Bishops Reaffirm: Priests Should Be Men in Black

SAN FRANCISCO—Clothes don't make the priest, but they can help him in his ministry.

So declared the U.S. bishops at their meeting last month in Washington, D.C. The bishops approved—in reality, reaffirmed—a dress code for priests by a 210-9 vote.

The decree stated: “A black suit and the Roman collar are the appropriate attire for priests, especially in the exercise of their ministry. The use of a cassock in church or at home is at the discretion of the cleric.” Rules for religious habits they left to the respective religious institute or society.

According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, “Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb in accord with the norms issued by the conference of bishops and in accord with legitimate local custom” (canon 284). Canon 288 qualifies this prescription with respect to permanent deacons, who are clerics but who are not obliged to wear clerical garb (see the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, no. 10). Deacons to be ordained to the priesthood, on the other hand, “are bound by the same norm as priests” (see the same Directory, no. 10).

The U.S. bishops’ decree helped them fulfill their canonical responsibility to establish norms for priestly dress. But it also applied the directives of the 1994 Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests, issued by the Vatican's Congregation for the Clergy, which states that priestly attire “must be different from the manner in which the laity dress, and conform to the dignity and sacredness of his ministry. The style and color should be established by the Episcopal Conference, always in agreement with the dispositions of the universal law” (no. 66).

Why should priests wear distinctive clothes? The Directory for the Life and Ministry of Priests explains: “In a secularized and materialistic society, where the external signs of sacred and supernatural realities tend to disappear, it is particularly important that the community be able to recognize the priest, man of God and dispenser of his mysteries, by his attire as well, which is an unequivocal sign of his dedication and his identity as a public minister” (no. 66).

“The priest should be identifiable primarily through his conduct,” the Directory continues, “but also by his manner of dressing, which makes visible to all the faithful, indeed and to all men, his identity and his belonging to God and the Church.” It warns, “Outside of entirely exceptional cases, a cleric's failure to use this proper ecclesiastical attire could manifest a weak sense of his identity as one consecrated to God.”

By ordination, priests are “set apart” from the laity. Not that they cease to be part of the Church; they remain members of the Church by Baptism. But through the sacrament of holy orders, they have been sacramentally conformed to Christ, the Head and Bridegroom of the Church. Priests, therefore, while remaining in the Church are also set in the forefront of the Church, as Pope John Paul II put it in his apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (no. 16). They act in the Person of Christ in relation to the rest of the Church. Consequently, it is appropriate that a priest's attire distinguish him in this priestly ministry.

According to the U.S. bishops, the traditional black suit and Roman collar ‘are the appropriate attire for priests, especially in the exercise of their ministry.’

After Vatican II, some priests dropped their clerical dress—or “clerics” as such clothes are colloqui-ally referred to—sometimes even while engaged in priestly ministry. The argument was that special dress made priests uncomfortable and unduly separated them from lay people. Some observers contended that confusion over priestly identity and the role of the laity was really behind abandoning priestly attire. In recent years, that trend appears to have reversed, with priests seeming both clearer about their ministry and more comfortable about witnessing to it through their dress, including even the traditional cassock.

“I know of priests who argue that they don't wear clerics because they want to ‘feel closer to the people’,” says Father Jerry Pokorsky of the Diocese of Arlington, Va. “But when I visit people in hospitals, I find that a Roman collar is a ticket to friendly conversations and, in many cases, good sacramental confessions.” One archdiocese, he notes, advertises the priesthood using billboards. “But it seems to me that the best public advertisements for the priesthood are genuinely happy priests in clerics.”

Father Richard Perozich agrees. “The black clothing is a reminder to me that while I share priesthood in common with other Christians, I am their servant, their teacher, their guide, their leader in the liturgy by virtue of my call to the ministerial priesthood,” says the pastor of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart parish in San Diego. “The black trousers, black shirt, white collar, and black cassock are a sign to those who seek me as a priest that I am set apart for them, to teach, guide, and sanctify in the spiritual realm. It signals to others that I am here for them in their spiritual needs.”

According to the U.S. bishops, the traditional black suit and Roman collar “are the appropriate attire for priests, especially in the exercise of their ministry.” At least two things stand out there. First, that it is inappropriate for a priest ordinarily to engage in ministry without clerical attire. Second, that wearing clerical attire isn't limited to when a priest engages in ministry—the decree says it is “especially appropriate” then, not that that's the only appropriate time.

The U.S. bishops’ reaffirmation of a priestly dress code reflects Catholic teaching that the ministerial priest-hood is a vocation and a witness, not merely a job. In that sense, it is one more way the Church proclaims to Catholic and non-Catholic alike that the “men in black” continue Christ's work in the Church and in the world.

Mark Brumley writes from San Francisco.