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A deliberative assembly of the bishops of an ecclesiastical province, summoned and presided over by the metropolitan, to discuss ecclesiastical affairs and enact disciplinary regulations for the province.
The good government of a society as vast as the Church required grouping of those dioceses whose similar interests would gain by common treatment. This led to the organization of ecclesiastical provinces and so of provincial councils. As long as administrative centralization in the great sees was imperfect, and while the general canon law was being slowly evolved, this provincial grouping was very important. The Councils of Nicæa (325, can. v), Antioch (341, can. xx), and others ordered the bishops of each province to meet twice a year; however, even in the East, the law was not long observed; the Councils "in Trullo" (692, can. viii) and Nicæa (787, can. vi) prescribe, but with little success, only one meeting each year. In the West, except in Africa, and in a certain sense also at Rome, provincial councils were neither frequent nor regular; most of those that were held, and which have left us precious documents, were episcopal assemblies of several provinces or regions. In spite of the frequent renewal of the ancient legislation provincial councils did not become a regular institution. The great Lateran Council (1215) also ordered an annual provincial council, but it was not long obeyed. The Councils of Basle (1433) and Trent also tried to revive the provincial councils, and ordered them to be held at least every three years (sees. XXIV, c. ii), laying down for them a certain programme. As a result there was, towards the end of the sixteenth century, in Catholic countries, a remarkable series of provincial councils, notably those of Milan, under St. Charles Borromeo; but the movement soon waned. Towards the middle of the nineteenth century there was a fresh series of provincial councils in almost all Catholic countries, but they were never assembled with the punctuality prescribed by the law. Leo XIII authorized Latin America to hold them every twelve years (1897; cf. "Cone. plen.", 1899, n. 283). It must be admitted, however, that modern facilities of communication, and still more the custom of unconventional episcopal reunions or conferences, have compensated for the rarity of provincial councils to a large extent.
(1) The metropolitan has the right and the duty of convoking the council; the Council of Trent (cit. c. ii) ordered it to be convoked, first in the year following its own close, and then every third year at least; if the metropolitan is prevented or the see is vacant, the senior suffragan acts. The time appointed is after the octave of Easter, "or at another more opportune time, according to the usage of the province". It is not necessary to hold the council in the metropolitan city; any town in the province may be selected. The penalty of suspension with which the Councils of the Lateran (c. xxv, "De accusat.") and Trent threatened negligent metropolitans has certainly fallen into desuetude,
(2) All those who, "by right or by custom", have the right to assist at the council are to be convoked. These are, first, the suffragan bishops; exempt bishops, immediately subject to the Holy See, must choose, once for all, the metropolitan whose council they will attend, without prejudice to their exemptions and privileges. Secondly, those who exercise an external jurisdiction: prelates nullius, vicars capitular or administrators Apostolic of vacant sees, and vicars Apostolic if any. These have the right to take part in the deliberations. The council may allow this also to titular bishops, and the representatives of bishops prevented from attending. The other persons convoked, with a right only to take part in consultations, are non-exempt abbots, deputies of cathedral or even collegiate chapters, superiors of religious institutes, deputies of the universities and rectors of seminaries, and lastly the consultors, theologians, and canonists. The persons called to the council are strictly obliged to attend, unless legitimately prevented, in which case they must excuse themselves under penalty of censure. Formerly, negligent bishops were deprived of communion with their colleagues (cf. can. x, xiii, xiv, Dist. xviii); but this penalty is obsolete. It is not permissible to leave the council before its close without a just and approved reason.
(3) The ceremonies of the provincial council are regulated by the Pontifical (3rd part, "Ordo ad synodum"), and the Ceremonial of the Bishops (lib. I, c. xxxi); they include in particular the profession of faith. The work of the council is prepared in special commissions or congregations; the decrees are enacted in private or public sessions, and are decided by a majority of the members having a deliberative vote. The metropolitan presides, directs the discussions, proposes the subjects, but he has not a preponderating voice and the bishops can take up whatever matters or proposals they judge fitting. The adjournment or close, generally at a solemn public session, is announced by the metropolitan with the consent of the bishops.
(4) The provincial council is not competent to deal directly with matters of faith, by defining or condemning; yet it may treat of such from a disciplinary point of view: promoting religious teaching, pointing out the errors of the day, defending the truth. Its proper sphere is ecclesiastical discipline; to correct abuses, to watch over the observance of laws, especially the reform laws of the Council of Trent; to promote the Christian life of the clergy and people, to settle disputes, to decide minor differences between bishops, to adopt measures and make suitable regulations for all these objects. The decrees of the provincial councils are binding on the whole province; each bishop, however, may prudently grant dispensations in his own diocese, as he is the legislator; but he may not abrogate the decrees of the Council. If the Council deems any derogation from the common law useful, it ought to send a postulatum to the pope.
(5) Within the limits indicated above, a provincial council is a legislative body whose acts do not require papal confirmation for their validity. It is customary indeed to ask for the pontifical approbation; but the latter is generally given in common form only, so that the decrees continue to be provincial decrees, and can be abrogated by a later council; if, however, the approval is given in specific form, as the Council of Mount Lebanon was approved by Benedict XIV, the decrees acquire a supplementary authority and may not be modified without the papal consent.
In any case, the decrees of every provincial council must be revised; Sixtus V (1587) so ordered, and the revision was entrusted to the Sacred Congregation of the Council; but in virtue of the Constitution "Sapienti" of Pius X (29 June, 1908) the duty now devolves on the Sacred Congregation of the Consistory.
The monographs of FESSLER, Ueber d. Provinzialkonzilien und Diözesansynoden (Innsbruck, 1849); BOUIX, Du concile provincial (Paris, 1850); BENEDICT XIV, De synodo. The ancient provincial councils have been reproduced in the great collections, those from the Council of Trent up to 1870 are contained in the Collectio Lacensis (7 vols., Freiburg, 1870-); TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), 531-4.