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Originally the term diocese (Gr. dioikesis) signified management of a household, thence administration or government in general. This term was soon used in Roman law to designate the territory dependent for its administration upon a city (civitas). What in Latin was called ager, or territorium, namely a district subject to a city, was habitually known in the Roman East as a diœcesis. But as the Christian bishop generally resided in a civitas, the territory administered by him, being usually conterminous with the juridical territory of the city, came to be known ecclesiastically by its usual civil term, diocese. This name was also given to the administrative subdivision of some provinces ruled by legates (legati) under the authority of the governor of the province. Finally, Diocletian designated by this name the twelve great divisions which he established in the empire, and over each of which he placed a vicarius (Pauly-Wissowa, Real-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, Stuttgart, 1903, V, 1, 716 sqq.). The original term for local groups of the faithful subject to a bishop was ekklesia (church), and at a later date, paroikia, i.e. the neighbourhood (Lat. porœcia, parochia). The Apostolic Canons (xiv, xv), and the Council of Nicæa in 325 (can. xvi) applied this latter term to the territory subject to a bishop. This term was retained in the East, where the Council of Constantinople (381) reserved the word diocese for the territory subject to a patriarch (can. ii). In the West also parochia was long used to designate an episcopal see. About 850 Leo IV, and about 1095 Urban II, still employed parochia to denote the territory subject to the jurisdiction of a bishop. Alexander III (1159-1181) designated under the name of parochiani the subjects of a bishop (c. 4, C. X, qu. 1; c. 10, C. IX, qu. 2; c. 9, X, De testibus, II, 20). On the other hand, the present meaning of the word diocese is met with in Africa at the end of the fourth century (cc. 50, 51, C. XVI, qu. 1), and afterwards in Spain, where the term parochia, occurring in the ninth canon of the Council of Antioch, held in 341, was translated by "diocese" (c. 2, C. IX, qu. 3). See also the ninth canon of the Synod of Toledo, in 589 (Hefele, ad h. an. and c. 6, C. X, qu. 3). This usage finally became general in the West, though diocese was sometimes used to indicate parishes in the present sense of the word (see PARISH). In Gaul, the words terminus, territorium, civitas, pagus, are also met with.

Historical origin

It is impossible to determine what rules were followed at the origin of the Church in limiting the territory over which each bishop exercised his authority. Universality of ecclesiastical jurisdiction was a personal prerogative of the Apostles; their successors, the bishops, enjoyed only a jurisdiction limited to a certain territory: thus Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch, and Polycarp, of Smyrna. The first Christian communities, quite like the Jewish, were established in towns. The converts who lived in the neighbourhood naturally joined with the community of the town for the celebration of the Sacred Mysteries. Exact limitations of episcopal territory could not have engrossed much attention at the beginning of Christianity; it would have been quite impracticable. As a matter of fact, the extent of the diocese was determined by the domain itself over which the bishop exercised his influence. It seems certain on the other hand, that, in the East at any rate, by the middle of the third century each Christian community of any importance had become the residence of a bishop and constituted a diocese. There were bishops in the country districts as well as in the towns. The chorepiscopi (en chora episkopoi), or rural bishops, were bishops, it is generally thought, as well as those of the towns; though from about the second half of the third century their powers were little by little curtailed, and they were made dependent on the bishops of the towns. To this rule Egypt was an exception; Alexandria was for a long time the only see in Egypt. The number of Egyptian dioceses, however, multiplied rapidly during the third century, so that in 320 there were about a hundred bishops present at the Council of Alexandria. The number of dioceses was also quite large in some parts of the Western Church, i.e. in Southern Italy and in Africa. In other regions of Europe, either Christianity had as yet a small number of adherents, or the bishops reserved to themselves supreme authority over extensive districts. Thus, in this early period but few dioceses existed in Northern Italy, Gaul, Germany, Britain, and Spain. In the last, however, their number increased rapidly during the third century. The increase of the faithful in small towns and country districts soon made it necessary to determine exactly the limits of the territory of each church. The cities of the empire, with their clearly defined suburban districts, offered limits that were easily acceptable. From the fourth century on it was generally admitted that every city ought to have its bishop, and that his territory was bounded by that of the neighbouring city. This rule was stringently applied in the East. Although Innocent I declared in 415 that the Church was not bound to conform itself to all the civil divisions which the imperial government chose to introduce, the Council of Chalcedon ordered (451) that if a civitas were dismembered by imperial authority, the ecclesiastical organization ought also to be modified (can. xvii). In the West, the Council of Sardica (344) forbade in its sixth canon the establishment of dioceses in towns not populous enough to render desirable their elevation to the dignity of episcopal residences. At the same time many Western sees included the territories of several civitates.

From the fourth century we have documentary evidence of the manner in which the dioceses were created. According to the Council of Sardica (can. vi), this belonged to the provincial synod; the Council of Carthage, in 407, demanded moreover the consent of the primate and of the bishop of the diocese to be divided (canons iv and v). The consent of the pope or the emperor was not called for. In 446, however, Pope Leo I ruled that dioceses should not be established except in large towns and populous centres (c. 4, Dist. lxxx). In the same period the Apostolic See was active in the creation of dioceses in the Burgundian kingdom and in Italy. In the latter country many of the sees had no other metropolitan than the pope, and were thus more closely related to him. Even clearer is his rôle in the formation of the diocesan system in the northern countries newly converted to Christianity. After the first successes of St. Augustine in England, Gregory the Great provided for the establishment of two metropolitan sees, each of which included two dioceses. In Ireland, the diocesan system was introduced by St. Patrick, though the diocesan territory was usually coextensive with the tribal lands, and the system itself was soon peculiarly modified by the general extension of monasticism (see IRELAND). In Scotland, however, the diocesan organization dates only from the twelfth century. To the Apostolic See also was due the establishment of dioceses in that part of Germany which had been evangelized by St. Boniface. In the Frankish Empire the boundaries of the dioceses followed the earlier Gallo-Roman municipal system, though the Merovingian kings never hesitated to change them by royal authority and without pontifical intervention. In the creation of new dioceses no mention is made of papal authority. The Carlovingian kings and their successors, the Western emperors, notably the Ottos (936-1002), sought papal authority for the creation of new dioceses. Since the eleventh century it has been the rule that the establishment of new dioceses is peculiarly a right of the Apostolic See. St. Peter Damian proclaimed (1059-60) this as a general principle (c. 1, Dist. xxii), and the same is affirmed in the well-known "Dictatus" of Gregory VII (1073-1085). The papal decretals (see PAPAL DECRETALS) consider the creation of a new diocese as one of the causœ majores, i.e. matters of special importance, reserved to the pope alone (c. 1, X, De translatione episcopi, I, 7; c. 1, X, De officio legati, I, 30) and of which he is the sole judge (c. 5, Extrav. communes, De præbendis et dignitatibus, III, 2). A word of mention is here due to the missionary or regionary bishops, episcopi gentium, episcopi (archiepiscopi) in gentibus, still found in the eleventh century. They had no fixed territory or diocese, but were sent into a country or district for the purpose of evangelizing it. Such were St. Boniface in Germany, St. Augustine in England, and St. Willibrord in the Netherlands. They were themselves the organizers of the diocese, after their apostolic labours had produced happy results. The bishops met with in some monasteries of Gaul in the earlier Middle Ages, probably in imitation of Irish conditions, had no administrative functions (see Bellesheim, Gesch. d. kath. Kirche in Irland, I, 226-30, and Lôning, below).


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