In Christianity, the term secular clergy refers to deacons and priests who are not monastics or otherwise members of religious life. Secular priests (sometimes known as diocesan priests) are priests who commit themselves to a certain geographical area and are ordained into the service of the residents of a diocese[1] or equivalent church administrative region. That includes serving the everyday needs of the people in parishes, but their activities are not limited to that of their parish.

Etymology and terminology

The Latin word saeculum referred to a period of time roughly equivalent to 100 years. It forms the basis of the word for century in Romance languages (e.g., French siècle, or Italian secolo). Latin Christianity adopted the term in Ecclesiastical Latin to refer to matters of an earthly and temporal, as opposed to a heavenly and eternal, nature.[2] In the 12th century, the term came to apply to priests obligated with parochial and ministerial duties rather than the "regular" duties of monastic clergy who were bound to the rule of a religious order, often called "religious clergy".[3]

While the term "diocesan priest" is often used to describe secular priests, not all secular priests are diocesan. In the Latin Church, other territorial and non-territorial ecclesial jurisdictions such as the personal prelature of Opus Dei, military and personal ordinariates, and apostolic vicariates all include secular clergy.[4] In the Catholic Church, Anglicanism, and other contexts, the term "secular priest" does not delineate between celibate and non-celibate priests.[5][6]

Catholic Church

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Latin Church canon law makes specific demands on clergy, whether regular or secular, quite apart from the obligations consequent to religious vows. Thus in the Latin Church, among other regulations, clerics other than permanent deacons "are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy"[7] and to carry out the canonical hours, typically according to the Liturgy of the Hours, daily.[7] They are forbidden to "assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power."[7] All clerics, once ordained, are forbidden from marrying or remarrying.

The teachings of the Catholic Church and some scholars hold that a tradition of clerical continence existed in early Christianity, whereby married men who became priests were expected to abstain from sexual relations with their wives.[8][9] The Council of Elvira, held before Constantine legalized Christianity, made it an explicit law that bishops and other clergy should not have sexual relations with their wives. Despite consistently upholding the doctrine of clerical celibacy, over the following centuries the Church experienced many difficulties in enforcing it, particularly in rural areas of Europe. Finally, in the 12th century the Western Church declared that Holy Orders were not merely a prohibitive but a diriment canonical impediment to marriage, making marriage by priests invalid and not merely forbidden.[10][11]

The secular clergy, in which the hierarchy essentially resides, takes precedence over the regular clergy of equal rank. The episcopal office was the primary source of authority in the Church, and the secular clergy arose to assist the bishop. Only bishops can ordain Catholic clergy.[12]

One root of the 1896 Philippine Revolution was the agitation of native secular priests for parish assignments. Priests of powerful religious orders were given preferential treatment in these assignments and were usually Spaniards who trained in European chapters. The agitation led to the execution of the "Gomburza filibusteros", under charges of involvement in the 1872 Cavite Mutiny.

St. Thomas Becket is a patron saint of secular clergy. St. John Vianney is patron saint of parish priests. St. Stephen is patron saint of deacons.


Preparation for Catholic priesthood generally requires eight years of study beyond high school, usually including a college degree followed by four or more years of theology study at a seminary.[13]

At the time of their ordination as deacons (usually about a year before their ordination as priests) they promise respect and obedience to the diocesan bishop and his successors. They also promise to live in chastity, and according to the status of clergy (which includes a comparatively simple life). Diocesan priests do make vows, and must remain celibate and adhere to Canon law, but they do not promise poverty, so they may own their own property, such as cars, and handle their own financial affairs.[14]

Liturgical responsibilities

In his apostolic letter Dies Domini, Pope John Paul II wrote: "Among the many activities of a parish, none is as vital or as community-forming as the Sunday celebration of the Lord's Day and his Eucharist".[15]

A diocesan priest spends much of his time preparing for and celebrating the Sacraments (Eucharist, Reconciliation, Baptism, Marriage, Anointing of the Sick, Confirmation). In the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, the Second Vatican Council teaches that the priest acting in persona Christi celebrates the Sacrifice of the Mass and administers the Sacraments. "Christ is also present through preaching and the guidance of the faithful, tasks to which the priest is personally called."[16]

There are many parishioners whom he visits, those who are ill, those who are dying, and those who are unable to travel outside their homes. Sometimes, he is directly involved in the catechetical work of the parish and teaches catechism classes. He works with parish and finance councils that assist him in overseeing the welfare of the parish.[17] Diocesan priests may serve in myriad different capacities, these services include, but are not limited to, campus ministry, teaching, and chaplain work for hospitals or prisons.

Eastern Orthodox Church

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In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the term "secular clergy" refers to married priests and deacons, as opposed to monastic clergy (hieromonks and hierodeacons). The secular clergy are sometimes referred to as "white clergy", black being the customary colour worn by monks.[18]

Traditionally, parish priests are expected to be secular clergy rather than monastics, as the support of a wife is considered necessary for a priest living "in the world".

Since there are no orders like Catholic ones, all clergy in Eastern Orthodoxy, secular and monastic, are diocesan.

See also


  1. ^ ""Diocesan Priests", Diocese of Helena". Archived from the original on March 6, 2012. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  2. ^ Shook, John (April 20, 2010). "Secularity and Secularism Explained". Center for Inquiry. Retrieved June 29, 2022.
  3. ^ Cross, F.L., ed. (1957). "Secular Clergy.". The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (1958 ed.). London: Oxford University Press. p. 1236.
  4. ^ "Book II: Part I: Title IV. Personal Prelatures: Canon 294". Code of Canon Law. Retrieved June 29, 2022.
  5. ^ Williamson, Padraig (October 2011). "To be, or not to be, married and ordained". The Furrow. 62 (10). Maynooth College: 571. JSTOR 23046477. Retrieved June 29, 2022.
  6. ^ Patterson, Laurence Kent (October 1935). "The Ethiopian Church". The Irish Monthly. 63 (748). Irish Jesuit Province: 628. JSTOR 20513817.
  7. ^ a b c "Code of Canon Law - IntraText". Retrieved May 26, 2017.
  8. ^ Roman Cholij, Priestly Celibacy in Patristics and in the History of the Church.
  9. ^ Cesare Bonivento, Priestly Celibacy — Ecclesiastical Institution or Apostolic Tradition? Archived 2007-09-26 at the Wayback Machine; Thomas McGovern,Priestly Celibacy Today; Alfons Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations Archived May 13, 2013, at the Wayback Machine; Anthony Zimmerman, Celibacy Dates Back to the Apostles Archived 2007-10-22 at the Wayback Machine
  10. ^ New Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic University of America, Washington, D.C. 1967, p366
  11. ^ "CATHOLIC ENCYCLOPEDIA: Celibacy of the Clergy". Retrieved May 26, 2017.
  12. ^ Catholic Encyclopedia: Secular Clergy Catholic Online
  13. ^ ""Occupational Outlook Handbook", U.S. Department of Labor". Archived from the original on December 27, 2012. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  14. ^ Unlike members of a religious order, diocesan priests pay taxes, and may buy their own furniture, invest in stocks, and inherit money from others. They also receive a low annual salary from their diocese (on top of room and board and other benefits) and are generally expected to help manage parish finances. "What is the difference between a diocesan priest and a priest who is a member of a religious order?", St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  15. ^ Pope John Paul II. Dies Domini, Apostolic Letter of the Holy Father John Paul II to the Bishops, Clergy and Faithful of the Catholic Church on Keeping the Lord's Day Holy, (Vatican, 31 May 1998)
  16. ^ "The Priest, Pastor and Leader of the Parish Community", Address of Pope John Paul II to the Plenary Session of the Congregation for the Clergy, 23 November 2001
  17. ^ ""Vocations", Roman Catholic Diocese of Raleigh, North Carolina". Archived from the original on April 29, 2014. Retrieved January 10, 2019.
  18. ^ Coulter, Debra Ann (December 1999). "Russian Orthodox White Clergy in the Seventeenth Century" (PDF). London: University College of London. pp. 11–12. Retrieved June 27, 2022.