In a wide sense, sacrilege is any sin against the virtue of religion; more strictly, it is the abuse or violation of a sacred person, place, or thing (respectively, a personal, local, or real sacrilege). The sacredness of the object of sacrilege arises, not from private decision, but from public dedication to divine worship, by either divine or ecclesiastical law. All sacrilege is against the virtue of religion, but it is commonly admitted that not all offenses against the virtue of religion are sacrilegious. True sacrilege is not simple irreverence for an object, but for an object precisely as sacred. Anything dedicated to the service of God by proper authority acquires a new dignity; it is stamped, so to speak, with the seal of God. Because it enters, in a sense, into the sphere of the divine, irreverence to it is an irreverence to God Himself (see St. Thomas, Summa theologicae, 2a2ae 99.1).
Personal sacrilege is the physical mistreatment of a person whom dedication to the service of God has made sacred. To strike, wrongfully imprison, or bring to a public court—without approval, implicit or explicit, of competent authority—a cleric or a member of a religious community, even a novice, would be personal sacrilege. Also any external action of impurity involving the person of one with a public vow of chastity, whether performed by the person under vow or by another, is sacrilegious. (Not all authors agree that sins against chastity involving those with a private vow have a sacrilegious effect.) Double sacrilege is certainly involved in any impurity between two persons, both of whom are bound by public vows of chastity.
Local sacrilege is the violation of a sacred place, such as a church, a public oratory, or a cemetery, whether these have been blessed or consecrated. Theft of a holy object from a church, for example, is sacrilegious, whereas to pick the pocket of a fellow churchgoer would not be. To use a sacred place for a profane purpose, for example, to use a church as a dance hall or bar–room, would involve sacrilege. Any external act of impurity or the shedding of blood to the point of mortal guilt, if committed in a sacred place, is sacrilegious.
Real sacrilege is the misuse of sacred things, that is, of things that have been formally dedicated to the service of God, or things that of their nature pertain to divine service. To administer the Sacraments, for example, or to receive Holy Communion while in the state of mortal sin, would be a real sacrilege.
Sacrilege is commonly admitted to be a mortal sin of its nature (ex genere ), because it is seriously opposed to the virtue of religion. But a sacrilege may be a venial sin from the slightness of the matter with which it is concerned. Slightness of matter, for example, makes the thoughtless use of holy water a venial fault. Diverse degrees of gravity in sacrilege depend upon the relative sacredness of the thing profaned. To profane the Holy Eucharist is thus more grave than to steal a chalice. Practically, to estimate the gravity of a sacrilege, one must take into account the degree of sacredness of the person, place, or thing involved, the sinful action itself as viewed by prudent people, and the intention of the one who performs the action.
Bibliography: j. abbo and j. hannan, The Sacred Canons, 2 v. (St. Louis 1960). l. g. fanfani, Manuale theoricopracticum theologiae moralis (Rome 1950–) 3:175–182. b. hÄring, The Law of Christ: Moral Theology for Priests and Laity, tr. e. g. kaiser (Westminster, Md. 1961–) 2:209–214. l. bender, in f. roberti et al., Dictionary of Moral Theology, ed. p. palazzini et al., tr. h. j. yannone et al. from 2d Ital. ed. (Westminster, Md. 1962) 1087.
"Sacrilege." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 17, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sacrilege
"Sacrilege." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved August 17, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sacrilege