Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

( Latin degradatio ).

A canonical penalty by which an ecclesiastic is entirely and perpetually deprived of all office, benefice, dignity, and power conferred on him by ordination ; and by a special ceremony is reduced to the state of a layman, losing the privileges of the clerical state and being given over to the secular arm. Degradation, however, cannot deprive an ecclesiastic of the character conferred in ordination, nor does it dispense him from the law of celibacy and the recitation of the Breviary. Degradation is twofold: verbal, i.e. the mere sentence of degradation; and real or actual, i.e. the execution of that sentence. They are not two distinct penalties, but parts of the same canonical punishment. Degradation is a perpetual punishment, and the clergyman so punished has never any right to release from it. It differs from deposition in so far as it deprives, and always totally, of all power of orders and jurisdiction and also of the privileges of the ecclesiastical state, thus in all things subjecting the delinquent to civil authority. While a bishop, even before his consecration can inflict deposition or pronounce a sentence of verbal degradation and can reinstate those so punished, it is only a consecrated bishop who can inflict actual degradation, and only the Holy See which can reinstate ecclesiastics actually degraded.

Solemn degradation owes its origin to the military practice of thus expelling soldiers from the army; the Church adopted this institution in order to remove grievously delinquent clerics from the ecclesiastical order. The first mention of clerical degradation is found in the eighty-third Novel of Justinian ; subsequently it was adopted with its external solemnities by early medieval councils as a repressive measure against heretics. It did not originally differ from deposition, and degraded ecclesiastics were still privileged and remained exclusively subject to ecclesiastical jurisdiction . The laity, however, complained that churchmen, even when degraded, secured in this way impunity for their crimes. Hence, Innocent III (c. viii, Decrim. falsi, X, v, 20) made it a permanent rule that clerical offenders, after degradation, should be handed over to the secular power , to be punished according to the law of the land. Degradation cannot be inflicted except for crimes clearly designated in the law, or for any other enormous crime when deposition and excommunication have been applied in vain, and the culprit has proved incorrigible. According to the Council of Trent (Sess. XIII,c.iv, De ref.), a bishop, when inflicting degradation on a priest, must have with him six mitred abbots as associate judges, and three such prelates for the degradation of a deacon or subdeacon. If abbots cannot be had, a like number of church dignitaries of mature age, and skilled in canon law, may take their place. All these must give their vote, which is decisive, and must be unanimous for the imposition of so grave a penalty.

The ceremony of actual degradation consists chiefly in bringing before the ecclesiastical superior the culprit vested in the robes corresponding to his order; in gradually divesting him of his sacred vestments, beginning with the last he received at his ordination ; finally, in surrendering him to the lay judge (who must always be present) with a plea for lenient treatment and avoidance of bloodshed. The words pronounced by the ecclesiastical superior during the ceremony, also other rubrical details, are laid down by Boniface VIII (c. Degradatio, ii, de poenis, in VI) and by the Roman Pontifical (pt. III, c.vii). Degradation is now rarely, if ever, inflicted; dismissal, with perpetual deprivation, takes its place.

For bibliography see Deposition .


More Encyclopedia

The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed in fifteen hardcopy volumes.

Catholic Encyclopedia

Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.

No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.

Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912

Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online


Newsletters

Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Genesis 1:1--2:2
1 In the beginning God created heaven and ... Read More

Psalm, Psalms 16:5, 8, 9-10, 11
5 My birthright, my cup is Yahweh; you, you alone, ... Read More

Gospel, Matthew 28:1-10
1 After the Sabbath, and towards dawn on the first ... Read More

Reading 2, Genesis 22:1-18
1 It happened some time later that God put Abraham to ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for April 19th, 2014 Image

St. Alphege
April 19: Archbishop and "the First Martyr of Canterbury." He was born in ... Read More

Inform, Inspire & Ignite Logo

Find Catholic Online on Facebook and get updates right in your live feed.

Become a fan of Catholic Online on Facebook


Follow Catholic Online on Twitter and get News and Product updates.

Follow us on Twitter