Sacrilege (Lat. sacrilegium, robbing a temple, from sacer, sacred, and legere, to purloin) is in general the violation or injurious treatment of a sacred object. In a less proper sense any transgression against the virtue of religion would be a sacrilege. Theologians are substantially agreed in regarding as sacred that and that only which by a public rite and by Divine or ecclestiastical institution has been dedicated to the worship of God. The point is that the public authority must intervene; private initiative, no matter how ardent in devotion or praiseworthy in motive, does not suffice. Attributing a sacred character to a thing is a juridical act, and as such is a function of the governing power of the Church. It is customary to enumerate three kinds of sacrilege, personal, local, and real. St. Thomas teaches (Summa, II-II, Q., xcix) that a different sort of holiness attaches to persons, places, and things. Hence the irreverence offered to any one of them is specifically distinct from that which is exhibited to the others. Suarez (De Religione, tr. iii, 1-3) does not seem to think the division very logical, but accepts it as being in accord with the canons. Personal sacrilege means to deal so irreverently with a sacred person that, whether by the injury inflicted or the defilement caused, there is a breach of the honor due to such person. This sacrilege may be committed chiefly in three ways: (a) by laying violent hands on a cleric or religious. This constitutes an infraction of what is known as the privilege of the canon (privilegium canonis), and is visited with the penalty of excommunication; (b) by violating the ecclesiastical immunity in so far as it still exists. Clerics according to the old-time discipline were entitled to exemption from the jurisdiction of lay tribunals (privilegium fori). The meaning, therefore, is that he who despite this haled them before a civil court, otherwise than as provided by the canons, was guilty of sacrilege and was excommunicated; (c) by any sin against the vow of chastity on the part of those who are consecrated to God—such are those in sacred orders (in the Latin Church) and religious, even those with simple vows, if these are perpetual. The weight of opinion amongst moralists is that this guilt is not contracted by the violation of a privately-made vow. The reason seems to be that, while there is a breach of faith with Almighty God, still such a vow, lacking the indorsement and acceptance of the Church, does not make the person formally a sacred one; it does not in the juridical sense set such an one apart for the worship of God. It need hardly be noted that the partners of sacred persons in sins of this kind are to be adjudged equally guilty of sacrilege even though their status be a purely lay one.
Local sacrilege is the violation of a sacred place. Under the designation “sacred place” is included not only a church properly so-called, even though it be not consecrated, but merely blessed, but also public oratories as well as cemeteries canonically established for the burial of the faithful. Four species of this crime are ordinarily distinguished: (I) the theft of something found in and specially belonging to the church; (2) the infringing of the immunity attaching to sacred places in so far as this prerogative still prevails. It should be observed that in this case the term “sacred place” receives a wider comprehension than that indicated above. It comprises not only churches, public chapels, and cemeteries, but also the episcopal palace, monasteries, hospitals erected by episcopal authority and having a chapel for the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice, and also the person of the priest when he is carrying the Blessed Sacrament. To all of these was granted the right of asylum, the outraging of which was deemed a sacrilege; (3) the commission within the sacred precincts of some sinful act by which, according to canon law, the edifice is esteemed polluted. These acts are homicide, any shedding of blood reaching to the guilt of a grievous sin, any consummated offense against chastity (including marital intercourse which is not necessary), the burial within the church or sacred place of an unbaptized person or of one who has been excommunicated by name or as a notorious violator of the privilege of the canon; (4) the doing of certain things (whether sins or not), which, either by their own nature or by special provision of law, are particularly incompatible with the demeanor to be maintained in such a place. Such would be for instance turning the church into a stable or a market, using it as a banquet hall, or holding court there indiscriminately for the settlement of purely secular affairs. Real sacrilege is the irreverent treatment of sacred things as distinguished from places and persons. This can happen first of all by the administration or reception of the sacraments (or in the case of the Holy Eucharist by celebration) in the state of mortal sin, as also by advertently doing any of those things invalidly. Indeed deliberate and notable irreverence towards the Holy Eucharist is reputed the worst of all sacrileges. Likewise conscious maltreatment of sacred pictures or relics or perversion of Holy Scripture or sacred vessels to unhallowed uses, and finally, the usurpation or diverting of property (whether movable or immovable) intended for the maintenance of the clergy or serving for the ornamentation of the church to other uses, constitute real sacrileges. Sometimes the guilt of sacrilege may be incurred by omitting what is required for the proper administration of the sacraments or celebration of the sacrifice, as for example, if one were to say Mass without the sacred vestments.
JOSEPH F. DELANY