Is there a difference between a bishop and archbishop?


By Father Thom Hennen
Question Box Column

Q. What is the difference between an archbishop and a bishop?

A. The simple answer is that an archbishop is a bishop of an archdiocese. Okay, smarty pants, so what’s the difference between an archdiocese and a regular old diocese? Maybe we should begin by explaining what a diocese is.

Fr. Hennen

Specific geographical territories, or dioceses, make up the Catholic Church. The bishop is the head of what we call the “local Church,” made up of the individual parishes and communities in a particular territory. For example, the Diocese of Davenport is comprised of the 22 counties of southeast Iowa, stretching from Clinton to Colfax, Centerville to Keokuk and everything in between.


In some places in the country and the world, you will find dioceses in a relatively small geographical territory where the Catholic population is larger, as is the case in parts of the eastern United States. You can also have dioceses that cover a huge territory but with a relatively small Catholic population, as is the case in some places in the southern and western United States. For example, the Diocese of Cheyenne is the whole state of Wyoming.

An archdiocese is named as such by the Holy See typically due to its size, population, history and/or regional importance. In addition, an archdiocese must have at least one “suffragan see,” meaning other dioceses that it oversees (to a limited extent). Basically, archdioceses and dioceses operate in the same way and are relatively independent of each other. Archbishops and bishops possess the same rank in terms of the sacrament of holy orders. Archbishops and bishops have authority only over their own particular (arch)diocese.

In Iowa, four dioceses make up what is called an ecclesiastical province: the Archdiocese of Dubuque and its three suffragan dioceses, Davenport, Sioux City and Des Moines. However, this has not always been the case. The (then) Diocese of Dubuque was created in 1837 and covered a large territory north of Missouri, west of the Mississippi River all the way to the Missouri River and north up into Minnesota.

The first diocese in Iowa to be carved off of Dubuque was the Diocese of Davenport in 1881, covering the entire southern half of the state. Bishop John Hennessy of Dubuque apparently suggested to Pope Leo XIII that the “see” (“seat of power”) of this new diocese should be Des Moines, but the pope chose Davenport instead, which makes for an interesting historical hypothetical. What if the pope had followed Bishop Hennessy’s recommendation? At any rate, Dubuque was elevated to an archdiocese in 1893. Later, the Diocese of Sioux City was created from the western counties of the Archdiocese of Dubuque in 1902 and the Diocese of Des Moines was created from the western counties of the Diocese of Davenport in 1911.

Archdioceses and dioceses with larger Catholic populations can also have auxiliary bishops. These are effectively “helper bishops.” For example, the Archdiocese of Chicago with almost 2.2 million Catholics has seven auxiliary bishops helping Cardinal Blase Cupich. The Diocese of Davenport had an auxiliary bishop once, Bishop Edward Howard, from 1924-1926, before he was named the bishop of Oregon City (now Portland). A bishop can also be named a coadjutor bishop, meaning that he is assigned while the current (arch)bishop is in power to assist him and to immediately take over once that (arch)bishop retires or expires.

That just leaves cardinals, canons, monsignors, deans, rectors and vicars (general, judicial, forane, episcopal and parochial) to explain, but that’s for another day.

(Father Thom Hennen serves as the pastor of Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport and Vicar General for the Diocese of Davenport. Send questions to

Support The Catholic Messenger’s mission to inform, educate and inspire the faithful of the Diocese of Davenport – and beyond! Subscribe to the print and/or e-edition, or make a one-time donation, today!

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Posted on