In 1849 and then again in 1852, the Catholic bishops of the United States petitioned the Holy See to grant the archbishops of Baltimore the title of “primate” of the Catholic Church in the United States: an honorific, to be sure, but one that implied that the head of America’s oldest Catholic diocese would enjoy a de facto preeminence as leader of American Catholicism. But the Vatican, nervous that an American “primate” would assert himself in some fashion against Rome, declined to bestow the title (although, interestingly, it didn’t cavil about the title “primate” being given to the archbishop of Quebec City, the Primate of Canada, and the archbishop of Gniezno remained the Primate of Poland even when “Poland” disappeared from the map of Europe in the 19th century).
The notion of a “primate” has little operational meaning throughout the Catholic Church in the 21st century. The Second Vatican Council mandated that every country have a national bishops’ conference. So, today, the president of the national conference is understood to be the principal figure in any local Church. Everyone understands, for example, that Cardinal-designate Timothy Dolan, as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaks for the Church in the United States in a singular way, especially when he speaks for a united bishops’ conference on matters of first principles.
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