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(Lat. sacrilegium, robbing a temple, from sacer, sacred, and legere, to purloin.)
Sacrilege 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 ecclesiastical 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. 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 honour due to such person. This sacrilege may be committed chiefly in three ways:
Local Sacrilege. 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:
Real Sacrilege. 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.
SLATER, Manual of Moral Theology (New York, 1908); RICKABY, Moral Teaching of St. Thomas (London, 1896); BALLERINI, Opus theologicum morale (Prato, 1899); D'ANNIBALE, Summula theologi moralis (Rome, 1908); SPELMAN, The History and Fate of Sacrilege (London, 1888).
JOSEPH F. DELANY