HISTORY: The Rite of Degradation of a Bishop

Something has been nagging me from the back of my mind today.  I finally, late in the evening just as I was about to turn in, dredged it up.

One of my favorite Popes, Papa Lambertini, Pope Benedict XIV, was a great canonist and scholar. Among his many contributions, he established the process for canonization that is still in its major aspects in effect today.  I have some great swag for him!  HERE

He also issued a rite of Degradatio ab ordine pontificali… Degradation from the order of bishop.

If you thought the movie excommunication in Becket was spiffy, get a load of this. In the Pontificale romanum sanctissimi D.N. Benedicti Papae XIV, jussu editum et auctum of 25 March 1752 find the rite of degradation of all the grades of order, major and minor.

In the presence of secular officials. The praenotanda says that the scraping was to be without the drawing of blood. I suspect that there were slips. Even the tonsure was to be scraped. Eventually all clerical clothes are stripped and he puts on lay clothes. However, if later the sentence was found to be unjust, he is to be given back everything publicly, at the altar. The Degrader is to be vested in amice, alb, cincture, stole and red cope, simple miter, holding his crozier in the left hand. The rite is at the faldstool, versus populum, with the secular judge standing nearby and the rest of the clergy surrounding in their grades. They are to announce to the people in the vernacular what was going on. They then read a Latin decree with pretty stern language “… propter ipsius confessionem, vel legitimas probationes, evidenter invenimus eum ipsum crimen commisisse; quod cum non solum grande, sed etiam damnabile, et damnorum fit, et adeo enorme, quod exinde non tantum divina maiestas offensa….”

The is a stripping of the men of symbols for each and every order, major and minor.

Here is the rite for a bishop or archbishop:

Si degrandandus sit Archiepiscopus, Pontifex degradator aufert ab eo pallium, sic dicendo:

Praerogativa Pontificalis dignitatis, quae in pallio designatur, te exuimus, quia male usus es ea.

If the man to be degraded (Degradandus) is an Archbishop, the Bishop Degrader removes the pallium from him, saying in this way:

We strip you of all pontifical prerogative, which is symbolized in the pallium, because you have used it badly.

Deinde, vel si degradandus sit Episcopus tantum, Pontifex degradator amovet ei mitram, dicendo:

Mitra Pontificalis dignitatis videlicet ornatu, quia eam male praesidendo foedasti, tuum caput denudamus.

Then, if the Degradandus is only a bishop, the Bishop Degrader takes the miter from him, saying:

The miter being the symbolic ornament of pontifical dignity, because you besmirched it badly in presiding, we denude your head.

Deinde unus ex Ministris tradit degradando librum Evangeliorum, quem Pontifex degradator aufert de manibus degradandi, dicens:

Redde Evangelium, quia praedicandi officio, quo spreta Dei gratia te indignum fescisti, te juste privamus.

Then one of the ministers gives to the Degradandus a book of the Gospels, which the Bishop Degrader snatches away from the hands of the Degradandus, saying:

Give back the Gospel, because in the office of preaching, having despised the grace of God you made yourself unworthy and we properly deprive you of it.

Deinde Pontifex degradator amovet annulum de digito degradandi, sic dicens:

Annulum, fidei scilicet signaculum, tibi digne subtrahimus, quia ipsam sponsam Dei Ecclesiam temere violasti.

Then the Degrader Bishop takes away the ring from the finger of the Degradandus, saying thusly:

The ring, namely the sign of fidelity, we worthily withdraw from you, because you thoughtlessly violated your very Spouse, the Church of God.

Tum unus ex Ministris tradit degradando in manus baculum pastoralem, quem mox Pontifex degradator tollit de manibus degradandi, dicens:

Auferimus a te baculum pastoralem, ut inde correctionis officium, quod turbasti, non valeas exercere.

Then one of the ministers gives a crozier into the hands of the the Degradandus, which right away the Bishop Degrader takes from the hands of the Degradandus, saying:

We take from you the pastoral staff, that hence you cannot exercise the office of correction, which you have thrown into confusion.

Deinde extractis sibi per Ministros chirothecis, Pontifex degradator abradit degradando pollices et manus leviter cum cultello, aut vitro, dicens:

Sic spiritualis benedictionis, et delibutionis mysticae gratia, quantum in nobis est, te privamus, ut sanctificandi et benedicendi perdas officium, et effectum.

Then the gloves having been removed by ministers, the Bishop Degrader scrapes the thumbs and hands of the Degradandus lightly with a knife or shard of glass, saying:

Insofar as it is in us, thusly we deprive you of the grace of spiritual blessing (ability to bless), and mystical anointing (ability to anoint), so that you lose the office and effectum of sanctifying and blessing.

Post haec Pontifex cum eodem cultello et vitro abradit leviter caput degradandi, dicens:

Consecrationem, et benedictionem, atque unctionem tibi traditam radendo delemus, et te ab ordine Pontificali, quo inhabilis redditus, abdicamus.

After this the Bishop lightly scrapes the head of the Degradandus with the same knife or shard, saying:

By this scraping, we terminate the consecration and blessing and the anointing given to you, and we reject you from the pontifical order, for you are rendered unfit.

Tum degradando per ministros extrabuntur sandalia.

Then the shoes are taken off of the Degradandus by the ministers.

After all this, there follows the Degradation of a Priest.


Help me out if I have typos, etc.  It’s well after midnight and I am rushing in view of a very early Sunday morning rise.

However, make yourself feel a little better by getting some Benedict XIV swag!

In his 1755 document Allatae sunt Benedict, who saw that a terrible practice has slithered in among some Greeks, he in the sternest way forbade “altar girls” and any thought of female deacons.

For this alone, Benedict deserves his very own FR. Z SWAG!



And… wear him with pride!

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. HvonBlumenthal says:

    How often was this rite put into practice? And why is it not applied to the recent US Cardinal and 5 Chilean bishops?

  2. HvonBlumenthal says:

    In fact, for 2018 alone we have:
    Australia: Archbishop Wilson of Adelaide

    Chile: Bishop Barros and 4 other bishops

    Guam: Archbishop Apuron plus another
    Archbishop and a further Bishop

    Honduras: Bishop Pineda

    USA: Cardinal McCormick

    Im sure Ive missed some but thats 10. There are about 5000 bishops in the world. If we assume an average episcopate lasts 20 years, thats 250 per year. So if 10 resign in a year, thats 4 percent of an annual intake of bishops worldwide. And thats just the ones who are forced to this point. If we add together the number of those credibly accused of abuse, and add to them those who have committed indecent acts with seminarians taking while taking advantage of their position (pulling rank) the figure is much higher. And that omits just plain consensual misconduct contrary to canon law.

  3. Kerry says:

    This from Tolkien has come to my mind.
    “No, Sam!” said Frodo. “Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

    Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. “You have grown, Halfling,” he said. “Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you! Well, I go and I will trouble you no more. But do not expect me to wish you health and long life. You will have neither. But that is not my doing. I merely foretell.”

  4. WmHesch says:

    I suspect this Rite was used about as frequently as the “Rite for the Taking Up of the Cross in Defense of the Holy Land”, found in the same 18th century Pontificale.

    [And yet, there it is, in the Pontifical. There must have been used with some frequency least for lower orders. And, the Roman genius likes to be complete. If there are rites for lower orders, there must be rites for higher orders. And there would have been times when they were used. Eventually they would be dropped from the Pontificale. I wonder what the last edition was in which these rites were found. Anyone want to dig?]

  5. DavidR says:

    So you’re saying we should leave retribution to Wormtongue? ;)

    [Ummm… no, I’m not.]

  6. Kathleen10 says:

    A solemn exercise for a solemn purpose.
    We must keep the victims in mind and not forget them for a moment. Their suffering will never end and many are dead due to suicide. Their parents sent a child to serve God in his church and their boys were mangled by the man representing God. These men go on causing great devastation in so many ways. This cannot go on. It is time.

  7. It might have a salutary effect merely to restore the ritual to active use.

    Question: is there guidance for what happens when the one to be degraded fails to appear? Because i predict that is what would happen.

  8. Semper Gumby says:

    HvonBlumenthal: Yes, this Rite, dusted off by our genial host, should be used.

    The smoke of Satan brought anarchy and dereliction of duty into the temple of God. True, there have been problems in the past and this is a Church for sinners. That said, more use of this Rite in a timely manner could mean less use of the Rite of Exorcism (Fr. Lampert: “victims of sexual abuse can be vulnerable to demonic attack”).

    Kerry: Always good to hear from the Book of Tolkien, thanks.

    Just read an insightful article you might find interesting:


    “Comparing the culture of life that I had shared in Saskatoon with the culture of death that I had witnessed in the airport, I was reminded of the words of Hilaire Belloc about the Catholic Church: “Outside is the night and strange things in the night.” I was also struck by the contrast between the light within and the darkness without. It might indeed be dark on the outside but inside is the light and wonderful things in the light.”

    Mr. McCarrick and his ilk best learn rapidly that there is a Heaven and there is a Hell. So should their supervisors. As for certain “c”atholic politicians, it would be an act of mercy for their souls for their bishop to demand of them some form of the Road to Canossa.

    Ok, back to Tolkien. An insightful article about Frodo and Sam in the Dead Marshes:


    “As ghosts, Frodo and Sam continue through this nightmare realm, itself devoid of grace, armed only with the Elvish lembas, what would be translated into English as “the bread of life.””

  9. Ave Maria says:

    This rite of degradation needs to happen again. I read that Benedict XVI laicized about 800 priests including several bishops a month; he did it quietly but he did it. Now, unless civil charges are brought these kinds are protected, sometimes promoted, or are able to “retire” in luxury. But God is not mocked and He knows the whole story.

  10. Kerry says:

    DavidR, Wormtongue killing Saruman was not “retribution”, it was murder. Perhaps the preceding paragraph…
    “Saruman turned to go, and Wormtongue shuffled after him. But even as Saruman passed close to Frodo aknife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden-mail coat and snapped. A dozen Hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry, and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword. ” “No Sam…”

    “He is fallen and his cure is beyond us”

  11. Here’s a silly question: just as a bishop, say, has to have first received the lesser orders, would he have to also undergo degradation from all the lesser orders? Or does it suffice for him to just undergo the degradation of a bishop?

    [I’m pretty sure they went through them one by one as appropriate.]

  12. Kerry says:

    Semper,thanks. And yes, Pearce is good is he not. In return, I commend you to written anything by Fr. Perricone at Crisis.

  13. WmHesch says:

    Also, this Rite wasn’t designed for bell-book-and-candle theatrics… Involving the secular authorities as witnesses would prevent the Degradandus from pleading “benefit of clergy” and in all likelihood, cost him his life.

  14. iPadre says:

    This would make a great scene in a movie, and also serve as a warning like the shot of a canon.

  15. Fr. Z. says: I’m pretty sure they went through them one by one as appropriate.

    Well that would make for a lengthy and humiliating ritual.

    I don’t suppose it ever occurred to any of the people who decided to abolish lengthy and humiliating rituals that they might actually help to deter bad clerical behavior?

  16. Bunky says:

    They should put this on television! I know it can’t repair the damage done to minors who have been abused, but maybe the prospect of being made a public example would deter future offenders?

  17. veritas vincit says:

    I’m with Fr Martin Fox. I can’t see Ex-Cardinal McCarrick, or anyone else, willingly participating in this kind of public humiliation (and McCarrick richly deserves this, and much more).

    Maybe in the early centuries of the Church, this could have been mandated as a public penance. I fear that is not possible now, and maybe not even in Benedict XIV’s time.

  18. Chuck Ludd says:

    I am of multiple minds on this ritual:

    (1) It seems quite fitting to bring it back.

    (2) In Catholic countries in the 18th century the ritual may have been possible because the civil authorities would cooperate in ensuring the bishop showed up. That’s not the case today where the bishop could simply not show up and no civil authority would procure him. But if he did show up for the ritual, what a wondrous sign of remorse by the bishop that he would voluntarily go through it! I dare say, any bishop who voluntarily went through it and acknowledged the surrender of his office would find from many a level of mercy and forgiveness that would be difficult to grant someone who slinked away. It is why Henry was honored for submitting himself after Becket’s martyrdom.

    (3) I would caution against bringing it back for the current object of wrath. While this is strictly not a “new” penalty because it is old, it has been suppressed long enough to functionally be “new.” I strongly advise “new” penalties not be created in the midst of the emotion of a present case. Existing penalties should be used (the only change for a present case would be adopting a lesser penalty if a penalty is mitigated as an act of pardon, mercy, or prudence). If the ritual were to be brought back it should be for future use.

    (4) One part of the ritual which raises questions for me is negating the consecration. Of course this is not possible, even by the pope. I realize it says earlier there is a qualifier of “insofar as” and the negating is symbolic but it could be misinterpreted today by the ill-catechized that the ontological change which occurs for a priest and bishop are reversible, which is impossible.

  19. Rob83 says:

    This would be a better process than one which occurred locally recently, wherein the diocese, after keeping most of the details private, published a list of all priests either removed from ministry due to abuse or, if deceased, had had 2 or more allegations made against them, when the crisis blew into the open again this past spring (25 of the 42 were dead at the time of publication). One has to think that a public de-frocking of the earliest abusers might have been medicinal toward priests who came after – either by keeping some of those who fell from falling, or convincing some not to enter the priesthood.

    The timing of the list coming out had the impression of being a reaction made in haste to an unexpected public confession (one of the past abusers was frank with the media about his abuse), and as happens when things are done in haste, an innocent priest’s name made it onto the list released to the media before someone realized the blunder and issued a correction.

  20. Pingback: McCarrick Watch: Monday Edition – Big Pulpit

  21. Huber says:

    Better for the bishops that this rite be performed on earth.

    I can only imagine how terrifying it would be for Our Lord to perform it before casting the bishop into hell…

  22. Sonshine135 says:

    So scandalized have been the laity that these rites should be performed very publicly. It is time for Rome to go through its own inquisition. Peace without justice is no peace at all, but continual misery for those treated by such injustice. Excommunication and laicization should be the order of the day upon the finding of guilt by a tribunal. It is well past time that the Catholic Church cleaned house.

  23. Imrahil says:

    Dear Chuck Ludd,

    as for (2), all you need is get the bishop onto Vatican soil (by a Papal command under mortal sin, for instance). Once he is on Vatican soil, no longer any trouble with secular authorities. Then even scratching the hand will be acceptable, providing the Pope has ordered to do so (though there might be some bad press*). And St. Peter’s Square is a rather public place for everyone to see.

    [*The modern world, for whatever reason, operatures under the prejudice that any corporal punishment is barbaric and intrinsically evil, not depending on the amount of pain – whereas prison sentences are not. They usually don’t get as far as to say the “whereas prison sentences are not” consciously, or even they would, I guess, see the misguidedness of this idea.]

  24. JudithMaria says:

    The Wikipedia article on José María Morelos has a contemporary engraving of this ritual being performed on him before his execution. (If I were younger, I might know how to copy and paste that image here, but alas…)

  25. DanielV says:

    Is there a Novus Ordo version of this rite? :-)

  26. John Trausch says:

    My Latin pronunciation is pretty decent and I can dust off my cassock. Anyone care to join me in a video re-enactment? We will need several participants and videographers. Should the dies irae be sung in the background?

  27. majuscule says:

    John Trausch—get ahold of Beverly Stevens at Regina Magazine. I bet she could help with that…or find some people who could.

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