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).

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