Matters Arising: Purchase of Relics

Rev. Nicholas Mary, C.SS.R.

Fr. Nicholas Mary answers topical questions in the light of moral theology and canon law.

Is it permitted to private individuals to keep first class relics of the Saints for private devotion? May we purchase these sacred relics when we find them for sale in second-hand shops or on auction websites like Ebay?

It is good to consider what is at stake here; to appreciate the zealous care with which the Church traditionally honours sacred relics on the one hand, and to appreciate how she condemns even the appearance of simony on the other. Then, by making the right distinctions, we can come in good conscience to a practical solution.

First of all, let us be reminded of the teaching of the Church on sacred relics. In 1563, the Council of Trent declared in its final session that:

They think impiously who deny that ... the holy bodies of the holy martyrs and of others living with Christ, which were the living members of Christ and the temple of the Holy Ghost, to be awakened by Him to eternal life and to be glorified, are to be venerated by the faithful, through which many benefits are bestowed by God on men, so that those who maintain that veneration and honour are not due to the relics of the saints, or that these and other memorials are honoured by the faithful without profit, and that the places dedicated to the memory of the saints for the purpose of obtaining their aid are visited in vain, are to be utterly condemned, as the Church has already long since condemned and now again condemns them.1

And the customary categorisation of these sacred remains into first, second and third-class relics is explained here by Professor Helen Hoffner:

“There are three classes of relics. First-class relics include physical remains of a saint, such as hair, bones, or the incorrupt body. Second-class relics are items that were used by a saint on a regular basis, including the saint's clothing or a book that he carried constantly. Most relics owned by laypersons are third-class relics, items that have touched a first or second-class relic. For example, some Catholics wear medals that contain a relic of a favourite saint. That relic is usually a small piece of cloth that was touched to a first-or second-class relic of that saint.2

We can say that there is certainly no prohibition by the Church where the private possession and veneration of second and third-class relics is concerned, though due care should always be taken of these as of all other sacred items.

When it comes to first-class relics, matters are more complex. The traditional discipline enshrined in the 1917 Code of Canon Law distinguishes between notable (in Latin, insigne) relics and those which are not notable. Notable relics of Saints or Blessed are defined as “the entire body, or the head, arm, forearm, heart, tongue, hand, leg, or that part of the body in which the martyr suffered, provided it be whole and not small.”3

Now whilst “notable relics of Saints or Blessed may not be kept in the private houses and private oratories without explicit permission of the Ordinary,”4 “small relics may be kept with due honour in the houses of the faithful, or carried on their persons.”5

Thus we see that private individuals may keep relics of all classes in their possession with due care. Those who do so should also provide that these relics do not fall into the hands of those who will treat them profanely in the event of their deaths. If they possess notable first-class relics as defined above, they should speak to the Ordinary or to whomever acts in his place about the suitability of keeping these relics or of passing them onto the Church.

The postconciliar legislation does not change this, but makes it far more difficult to obtain first-class relics from the lawful authorities, as we shall see as we answer the second part of the question.

From time immemorial the Church has condemned all trafficking in sacred relics, and condemned their sale as simony. Here is how the sin of simony is defined in a popular Catholic reference work of the past:

Giving or receiving, or intending to give or to receive, anything temporal for anything spiritual. It is so called from Simon Magus, who offered

St. Peter money for the power of communicating the gifts of the Holy Ghost (Acts 8). The guilt of this sin arises from the fact that spiritual things are not fit matter for bargaining. And this, says St Thomas, for three reasons: because the value of a spiritual thing cannot be estimated in money or the like; because the holder of anything spiritual is merely a dispenser and not the owner of it (1 Cor. 4:1); and because sale is opposed to the origin of spiritual things, since they come from the gratuitous gift of God ("freely have ye received, freely give," Mt. 10:8). Hence simony is a species of real sacrilege. It is of two kinds: (1) simony forbidden by natural or divine law, and (2) simony forbidden by ecclesiastical law. The former, which is simony properly so called, is committed when something temporal is given or taken for something spiritual, e.g. grace, blessings, consecration, jurisdiction, or for something temporal so closely united with a spiritual thing that without that spiritual thing it would not exist, e.g. an ecclesiastical benefice; the latter when spiritual things are exchanged for spiritual, or temporal for temporal, when the Church has forbidden such special transactions owing to the danger, or perhaps only the appearance of simony, e.g. the Church forbids the selling of (primary) relics.6

Accordingly it is only natural to be perplexed when we are confronted with an apparent contradiction between our desire to honour the relics of the saints and rescue them from profane hands, and our duty to avoid cooperating formally in their simoniacal traffic.

Adding to the complexity of the matter is the state of affairs in the Church today. Not only have the modern ecclesiastical authorities presided over half a century of the neglect and even destruction of our sacred patrimony—as churches, religious houses, seminaries etc. have closed down, and their religious treasures, including the relics of the saints, have been lost or dispersed in a new wave of iconoclasm comparable to the ones that accompanied the religious revolutions and upheavals of the past—but they have also made it much more difficult for ordinary Catholics to obtain new relics in an officially authorised manner.

Under the current norms, parish priests and religious superiors may apply to the Apostolic Sacristy (the relevant office in Rome) for first-class relics with the written approval of their local ordinaries. Relics of “the Holy Cross and of the bones or flesh of the Saints are bestowed only for public veneration in the church, oratory or chapel indicated in the request. No relic of the Apostolic Sacristy is given to individual members of the faithful for private veneration.”7 These norms are meant to provide a model for shrines and other custodians of the bodies of the Saints throughout the world, though their application is not uniform.

This shift away from private devotion mirrors that within the Liturgical Revolution in general, and is doubtless likewise connected to ecumenical preoccupations that would seek to diminish the role of relics in the life of the faithful so as not to offend the sensibilities of non-Catholics.

If the official path is closed to us, may we then make a virtue of necessity and collect and honour all the many relics at large thanks to the great auto-secularisation of the last half century? Clearly there will be no problem in conscience when we rescue these sacred goods without money changing hands, but may we redeem them for a price?

The question pertains especially to first-class relics, as there is no particular problem associated with the purchase of second and third-class ones. The sale of relics has always been forbidden by the Church as the 1917 code makes clear:

It is absolutely forbidden (nefas est) to sell sacred relics. The Ordinaries, deans, pastors and others having the care of souls shall take care that the sacred relics, especially those of the Holy Cross, are not sold together with the inheritance and with sale of other goods, nor pass into the hands of non- Catholics.8

But what about buying relics with a view to rescuing them rather than trafficking in them? As Dominican Fathers McHugh and Callan write in their excellent Moral Theology, there are cases “in which a transaction is not simoniacal, but virtuous—some acts done in God's honour (e.g., to purchase a spiritual object, such as a sacred vessel or relic, from a person who would misuse it), when the purchaser intends the prevention of profanation. It is certainly not irreverence to a sacred thing to use means necessary to rescue it from such irreverence.9

An apparent problem arises inasmuch as Pope Leo XIII forbade the faithful “under whatever pretext, even that of redeeming them, to buy or sell sacred relics”, urging them to inform the local ordinaries so that the latter could take steps to stop the commerce.10 French historian Canon Bernard Dolhagaray (†1913) described the background to this decree, an era in which the Roman catacombs and other sacred places were being plundered for relics to sell:

Since that time, on the occasion of the looting of churches which accompanied the political upheavals in Italy, the Holy See has had to warn the faithful. Without in any way modifying the legislation previously sanctioned, the Pontiffs have protested energetically against the profanations and sacrilegious attacks to which the holy bodies and the shrines containing the sacred relics have been subjected. Audacious criminals, stimulated by the bitter greed of gain, robbed the churches of Italy and transported the holy remains to Rome, in order to make a greater profit by selling these venerated remains. Pope Leo XIII issued a general decree forbidding any member of the faithful, for any reason whatsoever, to buy or sell relics... The Pontiff explained that, as a result of the misfortune of the times, perverse Catholics, driven by the thirst for gold, were gathering up these sacred remains from all sides in order to put them on sale in Rome itself, to the great scandal of the Christian populations. In the presence of this intolerable abuse, the Sovereign Pontiff, recalling the canonical sanctions, absolutely forbade any traffic in relics.11

We see here the Pope and the hierarchy actively working to stamp out the abuse of simony. Nonetheless when today there is no such law in vigour or strategy in place, and, more crucially, when the hierarchy not only does not lead us in the rescue of our sacred patrimony but rather collaborates in its perdition, we can in good conscience turn to moral theology to guide us when the positive law of the Church does not provide for the situation in which we find ourselves.

Already in 1892 Fr. Domenico Palmieri, S.J. (†1909), the highly considered Roman theologian and continuator of the moral theology of his confrère Fr. Antonio Ballerini, proposed that the decree of 1878 applied only to those who had the intention of buying relics under the feigned pretext of redeeming them, whereas those who sought simply to end the unjust and vexatious state of affairs that sees relics in profane hands, and who could not have recourse to the Ordinary to achieve this, might buy the freedom of the relic (not intending thereby to purchase a spiritual good at a price).12

This is analogous to the case of the person who ransoms a slave or hostage (something long practised by religious orders such as the Mercedarians and Trinitarians) without thereby intentionally entering into a contract that sets a value on a slave, or cooperating formally in the trafficking of human lives.

Fr. Palmieri's opinion, based on an analogous opinion of St Alphonsus, the heavenly patron of moral theologians, was permitted to be followed in conscience in an age of minute theological oversight, and he himself was subsequently appointed theologian of the Sacred Penitentiary under Leo XIII and St Pius X.

Examining the subject of simony for the Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique, Canon Bride, a professor at the Facultés Catholiques of Lyon, explains that “as the code does not provide any precise indication on this point, it is to the interpretation provided by ancient law that one must resort.” He then enumerates the "just titles" that are considered to excuse from simony in matters of ecclesiastical law (and he specifically refers to the decree of Leo XIII), and includes the following:

Redemption or release from unjust vexation, in other words, the right to remove, even at a cost, an obstacle which unjustly opposes the obtaining of a spiritual good. Thus ... it is also permissible to buy, even at a very high price, relics which are publicly offered for sale, in order to save them from profanation: in this case, the ordinary should be informed if this is possible. [This] will be licit if there is no contract made concerning spiritual things. Now, it seems that there can only be a contract possible on the part of the offender ... The sin of simony (if it exists) will therefore be imputed only to the author of the unjust vexation. In the face of this sin, the victim, if he has proportionate reasons, may behave as one who allows the evil to take place.13

This work of the redemption of the sacred from profane hands has taken on epic proportions since the men of the Church have cast away so much of our sacred patrimony since Vatican II. We need have no scruple in being part of that noble apostolate. †

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  • 1H.J. Schroeder, OP (transl.), Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent (TAN, Rockford, Ill., 1978), p. 216. Of course the Penny Catechism teaches that [QQ. 186-7]: “We should give to relics, crucifixes, and holy pictures a relative honour, as they relate to Christ and his Saints, and are memorials of them. We do not pray to relics or images, for they can neither see, nor hear, nor help us.”
  • 2Helen Hoffner, Catholic Traditions and Treasures: An Illustrated Encyclopedia (Sophia, Manchester, NH, 2018) p. 36.
  • 3Can. 1281 §2
  • 4Can. 1282 §1.
  • 5Can. 1282 § 2 (e.g. the typical first-class relic with its small chip of bone.) “Only those relics may be exposed to public veneration in any, even exempt, churches which are authenticated by document of a Cardinal, or the bishop of the diocese, or by an other ecclesiastic who has by Apostolic indult the faculty to authenticate relics. ... If the document of authentication of sacred relics has been lost through civil disturbances, or for any other cause, the relics must not be exposed to public veneration until the bishop has given his approval.” Can. 1283 § 1 and Can. 1285 §1. There is nothing to stop the private veneration of relics without documents of authentication by the faithful as long as they have no positive grounds to suspect that the relics are not genuine.
  • 6W.E. Addis & T. Arnold, A Catholic Dictionary (Virtue, London, 1955), 15th p.rev. ed., p. 747.
  • 7Notitiae 30 (1994), 349-350.
  • 8Can. 1289 §1 (echoed by Can. 1190 §1 in the 1983 code).
  • 9J.A. McHugh, O.P, & C.J. Callan, O.P., Moral Theology (Wagner, NewYork, 1958), Rev. ed., no. 2334.
  • 10Decree of 21/12/1878 in: Decreta Authentica S. Cong. Indulgentiis Sacrisque Reliquiis Regensburg, 1883 (Pustet), no. 443
  • 11B. Dolhagaray, La violation des catacombes ou cimetières du territoire romain in: Revue des Sciences Ecclésiastiques 1902, pp. 334–5.
  • 12D. Palmieri, S.J. (ed.), Antonii Ballerini S.J. Opus Theologicum Morale in Busembaum Medullam (Giachetti, Prati, 1892) 2nd ed. Vol. 2, no. 299.
  • 13A. Vacant et al. (eds.), Dictionnaire de Théologie Catholique (Letouzey, Paris, 1941) 14–2 art. Simonie cols 2156-7.