1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Sacrilege

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SACRILEGE, the violation or profanation of sacred things, a crime of varying scope in different religions. It is naturally much more general and accounted more dreadful in those primitive religions in which cultual objects play so great a part, than in more highly spiritualized religions where they tend to disappear. But wherever the idea of sacred exists, sacrilege is possible. The word itself comes from the Lat. sacrilegium, which originally meant merely the theft of sacred things, although already in Cicero's time it had grown to include in popular speech any insult or injury to them.

The history of sacrilege reflects a large phase of the evolution of religion. In primitive religions inclusive of almost every serious offence even in fields now regarded as merely social or political, its scope is gradually lessened to a single part of one section of ecclesiastical criminology, following inversely the development of the idea of holiness from the concrete to the abstract, from fetishism to mysticism. The primitive defence against sacrilege lay directly in the nature of sacred things, those that held a curse for any violation or profanation. This brings us at once into the whole field of taboo (q.v.). From it we pass without a break, merely narrowing the application as the conception of sacredness grew clearer and less associated with magic, into early criminal law with its physical sanctions. The Levitical code exacted of the offender reparation for the damage with the addition of one-fifth of the amount, and an expiatory sacrifice (Lev. v. 15, 16). Even the gold and silver ornaments of the images of false gods were not to be coveted nor appropriated for fear of being contaminated with the curse which they could impart (cf. fDeut. vii. 2 5). The tragic story of the stoning of Achan, who stole some of the spoils of Jericho which Joshua had consecrated to the treasury of Yahweh, is one of the most graphic details of Old Testament history (cf. Joshua vii. 20-25).

No religion was more prodigal in rules to safeguard that which was holy or consecrated than the Jewish, especially in its temple laws; violation of them often led to mob violence as well as divine chastisement. The temple rules do not apply to synagogues, however, and unseemly conduct in them is liable only to civil action. The whole wide field of Jewish taboo naturally involves sacrilege as its reverse side. Such violations of holy things as making mock of the Scriptures, or even reciting them as one would ordinary literature, was sacrilege in the eyes of the rabbi. Even imitation of the style of the Talmud has also been accounted sacrilege.

While the Roman cults were amply protected by taboos, there was no comprehensive term in Roman law for religious violations and profanations in general. Sacrilegium was narrowly construed as the theft of sacred things from a sacred place. Sacred things, according to Gaius, were those things that had been definitely consecrated to the gods-and so had come to partake of their holiness. Sacred places did not include private shrines. According to Ulpian the punishment for sacrilegium varied according to the position and standing of the culprit and the circumstances under which the crime was committed. For the lower classes it was crucifixion, burning or the wild beasts. The latter penalty was also attached to theft of sacred things by night, but stealing by day from a temple objects of little value brought only sentence to the mines. People of higher rank were deported. During classical times the law kept to the narrow meaning of sacrilegium, but in popular usage it had grown to mean about the same as the English word. Traces of this usage are frequent in Augustan writers. The early church Fathers use the word most frequently in the restricted sense, although an effort has been made to read the wider meaning in Tertullian. But by the middle of the 4th century the narrower meaning had disappeared. In Ambrose, Augustine and Leo I., sacrilegium means sacrilege. The wider meaning had invaded the law as well. Mommsen was of the opinion that sacrilegium had no settled meaning in the laws of the 4th century. But it was rather that an enlarged application of the idea of sacred made the crime of sacrilege in the sense of violatio sacri a more general one. This was partly due to the influence of Christianity, which sought to include as objects of sacrilege all forms of church property, rather than merely those things consecrated in pagan cults, partly to the efforts of the later emperors to surround themselves and everything emanating from them with highest sanctions. In the Theodosian Code the various crimes which are accounted sacrilege include—apostasy, heresy, schism, Judaism, paganism, attempts against the immunity of churches and clergy or privileges of church courts, the desecration of sacraments, &c. and even Sunday. Along with these crimes against religion went treason to the emperor, offences against the laws, especially counterfeiting, defraudation in taxes, seizure of confiscated property, evil conduct of imperial officers, &c. There is no formal definition of sacrilege in the code of Justinian but the conception remains as wide. The church had found in the imperial law a strong protector.

The penitential (q.v.), or early collections of disciplinary canons, gave much attention to sacrilege. In the earliest of them, sacrilege in the narrower sense is not a separate class of crime, but the wider usage goes with variations through the different collections. There is also the greatest difference in the penalties assigned, reaching from little more than restitution of property to penance of one to five or even fifteen years. The Frankish synods emphasize the crime of seizing church property of every kind, including the vast estates so envied by the lay nobility. In the Pseudo-Isidore the attempt was made to include even property on which the church had merely a legal claim. The murder or injury of the clergy is also sacrilege in both penitential and capitularies. The practice of magic, superstition, &c., are also frequently referred to as sacrilege, especially during the long struggle with German heathenism. With the definite triumph of the church, the profanation of its sanctuaries became less frequent, and once robbery or seizure of ecclesiastical possessions or violation of its privileges tended to absorb the attention of synods and popes. Gratian's Decretum mirrors two tendencies, the church legislation with its glowingly less extended application, and the wide meaning as in Justinian's Code, owing to the revival of Roman law in the 11th century. It thus was once more declared to include all violations of the divine law. A somewhat distorted, but well-substantiated use of the word sacrilegium in medieval Latin was its application to the fine paid by one guilty of sacrilege to the bishop.

The penalties in the canon law included, in addition to restitution, penance, fines and excommunication; and right of asylum was denied to the culprit. The jurisdiction was something jointly shared with the temporal power in case corporal punishment were involved. The numerous enactments of councils to ensure the proper care of church property, prohibiting the use of churches for secular purposes, for the storing of grain or valuables, for dances and merry-making, do not technically come under the head of legislation against sacrilege. The worst sacrilege of all, defiling the Host, is mentioned frequently, and generally brought the death penalty accompanied by the cruellest and most ignominious tortures. The period of the Reformation naturally increased the commonness of the crime. Under the emperor Charles V. the penalty for stealing the Host was the stake; that for other crimes was graded accordingly. In France, in 1561, under Charles IX. it was forbidden under penalty of death to demolish crosses and images and to commit other acts of scandal and impious sedition. In the declaration of 1682, Louis XIV. decreed the same penalty for sacrilege joined to superstition and impiety, and in the somewhat belated religious persecution of the duke of Bourbon in 1724 those convicted of larceny in churches, together with their accomplices, were condemned, the men to the galleys for life or for a term of years, the women to be branded with the letter V and imprisoned for life, or for a term. When one takes into account that the next article of the declaration decreed death for domestic theft, the legislation is not relatively cruel. Yet even in the enlightened 18th century popular fanaticism made of sacrilege the most heinous offence. The trial of La Barre in 1766 at Abbeville (see Voltaire) is the most famous in modern times. Convicted of wearing his hat while a religious procession was passing—as well as of blasphemy—he was accused as well of having mutilated a crucifix standing on the town bridge. Declared guilty, after torture, he was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, to be beheaded and the body to be burned, a sentence which was confirmed by the parlement of Paris and the bigoted king Louis XV. In the midst of the French Revolution respect for civic festivals was sternly enacted, but sacrilege was an almost daily matter of state policy. In the penal code the penalty for interfering with and molesting worshippers is slight, a fine of from 16 to 300 francs and prison from six days to three months, while damage or insult to the objects of worship brought only 16 francs to 500 francs fine, and prison from fifteen days to six months. In 1825 the reactionary parlement once more brought back the middle ages, by decreeing the death penalty for public profanation, the execution to be preceded by the amends honorable before the church doors. “Theft sacrilege” was treated in a separate series of equally savage clauses. This was a crime not recognized in the penal code, which was therefore to be modified by this law. No attenuating circumstances were to be recognized, as in the general scheme of the penal code. This ferocious legislation was expressly and summarily abrogated in 1830.  (J.T.S.*) 

English Law.—In English law, sacrilege is the breaking into a place of worship and stealing therefrom. At common law benefit of clergy was denied to robbers of churches. A statute of 1553 made the breaking or defacing of an altar, crucifix or cross in any church, chapel or churchyard punishable with three months’ imprisonment on conviction before two justices, the imprisonment to be continued unless the offender entered into suret for good behaviour at quarter sessions. The tendency of the later law has been to put the offence of sacrilege in the same position as if the offence had not been committed in a sacred building Thus breaking into a place of worship at night, says Coke, is burglary, for the church is the mansion house of Almighty God. The Larceny Act of 1861 punishes the breaking into, or out of, a lace of divine worship in the sameway as burglary, and the theft of things sacred in the same 'way as larceny. Now by the Malicious Damage Act 1861 the unlawful and malicious destroying or damaging any picture, statue, monument or other memorial of the dead, painted glass or other monument or work of art, in any church, chapel, meeting-place or other place of divine worship is a misdemeanour punishable by imprisonment for six months, and in the case of a male under the age of sixteen years with whipping.  (T. A. I.)