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Catholic World News News Feature

Comforting Words August 12, 2002

After hours of watching the EWTN telecast of the US bishops' meeting from Dallas, at last I could take no more. Desperate for relief, I thumbed distractedly through some old issues of CWR. Finally I found, in the March 2000 issue, the solace that I needed.

Faithful readers may recall that in that issue, CWR published the text of an old Catholic ritual for the "Degradation of a Bishop" (Degradatio ab ordine pontificali), which can be found in the Roman Pontifical of Pope Benedict XIV.

When he promulgated this ritual in 1862, Pope Benedict obviously felt that it was necessary. He envisioned the possibility that a bishop could disgrace himself so thoroughly, and abuse his office so blatantly, that the Holy See would have no choice but to remove him. Such a bishop would not be allowed to resign quietly "for reasons of health;" he would not be transferred to a titular see in the Sahara; he would not be "promoted" to a meaningless desk job at the Vatican. He would be stripped of his office and--the word is so beautifully expressive--"degraded."

Since CWR first published this ritual, a dozen bishops have been forced to resign, in America and other countries, after accusations of gross sexual misconduct. We have every reason to believe that more such resignations will soon be forthcoming. Isn't it a shame that their resignations were accomplished through impersonal communication--by mail and by fax--rather than with a formal liturgical ceremony?

THE RITE OF DEGRADATION

If the degradandus be an archbishop, the degrading prelate removes his pallium, saying:

We deprive thee of the rights and privileges of the episcopal dignity, symbolized in this pallium, since thou hast abused them.

Then, even if the degradandus be a mere bishop, the degrading prelate removes his mitre, saying:

We strip thy head of this miter, emblem of the episcopal dignity, since thou hast befouled it by thy ill government.

Then one of the ministers brings the Book of the Gospel to the degradandus, which the degrading prelate takes from his hands, saying;

Give us back the Gospel! Since thou hast spurned the grace of God and made thyself unworthy of the office of preaching, we rightly deprive you of this office.

Then the degrading prelate removes the ring from the finger of the degradandus, saying:

Rightly do we pull off thy ring, the sign of fidelity, since thou hast made bold to rape God's own bride, the Church.

At this time one of the ministers brings the degradandus a crosier, which the degrading prelate takes from his hands, saying;

Thy shepherd's staff we take from thee, that thou shalt be powerless henceforward to exercise that office of correction, which thou hast brought to disarray.

Then the ministers take off the gloves of the degradandus, and the degrading prelate lightly scrapes thumbs and hands with a knife blade or a shard of glass, saying:

We hereby deprive thee, to the extent of our powers, of the grace of spiritual blessing and of sacramental anointing, that thou shouldst forfeit the office of sanctifying and of blessing, and their effects.

With the same knife blade or shard the degrading prelate lightly scrapes the head of the degradandus, saying:

We utterly erase and eradicate the consecration, blessing and anointing bestowed upon thee, and we put thee out of the episcopal order, whence thou returnest unclothed.

The ministers remove the shoes from the degradandus Thus ends the ceremony.

The wording of the ritual assumes that only one bishops will be shorn of office. But have no fear; the language could easily be adapted to accommodate several degradandi at one time. The US bishops have shown their willingness (one might even say, their unseemly eagerness) to defrock any priest who has been guilty of sexual abuse. But the new American policy does not apply to bishops. The old ritual offers a remedy for this omission. Back in 1862, I wonder what a bishop would have had to do, to find himself called to Rome for degradation? More to the point, what would it take today?

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