Cassocks or Not at the Amazon Synod: Does It Matter?

The news is coursing around the web that cassocks are optional at the Amazon Synod, and clergy may wear suits henceforth .

With this announcement, the policy that was firmed up in the final months of Pope Benedict’s papacy is rendered obsolete. As Sandro Magister then reported, in November 2012, the cassock with cape (“abito piano”) was considered obligatory for clerics at meetings in the presence of the pope, and this at the behest of Benedict XVI.

But no more. Does it matter?

My thoughts on today’s development hover between not wanting to dwell on superficialities on the one hand – “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom and we’re worried about dress codes?” – and wanting to give appropriate attention to the very real power of symbols on the other. On the latter point, see the brilliant post by Jonathan Day, “Reading the Language of Papal Clothing,” which employs anthropologist Mary Douglas to show that clothing directly reflects social location and and relational dynamics such as inclusion and isolation. (Day suggested that Pope Francis’s changes in clothing practice express his embeddedness within the episcopate rather than his isolation as pope.)

To the extent that it does matter, what do you suppose today’s development means? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

As a discussion starter, I’ll put out some of my various reactions:

Suit coats rather than cassocks for clergy reads more egalitarian, slightly less distinct from lay people, less elegant, less sacral, an understanding of ministry less monasticized (I support habits for monks, btw, but don’t think monks are the model for all clergy), less medieval (or Renaissance) European, more in touch with the contemporary world, potentially less countercultural, but potentially more evangelical and hence countercultural about the things that most matter.

To go back to Jonathan Day’s piece, if bishops wear suits but Francis retains the white cassock, today’s change will ironically serve to isolate the pope symbolically from the episcopate. Or do you suppose we’ll ever see a pope in the black suit coat of a parish priest?

Making cassocks optional presents a choice to each synod father, and individual choices could be read as making statements, which could become divisive. It’s probably a good idea not to read too much into dress choices. Nor take the issue too seriously.

My attempt at a bit of humor at Facebook:


  1. Well, what if you look at it as a *sign of welcome* – rather than force one culture on others (Roman/Vatican), the Synod accepts and welcomes the ways of other cultures because they have value.

  2. Mary Day nails it. Clothing is a fabric icon.

    To Whom do they wish to point? A power over, monarchical, better than you, Lord God? Or a humble carpenter, rabboni of Nazareth, in the streets with you?

    Not to mention the whole medieval we wear skirts to hide our filth (from infrequent bathing).

  3. “I support habits for monks, btw, but don’t think monks are the model for all clergy.”

    In this regard, you would not be respecting the ancient and unbroken witness of the Christian East. Just saying…

    1. So they see monks as the model for all clergy? Does that tradition go back to the apostles of the first century in unbroken tradition? Hahaha.

      Kidding aside, in my opinion it’s just plain wrong to hold that monks are the model for all clergy, and I don’t care who says it or how long they’ve been saying it.


  4. Anthony, the anthropologist whose model I drew on was Mary Douglas, not Mary Day.

    A friendly amendment to your analysis: it seems clear that if all the clerics switched to black suits, and if Pope Francis retained his white cassock, then there would be a degree of isolation between the pope and the other clergy.

    But, if I read your post correctly, each participant can choose his clothing; they are not required to abandon the cassock for clerical suits. That opens the possibility of using vesture to signal tribal allegiance — e.g. silks and saturnos for “traditionalists”, plain cassocks for “conservatives”, clerical suits for “liberals”. On Douglas’s model, it’s a move from a hierarchy, where people are basically told what to wear, or even given their uniforms, to a series of enclaves, with identity signals chosen by each participant. In my post, I asserted that this was where the Anglican clergy arrived some time ago — an unfortunate outcome for the Catholic Church.

    1. Jonathan,
      Thanks for this friendly amendment. And the correction – of course it’s Mary Douglas! No relation to you. 🙂

  5. Church men setting aside clerical dresses for clerical suits sounds like a great step in the right direction to me. Neither Jesus nor his apostles demonstrated a need to distinguish themselves by special garb. In fact it would be hundreds of years before clerical garb set in motion a division between the ordained and unordained that led to the obscuring of the true meaning of sacramental initiation. What’s chances of the bishops being told that they don’t have to wear miters?

  6. At one point in history all clerical dress was somebody’s contemporary garb, and could range from tattered to elegant. I don’t see a soutane as “sacral” but simply as clerical attire of another age.

    I applaud the relaxation this new rule at the Synod portends for the guys, who now have a bit of freedom to decide what to wear. Why not allow them to be comfortable. “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

  7. Suits can also communicate coldness, bureaucracy, and being uncaring – like a group of CEOs enjoying the high life at the expense of workers unable to make a living wage.

    Bear in mind, I don’t really care if they wear suits if they find it more comfortable – but I find it comical to say a suit reads more egalitarian than a cassock.

    1. On the other hand, “the suits” is disparaging slang for the management in the UK.
      I wouldn’t want to comment on the appropriateness of that.

      1. Perhaps this will be the largest gathering of dark suits in Rome since the advent of the secret police looking for Princess Anne in “Roman Holiday.”

    2. I tend to agree that it can but not necessarily. My childhood pastor wore a cassock (in the ’90s). I still think of him as one of the warmest priestly presences in my life. Getting to know the families in his parish, being part of their lives, and always gentle toward us in the confessional. My parish was a small rural community and we celebrated the Novus ordo, versus populo, and with much the post-Vatican II hymnody played on the organ (nothing really traddy.) Whereas some of the priests we had after him wore normal clerics or no clerics and some were significant degrees colder than my cassock wearing childhood pastor. In short, sometimes our perception of certain garb is conditioned by the person that wears it. I know many had quite the opposite experience of cassock wearing priests. That is a very legitimate experience that I do not disregard. But I tire of them telling me why the general sense of joy and peace I get when I see a priest in cassock recalling my childhood pastor is the wrong way to think about.

  8. With luck, this will be followed by replacing Bernini’s baldacchino with felt banners and the Sistine Choir with a guitar group. The ’70s worked out so well the first time.

  9. What would Jesus SAY? Reading the Gospel, I come away with the thought that he might say the equivalent of, “Martha, Martha don’t sweat the small stuff.” Or he might say, “Clothes don’t make the man – or the woman.”

  10. I agree, I wouldn’t read too much into it. I’m seeing it more as “I’m not going to tell you what do wear. Do what makes you comfortable so we can get sh*t done.”

  11. How about black pants and a white shirt with solid ties in the seasonal liturgical colors?
    (Silly comment meant to attract attention to this topic of little or no importance to anyone).
    It’s the freakin’ Amazon! Hotter than Hades. At least they can remove their suit jackets. Try that with a cassock!

  12. One Catholic website lamented the guys were being forced into “Protestant” clothing. I wonder how they would react to the news that chasubles and stoles were invented and worn by pagans.

    1. Probably by saying they know that, but how many pagans today are wearing Roman rite chasubles and stoles…

      1. If that’s the rejoinder, they need to be better informed. There are quite a few… Just Google Wiccan priests, images, and you’ll see vestments galore! Stoles, chasubles, albs… (and don’t try to wiggle out by saying they are not “Roman Rite”; that’s a circular argument! 😉 )

      2. I am quite aware of that, but my humor was intended to be recursive….indicative of the rabbit-hole nature of conversations in the ultimata dexter side of things (and, while we’re at it, of its Mobius-strip counterpart….)

  13. Black hooded sweatshirts and loose slacks or jeans. A cross. Seriously. Monkish, simple, humble…holy! Comfortable; great for walking around Rome. Oh, and tennis shoes of course.

    And no, I’m not being ironic. Walking clears the head.

  14. Among the useful functions of vestments as currently worn, besides to distinguish the clergy from the laity (which is a good, useful and important distinction), is to distinguish the different degrees and types of clergy from one another. Let’s grant that albs, stoles and the like are a throwback to another time. The distinctions, and also the standardization (e.g. several priests may not vest identically to one another, but all according to a common standard that allows others to identify them as priests) are still important to maintain.

  15. I studied theology at the Pontifical University of Ireland – St Patrick’s College, Maynooth from 1972-1976. SVD, SMA and SDB seminarians were indistinguishable from lay students in other faculties. We also were regular patrons of the local pubs – diocesan seminarians had to head into Dublin, almost twenty miles away if they wanted to go out for a drink. Lots of stories from those days. I’ll also note that our drop out rate was lower. To those of my generation, I suspect this discussion seems almost deja vu.

  16. I have half a mind to bring this page to my next Circuit Pastor’s Conference in Mesa, AZ where I serve. When I substitute in many parishes (LCMS Lutheran)as a retired Pastor, I have learned which parishes would ALLOW me to wear a clerical collar, much less vestments. It is unbelievable. For them to see this kerfluffel would cause amazement. The new Lutheran vestment in the Phoenix Valley is an open collar dress shirt and a pair of slacks. Who’s the Pastor? The one that is just hanging out.

    This morning we worshipped in an Episcopal Church in southern Colorado. It was amazing! The same Mass you do each day, the same Mass I said every Sunday in my parish for28 years. I was overwhelmed with joy! A chasabule! What a wonderful site. Anyway, just saying.

    These guys are being casual when it should remain formal and traditional

  17. Hummm…seems lots of priest and deacons are going to cassocks. I also note that I have seen quite a few Episcopal clergy going back to cassocks (men and women.) In fact regarding women it seems that several church suppliers are tailoring cassocks to fit women for the church’s that allow women in the priesthood…so they will be ready to for when the RC church starts allowing women clergy.
    Last…I like the cassock and clerical suits and would rather see priest use them. It is good to see the clergy among us and not hiding. We need to see religious leaders that are not afraid to let it be know. Regarding pagans and other non-Christian groups, it seems they have priestly dress…look at Buddhist monks.

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