Why do Catholic priests wear black?
April 1, 2008 2:57 PM   Subscribe

Why do Catholic priests wear black?

A friend of mine asked me this since I was raised in the Catholic church, but I didn't have an answer for him other than it's traditional.

Now I'm curious.
posted by saffronwoman to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I found some pretty convincing answers by googling "Why do Catholic priests wear black?"

There appears to be a long history behind it, with several Papal decrees and whatnot leading to the current practice.
posted by The World Famous at 3:05 PM on April 1, 2008

I take it you mean in day to day wear, not when celebrating mass?

I'm pretty sure it's not an 'all Catholic priests must wear black' kind of thing, as I know a few and none of them wear black. I also know others who do. This is Australia, if it matters.
posted by twirlypen at 3:26 PM on April 1, 2008

Exerpts from here:

In the Middles Ages, the dress of clergy began to be regulated by canon law with other specific regulations passed by local synods. The Fourth Lateran Council (1215) decreed that clerics must wear garments closed in front and free from extravagance as to length, such long flowing capes.

Pope Sixtus V in 1589 proscribed penalties for those clerics who did not wear the cassock (officially called in Latin vestis talaris). Pope Urban VIII in 1624 mandated that a cincture should be worn with the cassock and the cloak worn over the cassock be of the same length. During the Pontificate of Clement XI, another decree in 1708 allowed the wearing of a shorter cassock (technically the frock coat, sort of like a Nehru jacket) for travel purposes, especially riding horses. In 1725, Pope Benedict XIII forbade clerics to wear civilian attire.

For the United States, the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884) promulgated regulations for clerical attire as follows: "We wish therefore and enjoin that all keep the law of the Church, and that when at home or when engaged in the sanctuary they should always wear the cassock which is proper to the clergy. When they go abroad for duty or relaxation, or when upon a journey, they may use a shorter dress, but still one that is black in color, and which reaches to the knees, so as to distinguish it from lay costume. We enjoin upon our priests as a matter of strict precept, that both at home and abroad, and whether they are residing in their own diocese or outside of it, they should wear the roman collar." In recent times, the regulations have become more relaxed. While many priests wear the traditional cassock for Mass, the distribution of Holy Communion, or in performing other priestly duties around the parish, a regular suit with clerical collar or a clerical shirt have become common place, especially in activities beyond the physical confines of the parish or in daily duties.

The symbolism of the cassock is as follows: The Roman collar symbolizes obedience; the sash or cincture around the waist, chastity; and the color black, poverty. Moreover, black is a color of mourning and death; for the priest, the symbolism is dying to oneself to rise and to serve the Lord as well as giving witness of the Kingdom yet to come.

The Code of Canon Law still requires that "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" (no. 284). In our very secular world, the wearing of clerical garb continues to be a visible sign of belief and of the consecration of one’s life to the service of the Lord and His Church.

posted by The World Famous at 3:50 PM on April 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Because black is the new white.

Honestly, though...Catholicism and most of the world's other old/semi-old religions have lots of mandates that aren't based on anything doctrinal...it's just that someone influential did it that way a long time ago, and now that's the standard.

Many religious folks don't like the idea that their religious practices are more tradition than doctrine, but that's the nature of the beast. Religion is mostly a social practice, and admired events/people/places/actions have a way of getting codified and quickly become mysterious to those who weren't present for the initial reverie.

As one who practices in the Mormon faith, I can tell you that even in younger (sort of) religions like mine, the difference between doctrinal mandate and traditional nonsense isn't very well understood among the faithful. Ah well.
posted by SlyBevel at 3:53 PM on April 1, 2008

I always wondered about the black, expecially when told it symbolized poverty or humility. The humble & poor would have worn clothes that were gray, yellowish or brown, that being the color of the stuff they were made of, and not being able to afford to dye it with anything but maybe dirt or blood. To make new wool clothes dark black would have been a quite expensive dyeing job, wouldn't it? And I can't say as I've seen rich burghers, guildsmen, etc. showing off in portraits of the time wearing anything BUT black. So it can't be that.
I think that it's more of the gravitas of the color black, and the subtle distinction of class that plain but costly black clerical garb would have conveyed: "Aye, Sir shire-reeve, your new tunic is much more brilliant than mine, with all its gold and fine embroidery. I cannot wear such ostentatious garb (but mine still cost nearly as much, and it's the uniform of the church, which can crush you, so don't get too snooty about your shiny shirt)".
posted by bartleby at 4:04 PM on April 1, 2008

Priests in Rome may wear grey or blue.
posted by oflinkey at 4:07 PM on April 1, 2008

To make new wool clothes dark black would have been a quite expensive dyeing job, wouldn't it?

A decent black dye did not come along until relatively recently. Searching for one was a big deal. I refer to Finlay's Colour: Travels Through the Paintbox which went through the discovery of a fixable black dye that could be washed and how it became very popular among Quakers and other religious types.

But any tradition of wearing black can only go back a couple hundred years to the discovery of black dye.
posted by GuyZero at 4:49 PM on April 1, 2008

It's worth pointing out that members of religious orders may also wear a habit, the color of which varies from group to group (brown, grey, black, white, rose, blue and so on).

The pastor of our church is a Franciscan friar. When he's vested for Mass, he wears the traditional brown habit/hood beneath his alb and chausable. Outside of Mass, he's in regular street clothes. Ditto with another Franciscan I knew (an O.F.M., if memory serves). His order of Franciscans wore a black (then later on, gray) habit when "on duty", jeans and such otherwise.
posted by jquinby at 5:25 PM on April 1, 2008

Getting off topic here, but: surely black wool clothing could simply have been made from black sheep? No money for dye needed; a black sheep's as easy to keep as a white one.
posted by hippugeek at 10:57 PM on April 1, 2008

Good point. I expect that there isn't enough black wool or that people wanted black cotton or other plant fibers.
posted by GuyZero at 12:55 PM on April 2, 2008

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