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(Latin sæcularizatio)

Secularization, an authorization given to religious with solemn vows and by extension to those with simple vows to live for a time or permanently in the "world" (sæculum), i.e., outside the cloister and their order, while maintaining the essence of religious profession. It is a measure of kindness towards the religious and is therefore to be distinguished from the "expulsion" of religious with solemn vows, and the "dismissal" of religious with simple vows, which are penal measures towards guilty subjects. On the other hand, as secularization does not annul the religious character, it is distinct from absolute dispensation from vows; this likewise is a lenient measure, but it annuls the vows and their obligation, and the one dispensed is no longer a religious. As a general rule dispensation is the measure taken in the case of religious with simple vows while secularization is employed where there are solemn vows. Nevertheless there are exceptions in both cases. Sometimes lay religious with solemn vows or lay sisters are wholly dispensed from their vows, religious life in the world being very difficult for lay persons; in other instances religious men or women with simple vows are authorized at least for a time to lay aside their habit and live outside their houses, at the same time observing their vows; such is the case for instance with the religious men and women in France, who have temporary renewable secularization in virtue of the Instructions of the S. C. of Bishops and Regulars (24 March, 1903). It is not therefore correct to speak of religious dispensed from their vows as secularized; the expression applies only to religious with solemn vows, especially to religious priests.

Secularization is granted to these regulars like dispensation to religious with simple vows, either for reasons of general order or for motives of personal and private order. To the first class belong expulsions and suppression of religious houses by various governments, for instance, Spain in 1839, Italy in 1866, France in 1902; to the second class belong various reasons of health, family, etc. Secularization may be summarized under two heads: maintenance of the religious life, and at the same time relaxation of the religious life so far as is necessary in order to live in the world.

Secularization is divided into temporary and perpetual; the first is simply the authorization given to a subject to live outside of his order, either for a fixed time, e.g., one or two years, or for the duration of particular circumstances, conditions of health, family, business, etc., but there is no change in either the conditions or duties of the religious. He is dependent on his superiors, only he is placed provisionally under the jurisdiction of the bishop of the place, to whom he is subject in virtue of the vow of obedience. In most instances the religious lays aside his habit, retaining privately however something indicative of his religious affiliation. At the expiration of the time of indult the religious returns to his cloister, unless this temporary secularization be granted in preparation for perpetual secularization, e.g., to allow a religious priest to find a bishop who will consent to receive him in his diocese. Perpetual secularization on the other hand wholly removes the subject from his order, whose habit he puts off, and of which he no longer has the right to ask his support, without previous agreement. But the one secularized does not cease to be a religious; his vows remain a permanent obligation and he thus continues to observe the essentials of a religious life. The vow of chastity being purely negative is observed in the world as in the cloister; the vow of obedience remains intact, but henceforth binds the subject to his bishop, to whom he owes not only canonical obedience, like every cleric, but also the full religious obedience vowed at profession. The vow of poverty necessarily undergoes alleviation with respect to temporal goods, but binds as to capacity to acquire and give away, as well as to bequeath without indults, which are readily granted at need. In the absence of indults the property of the secularized person goes to his order (S. C. Bishops and Regulars, 6 June, 1836).

But the most important aspect of perpetual secularization as regards regulars is the regulation of their ecclesiastical status. The regular ordained to poverty, the religious ordained to a common revenue depend not on a bishop, but on their superiors. If they pass by secularization into the secular clergy they cannot remain without an ordinary and must necessarily be attached to a diocese. Formerly it was admitted that the one secularized fell once more under the jurisdiction of his original ordinary, but what was at first that ordinary's right eventually became a responsibility (cf. S. C. Bishops and Regulars in Colonien., 24 Feb., 1893), and this discipline aroused just complaints (cf. postulatum of the Bishops of Prussia, 19 Aug., 1892). Also the Decree "Auctus admodum" given by the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars (4 Nov., 1892) declared that every religious cleric who desired to be secularized or to leave his congregation must first find a bishop willing to receive him among his own clergy, and if prior to this he left his house he was suspended. Now no bishop is compelled to receive a religious into his diocese; if be admits him it is on the same condition as a cleric. This is why by common law the religious must first secure for himself an ecclesiastical patrimony; in dioceses where this law is not observed religious acquire the same rights and contract the same obligations towards the bishop as incorporated secular clerics. Though he may perform sacerdotal duties and receive legitimate emoluments he cannot without indult receive a residential benefice or a cure of souls (S. C. of Regular Discipline, 31 Jan., 1899).

To prevent persons from becoming religious in order to attain ordination under the easiest conditions with the intention of subsequently seeking secularization and entering the ranks of the secular clergy the Decree of 15 June, 1909, decided that to all Rescripts of temporary or perpetual secularization or dispensation from perpetual vows be de facto annexed, even if they are not expressed, the following clauses and prohibitions, dispensation from which is reserved to the Holy See; these religious are debarred from:

  1. every office (and if they are eligible to benefices) every benefice in major or minor basilicas and cathedrals;
  2. every position as teacher and office in greater or lesser clerical seminaries; in other houses for the instruction of clerics; in universities or institutes conferring degrees by Apostolic privilege;
  3. every office in episcopal curiæ
  4. the office of visitor or director of religious houses of men or women, even in diocesan congregations;
  5. habitual dwelling in localities where there are houses of the province or mission left by the religious.

Finally if the religious wishes to return to his order he has not to make again his novitiate or his profession, but takes rank from the time of his return.

The word secularization has a very different meaning when applied not to persons but to things. It then signifies ecclesiastical property become secular, as has occurred on several occasions in consequence of governmental usurpation (see LAICIZATION). The word may also signify the suppression of sovereign or of feudal right belonging to ecclesiastical dignitaries as such. The chief ecclesiastical principalities of the Holy Roman Empire, notably the electorates, were secularized by the Decree of 25 Feb., 1803. The word secularization may also be applied to the abandonment by the Church of its goods to purchasers after governmental confiscations, most frequently after a merciful composition or arrangement. Concessions of this kind were made by Julius III for England in 1554, by Clement XI for Saxony in 1714, by Pius VII for France in 1801, by Pius IX for Italy in 1886, and finally by Pius X for France in 1907.


Cf. the canonists under the title De statu monachorum, lib. iii, tit. 38; GENNARI, Consultations canoniques, cons. iii (French tr., Paris, 1909); BOUIX, De jure regularium (Paris, 1897); VERMEERSCH, De relig. instit. et personis (2nd ed., Bruges, 1909); NERVEGNA, De jure practico regularium (Rome, 1901).

About this page

APA citation. Boudinhon, A. (1912). Secularization. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Boudinhon, Auguste. "Secularization." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Douglas J. Potter. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. February 1, 1912. Remy Lafort, D.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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