For centuries, the Vatican has relied on the legal fiction of titular sees. Their history is more fraught than you might expect

Thala in Tunisia is not a remarkable city by any means. Nestled in the mountains, the North African country’s highest town – and its almost entirely Muslim population – was probably unaware that Pope Francis had a particular interest in the settlement. In 2016, he even went so far as to appoint the then 45-year-old priest Richard Umbers as Thala’s bishop.

But just as the 13,000 residents of Thala are unaware of their Catholic prelate, Bishop Umbers knows little about Thala. While one would assume that, like most bishops, he has been responsible for the town’s spiritual wellbeing for the past two years, Bishop Umbers in fact lives in Sydney and is part of an elaborate legal fiction the Vatican has used for centuries.

In the early Church, each diocese had a single bishop to oversee the region’s clergy and its faithful. But as the Church grew and the world’s population boomed, the workload became too much for a single bishop. As a result, they were given auxiliary bishops to alleviate their responsibilities. But as the dioceses already had a bishop, and every new bishop had to be named to a specific place, the Church needed a crafty solution.

“I’m the titular bishop of Thala,” Umbers tells me. “But I know as much about it as Wikipedia and Google Maps will tell you.”

Thala and Umbers are just one pair in the hundreds of such titular bishoprics spread across the world. Umbers clearly has no direct authority in Thala because any significant Catholic population in the city died out centuries ago. But while the flock may have left, no one ever got rid of the crozier that went with it. The result is an off-the-shelf bishopric with no genuine responsibilities and an easy solution to the Vatican’s problem of finding dioceses for all their new auxiliary bishops (as well as papal diplomats).

Until relatively recent reforms, those with the titular titles were known as “Bishops in Infidel Regions” – reflecting the fact that most were in North Africa, Turkey and the Middle East. Almost every titular title has a fascinating story that shows just how widespread the Church was before the rise of Islam.

Archbishop Bruno Heim, papal nuncio to Britain in the 1980s, was once asked where he was actually archbishop of, given his full-time posting in London. “I am Archbishop of Xanthus,” the Swiss cleric used to say at cocktail parties. When pressed on where Xanthus was exactly, Heim replied: “You will find most of it in the British Museum.”

Titular sees have not always been used to promote clerics; they have also helped to shut up difficult bishops. A transfer from a bustling urban diocese to a ruined Roman settlement can both severely damage a bishop’s ego and restrict his ability to cause problems. It doesn’t always work though, and in the case of the French Bishop Jacques Gaillot it spectacularly backfired.

As Bishop of Évreux, Gaillot would often make headlines with controversial statements at odds with Church teaching. In 1995 Pope John Paul II gave him an ultimatum: resign with dignity as Bishop Emeritus of Évreux, or face the consequences. True to form, he refused to resign and found himself the next day kicked out of his episcopal residence.

He moved in with squatters in Paris. Not only did he find a new place to live, but overnight was also given a new diocese. He woke up as Bishop of Parthenia in Algeria, which had last had an active bishop in the 5th Century. But rather than curb his enthusiasm for public controversy, Gaillot used his new position as a platform. He called Parthenia (sometimes also spelt Partenia) the Church’s first “virtual see” and a home for dissidents within the faith. He set up a blog named “Voice from the Desert”, on which he argued in favour of same-sex marriage and contraception.

“As Parthenia does not exist any more, it becomes the symbol of all who feel like non-existing in society or in the Church,” Gaillot wrote. “It is a huge diocese without borders where the sun never sets.”

Few titular prelates ever visit their de jure dioceses, given their remoteness and lack of a Christian community. But Bishop Thomas Dowd, one of Montreal’s auxiliaries, has travelled to his titular bishopric of Treba in Italy (the Umbrian town now known as Trevi). While Treba has now been absorbed into another diocese, its titular prelate was greeted by the town’s mayor and other dignitaries. Dowd told me it was “a wonderful place” and that he prays for its residents, both living and dead.

Some believe that titular dioceses may soon cease to exist, with canon law being changed to allow people simply to be made auxiliary bishops without any kind of territory, real or titular. But as Dowd makes clear by praying for the dead of Treba, there may still be the odd soul of Thala, Xanthus or Parthenia waiting to be guided out of purgatory by their bishop.

Ned Donovan is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the October 5 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here