Rite of Degradation

The Rite of Degradation

As the days pass, more and more bishops and diocese are coming out with public statements on the clerical abuse crisis. All of them I have read have been weak and insufficient. Except for Cardinal Burke, whose interview with Catholic Action was harsh and honest.

Towards the end of the interview, he mentions a “Rite of Degradation” for clerics and hierarchy who have gravely failed in their office. While he didn’t specifically say that they should be used again (the most recent version is from 1862, nowadays priests are quietly laicized), he did say that they should be read to understand how the Church has traditionally dealt with clergy who are unfaithful to the Church.

Matthew 18:6The indomitable Fr. Z dug up the old rite, translated and shared excerpts. Harrowing is a mild descriptor, yet it is still milder than being drowned with a millstone around your neck, I suppose. It is basically an ordination in reverse. The cleric enters in full regalia and is progressively stripped of the trappings of his office until he is handed over in layman’s clothes to the secular authorities. His hands and head are scraped with glass or a knife, to signify the removal of the sacred chrism. At the end of the rite, the cleric is now considered as a layperson, with none of the rights, privileges or powers of their previous rank. (side note: the Rite of Degradation does not remove the indelible mark, does not release them from the law of celibacy, or the obligation to say the Breviary daily)

Once a cleric has been degraded, it is permanent. They cannot be restored to their former office. It was reserved for the most heinous of crimes. Like covering up or perpetrating sexual abuse.

The rite is old, with references dating back to the 5th Century. It developed after the style of stripping military officers of their rank, to remove corrupt clerics from the ecclesiastical community. It was used as late as the 19th Century, but not since. Now corrupt clerics just “retire for health reasons”.

Back when the news of former Cardinal McCarrick first broke, I wrote about the need for justice, mercy, and reverence in dealing with clerical abuse. I stand by what I said, but I admit, after reading selections from the Grand Jury Report, my sense of justice demands strong and swift action.

Reinstating the Rite of Degradation, or at least seriously reflecting on it is absolutely just, merciful, and offers due reverence to the clergy.

  • It is just in that it recognizes the evil of the crimes committed. It recognizes the right of civil law to prosecute those clerics who are heinous criminals.
  • It is merciful in that it allows for the degraded cleric to do public penance for their crime, and it also specifically begs the secular law, as part of the rite, to be merciful in their judgment of the criminal.
  • It shows reverence to the office of the priesthood in that the Church recognizes that there does come a point where a person has committed crimes so heinous that they no longer deserve the rank and privileges owed to a priest of God.

I’m heartened to see that the bishops are saddened and sorry. But they need to show more than sorrow and sadness. Thousands of people have been personally victimized, and the rest of the faithful have lost trust in them. The public once again has fodder to throw against the Church of God. It is not a fun time to be Catholic. The bishops did this, and the bishops need to publicly repent.

I highly doubt that the Rite of Degradation will be reinstated. Can you imagine a cardinal enduring a public ceremony where he is verbally accused of “raping the Bride of Christ”? Me neither. But if they did, it would provide immense healing to the victims, and go miles to restoring the trust of the laity in the leadership of the Church.


At the very least, the clergy and laity should meditate on the Rite of Degradation and use it to shape updated policies. It shows that throughout the centuries, Holy Mother Church has never taken the abuse of Her children lightly. It shows us Her love for justice, it shows us Her desire for mercy, and it shows us the sacredness of the priesthood.

Please continue praying for all of our clergy. A 54 Day Rosary Novena just started on the Assumption, and its never to late join.

Our Lady of the Clergy, pray for us!



3 thoughts on “The Rite of Degradation”

  1. Bishops Morlino and Persico had good statements, for what it’s worth. (I wish I was happier about the Pope’s letter – it seemed like pretty weak sauce to me, unless there is something more practical and serious coming down the line, which could be the case.)

    You’re right to be pessimistic about the return of the Degradation, given that so many bishops seem unable to apply c. 915 to notorious pro-choice politicians. I think we will have to wait for another Gregory VII…


    1. Yes, they came out with their statements a day or so after I wrote this, and I was very glad to read them! I should update the post with links to their statements.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s