This piece was originally posted in March 2015. Subsequently, I refined and strengthened and shortened it using information supplied by kind readers. In my view, the most important parts of this are the two passages from Cardinal Mueller.
I would like to emphasise that this is not some attack on Archbishop Nichols. I have simply taken the English situation as an example of a very important ecclesiological point which relates equally to every part of the Latin Church. I just happen to know a little more about the ecclesiatical history of England than I do about that of Portugal or Poland or Peru.
Non-Catholics often misunderstand the position of the Archiepiscopal See of Westminster; and this can lead to unfairness towards its occupant. I think this whole question is of importance because it bears on matters of ecclesiological doctrine which, in fact, are the real basis of many of the Church's current upheavals. Which is how Cardinal Mueller will, nearer the end of this piece, come into the question.
The Archbishop of Westminster is not, as journalists and others often appear to assume, a sort of Catholic equivalent of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The common notion that 'primate' and 'archbishop' and 'metropolitan' are interchangeable terms is historically false. The Archbishop of Canterbury is a Primate. And he is Primate of All England (totius Angliae), with certain powers (of a legatus natus sanctae Sedis continued to him by Parliamentary Statute after the Schism) even within the Province of York. When he visitatorially enters another diocese, the Diocesan Bishop automatically if temporarily loses his diocesan jurisdiction. He was known sometimes colloquially as alterius orbis papa, and his primatial dignity, remarkably, is sustained by the possession of an episcopal Curia comprising a Provincial Dean (the Bishop of London), Chancellor (Bishop of Winchester), Vice-Chancellor (Bishop of Lincoln), Precentor (Bishop of Salisbury), Chaplain (Bishop of Worcester), and Cross-bearer (Bishop of Rochester).Whatever you may think about the theological or sacramental status of a modern Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury ... and you are probably right ... these structural and legal arrangements are, substantially, in continuity with the very grand position and considerable primatial authority held by medieval Archbishops of Canterbury, as the holders of an office that historically went far back before the time when there was a King or a Kingdom or even a concept of England.
Archbishops of Canterbury have behaved accordingly ... as when a medieval ABC attempted (unsuccessfully) to enter the Diocese of Exeter on Visitation, accompanied by his private army; and when Archbishop Fisher summoned John Robinson Bishop of Woolwich to see him after the publication of Honest to God. Robinson was an auxiliary bishop of another diocesan; but Fisher greeted him with "Now look here, Woolwich, you just can't do this sort of thing" vel sim.. (But even Fisher, I suspect, would not have behaved thus towards a bishop within the Province of York.)
The See of Westminster has never been constituted or recognised by the Holy See as a Primatial See. An obvious moment to have given it that dignity would have been in 1911, when the Sees of Birmingham and Liverpool were raised to metropolitan status. There was indeed at that time a desire (see the thread) to preserve a national position for Westminster; its Archbishop was made the permanent chairman (Praeses perpetuus) of episcopal meetings and given the right to represent the national Catholic community to the Civil Power (as long as he said only what his fellow-bishops had by a majority vote agreed). But he was given no jurisdiction and the only dignities conferred were the purely ritual ones of using pallium and cathedra and cross throughout England and Wales. This falls far short of the old 'primatial' conception. Indeed, it shows a very laudable determination on the part of the Holy See to preserve the rights and status of diocesan bishops.
And, in any case, under the current CIC, primacy would be purely nominal dignity.
The position of the Archbishop of Westminster is thus simply as it is described in the front of my Breviary in a decree signed by Cardinal Griffin: Coetus episcopalis totius Angliae et Cambriae Praeses Perpetuus (by contrast, in another Breviary I possess, the corresponding part of a parallel decree from the Archbishop of Malines describes him as Primas Belgii). He is, additionally, Metropolitan of his own province [comprising the dioceses of Brentwood, East Anglia, Northampton, and Nottingham], with the distinctly tenuous and limited metropolitical powers described in Canon 436. He has no metropolitical relationship with the four totally independant metropolitical provinces of Birmingham, Liverpool, Cardiff and Southwark, or with four extra-provincial and extra-diocesan entities, the Ukrainian Eparchy, the South Indian Eparchy, the Military Ordinariate, and the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham (all four of which, incidentally, extend beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales).
What this means is that an Archbishop of Westminster has no substantive jurisdiction whatsoever outside his own diocese of Westminster ... which is, roughly, London North of the Thames and Hertfordshire. But, even if not a primate, does he perhaps have authority by virtue of being a Cardinal? No more than Raymond Cardinal Burke does. Or because of his Presidency of the Episcopal Conference? Not in Canon Law and not in dogma. I will, in conclusion, illustrate this by quoting Cardinal Mueller, speaking when he was head of the CDF.
"An episcopal conference is not a particular council, even less so an ecumenical council. The president of an episcopal conference is nothing more than a technical moderator, and he does not have any particular magisterial authority due to his title ... dioceses are not branches of the secretariate of a bishops conference either, nor of the diocese whose bishop presides over the episcopal conference. This kind of attitude risks in fact the reawakening of a certain polarisation between the local Churches and the Church universal, out of date since the Vatican I and Vatican II councils. The Church is not a sum of national churches ... ".
This continues the strong teaching Cardinal Mueller has given before; in 2013, for example, "the Roman Pontiff and the individual bishops are of divine right, instituted by Jesus Christ. ... But the patriarchates and episcopal conferences, historically and today, belong solely to human ecclesiastical right. The presidents of the episcopal conferences, although important, are coordinators, nothing more, not some vicepopes! Every bishop has a direct and immediate relationship with the Pope. We cannot have a decentralisation in the conferences; there would be the danger of a new centralism, with the presidency that has all the information and the bishops submerged in documents without the time to get ready ..."
And the same erudite Cardinal repeated the same teaching in his 2017 book-interview, which, incidentally, appears to be selling like hot cakes in the Westminster Cathedral Bookshop. For some reason, there seems at the moment to be a great appetite for sound teaching.