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The chief church of a diocese, in which the bishop has his throne (cathedra) and close to which is his residence; it is, properly speaking, the bishop's church, wherein he presides, teaches, and conducts worship for the whole Christian community. The word is derived from the Greek kathedra through the Latin cathedra, throne, elevated seat. In early ecclesiastical literature it always conveyed the idea of authority. Christ Himself spoke of the scribes and Pharisees as seated on the chair of Moses (Matthew 23:2), and it suffices to recall the two feasts of the Chair of St. Peter (at Antioch and Rome) to show that, in the language of the Fathers as well as among the monuments of antiquity, the cathedra was the principal symbol of authority. (Martigny, Dict. des antiq. chrét., Paris, 1877, s.v. Chaire) In the Latin Church the official name is ecclesia cathedralis; nevertheless, this expression is not wholly identical with that of ecclesia episcopalis, also an official title, which indicates the church of one who is only a bishop, while the churches of the higher-ranking prelates take their names from the dignity of their incumbents; ecclesiae archiepiscopalis, metropolitanae, primatialis, patriarchalis. In the East the word cathedral does not exist, the episcopal church being known simply as "the church" or "the great church". (L. Clugnet, Dictionnaire grec-français des noms liturgiques en usage dans l'Église-grecque, Paris, 1895, s.v. Ekklesia). What seems to predominate is the name of the city; at the consecration of a bishop it is simply said that he is destined for the church of God in a given city. In popular usage the cathedral is variously named. In France, England, and English-speaking countries the word cathedral is general; occasionally it gives way to the expression, metropolitan church (la metropole). In Lyons it is known as the primatial church, in reference to the special dignity of the archbishop. In Spain it is called la seo or la seu (the see). In one instance the city itself is thus known, Urgel being called la seo d'Urgel or simply la seo. In Italy the cathedral is called il duomo, and in some parts of Germany, especially in the ecclesiastical province of Cologne, der Dom (whence the German term Domherr, canon), the episcopal church being looked on as preeminently the house of god or of the saint of whom it was named (DuCange, Glossar., med. et inf. latin., s.v.v. Ecclesia, domo, and domus). At Strasburg and elsewhere in Germany the cathedral is called Münster (monasterium), because some cathedrals were served by monks, or, rather, were the abode of canons living in community, the church being thus converted into a sort of monastery, especially where the reform of St. Chrodegang (d. 766) had been adopted. (DuCange, Glossar., s.v. Monasterium). Medieval documents and writers offer other names for the cathedral church. The following are found in the above mentioned work of Du Cange (s.v. Ecclesia): ecclesia major, ecclesia mater, ecclesia principalis, ecclesia senior, more frequently ecclesia matrix. The last appellation was current in Northern Africa (Fulgentius Ferrandus, Breviatio canonum, nos. 11. 17, 38, in Migne, P.L., LXVII, 950) and has been consecrated by the canon law; Innocent III says quite explicitly (e. Venerabili, 12, de verb. signif.): Per matricem ecclesiam cathedralem intelligi volumus.

Hence the juridical character or standing of the cathedral does not depend on the form, dimensions, or magnificence of the edifice, since, without undergoing any change a church may become a cathedral, especially when a new diocese is founded. What properly constitutes a cathedral is its assignment by competent authority as the residence of the bishop in his hierarchical capacity, and the principal church of a diocese is naturally best adapted to this purpose. Such official designation is known as canonical erection and necessarily accompanies the formation of a new diocese. At present, and for a long time past, new dioceses are formed by a division (dismembratio) of older ones. Erection and division being what are known in canon law as important affairs (causae majores) are reserved to the sovereign pontiff, and the erection of cathedrals likewise belongs to him. Very often the Apostolic Letters by which a new diocese is created expressly designate the cathedral church; again, however (and such is usual in the United States), the episcopal city being named the bishop is left free to select his church (III Conc. Balt., n.35). The transfer of a cathedral can occur in two ways:

In both of the above methods it is necessary to transfer with the cathedral all that is characteristic of it or essential to it as such: first the name and pre-eminence of cathedral, then the chapter and clergy, and finally the title in all movables and real estate, except what belongs to the former cathedral in its capacity of parish church. The suppression of a cathedral follows that of a diocese — just as its establishment follows the creation of a diocese — but does not do away with the church itself as a place of worship.

Ecclesiastical law, based on the constitution of the Church, provides that there shall be but one bishop of each diocese. The bishop, of course, is at home in all the churches of his diocese, and in any or all of them he is at liberty to erect a temporary throne or seat (cathedra) symbolic of his episcopal jurisdiction, but there is only one cathedral. This unity of residence is implied by the unity of headship and direction, and canonists add that the unity of the mystical marriage of the bishop with his church signifies the unity of his spiritual spouse. To this rule of residence there are two so-called exceptions.

The first deals with two or even three dioceses united aeque principaliter, i.e. without forfeiting their existence or rights as dioceses, and yet having but one bishop. Such cases are not uncommon in Italy, e.g. the three united Dioceses of Terracina, Sezze, and Piperno. This combining of dioceses was authorized by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, c. XIII, de ref.) to meet the insufficiency of resources in certain cases. But while in this case the same bishop has several cathedrals, yet there is but one in each diocese. The following passage relative to a seminary in the Diocese of Piperno clearly establishes the legitimate existence of these cathedrals of united dioceses (Privernen., Aperitionis seminarii, 16 March, 1771, in Pallottini, loc cit., n. 17,18): "The union of an equal level of dignity does not affect the internal status of the dioceses so united; each continues to hold its rights, privileges, etc., as before. The union is really only a personal one, inasmuch as henceforth one bishop is charged with the government of all the sees thus united."

The second apparent exception is in regard to ancient churches which, for one reason or another, have ceased to be cathedrals, yet preserve their ancient title, retain a certain degree of pre-eminence, and occasionally enjoy some honorary privileges. One of the oldest examples is that of the ancient cathedral on Mount Sion in Jerusalem, which ceased to be a cathedral when the bishop's see was transferred to the great Constantinian church erected on Calvary (Duchesne, Christian Worship, tr. London, 1903, 491-92). Sometimes an episcopal see was transferred to another city of the diocese without losing its first title: thus the see Perpignan still preserves the ancient title of the city of Elne. Several of the ancient French episcopal titles, suppressed by the concordat of 1801 and never reestablished, have been revived in memory of the past and added to the titles of existing sees; thus the Archdiocese of Aix carries with it the titles of the suppressed dioceses of Arles and Embrun. But such honorary survivals of ancient cathedrals in no wise conflict with the unity of the real cathedral.

Formerly a solemn consecration or dedication was requisite to set apart churches for purposes of worship. But for many centuries it has sufficed, at least for churches of minor importance, that they be blessed according to the form provided in the Ritual. The obligation, however, of consecrating cathedrals has always been maintained in the liturgical books of the Roman Church, and was formerly renewed for the ecclesiastical province of Rome by the Roman provincial council of 1725 under Benedict XIII (tit. XXV, c, 1). moreover, the Congregation of Sacred Rites acknowledged this as a general law when (7 August, 1875) it replied as follows to the bishop of Cuneo in Piedmont: "Incumbere debent episcopi ut ecclesiae saltem cathedrales et parochialis solemnitur consecrenter" (Cuneen., ad I; n. 3364) — i.e. the bishops should see to it that at least the cathedral and the parish churches (strictly so-called) be consecrated. This is all the more imperative for the cathedral because the anniversary of its dedication must be celebrated by all the clergy of the diocese. Canon law does not specify the form and dimensions of the cathedral; nevertheless, it supposes the edifice sufficiently spacious to accommodate a large assemblage of the faithful on the occasion of elaborate pontifical ceremonies. If possible, the choir, sanctuary, and nave should be of suitable proportions, and besides the altar and general equipment necessary in other churches, the cathedral should have a permanent episcopal seat. The word cathedra, so expressive in the language of antiquity, has gradually been replaced in liturgical usage, by throne (thronus) or seat (sedes). According to the "Caeremoniale Episcoporum" (I, c. xiii) the throne should be a fixture and placed either at the extreme end of the apse-- when, as in the ancient basilicas, the altar is in the middle of the church and the celebrant faces the people--or else to the front of the altar on the Gospel side, when the altar is placed, as is usual, against the rear wall and the celebrant turns his back to the people. In either case the throne should have an approach of three steps and be surmounted by a canopy as a sign of honor. When the bishop pontificates, the steps of the throne should be carpeted and both the throne proper and the canopy be decorated with costly materials. The thronos of the Greek bishop is the same, except that its very high back is surmounted by an icon, or sacred image. The cathedral should also have its baptismal fonts. Finally, not only should it have an ample supply of the sacerdotal vestments and sacred vessels required in all churches, but also of the vestments and pontifical insignia used by the bishop in solemn ceremonies.

As personnel or staff, ecclesiastical law requires that a cathedral should have a chapter, taking the place of the ancient presbyterium and constituting, as it were, the senate of the church and the bishop's council. The chief obligation of the chapter is daily to celebrate the Divine Office and Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the name of the entire Christian community. Its members, dignitaries, and canons escort and assist the bishop when he pontificates; even when he merely presides at the services they form an entourage of honor for him. In the United States there are no chapters, properly so called, these being replaced to a certain extent by "consultors" (III Conc. Balt., passim). The solemnity of the ceremonies also calls for a greater or lesser number of ecclesiastics of lower rank; there exists, however, no definite legislation on this head. It is sometimes asked whether the cathedral can be a parish church. As the bishop is unquestionably the first pastor of the diocese he might, in a certain sense, be said to be its first parish priest, were it not that this title implies jurisdiction of an inferior kind and confined to a portion of the diocesan territory. Moreover, the bishop does not personally and immediately exercise the duties of the parochial cure of souls (cura animarum). Originally, the cathedral was the only parish church for the entire diocese, and later, after the establishment of rural parishes, for the episcopal city. In Christian antiquity it was only in large cities like Rome that certain ministerial functions were habitually discharged in presbyterial churches; these tituli, or titles, however, were always dependent on the bishop (see PARISH, CARDINAL). But, in a general way, the division of cities into distinct and individual parishes does not date beyond the eleventh century (M. Lupi, De parochis ante annum millesimum, 1788). Once this division was made it was quite natural that the cathedral should retain as parish territory the district immediately surrounding it. Indeed, there are very few cathedrals that are not at the same time parish churches, although in this regard the law prescribes nothing. The cure of souls does not, then, devolve on the bishop, but on the chapter, which exercises it through a vicar chosen either from its own number or from outside. A chapel in the cathedral church is frequently set aside for parochial ministrations, this custom being very general in Spain and Italy. But the ancient Christian discipline has not entirely disappeared, and it is interesting to observe how, in many places, certain ceremonies are reserved to the cathedral, especially the administration of baptism. In Florence, Sienna, Pisa, and other cities, the parish churches have no baptismal fonts, and all children, unless in urgent cases, must be baptized in the cathedral, or, rather, in the baptistery. It is to be noted that the revenues, accounts, and administration of the cathedral parish are entirely distinct from those of the cathedral as such. As the principal church of the diocese--no matter what their privileges in other respects--even over those they may have received from Rome the title of minor basilica; hence it is that the clergy of the cathedral church when walking in large processions take precedence over those of all the other churches of the city and diocese, collegiate churches included.

Canonists compare to a spiritual marriage the union of a bishop with his church, and although this expression may be truer with respect to the church as understood in the moral sense than to the cathedral, it is nevertheless not inappropriate. They say that the bishop should love his cathedral, adorn and embellish it, and never neglect it. Metaphors apart, the bishop receives his cathedral as his "title" (titulus) or right; he is its governor (rector) and its head. He should take possession of it by a solemn entrance into his episcopal city and by the ceremony of enthronement (inthronisatio) as prescribed in the Roman Pontifical and the "Caeremoniale Episcoporum", (I, c. ii) in so far, at least, as custom will permit. Except when the visitation of his diocese or some other just cause necessitates his absence, he should reside near his cathedral, attend services there, pontificate (i.e. perform the more solemn services) on the days specified in the above-mentioned "Caeremoniale Episcoporum", preach and teach Divine truth, and find there a last resting-place. Theoretically, the diocesan clergy are the clergy of the cathedral delegated by the bishop to minister in his stead to the distant members of his flock. Hence the clergy of the diocese should feel at home in their cathedral and in its sanctuary find by right their place whenever occasion arises. There is much, indeed, to bind the diocesan clergy to their mother church, since it is there that the general ordinations regularly take place, that by Tridentine law the theologalis should expound the Holy Scripture for the benefit of all the clergy (Conc. Trid., Sess. V, c. i, de ref), and that the seminarians participate in the services of the Church feasts and learn the ecclesiastical ceremonies (Sess. XXIII, c. xviii, de ref). In order that all the clergy may, in a way, belong to the cathedral, the obligation is imposed upon them of celebrating the two feasts proper to the cathedral, it's patronal feast and the anniversary of its dedication, just as they would observe these feasts in their own particular churches. The patronal feast of the cathedral, i.e. the commemoration of the religious mystery or the saint fir whom it has been named — or indeed of its two patrons, if it have two, aeque principales — must duly solemnized as a first-class double with octave, the regular clergy only being dispensed from the octave. Although the observance of the anniversary of the dedication is also of obligation for all the clergy, there is this difference: the priests of the episcopal city celebrate it as a second-class double with octave, while only those regulars who reside in the episcopal city are obliged to celebrate it, and they observe it as a second-class double without octave (General Decree of 9, July, 1895, in Decret. authent. S. Cong. Rit., n. 3863)

A cathedral cannot subsist without resources, i.e. without temporal possessions. Canonically speaking, these are provided by the establishment of a fund (dotatio) for the support of the cathedral. Strictly speaking, the latter should not be established unless sufficient resources are assured for the performance of Divine worship and the maintenance of the cathedral clergy (III, tit. 48, de eccles. aedificandis vel reparandis). The same law applies to all other churches. In the thirteenth century, when the decretal legislation arose, the endowment of a church, benefice, or monastery was not conceivable except by an allotment of land, whose fruits or revenues constituted the necessary means of support for the institution or persons in question. Today such endowment, when not maintained by the State or municipality, is in the form of personal estate and is seldom adequate, so that both cathedral and parochial churches depend largely on the annual contributions of the faithful. The repair, renovation, and rebuilding of cathedrals are the object of many decisions of the Sacred Congregation of the Council. The cathedral property either belongs to the Church in full right or is claimed by the State, the municipality, etc. In the first case the cost of the repairs falls principally on the bishop, but not on him alone. First, the income of the fabrica, i.e. the funds destined to the support of the edifice, like the Fabbrica of St. Peter's or the Opera at Siena and elsewhere, is used to defray these expenses; second, the episcopal revenue properly speaking (mensa episcopalis) is drawn upon, i.e. when it is large enough to suffer a drain without undue inconvenience to the bishop; third, the canons and other beneficed ecclesiastics of the cathedral are assessed proportionately to the amount of their income; an assessment may then be levied upon the diocesan clergy, and finally an ecclesiastical tax may be imposed upon the faithful. When these different means are either impractical or insufficient, foundations for Masses may be temporarily suspended (Pallottini, op. cit., I, per totum; Benedict XIV, Inst. eccl., C.). The aforesaid measures, however, suppose an organization of ecclesiastical benefices which are now about extinct; at present the practical method is an appeal to the generosity of the clergy and the faithful. It may be, however, that the cathedral is held to be property of the State or city, in which case, if either has pledged itself to care for the building, the responsibility of the bishop or clergy ensues only in default of the former (Permaneder-Riedl, Die kirchliche Baulast, Munich, 1890). The question sometimes arises as to whether the bishop has any claim upon the temporal possessions of the cathedral. According to the letter of the law, provision should be made for the personal support of the bishop, at the same time that it is made for the revenue of the cathedral; this endowment of the episcopal office (mensa episcopalis) should be totally distinct from the endowment of the cathedral; in this event, the bishop should come to the assistance of his cathedral rather than take from its income. Like the cathedral clergy, however, the bishop can with all propriety claim the adventitious revenues of foundations in proportion as he discharges the duties involved. But there are many countries in which the system of ecclesiastical benefices does not exist. In such countries the Apostolic Letters that create the diocese assign the bishop a suitable support (cathedraticum) instead of the canonical revenue. In the collection of this cathedraticum the bishop may assess the cathedral for as much as (even more than) he asks from the other churches of the diocese. He may even consider himself the real pastor of his cathedral church and apply to himself the diocesan rule whereby a pastor is assigned an appropriate salary out of the income of his church.

Finally, as regards the temporal administration of the cathedral, local customs, quite variable, as a rule, are to be duly considered. It will suffice if we mention here the common ecclesiastical law according to which the administration of the cathedral belongs conjointly to the bishop and the chapter. It is not only the bishop's right and duty to control the administration of the cathedral by exacting financial reports, as in the case of all the churches and ecclesiastical institutions of the diocese; in the administration of the cathedral he participates personally and intervenes directly. He assists either in person or by his vicar-general at the deliberations of the chapter or administrative council, whatever its name and composition, being rightfully its first member and president, and he alone is qualified to sanction measures for the use of the funds and revenues of all kinds belonging to the cathedral. See: Bishop; Diocese; Cathedraticum; Buildings, Ecclesiastical; Canon.


Mich. Ant. Frances, De ecclesiis cathedralibus eorumque privilegis et praerogativis (Lyons, 1668); The Canonists, in tit., De ecclesiis aedificandis et reparandis, lib. III, tit. 48; Decreta authentica S. C. Rituum (Rome, 1901), s.vv. Ecclesia, Cathedralis Ecclesia, Episcopus; Taunton, The Law of the Church (London, 1906), 134; E.W. Benson (Anglican), The Cathedral, (London, 1878)

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APA citation. Boudinhon, A. (1908). Cathedral. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Boudinhon, Auguste. "Cathedral." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 3. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Tom Crossett.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. November 1, 1908. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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