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What’s with all this "defrocking" lingo?

February 28, 2008

Suddenly, it seems, “defrock” is the in-word.

Karoun Demirjian writes that the Rev. Donald Maguire, sj, has been “defrocked” by the Vatican. Jeannette Cooper writes that Fr. Marek Bozek faces “defrocking” for disobedience to Abp. Raymond Burke. Erin Jordan writes that the bishop of Davenport wants to “defrock” Fr. Gerald Stouvenel. What with all this “defrocking” going on, one might even start to think that the word means something. Well, it doesn’t; at least, it sure doesn’t mean what these journalists think it means.

Notwithstanding that it can be found in some secular dictionaries to describe removing an ordained man from the clerical state, the word “defrock” is not correct usage in Catholic circles; Catholic writers, if no else, should know that.

Under the Pio-Benedictine Code there was a penalty called “deprivation of ecclesiastical habit” that could be imposed on a cleric and which, besides prohibiting him from dressing as a cleric, could also cost him certain other clerical rights (1917 CIC 2298). But this penalty, sometimes loosely called “defrocking”, was distinct from, and obviously less serious than, dismissal from the clerical state (technically known in those days as “degradation”). And dismissal, I assume, is what these journalists think they are discussing, no?

In their English-language dictionaries of canon law, Taunton (1905), Trudel (1919), and Lydon (1934) did not use the word “defrock” even to describe deprivation of clerical garb, let alone to mean dismissal from the clerical state, nor is “defrock” used in either sense by the Catholic Encyclopedia (1912-1917) or the New Catholic Encyclopedia (1967). Indeed the only Catholic encyclopedia I know of that has an entry for “Defrocking” is the excellent one published by Our Sunday Visitor (1991, 1998) wherein the word is scored as “a common but incorrect term that often refers to the reduction of a cleric to the lay state.”

Since the advent of the Johanno-Pauline Code in 1983, the correct phrase to denote the most severe expiatory penalty the Church can impose on a deacon, priest, or bishop is “dismissal from the clerical state” (1983 CIC 1336.1, n. 5). Even the term “laicization”, used for a while after Vatican II to soften the harsh rendering of Latin’s degradatio as “degradation”, is generally avoided today as it seems to imply that the lay state itself is some sort of punishment.

In short, enough with this “defrocking” lingo. These men are facing, or have already undergone, dismissal from the clerical state. Catholics know what that means.

Read more about it: There is a good dissertation on this topic, Joseph Shields, Deprivation of the Clerical Garb, Canon Law Studies No. 334, (Catholic University of America, 1958) that will help one sort out, say, temporary versus permanent deprivation of clerical garb, and how both sanctions were assumed, or not, in various related clergy penalties such as “deposition” and “degradation”.

And this I have to see: “Le defroque” (Joannon, 1954). (Thanks to a long-time Canon Law Blog reader!)

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