Dean (Gk. Seca, ten; Lat. decanus), one of the principal administrative officials of a diocese. The term was first used to denote a military officer having authority over ten soldiers; in the fourth century it came to be used as a title for certain minor officials in the imperial household. A completely civil aspect was given to the office in Anglo-Saxon times in England, the dean having jurisdiction within his district or tithing for trials of first instance.
In the monastic life we find the term used by St. Benedict (Rule, c. xxi) to denote a monk who was placed over ten other monks, his duty being to see that their work was properly done and that they observed the rules of the house in which they were living. The custom which the monks thus introduced soon found its counterpart in diocesan pastoral work. The early Christian communities were always desirous of uniting themselves to the urban bishop, but for people who lived far away from the city communication with the bishop was not always easy; hence they were provided for by the appointment of a priest or deacon whose position was sometimes permanent, sometimes temporary. These ecclesiastics were merely assistants to the bishop and in the early fourth century became known as chorepiscopi. Special decrees were made concerning them at the Councils of Ancyra (314) and Antioch (341). The chore piscopi, though frequently having the charge of several parishes, were nevertheless always subject to the bishop of the city from whom they received their jurisdiction. They could only confer minor orders. Most of them were simple priests, but they had extensive faculties. (See Gillmann, “Die Chorbischofe im Orient”, Munich, 1903.) For the East the office of chorepiscopus was abolished at the Council of Laodicea (between 343 and 381) because episcopal rights had been usurped by many who held the office; in their place (can. lvii) were substituted circuitores, visitatores. But it was only in and after the eighth century that it finally disappeared in the East, though yet customary among the Jacobites. In the West, during and after the tenth century, there appeared another representative officer, the archdeacon, who took the chief burden in administering the temporal affairs of the diocese and enjoyed, after the bishop, the greatest consideration. He was present at councils as the representative of the bishop, and on the death of the bishop he became the administrator of the diocese, to which he usually succeeded.
The immediate administrative necessities of the numerous rural parishes were provided for by the appointment of several archpriests, who represented either the bishop or the archdeacon, and were originally the priests having charge of baptismal churches. In the West, after the restoration of the vita canonica in the latter half of the eighth century, their number and influence grew. They were charged with the supervision of ecclesiastical life and conduct, with the execution of episcopal commands, and were wont to convoke more or less frequently the clergy of their district (capitula ruralia, concilia, calendce). They made a yearly report to the bishop. It is to these ancient offices that the modern dean has succeeded (see Sagmuller, Entwickelung des Archipresbyterats, 1898). There are at present two classes of deans: deans of chapters (cathedral or collegiate) and deans of parochial districts. The latter act as representatives of the bishop in certain matters, as heads of aggregations of parishes, either urban or rural. The dean is also known by the name of vicar forane (vicarius foraneus).
Rural Deans.—In the Catholic Church it is to be noted that the dean has only delegated jurisdiction, restricted to a particular area and to certain matters specified by the bishop. His powers are generally determined by the diocesan statutes, by custom, or by special mandate of the bishop. In countries where canon law is in full force, deans have power to dispense and absolve in certain cases. They can also institute an inquiry or informative process to be afterwards transmitted to the bishop. Furthermore, they are to see that the churches in their district are well-ordered both in spiritual and in temporal affairs, and they can grant leave of absence to priests for short periods. They also have charge of the solemn installation of parish priests, care for them in grave illness, and provide for their decent burial. They possess also, in some places, certain honorary rights, e.g. precedence, and occasionally some distinction in dress. In countries where canon law is not in full vigour the powers and rights of rural deans vary greatly; in fact, each diocese may be said to have its own peculiar customs and regulations. In some English dioceses the deans merely preside at the monthly conference; in others the bishop gives them faculties to dispense in certain cases, and they have care of the temporalities of the churches in their districts when there is a change of rector. In Ireland the deans can grant certain dispensations, and absolve from reserved sins; they also have to guard against the growth of abuses among the clergy. They transmit to the clergy the orders of the bishop and render to him an annual account as to the state of the parishes in their care. Quite similar are the provisions of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (cap. iv, nos. 27-30) for the office of dean in the United States.
Deans of Chapters.—The first dignitary of a chapter is variously styled. Sometimes he is called archdeacon, or archpriest; in other places he is called the provost or dean. The office is in the appointment of the pope. The dean takes precedence of all the other members of the chapter in choir and processions and other similar functions, and also during the capitular deliberations. His rights or prerogatives are to celebrate Mass when the bishop is prevented from so doing. He also administers the last sacraments to the ordinary and celebrates the funeral Mass. During Divine Office he gives the signal to commence etc., and he also corrects mistakes and remedies abuses at variance with the diocesan decrees and local approved custom. He is bound to be present in choir and to give a good example to the chapter, both in his behavior and in the manner in which he recites or sings the various portions of the Divine liturgy.
In modern Catholic universities the dean is an officer chosen by the professors of his faculty to represent them as a body, to preside over their meetings, and to supervise the regularity of the ordinary academic exercises. His authority is based partly on the papal documents of foundation, partly on the enactments of the university authorities, and partly on custom.
The following are the decanal offices now existing in the Church of England; honorary deans, e.g. the dean of the Chapels Royal; dean of peculiars, i.e. having jurisdiction but no cure of souls; provincial dean, an office always held by the (Protestant) Bishop of London; deans of chapters, who rule over the canons of cathedral or collegiate churches, and are bound to be in residence for eight months in the year; rural deans who act as deputies for the bishop or archdeacon. In the English universities (Cambridge, Oxford), the dean has the care of the discipline of the college and the arranging of the chapel services.