Clerical Dress (Canon Law)

views updated


For the first three centuries of the Christian era clerics used no special dress when engaged in divine services. About the beginning of the 4th century, a distinction began to be made between the everyday wear of the clergy and the vestments used by them in sacred functions. SS. Athanasius (295373), Jerome (c. 342420), and John Chrysostom (c. 345407), among others, made mention in their writings of special garb to be used by clerics in the performance of liturgical actions. This is especially true with reference to the orarion, or primitive stole. Councils of the same and succeeding periods, e.g., the Council of Laodicea, 343 to 381, referred quite often to a special clerical vesture for use in sacred functions.

History. Special clerical dress for use outside the sanctuary did not exist much before the 6th century. The garb worn by clerics was the old Roman dress, i.e., a tunic without sleeves (collobium ) and a long white coat with sleeves (dalmatica or tunica manicata et talaris ). For several centuries there was no other evident distinction observed between the ordinary apparel of the cleric and the laity save that inherent in the fact that the former was more constrained to wear that which was more modest and grave, and becoming his state in life. It seems that the use of a specific clerical dress in daily wear came about as a result of the fact that the clergy gradually came to be composed chiefly of philosophers and ascetics, men who all along had worn a distinctive garb, the pallium. Prior to the early 6th century various members of the clergy had tried without success to introduce the pallium as a specific garb for clerics in place of the birrus, the common tunic worn by members of the secular clergy and by Christians generally.

Even as to the color of the garb, centuries passed before any definite regulations were laid down. The Council of Trent (154563) required merely that "clerics always wear a dress conformable to their order, that by the propriety of their outward apparel they may show forth the inward uprightness of their morals" (sess. 14, de ref., c.6). Nothing was mentioned about the color. Reliable authors state that black has been the color of the cleric's garb only since the 17th century. In the Eastern Catholic Churches, the subrhason (cassock) may be of any color; the rhason, worn over it in public, must be black. Pope Sixtus V (158590) called the dress demanded by the Council of Trent the vestis talaris or cassock. From his time onward clerics were obliged to wear the cassock at all times as their distinctive dress. By approved custom, however, the interpretation prevailed that what was prescribed by Pope Sixtus was the wearing of the cassock at least for sacred and public functions.

Norms and Practice in the U.S. In the U.S., the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) decreed that clerics were to wear the Roman collar and cassock at home and in the church, while outside the rectory they were to wear the Roman collar together with a coat of black or somber color, the length of which reached the knees. A contrary custom evolved regarding coat length, and the suit-coat, ending between the waist and the knees became the usual street attire of clerics. This prescription was never revoked, and was normative for the Church in the United States both from the time of the promulgation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law (CIC 17) and throughout the time extending up until the promulgation of the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Although the issue of clerical dress was not raised directly in any of the conciliar documents, it was discussed particularly during the preparation of the decree, Presbyterorum Ordinis. Despite the fact that the 1917 Code remained operative, there was a gradual relaxation in practice that seemed to be acknowledged by the 1983 Code when it states: "Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference of bishops and in accord with legitimate local customs" (c. 284). This canon, general in its scope, called for adaptation by countries and dioceses.

Complementary legislation to canon 284 was promulgated on one November 1999 by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops: "The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in accord with the prescriptions of can. 284, hereby decrees that without prejudice to the provisions of can. 288, clerics are to dress in conformity with their sacred calling. In liturgical rites, clerics shall wear the vesture prescribed in the proper liturgical books. Outside liturgical functions, a black suit and Roman collar are the usual attire for priests. The use of the cassock is at the discretion of the cleric. In the case of religious clerics, the determinations of their proper institutes or societies are to be observed with regard to wearing the religious habit." Canon 288 exempted permanent deacons from wearing distinctive clerical street dress. However, all clerics are free to wear the cassock at their discretion; those of religious institutes or societies are free to wear distinctive habits according to their proper law and customs. With canon 284 and the U. S. complementary legislation as a guide, diocesan bishops are free to issue particular legislation according to local circumstances and conditions.

Bibliography: j. bingham, The Antiquities of the Christian Church, 2 v. (London 1856). h. j. mccloud, Clerical Dress and Insignia of the Roman Catholic Church (Milwaukee 1948). b. ganter, Clerical Attire (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies 361; Washington, DC 1955). j. cody, Clerical Dress of Priests (Catholic University of America Canon Law Studies; Washington, DC 2001).

[j. a. shields

j. cody]

About this article

Clerical Dress (Canon Law)

Updated About content Print Article


Clerical Dress (Canon Law)