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The highest official of a diocese after the ordinary. He is a cleric legitimately deputed to exercise generally the episcopal jurisdiction in the name of the bishop, so that his acts are reputed the acts of the bishop himself.
The wide powers of administration now enjoyed by the vicar-general belonged formerly to the archdeacon. The latter official was the first among the seven deacons, a number long retained in many churches, and he held office, not by reason of priority of ordination, but by free appointment of the bishop. To him was generally committed the external administration of the diocese, including the control of the inferior clergy and the right of visiting and correcting all the clerics by judicial procedure.
In the sixth century, there were both urban and rural archdeacons, and the dioceses were divided into districts ruled by these officials. This custom began in France and later spread all over Europe. By the eleventh century, the jurisdiction of archdeacons had become ordinary and stable. They had courts of first instance, and, besides their contentious jurisdiction, they had wide administrative powers, so much so indeed that they became obnoxious to the legitimate exercise of the bishop's authority. In consequence, from the twelfth century onwards, we find new diocesan assistants of the bishop, later called vicars-general, or officials, removable at the will of the ordinary. Vicars-general are not named in the Decretals of Gregory IX, but they are frequently referred to in the Sixth Book of Decretals (e.g., cap. ii, iii, "De off. Vic.", I. 13 in 6) and in the Clementines (cap. ii, "De reser.", 1.2. in Clem). In large dioceses in England and some other countries, a distinction was made between the vicar-general, who had voluntary jurisdiction or administration, and the official, who had contentious jurisdiction, but this distinction was never received into the common law, and the titles vicar-general and official are used indiscriminately for the same person in the Decretals and the Tridentine decrees. The institution of vicars-general greatly limited the powers of the archdeacons, and finally the latter officials were reduced by the Council of Trent (Sess, XXIUV, c. xii, "De ref.") to mere honorary dignitaries in cathedral chapters.
According to the present discipline, the vicar-general is deputed by the bishop to exercise the latter's jurisdiction with a certain universality of power. Bishops could not of themselves be competent to establish officials with the same ordinary faculties which they themselves have, and consequently the office of vicar-general rests on powers communicated by the pope and common law. The bishop, therefore, cannot concede to the vicar-general any jurisdiction except within the bounds allowed by the law or legitimate custom, or express Apostolic indults. The jurisdiction of the vicar-general is necessarily universal in the whole diocese, both for persons and causes, with a universality, however, not absolute, but moral, and therefore, though the bishop can restrict it both as to places and causes, he cannot so limit it that it ceases to be general, at least morally. It is in the discretion of the bishop to constitute a vicar-general for his diocese, but he cannot suppress an office instituted by common law.
The office of vicar-general is unique, and therefore there should not be several of them in one diocese, either acting in concert or governing a special part of the diocese (S.C.C., 21 Feb., 1614). However, separate vicars-general may be appointed for the faithful of a different rite or language (C. 14, X, 1, 31). The cleric appointed as vicar-general should be of legitimate birth, tonsured, and celibate. He should have attained his twenty-fifth year and be commendable for the probity of his life, his prudence, and his knowledge of canon law, in which he should be a doctor or licentiate, or at least equivalently qualified. Statutes of particular councils and rescripts of Roman Congregations declare that the vicar-general should not have the cure of souls, but this is nowhere prescribed in common law, and though an urban parish, or a capitular office, or the rectorship of a seminary are hindrances to the liberty of a vicar-general, yet they are not strictly incompatible with it. Regulars cannot be appointed vicars-general without the permission of their religious superiors, and they need, in addition, the license of the Holy See to live outside their monasteries. It is expedient that the vicar-general should not be a blood relation of the bishop or a cleric of the diocese, but there is no general law to this effect, though the schema of the Vatican Council contains one (Jus. Pont. de Prop. Fid., VI, append.).
The power of the vicar-general, by reason of his office and deputation, extends to all causes in the ordinary episcopal jurisdiction, except those which common law or the bishop may have reserved or made dependent on a special mandate. The tribunal of the vicar-general is one with the bishops, and therefore there is no appeal from one to the other. The vicar-general cannot substitute another cleric in his place to exercise his whole jurisdiction, but he may appoint delegates for special causes. Owing to the dependence of the jurisdiction of the vicar on that of the bishop, it ceases or is impeded with the latter. When, however, the vicar is acting in a special case as a strict delegate, he may even then finish the cause he had begun. The jurisdiction of a vicar-general, according to most canonists, is of a class by itself between ordinary and delegated, and it may be called quasi-ordinary, because, on the one hand, it is connected with a certain office by legal enactment and, on the other, it is exercised not in his own, but another's name. As ordinary jurisdiction, however, is always exercised by him as a matter of fact, there is no reason why his power should not be called ordinary. By virtue of a general mandate, the vicar-general exercises ordinary jurisdiction in the name of the bishop, but for some causes he needs a special mandate. These are: to make a visitation of the diocese, to confer benefices of free collation, to punish the excesses of clerics or remove them from their benefices or offices, to use the bishop's Tridentine faculties of dispensation and suspension, to concede dimissorial letters for receiving orders. All of the above require a special mandate by explicit law, but others of a similar nature, according to canonists, also require this mandate. They are: to suppress, unite, or divide benefices, to admit resignations for the purpose of exchanging benefices, to convoke a diocesan synod, to erect monasteries and confraternities. The office of a vicar-general expires with his death or resignation; with the cessation of the bishop's jurisdiction; with the revocation of his vicarial mandate, which must, however, be justified by a grave cause and against which, if his honour be impugned, he has recourse to the Holy See.
TAUNTON, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), s.v.; SMITH, Elements of Ecclesiastical Law, I (New York, 1895); WERNZ, Jus decretalium, II (Rome, 1899); THOMASSIN, Vetus et nova disciplina (Paris, 1688); LAURENTIUS, Institutiones juris ecclesiastici (Fribourg, 1903); FERRARIS, Bibliotheca canonica, VII (Rome, 1891), s.v.
WILLIAM H.W. FANNING