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A person who has been legitimately received into the ranks of the clergy. By clergy in the strict sense is meant the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy. Consequently a cleric is one who belongs in some sense to the hierarchy. For this it is necessary that he have received at least the tonsure. The clergy by Divine right form an order or state which is essentially distinct from that of the laity. (Conc. Trid., Sess. XXIV, De sac. ord., can. i, 6.) Christ did not commit the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments to the faithful in general, but to certain carefully defined persons, as the Apostles and seventy-two Disciples. They also received the power of governing the flocks; which power is represented by the Keys, a well-known Oriental symbol for authority. That the distinction between clergy and laity was recognized in New Testament times is plain from St. Paul's statement that the bishops have been placed by the Holy Ghost to rule the Church (Acts 20:28), for the right to rule implies a correlative obligation to obey. Presbyters are continually distinguished from the laity throughout the Pauline Epistles.

The word cleric (Lat., clericus from clerus) is derived from the Greek kleros, a "lot". In the Septuagint, this word is used in the literal sense quite frequently, though not in its later technical sense. In the First Epistle of St. Peter (v, 3) it is applied to entire body of the faithful. The use of the word in its present restricted meaning occurs, however, as early as the third century. It is found in Tertullian (De idol., c. viii), Origen (Hom. in Jer., xi, 3) and Clement of Alexandria (Quis dives salvetur, c. xlii) in this sense. It is not easy to determine exactly how the word came to have its present determinate meaning. The "Pontificale Romanum" refers to clerics as being those whose "lot" is the Lord Himself, and St. Jerome explicitly derives the name from that fact. These statements do not give us, however, the steps by which kleros, "lot" became "clergy" or "cleric". Probably the best suggested explanation is, that from lot or portion, it came to mean a particular lot or office assigned to some one, and finally the person himself possessing the lot or office.

Extension of meaning

While cleric in its strict sense means one who has received the ecclesiastical tonsure, yet in general sense it is also employed in canon law for all to whom clerical privileges have been extended. Such are the members of religious orders: Monks and nuns, and even lay brothers and novices. It is also applied to tertiaries of the mendicant orders. If they be men, however, they must live in community, but if they be women they many enjoy the privilege even when living at home. Hermits and virgins, or celibates whose vows are approved by the bishop, have likewise clerical immunities. Members of the military religious orders, such as formerly the Knights Templars, and at present the Teutonic Knights and Knights of Malta, rank as clerics. The meaning of the word has been so extended as to include even laics, men or women, who render service to a regular community, such as by begging, provided they wear a clerical dress and reside near the monastery or convent. The privileges enjoyed by thus obtaining the benefit of clergy were once great (see IMMUNITY), and were formerly recognized by secular governments. In modern times, however, these privileges in as far as they were guaranteed by the civil power have been almost entirely swept away in every country of the world. It is only when there is question of favours, or as canonists say, in a favourable sense, that cleric has this wide signification. When there is question of penalties, on the contrary, it becomes so restricted as to mean only the lower orders of the secular clergy. In England in medieval times the term clerk acquired in common parlance the significance of an educated man.

Clerical religious orders

Among the regular orders in the strict sense, namely those whose members have solemn vows, is a large class designated as clerks regular (clerici regulares) because living according to a rule (regula). In contradistinction to the monastic orders, these clerical orders were instituted for the purpose of exercising a ministry similar to that of the secular clerics, by promotion of the Divine worship and procuring the salvation of souls. Their main object is the spiritual and temporal service of their neighbour in educating youth, preaching, serving the sick, etc. Orders of clerks regular were first founded in the sixteenth century. To this class belong the Jesuits, Theatines, Barnabites, and others. Many religious congregations, which are not orders in the strict sense, such as the Passionists and Redemptorists follow a similar mode of life.

Regionary clerics

Regionary clerics, who are also called clerici vagantes and acephali, were those who were ordained without title to a special church. They were received into the sacred ministry by the bishops for the purpose of supplying the dearth of the clergy in the outlying districts of the dioceses where no benefices existed. Here they were to act as missionaries and in course of time, if possible, to gather together congregations who would build and endow a church. Many of these clerics became mere wanderers without settled occupation or abode, sometimes supporting themselves by filling temporary chaplaincies in the castles of noblemen. In course of time, numbers of these untitled clerics returned to the settled portions of their dioceses and acted as assistants to such beneficed clergymen as chose to accept their help. Owing to the abuses arising from the unsettled state of these vagrant clerics, the Council of Trent (Sess, XXIII, c. xvi, De ref.) forbade the ordaining in future of any candidate who was not attached to a definite church or pious institute.

Obligations of clerics

(1) They must wear a costume suited to their state. While the common canon law does not determine in every detail what the dress of clerics should be, yet many and various prescriptions on the subject are found in the canons, the pontifical constitutions, and the decrees of councils. These ordain that the clerics are not to wear the dress of laymen. They must abstain from gaudy colours, unbecoming their state. The wearing of the soutane or cassock on all occasions, even in public, is prescribed for clerics living in Rome, and bishops may command the same in their dioceses. In non-Catholic countries, synods generally prescribe that for public use the dress of clerics should be such as to distinguish them from laymen; that is of black or of a sober colour, and that the so-called Roman collar be worn. In private, clergymen are commonly required to wear the soutane.

(2) Clerics are forbidden to engage in trade and secular business. In the early ages of the Church, it was allowable to seek necessary sustenance by labour, and that is not forbidden now if the cleric does not receive proper support from ecclesiastical sources. What is specially prohibited is to engage in trade for the sake of gain. The buying and selling, however, which is necessary in the administration of the lands or the goods of a benefice do not fall under the prohibition. Neither is it forbidden to clerics nowadays to place their money out at interest and receive the increment; for this is equivalent, allowing for modern circumstances, to the economic management of the lands of ecclesiastical benefices. Gambling in stocks, however, remains an illicit form of trade for clergymen (Lehmkuhl, Theol. Mor., II, n. 612).

(3) There are stringent laws concerning the relations of clerics with persons of the other sex. They must conform to the canons in all that regards allowing females to dwell in their houses. Above all must they avoid associating with those whose moral character causes the least suspicion.

(4) Unbecoming amusements are also forbidden to them, such as the frequenting of improper plays and spectacles, the visiting of taverns, indulgence in games of chance, carrying of arms, following the chase, etc. When in the above amusements, however, there is no necessary impropriety, lawful custom and synodal prescriptions may make a participation in them allowable.

(5) Clerics are bound to obey their diocesan bishops in all matters determined by the canon law. Various Roman decisions have declared that by his ordinary authority, the bishop cannot oblige clerics to render to him any service not expressed in the canons. While the obligation of obedience is binding on all clerics, it is strengthened for priests by the solemn promise made at ordination, and for all holders of benefices by the canonical oath. The obligation to be subject to the bishop in lawful matters is not, however, a vow.

Loss of clerical privileges

Although the sacramental character received in Sacred orders may not be obliterated, yet even the higher orders of clergy may be degraded from their dignity and reduced to what is technically called lay communion. The same holds, of course, likewise for the lower clergy. When, however, a cleric who has received only minor orders or even tonsure, after losing his privileges, has been restored to the clerical state, this restitution, even when solemn, is merely ceremonious and is not considered as a new conferring of tonsure or minor orders. Even minor clerics are therefore considered to have a stable connection with the hierarchical order. See MINOR ORDERS; DEACON; SUBDEACON; PRIEST; HIERARCHY; LAITY.


WERNZ, Jus Decretalium (Rome, 1899), II; FERRARIS, Prompta Bibl. (Rome, 1886), II; LAURENTIUS, Inst. Jur. Eccl. (Freiburg, 1903).

About this page

APA citation. Fanning, W. (1908). Cleric. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Fanning, William. "Cleric." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Marcia L. Bellafiore.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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