’s, I always thought it was by seniority, as in the monastery, but know of no document that ranks bishops this or any other way.

I know what I mean but am at a loss on how to put it differently.

That’s a good analogy because precedence basically concerns liturgical and ceremonial matters as opposed to the authority or power one has. For example, (not an ecclesiastical one) here in the UK the Queen is always first in any order of precedence. However, there are many more powerful people in the UK than her.

Well yes I suppose it is but how is that seniority determined among bishops. In England & Wales we have five archbishops. All five are also metropolitans. But how is their seniority determined. Is it based on the date of their appointment in the apostolic letter appointing them? Is it the date they were ordained? The date they took canonical possession? The date they were installed in their cathedra.

I suppose I shouldn’t have asked for a single document as the information I want is probably found in many sources.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia on the New Advent website has this to say:


(Latin præcedere, to go before another).

Precedence signifies the right to enjoy a prerogative of honour before other persons; e.g. to have the most distinguished place in a procession, a ceremony, or an assembly, to have the right to express an opinion, cast a vote, or append a signature before others, to perform the most honourable offices.

Questions of precedence sometimes give rise to controversies. In both civil and ecclesiastical legislation they are regulated by laws and rules. In canon law the general rule is that precedence is determined by rank in the hierarchy both of jurisdiction and of order. Where rank is equal it is determined by priority of foundation: Qui prior est tempore, potior est jure (Regula juris 54, in VI). With regard to colleges (collegia), precedence is determined by the quality of the person to whom the college is attached. The order of precedence is regulated as follows: the pope always takes first rank, after him come cardinals, patriarchs, archbishops, exempt bishops, suffragan bishops, titular bishops, and prelates nullius. In these categories priority of ordination and promotion determines precedence, among bishops or archbishops the date of their first promotion to the episcopal or archiepiscopal dignity. Custom or privilege may derogate from this rule. A Decree of Propaganda (15 Aug., 1858) grants to the Archbishop of Baltimore the right of precedence in the United States (Collectio Lacensis, III, 572). In their own dioceses bishops have precedence before strange bishops and archbishops, but not before their own metropolitan. Metropolitan chapters have precedence before cathedral chapters, and the latter before collegiate chapters. The secular clergy according to the importance of their office or the date of their ordination precede the regular clergy. Canons regular take the first place among the regular clergy, then come clerics regular, the monastic orders, and the mendicant orders. Among the mendicants the Dominicans take first place outside of processions; in processions, the acquired right of precedence or that appertaining to priority of establishment in a town must be respected. This last rule applies also to confraternities, but in processions of the Blessed Sacrament the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament has precedence. The Third Orders have precedence of confraternities. Questions of precedence at funerals have given rise to numerous decisions of the Congregation of Rites (see “Decreta S.S. Rituum Congregationis”, Rome, 1901, V, Index generalis, V Præcedentia). The provisory solution of questions of precedence in processions arising between regulars belongs to the diocesan bishop. The Congregation of Rites decides concerning those with regard to liturgical ceremonies; the Congregatio Cæremonialis regulates the precedence of the papal court.

Van Hove, A. (1911). “Precedence” in The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. Retrieved 29 October 2010 from

How much of this is still relevant today I don’t know.

by seniority I meant the date of his episcopal ordination
I am not sure I know what all the “types” of bishops in the cited article are, but I would bet there is an official in the Vatican whose job it is to know precisely who stands, sits and processes where in any such gathering.

At the (relatively) recent ordination of Bishop McGrattan (now an auxiliary bishop of Toronto) in London, a suffragan diocese of the Archdiocese of Toronto, Archbishop Collins of Toronto attended and concelebrated, but was not one of the principal consecrators. I did not notice him occupying a particular place of honour in the procession. He did wear his pallium, as is his right within the ecclesiastical province of Toronto.

I would not be surprised, however if there is more ceremony and attention to precedence at St. Peter’s (in the Vatican ;))

If your are speaking of “precedence” strictly in terms of when each individual would stand in a profession, then I really can’t help :stuck_out_tongue:

However, if your speaking about authority??? Then each bishop is the Head of the Catholic Church in that Diocese. Not even the Pope “outranks” the local bishop!

Without a Bishop, individual priests have no authority to celebrate the sacraments. I believe the only sacrament a priest can celebrate without “faculties” is the Eucharist - confirmation and even confession actually REQUIRE authorization from a bishop.

A priest, even a defrocked priest, will always be able to consecrate the Eucharist, however not confession and confirmation, except in the case of an emergency. However even in such a case of emergency, it is only because bishops everywhere give that permission in the case of emergency.

A bishop also can’t be formally excommunicated while in office at a particular diocese - to do so would disrupt all the priests in his diocese. The Roman Curia would actually have to assign an errant bishop to a new “diocese” before excommunicating him. One bishop, who was only removed from office, not excommunicated, was assigned to a city buried in the sands of the Sahara Desert!

Even when excommunicated, because the bishop will always be the head of a “diocese” somewhere, he can still give faculties to other priests to authorize them to celebrate the sacraments. The bishop is the Head of the Church within his diocese - excommunication just means he’s not the head of the Catholic Church!

The bottom line is that “precedence” among bishops has to do with ceremonial and administrative functions. However each bishop is equal, in that the bishop is not simply an administrator of a unit of the Church, he is the head of Church in the geographic area that is his diocese.

It depends where exactly one is, and what function. You will not find a nice document outlining it - the rules of precedence are scattered throughout several documents, as well as particular indults. In general, the following is observed:

Cardinal Bishops
(Patriarchs who are cardinals)
Cardinal Priests
Cardinal Deacons
Patriarchs, both Eastern and Western

  • Primates
    (may also include: First-among-equals (“primates of honour”))
    Archbishops (Residential then titular)
    Bishops (Residential then titular)

Keep in mind though that this list may be varied. For example, at a diocesan event, the Ordinary and his Metropolitan may precede the Primates. A legate ‘a Latere’ would take the place of the Pope

Also according to the liturgical books, concelebrants have a higher precedence than non-concelebrants. The rules of precedence would be applied separately in each category.

  • The precedence of the Primates is debated, however, this order was maintained at the Second Vatican Council.

I see what you mean, but while the Pope is equal regarding his Episcopal Order, he has a superior power of governing to that of the local bishop. He is the only bishop whose jurisdiction is immediate and universal.

Even when excommunicated, because the bishop will always be the head of a “diocese” somewhere, he can still give faculties to other priests to authorize them to celebrate the sacraments. The bishop is the Head of the Church within his diocese - excommunication just means he’s not the head of the Catholic Church!

Not necessarily. Excommunication removes from a bishop his powers of governing, and he is no longer the head of the Church in his diocese. It is not necessary that he have a diocese, even titular.

Basically, the rank of bishops in relation to each other.

Probably not; the information I seek is most likely found in various sources.

I don’t think orders of precedence are restricted to courts, papal or royal. Universities, certainly those in the UK, have them. I would also say that, again, here in the UK, the Royal Court and Diplomatic Corp are separate things

Catholic Bishops have no place in the orders of precedence of England (inc. Wales) and Scotland. In England, the CofE bishops do.

I think that would be a start. You could then breakdown each group. First, let’s take the Patriarchs (I assume you refer to the Patriarchs of the Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris). Their precedence is set down in Canon 59 n.2 of the Code of Canons of Oriental Churches (CCEO).

Then, the Cardinals, first by order - episcopal, presbyteral, diaconal. The cardinal-bishops - Dean, Sub-Dean, 4 Latin cardinals according to date promoted to their suburbicarian see, and Eastern Patriarchs ranked among themselves according to CCEO #59 n.2. Cardinal-priests - according to date of creation as a cardinal, secondarily according to place of their name on the Biglietto. Cardinal-deacons same way as cardinal-priests.

Of course, I accept that any given, individual liturgy, ceremony, event, etc. there will be differences but even these need a basic “template” on which they are based. Of course, I accept that a prelate in his own territory would certainly be given precedence that he might lack elsewhere.

Assuming none was in his own province/archdiocese/diocese and none of them was present as a Papal Legate then I would assume they’d have the precedence laid down for the Sacred College of Cardinals

I have to disagree on this point. I think there will be one, even if it is a “template” (as alluded to above) as a starting point. For example, if you were the MC for an event you’d need to have some basic knowledge that if there was a cardinal present as a Legate a Laetare he’d been in first place, then other cardinals present should have precedence over bishops who are weren’t cardinals. Then among the other bishops, in general archbishops would be given a higher precedence than bishops.


I have to disagree with you on several points. I would say that the Pope outranks all bishops, everywhere. He has full, immediate, supreme, ordinary authority throughout the whole world. Although I do understand that at Vatican II the collegiality of the Bishops was expressed anew doing away with an older idea that bishops were merely the Pope’s vicars.

Likewise, I do not think it’s fully correct to describe the dependence of priests on bishops in the way you have. In the early Church, priests (presbyters) were appointed merely as bishops’ assistants because as the Christian population grew it became too big for bishops to serve them alone.

Of course, a priest needs to be granted faculties by his Ordinary. However, once they have been granted I don’t think they ‘expire’ with a bishop. You cite the example of a bishop being excommunicated. But, that would have to apply if a see became sede vacante. Therefore, during an interregnum the priests wouldn’t be able to administer the sacraments. I think once faculties are granted they are retained until withdrawn. Of course, too, priests can administer some sacraments, sometimes only under certain circumstances, by virtue of the universal law.

I’m not too sure either that a bishop who had been excommunicated would be able to grant faculties.

I thought there was a difference in rank between Patriarchs of Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris and Latin Catholic titular patriarchs. I believed the Eastern Patriarchs came immediately after the Pope as they are the heads of sui iuris Churches.

Do you have any references to such documents?

With all due respect, that simply isn’t true; the pope enjoys universal jurisdiction over the entire Church, not just the See of Rome, and ranks first everywhere. When he pontificates at the cathedral of a diocese he is visiting, he does so from the cathedra. The same is true of all cardinals and, I believe, the papal nuncio within the territory of the nation to which he represents the Sovereign Pontiff.

Yes, actually an excommunicated bishop can grant faculties, by virtue of his episcopal ordination, its just that any priest who receives them would also be excommunicated!

Also, I use the term “outranks” loosely. The bishop must maintain communion to with the Pope, and does so by obedience to the Pope. The Pope does not govern through the bishop. The Pope governs in union with the bishop :smiley:

Unless I’m mistaken, when a diocesan see becomes vacant, all the priests and faithful temporarily fall under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop. In the case of retirement, a bishop in good standing would remain the titular head of the diocese until his successor is installed.

Thus I do believe it is necessary to first declare a see vacant before excommunicating a bishop, so as to not sweep his entire flock away in the process. In the distant past, I believe whole cities were excommunicated by simply excommunicating the bishop.

It may be that a new “diocese” does not have to be assigned to the excommunicated bishop, but if he is obstinate in his disobedience, he can claim a territory or religious order of his own. He would be in grave disobedience to the greater church, but this is how “break-away” churches are formed.

My main point is that bishops are entrusted with a lot of authority over the faithful, possibly more than the average Catholic realizes. I do not dispute the Pope’s unique and vital authority over the univeral church, but wish to point out the bishop’s authority over his local particular church, which exists simply by his own right of ordination.

This has long been a touchy point for the EC Patriarchs, and some of the order has to do with the idea, under the older Code of Canon Law, of the degree to which the cardinals “participated in the Pope’s supreme power” and were his advisors. At Vatican II, after the first few sessions, with the intervention of Maximos IV, the Patriarchs of the greater sees, when seated, were placed opposite the cardinals to avoid them being de-ranked.

However, for all the documents, Patriachs, unless they had a cardinalatial rank, they signed after the Cardinals, and no distinction was made between Eastern and Western.

A good starting point is the Decrees of the Congregation of Rites (available on GoogleBooks). Another helpful resource, if you can find them, is the official Acts of each synod or Council, in which both the order of procession is listed as well as implicitly indicated in the signing order (for an example, see “Inter Multiplices” by Pius IX). These usually take into account existing legislation (for example, precedence among cardinals was determined by Clement XII in Pastorale officium).

The most detailed summary would be found in the decrees and acts of the Ceremonial Congregation - unfortunately though, those aren’t collected anywhere. I’ll see if I can hunt up some for you.

A good book, btw, is Nabuco’s Jus Pontificalium (and even parts of his Expositio on the Ceremonial of Bishops, though largely obsolete). It is by far the most thorough. There is no work in English comparable. Noonan’s The Church Visible also contains a precedence chart but it is quite inaccurate in the details - particularly egregious is the “absolute precedence” rule he applies for liturgical functions.

For the individual privileges, you have to hunt through concessions to each diocese which might be found anywhere form diocesan acts, to diocesan/church archives. For example, the Archbishop of Westminster has precedence over the other bishops of the UK (unless they are cardinals, of course, and he isn’t) which was granted in Si qua est - like a primate but not. Essentially, it was to ape the old position which Canterbury enjoyed.

Can you cite a source for that. I thought it was diocesan Bishops who granted faculties. That would suggest the right to grant faculties comes with an office, i.e. diocesan Bishop, rather than through episcopal ordination. If, as you say the right to grant faculties comes with episcopal ordination, that would mean auxiliary Bishops, retired Bishops, and other titular Bishops could grant faculties and I don’t believe they can. Excommunication would surely take away a Bishop’s authority to grant faculties.

Now, there I do agree with you.

My understanding is that the Metropolitan has certain jurisdiction in a diocese sede vacante if the College of Consultors fails in their responsibilities to elect a diocesan administrator within the prescribed time limit. The College of Consultors govern the diocese until they elect the diocesan administrator.

I absolutely agree with you on this point. I also think it fair to say that a lot of diocesan Bishops do not exercise the extensive authority they have. [It is also a great shame that when one bishop in my country did this in an attempt to strengthen good Catholic education he was ostracised by his brother bishops.]

I think you are spot on here. The authority to grant faculties lies with the ordinary. In a diocese that is the bishop of the diocese which excommunication would remove. In religious orders/communities it also lies with the ordinary which is the religious superior.

So if the granting of faculties came through episcopal ordination then every religious superior would need to be a bishop.

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