Ordinarily, an apostolic administrator would be sent to represent the pope to a portion of God’s people who are in an area where, due to special and particularly grave reasons, a diocese has not been erected (CIC c. 371 §2). An administrator could also be sent to a diocese whose diocesan bishop might be, for example, under a canonical penalty suspending his jurisdiction, guilty of gross mismanagement in financial affairs, incapacitated by bodily or mental illness, or physically prevented from exercising jurisdiction because of banishment or detention. An administrator’s appointment to a vacant diocese might be prompted, for example, by the need for special investigation into past administration or for delicate diplomacy during a period of political discord.
Unlike a diocesan bishop, the administrator has only vicarious power, governing not in his own name, but in the name of the pope whose jurisdiction he exercises (CIC c. 371 §2). When the situation in the diocese has been normalized, administration is resumed by a diocesan bishop who rules by proper power in his own name, not as a delegate of the pope (CIC c. 381 §1).
Although the title “apostolic administrator” was stabilized only in 1908 by Pius X’s constitution Sapienti Consilio, the existence of the office that it represents is discernible as far back as the 5th century. The Fifth Council of Carthage (401) and the Council of Macriana (419) in Africa speak of the interventor or intercessor, appointed by the metropolitan or a provincial council to oversee the smooth succession of government in a vacant diocese. He was usually the bishop of a neighboring diocese whose task as interventor was to conduct the funeral of the deceased bishop, to administer provisionally the affairs of the diocese, and to supervise the election of the new bishop.
In Italy and France a similar office was called that of visitator, the earliest record of which appears in the Council of Riez (439). From this time it became the common practice in France for the metropolitan to send a visitator to a diocese immediately upon its vacancy in order to prevent, among other things, the plundering of the bishop’s property by clergy and laity alike. The prerogative of appointing visitators soon devolved to the papacy. From the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great (c. 540–604) well into the 9th century there were numerous examples of papal visitators sent throughout Italy and France, as well as Spain where the similar office of commendator had been common since the Council of Valencia (524).
From the 8th century the office began to suffer limitations as the institute of the cathedral chapter developed. When the Second General Lateran Council in 1139 granted the cathedral chapter the right to hold episcopal elections, the office of visitator became one of extraordinary and less frequent application, and in 1298 Boniface VIII reserved the appointment of administrators to the Holy See (Corpus iuris canonici, VI0, ed. E. Friedberg, 1.8.4). Sixtus V in 1588 assigned competence over such appointments to the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, and in 1908 Pius X, in reorganizing the Roman curia, reassigned competence to the Congregation of the Consistory and consecrated the title apostolic administrator, which, since the time of decretal law, had been used interchangeably with the title Vicar Apostolic. The two are now distinct offices, the latter generally denoting a papal deputy sent to a missionary territory (CIC c. 371 §1).
Law Governing the office in the Latin Church
In default of special contrary provisions of the Holy See in a particular case, the Code of Canon Law determines various details in the office of apostolic administrator. After taking possession of the government of his territory, the apostolic administrator is a local ordinary (CIC c. 134). The administrator’s jurisdiction does not cease on account of the death of the pope; normally it expires according to the wishes of the Holy See and, generally, when a new bishop takes possession of the see.
Unless there are contrary conditions in his mandate, the apostolic administrator generally enjoys the same rights, honors, and duties as a diocesan bishop (CIC c. 381 §2).
Office in the Eastern Churches
In the Eastern Catholic Churches, an apostolic administrator is appointed by the pope to govern an eparchy, whether vacant or not, for serious and special reasons (Codex Canonum Ecclesiarium Orientalium [CCEO] c. 234 §1). The apostolic administrator has the rights, honors, and duties that are given to him in his letter of appointment (CCEO c. 234 §2). He is a local hierarch (CCEO c. 984 §2).
Bibliography: t. j. mcdonough, Apostolic Administrators (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 139; Washington, D.C. 1941).
p. hofmeister, “Von den Apostolischen Administratoren der Diözesen und Abteien,” Archiv für katholisches Kirchenrecht 110 (1930) 337–392.
j. a. renken, in New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. j. p. beal et al. (New York 2000) 508–509, 518–520.
[j. r. keating/
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