Now for the Really Important Clerical Stuff: Rome's 7-Point Clarification on Priestly Dress

By Unsworth, Tim | National Catholic Reporter, December 29, 1995 | Go to article overview

Now for the Really Important Clerical Stuff: Rome's 7-Point Clarification on Priestly Dress


Unsworth, Tim, National Catholic Reporter


Rome's 7-point clarification on priestly dress

The Vatican continues to stone its priests to death with popcorn. In a recent ruling, officials in Rome ordered bishops to see to it that clergy turn out in distinctive clerical garb (NCR, Dec. 8). For good measure, officials labeled their ruling "juridically binding," meaning that the local ordinary could clobber any priest who appears publicly out of uniform.

The effect was not only to anger further the already depressed priests, corps, but also to trash the hard-won principle of subsidiarity that is one of the buttresses of collegiality.

The principle of subsidiarity holds that the best institutions for responding to a particular social issue are those that are proximate to it. In short, the principle, first articulated by Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno (1931), holds that problems should be solved at the lowest possible level or at least that level closest to the problem.

The latest issue was not designed to bring down church domes but it said volumes about changing attitudes within the core administration. Collegiality might as well be AIDS. The Vatican considers it deadly.

The issue involved a response to a query by an apparently timid Brazilian bishop who had questioned the legal weight of the norm on clerical dress contained in the 1994 Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests. It said that clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with norms of the bishops, conference and local customs.

Following the inquiry, the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, a bureau founded by John Paul II, issued a seven-point clarification that went even further out on the clerical yardarm. The council held that when the garb is other than the priestly cassock, favored at the Vatican, it must be different from lay dress and must conform to the "dignity and sacredness" of the priest's ministry. The resulting dress should make the priest immediately identifiable as such, both to Catholics and non-Catholics.

"Under Paul VI a question like this would be routinely referred to the national conference"--the organization of bishops in the questioner's own country--said Fr. Patrick Lagges, a canon lawyer working on the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Chicago Pastoral Center. "In fact," he added, "the person making the inquiry would have been juridically required by Rome to go through the national conference.

"But in recent years," he continued "there has been an increasing willingness on the part of the Vatican to get involved with local matters."

The ruling sends a chilling message to the church's nearly 3,300 bishops. Increasingly, they are being reduced to the role of office managers.

"You aska the question, we giva the ansa," a jolly priest named Bill said with a politically incorrect faux Italian interpretation of the ruling. He was returning to his parish for an evening meeting. He was carrying his collar in his briefcase His humor covered a measure of anger. He agreed that the question should never have been asked, but that it served a a commentary on the leadership ability of bishops appointed by John Paul II.

"To think that I'd be called downtown for something like this. It's ridiculous," he said.

Bill added that the church was losing both credibility and power by such statements. "We are trivializing authority and infallibility," he said. "No one will pay attention."

Earlier, I had spotted Bill in an Italian restaurant, having dinner with a covey of his classmates. All were in mufti, looking vaguely like off-duty cops. Asked what he thought his bishop would do if he walked into a restaurant and spotted his priests in Windbreakers and bowling jackets, he said: "Why, I would hope that he would send us over a bottle of wine. …

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