PRELATE (Lat. praelatus, set above, from praefero, prefer), an ecclesiastical dignitary of high rank. In the early middle ages the title prelate was applied to secular persons in high positions and thence it passed to persons having ecclesiastical authority. The De prelatis of Valerian is concerned with secular princes, and even as late as the 14th century the title was occasionally applied to secular magistrates. In medieval ecclesiastical usage the term might be applied to almost any person having ecclesiastical authority; it was very commonly given to the more dignified clergy of a cathedral church, but often also to ordinary priests charged with the cure of souls and, in the early days of monasticism, to monastic superiors, even to superiors of convents of women. The term occurs very frequently in the Rule of St Benedict and other early monastic rules.
In more modern usage in the Roman Catholic Church prelates, properly so-called, are those who have jurisdiction in foro externo, but a liberal interpretation has given the title a more general significance. Prelacy is defined by the canoeists as “ pre-eminence with jurisdiction ” (praeeminentia cum jurisdictione), and the idea supposes an episcopal or quasi-episcopal jurisdiction. But gradually the title was extended to ecclesiastical persons having a prominent office even without jurisdiction, and later still it has come to be applied to ecclesiastical persons marked by some special honour though without any definite office or jurisdiction.
We may therefore distinguish “ true ” from “titular ” prelates. The true prelacy is composed of the persons who constitute the ecclesiastical hierarchy; jurisdiction is inherent in their office and gives pre-eminence, as with patriarchs, archbishops and bishops. A good example of the dependence of prelacy on jurisdiction is found in those religious orders, such as the Dominicans, where authority is strictly elective and temporary. Thus a Dominican prior ranks ipso facto as a prelate during his three years of office, but, if not re-elected, loses this dignity with his jurisdiction.
The true, no less than the titular, prelates have their various ranks, differing as regards title, precedence, clothing and other insignia. The distinguishing colour of a prelate's clothing is violet; the form, like the greater or less use of violet, depends on the rank of the prelate. Four classes may be distinguished: (1) Great prelates, e.g. cardinals, archbishops and bishops. (2) Exempt prelates (praelati nullius dioeceseos, praelati nullius), i.e. abbots and religious superiors, who are withdrawn from the ordinary diocesan jurisdiction and themselves possess episcopal jurisdiction (jurisdictio quasi episcopalis). (3) Roman prelates, (a) active and (b) honorary. The title is applied to numerous ecclesiastics attached by some dignity, active or honorary, to the Roman court (see Curia Romana). In the list of these prelates are protonotaries apostolic, domestic prelates, private chamberlains, participant and supernumerary. Of these last there are two kinds, honorary and honorary extra urbem. Only protonotaries and domestic prelates are for life; the others lose their dignity at the death of the pope who appointed them. A special class of Roman prelatures exist at Rome, endowed as a kind of ecclesiastical majority to which those members of certain families who are destined for the clerical life naturally succeed.
In the reformed churches the title was retained in England, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. The cathedral chapter of Brandenburg consists of two prelates, the dean and the senior, besides eight other members. The chapter of Merseburg contains five prelates, viz. the dean, senior, provost, custos and scholasticus. In Baden the general synod is presided over by the prelate (prelat), i.e. the principal “ superintendent” In the Church of England the term prelate has been since the Reformation applied only to archbishops and bishops. The word “ prelacy,” meaning no more originally than the office and dignity of a prelate, came to be applied in Presbyterian Scotland and Puritan England—especially during the 17th century—to the episcopal form of church government, being used in a derogatory sense.
See Du Cange, Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis (new ed., by L. Favre, Niort, 1883); Paul Hinschius, Kirchenrecht (Berlin, 1869); F. H. Vering, professor of law at Prague, Lehrbuch des katholischen, orientalischen und protestantischen Kirchenrechts (1893). (E. O'N.)