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The name Chapter ( Latin capitulum ), designating certain corporate ecclesiastical bodies, is said to be derived from the chapter of the rule book, which it was the custom to read in the assemblies of monks. By degrees the meeting itself was called the chapter and the place of meeting the chapter house. From these conventual chapters or meetings of monks for the transaction of business connected with their monasteries or orders, the designation passed over to somewhat analogous assemblies of other ecclesiastics. Hence we speak of collegiate chapters and of cathedral chapters. In general a chapter may be defined as an association of clerics of a certain church forming a moral body and instituted by ecclesiastical authority for the purpose of promoting the divine worship by means of choir service. If it be a cathedral chapter, however, its principal object is to assist the bishop in the government of his diocese, and the choir service is only secondary. Members of chapters are called canons.


From the earliest times the priests and deacons of the cathedral city aided the bishop in conducting ecclesiastical affairs. Considered as a body, these clerics were called the Presbyterium . The custom often obtained of bishop and clergy occupying a common dwelling, and this fact, joined with the example of the monks, led to a uniform method of life. About the end of the fourth century St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, reduced this common life to a more perfect form, and when, later, many of his clerics themselves became bishops, they introduced similar rules in their churches. In Spain, Italy, and England (Bede, Hist. Eccl., I, xxvii) early traces are found of this common life of the bishop and his priests. Among the Franks, especially, St. Chrodegang, Bishop of Metz (d. 766), formed his clergy into a community bound by a rule, which was, however, distinct from that of regulars. From this rule or canon, the members of the body derived their name of canons. Later on other larger churches, in imitation of the cathedral, adopted a similar mode of life, and hence arose the distinction between canons of cathedral and collegiate churches, some of whom were secular and some regular. The main object of the last-named capitular bodies is to promote the splendour of God's worship by choir service. This article will treat particularly of cathedral chapters.


A cathedral chapter constitutes a moral body or corporation. Inasmuch as it is an ecclesiastical corporation it can be erected only by the pope, according to the prevailing discipline. The chapter can be considered as forming one body with the bishop, in as far as it constitutes his senate and aids him in the government of his diocese ; or as forming a body distinct from the bishop, having its own regulations and interests. Viewed under the first aspect the cathedral chapter has the bishop for its head; under the last, it has its own proper superior. Taking the chapter in the strict sense, however, canonists generally declare that the bishop must always be distinguished from it; nor can he be called a member of the chapter. Anciently, the principal dignitary of the chapter was the archdeacon, but from the eleventh century the dean, who was also archpriest, had the internal government of the chapter. In some countries this dignitary is called the provost. The collation to canonries, by common law, pertains to the bishop and the chapter conjointly, unless in the case of such canonships as are papal reservations. The nomination of the head of the chapter belongs to the pope. In some countries, as Austria, Bavaria, Spain and until recently France, the Government, in virtue of concordats or ancient privileges, has the right of nomination to some or all of the vacant canonries.


At the head of the chapter as a corporate body, is a president who, as before said, is called in different countries by various names, though the prevailing one is that of dean. The duty of this official is to convoke the chapter and preside over it. He is also to see that the canonical statutes are observed in all that relates to capitular meetings and the choir service. The chapter appoints a treasurer, a secretary, and a sacristan. The Council of Trent decreed (Sess. V, Cap. i) that a canon theologian should be constituted in cathedral churches. His office is to explain the Holy Scripture and the dogmas of the Faith, and also to treat questions pertaining to moral theology. A canon penitentiary is likewise to be appointed (Sess. XXIV, cap. viii) with power to hear confessions in the whole diocese. As to other dignitaries or officials of the chapter, there is no uniformity among the various capitular bodies. The Council of Trent approved of this variety (Sess. XXV, cap. vi), and hence the peculiar statutes or customs of each chapter or diocese or country must be examined to know what dignitaries, in addition to those mentioned, form part of the capitular body. Among such other officials may be named the custos, primicerius, portarius, precentor, hospitalarius, eleemosynarius or almoner, and camerarius or chamberlain. Punctator and hebdomadarius are not distinct offices but special functions committed to certain canons.


These are called by the general name of capitulars or canons. The division of such canons into seniors and juniors, residential and forensic, prebendal and semi-prebendal, etc., belongs rather to archæology. The number of simple canons is not fixed by a general law of the Church, and the bishop can, with the consent of his chapter, increase their number, except in cases where the pope has absolutely determined how many canons shall compose a particular chapter. In the latter case no new capitulars can be added except by Apostolic authority. Honorary canons have neither a canonry nor a vote in the chapter, but they are entitled to a stall in the choir. The number of such honorary canons must not exceed that of the titular ones. Leo XIII prescribed in 1894 that a bishop is not to nominate to an honorary canonship a subject of another diocese, without the consent of the chapter and the goodwill of the candidate's own ordinary. The honorary canons who do not belong to the diocese must never be equal to the third part of all the capitulars. In England and Scotland the number of canons is usually ten, and the president is called provost. In Ireland the chapter is presided over by a dean, and besides the canons penitentiary and theologian, there are usually also a number of other dignitaries.


Cathedral canons (capitulars) have precedence, after the bishop or vicar-general, over all the diocesan clergy when they go in procession as a chapter. They have also a certain pre-eminence, so that they may be made judges delegate of the Holy See in preference to the other clergy and to canons of collegiate churches. They also wear certain honorary insignia, as a ring, a cross, a violet soutane, etc., and sometimes even the mitre. Leo XIIIdecreed in 1894 that canons of minor basilicas in Rome can use such insignia only within their churches, and that canons "outside the city" can employ them only within their dioceses. A capitular has a right to receive his prebend or income from the day of installation. He likewise has a place and vote in the chapter and a stall in the choir. He is obliged to make a profession of faith before the bishop or his vicar at a meeting of the chapter, within two months of his installation. Residence near the cathedral church is required, as his duties are to be performed personally and not by substitutes, except in very rare cases. The conventual Mass is to be assisted at daily by the canons according to their rotation. If the Mass be offered for benefactors, all must be present. Choir service is also of obligation, and the canons must not merely assist but also chant the psalms. Absence is allowed only for a legitimate cause or through dispensation of the proper ecclesiastical authority. They must assit at the deliberations of the chapter and fulfil whatever duties may be imposed upon them by it unless legitimately excused. When the bishop celebrates Mass or takes part in other pontifical functions, the capitulars must assist him according to the form prescribed in the "Ceremonial of Bishops " and the "Roman Pontifical". They are also to accompany the bishop when he goes in procession to the cathedral, and after the service they must go with him to the church door in a body.


Chapters, being true ecclesiastical colleges in the strict sense of the word, have all the rights such bodies possess by their nature or by the positive sanction of law. Consequently, they can hold sessions, ordinary or extraordinary, to expedite matters concerning the chapter. By common law, they need no previous approbation of the bishop for such meetings, but the bishop can require that they give him notice of a capitular congregation and of the resolutions approved by it. The convocation of the chapter to consider its own affairs belongs to the dean or provost, except where a particular statute intervenes. The bishop convokes it when it is to treat of diocesan matters. All the canons present in the city are to be called to meetings of the chapter. At times even those absent are to be summoned, as for the election of a prelate, the reception of new canons, etc. The meeting is to be held at the prescribed time and place. Two-thirds of the capitulars form a quorum, according to the regulations of some chapters; canon law requires only a majority. Business is to be transacted by a general and public deliberation, followed by a vote. This vote need not be unanimous, unless the subject matter refers to the canons as individuals. The chapter has authority to make laws for itself, provided they be not contrary to the general canon law. These statutes, according to the prevailing discipline, must be approved by the bishop. In particular cases, where there is a tie vote, the dean or bishop has the casting vote or a double suffrage. Like every other ecclesiastical corporation, the chapter has the right of possessing and administering the property over which it has the dominion. Consequently the chapter can appoint its own officials to administer its possessions, even without the ordinary's approbation. The supreme administrator of capitular property, as the dean or other dignitary, is to be determined by local statutes or customs.

Chapters Sede Plenâ

As the chapter constitutes the diocesan senate, the bishop is obliged to ask its counsel or consent for various administrative acts. Where consent is required, the bishop cannot validly proceed against the will of the capitulars. Where only counsel is prescribed, the ordinary fulfills his obligation by asking their advice, but he is not constrained to follow it. In some cases defined by law, the acts of the bishop are null, if the counsel of the chapter be not asked. The consent of the chapter is requisite in general for all matters of grave importance, especially such as place a perpetual obligation on the diocese or on property, unless the bishop is allowed greater liberty either by custom or Apostolic delegation. In particular, the consent of the capitulars is necessary for buying, selling, or alienating ecclesiastical property ; for mortgaging church property, for uniting, dividing, or suppressing spiritual benefices or parishes ; for erecting new canonries, even honorary ones; for collating to benefices, if the right be held by the chapter conjointly with the bishop ; for nominating prosynodal examiners; for assuming a temporary coadjutor for the bishop ; for committing parish churches to regulars; for imposing new taxes or contributions on the diocese ; for measures that would be prejudicial to the chapter or diocese, because the chapter is the lawful defendant of diocesan rights. The counsel of the chapter is to be asked for the making and promulgating of new diocesan laws whether composed in the synod or out of it; for correcting and punishing the faults of clerics ; for the building of new monasteries ; for administrative acts of some moment, as in appointments to parishes and other diocesan business. For the matters cited, the consent or counsel of the chapter is required by the bishop when he is exercising his ordinary jurisdiction. In cases, however, where he acts as delegate of the Holy See , no such counsel or consent need be asked. The chapter on its side is obliged to show due obedience to the bishop in the observance and execution of his lawful commands, in submitting to his canonical visitation, and in obeying his just judgment in judicial causes.

Chapters Sede Impeditâ

When on account of some physical or canonical impediment, the bishop cannot govern his diocese, the episcopal administration does not pass to the chapter, but it becomes its duty to notify the pope, who alone appoints the administrator of a diocese, except in certain cases determined by law, when the chapter can conduct diocesan affairs; as when the bishop has been imprisoned by heretics or pagans ; when he is excommunicated or suspended ; when the vicar-general dies and the bishop is far away. In the above exceptional cases the chapter may administer the diocese until the Holy See provides otherwise.

Chapters Sede Vacante

On the death of the bishop, the chapter succeeds to his ordinary and customary jurisdiction in spirituals and temporals, except to those which he had by virtue of Sacred orders, or by special privilege, or by special delegation of the Holy See. The faculties delegated to bishops as delegates of the Apostolic See by the Council of Trent also pass to the chapter. Within eight days of the bishop's death, the chapter must elect a vicar capitular to whom the whole administration of the diocese must be committed (see V ICAR C APITULAR ), and the chapter can reserve no jurisdiction to itself. Lastly, it nominates the new bishop.


In England, Ireland, Scotland, Holland, and some other countries, cathedral chapters have been erected. As the circumstances of these countries are different from those in lands where the Church is canonically established, the Holy See has made some changes in the common law governing cathedral chapters. The canons are dispensed from residence near the cathedral church, and may be parish priests or missionaries dispersed through the diocese. They are likewise dispensed from the daily chanting of the Divine Office in choir. It is generally prescribed, however, that when the capitulars come to the cathedral for their monthly meetings, they must recite Terce together and assist at a conventual Mass. As a general rule the rights and offices of canons in missionary countries are the same as those already enumerated for places where canonical law is in full force. The Bishop is therefore to ask their counsel or consent, as the case may be, in matters referring to diocesan administration and when the episcopal see is vacant, the chapter succeeds to the deceased bishop and elects a vicar capitular. In the United States, cathedral chapters have not as yet been constituted. In 1883 Propaganda consulted the American bishops on the advisability of erecting them, but the prelates judged that the time was not yet opportune.

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