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Pope Francis’ motu proprio Vos estis lux undi turns five years old this month. 

First promulgated for an experimental period of three years and now in permanent force, the letter delegates the Holy See’s power to investigate Church leaders who have no superior other than the Pope himself - chief among them diocesan bishops - to a metropolitan archbishop, in cases where that Church leader has been accused either of sexual abuse or of mismanaging abuse cases.

Image via Vatican News.

The provisions of Vos estis concerning to metropolitans bear a strong resemblance to a plan presented to the USCCB by Chicago’s Cardinal Blase Cupich, himself a metropolitan archbishop, in 2018. 

Known as the “Metropolitan Model,” Cupich’s plan proposed that metropolitan archbishops, together with their review boards, should normally handle allegations of misconduct made against bishops within their province.

The plan was presented at the USCCB’s 2018 Fall General Assembly as an alternative to the conference’s proposal, vetoed by the Holy See, for the creation of an independent, national, lay-led body to carry out such investigations. 

To some observers, the idea that members of the Church hierarchy should be trusted with greater responsibilities for investigating their fellow bishops seems to ignore the fundamental lessons of the abuse crisis: Given the extent of episcopal misconduct in this area brought to light over the past decades, the USCCB’s original proposal for a lay-led investigative body might seem to make more intuitive sense. 

But both the metropolitan model and Vos estis work from the assumption that, when it comes to the investigation of bishops, the metropolitan archbishop is the right man for the job.

Why is that? What exactly is a metropolitan archbishop, and what role are they meant to play in the life of the Church? 

The Pillar takes a look.


What are metropolitan archbishops?

The English word ‘metropolitan’ comes from the Greek words for ‘mother city’. In the early Church, newer and smaller dioceses were grouped together around a larger, more established diocese which served as a point of unity in their governance and pastoral care. The archbishop of that ‘mother city’ diocese was known as the metropolitan archbishop. The groupings themselves were known as ecclesiastical provinces, and the dioceses within each province were called suffragan sees, because they had suffrage (the right to vote) in councils and synods called by the metropolitan.  

Despite their significance in the early Church, the role of ecclesiastical provinces and the metropolitan archbishops who headed them diminished over time. As the Church’s understanding of the role and responsibilities of the papacy developed, successive popes moved to reserve powers and functions that once exercised by metropolitan archbishops to themselves. This trend towards reservation reached its peak in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which provided only a very limited role for metropolitan archbishops in the life of the Church.

The Second Vatican Council, however, reversed this trend. It clarified and affirmed both the power of bishops in their diocese and also the importance of subsidiarity – making decisions on the most local possible level – in Church governance. In Lumen Gentium, the dogmatic constitution on the Church, the council taught that the power of a bishop in his diocese is ‘proper, ordinary and immediate,’ meaning not delegated or mediated by the Pope, but belonging to him solely by virtue of the fact he is the bishop. Then in Christus Dominus, its decree on the office of bishop, the council required that all dioceses should, as a rule, belong to an ecclesiastical province headed by a metropolitan archbishop, so that the “needs of the apostolate will be better met in keeping with social and local circumstances.” 

In short, the council saw ecclesiastical provinces as an important means of ensuring unity in local Church governance without undermining either the proper power of bishops in their diocese or the principle of subsidiarity in Church governance. It then passed the baton to the new Code of Canon Law, promulgated in 1983, to put all this into legal language.

What does the law say about metropolitans?

The 1983 Code of Canon Law allows for a greater role for metropolitans in Church governance. But at the same time, it isn’t overly prescriptive about the exact form that role should take.

Canon 431 of the Code tells us that ecclesiastical provinces exist to “promote the common pastoral action of different neighboring dioceses according to the circumstances of persons and places and to foster more suitably the relations of the diocesan bishops among themselves.” Canon 436 requires that the metropolitan archbishop of each province “ensure faith and ecclesiastical discipline are observed carefully” within his suffragan dioceses, “inform the Roman Pontiff of abuses” - for instance, in the areas of liturgy or administration - and “conduct a canonical visitation” of a diocese if necessary. 

In addition, the metropolitan can be given “special functions and power” by the Holy See to assist him in carrying out these responsibilities. 

These canons leave a good deal of room for discussion about what metropolitans can and should do to promote pastoral action and foster relations between their province’s bishops, as well as what kind of special functions and powers they could be given by the Holy See. 

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One area of Church law with scope for an expanded role for metropolitans is penal law. As part of the revision of canon law, the Church’s penal code was simplified and streamlined so that, in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity promoted by the council, bishops could more freely exercise immediate power within their local Churches - or, in the case of metropolitan archbishops, across their ecclesiastical provinces. Taken together, the code’s emphasis on subsidiarity and its re-empowerment of metropolitan archbishops certainly make possible a greater role for metropolitans in penal matters. 

This forms the legal background for the proposals of the metropolitan model adopted by Vos estis. The norms of Vos estis clarify the metropolitan’s pre-existing responsibilities - such as reporting abuses to the Pope and conducting visitations - by showing how exactly they relate to sexual abuse cases and related mismanagement, and then supplements them with the special delegated function of investigating those who can normally only be investigated by the Holy See. 

It sounds like metropolitans have had some power to act in sexual abuse cases for a while. What role did metropolitans play in the abuse crisis before 2019?

Even before Vos estis expanded their powers, some metropolitan archbishops in the United States had taken an investigative or disciplinary role in abuse cases within their ecclesiastical provinces.

Los Angeles’ Archbishop Jose Gomez, for instance, disciplined his predecessor Cardinal Roger Mahoney by stripping him of his administrative and public duties in 2013, after an investigation into his mismanagement of clerical abuse cases. 

Then, in 2018, Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori investigated and disciplined his suffragan Bishop Michael Bransfield. In his letter to the people of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, Archbishop Lori recounts that he was “assigned to commission a preliminary investigation” into Bishop Bransfield, which he “submitted… to the Holy See for final judgment,” and also “suspended Bishop Bransfield’s priestly and episcopal faculties” as was his “prerogative… as the Metropolitan Archbishop.” Eminent canon lawyer and professor Fr. John Beal has described this case as “Vos estis before its time.” 

While there is not a huge amount of precedent for metropolitans taking action in sexual abuse cases, there is enough to show that such action is both possible and (potentially) effective. But at the same time, it isn’t hard to see why the Holy See felt that a clarification and strengthening of the metropolitan’s legal responsibilities, of the type proposed by the metropolitan model and made concrete in Vos estis, was necessary.


So why did it take until 2019 to do that? 

That’s more of a speculative question, but several factors came together in 2018 which likely influenced the development of the Metropolitan Model and the promulgation of Vos estis

When Cardinal Cupich presented his plan to the USCCB and to the Holy See, it was mere months after the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and the revelations of Theodore McCarrick’s sexual misconduct - both of which gave new impetus to the calls for episcopal accountability in the abuse crisis. But it’s also worth noting that Cardinal Cupich presented his model to a Pope who is particularly amenable to requests to expand the role of metropolitan archbishops in Church governance. 

It’s common knowledge that Pope Francis wants to encourage more synodality in the Church. But what is perhaps less discussed is how he sees metropolitans as having a key role to play in that synodal process. For the Pope, many would argue, expanding the role of metropolitans in Church life isn’t merely something legally possible - it’s also something theologically significant. 

One of the key texts defining and explaining synodality is the International Theological Commission’s 2018 document Synodality in the Life and Mission in the Church, which makes several connections between metropolitan archbishops and synodality. It describes how the creation of ecclesiastical provinces in the early Church “brought about specific synodal structures” through which metropolitans were “explicitly called to promote synodality.” Later, it describes ecclesiastical provinces as signs of “communion between local Churches” whose local synods have served as “instruments for the exercise of ecclesial synodality” over the course of Church history. 

The document also calls on Pope Francis’ apostolic letter Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, which reforms some of the canons relating to marriage nullity. In it, Pope Francis described the legal functions of the metropolitan as “stand[ing] out through time as a stable and distinctive sign of synodality in the Church.” 

This emphasis on the importance of metropolitans for a synodal Church was then picked up by the Synod on Synodality’s 2023 Synthesis Report, which calls for ecclesiastical provinces to be “recovered and strengthened as a place of communion for the local churches within their territory,” since they have “proved to be fundamental to the full exercise of synodality in the Church.”

It’s clear that the synodal process, and Pope Francis in particular, envisions metropolitans playing a key role in the governance of the Church. So it’s not entirely surprising that the Pope, following the proposal of Cardinal Cupich, has taken steps to expand their functions and responsibilities of the kind we see in Vos estis

While many questions remain over how to properly implement Vos estis, its origins are, thankfully, a little easier to understand.

Sr. Carino Hodder, O.P., is a Dominican Sister of St. Joseph based in Hampshire, England.

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