Theodore McCarrick will continue to be a Catholic priest

The Vatican recently “defrocked” Theodore McCarrick, a former cardinal and the retired archbishop of Washington D.C. McCarrick was found guilty of a number of crimes including sexual abuse of minors.

“Defrocking,” as the name suggests, means the removal of the vestments, or clothing, symbolic of being a priest. This process is more formally referred to as “dismissal from the clerical state,” or “laicization.”

In 2014, the Vatican reported that 848 priests had been “defrocked” in the preceding decade for the rape and molestation of children. McCarrick is the highest ranking member of the Catholic Church to be punished in this way in modern times.

Many people might think that in being defrocked McCarrick would no longer remain a priest. That is not so. Catholics don’t understand the priesthood as simply a job that someone can be fired from.

Punishing priests in the Middle Ages

Formal procedures for defrocking priests were elaborated in the Middle Ages for church courts. Since punishments were milder for clerics, in order to hold priests accountable for the most severe crimes, it was necessary to demote them in status, before turning them over to a civil judge. This demotion was called “degradation.”

Rape and murder were among the crimes that could lead to degradation. But the most serious one was “heresy,” the deliberate spreading of doctrines contrary to the Catholic faith.

A monk’s tonsure. Elf/
Degradation included a ritual removal of any sign or symbol of clerical status. As part of this ritual, the skin from the priest’s palms and fingertips was scraped to indicate that the hands were no longer holy.

Additionally, the priestly haircut, called a “tonsure,” was removed by tongs or by shaving the scalp with a shard of glass.

The intent behind degradation was not only to punish but also to humiliate. After being “degraded,” the priest was handed over to civil authorities.

The church itself could not inflict the usual punishment for heresy: being burned at the stake.

Vatican sanctions on McCarrick

Theodore McCarrick will be spared these punishments. But there are others he will go through.

According to the legal code of the Catholic Church, McCarrick will not be allowed to wear the roman collar – a white band that goes around the neck – the robe-like cassock, or anything else that might suggest he is a priest.