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What is Simony?

By Bobby R. Goldsmith
Updated May 16, 2024
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Simony is the criminal act of selling sacraments, sacred objects or holy services of a religious nature. In some instances, simony may also involve the sale of the trappings of high Church office in exchange for money or quid pro quo on the part of clergy at the behest of patrons or parishioners. For the Roman Catholic Church, simoniac acts most often relate to the sale of influence by those in high Church office in exchange for money. The term “simony” is derived from Simon Magnus, a man who appears in the biblical account of the Acts of the Apostles. In the account, Magnus offered the disciples money in exchange for the ability to claim that his hands offered the beneficence of the Holy Spirit to all he touched.

In the 11th century, the Roman Catholic Church embarked on a program of reform, with an emphasis on improving the moral and ethical practices of its clergy around the world. This initiative was called the Gregorian Reform and dealt with a panoply of Church practices and habits. One of the matters that took center stage during this initiative was the common crime of simony, wherein clergy at all levels were trading in religious favors. Though the Gregorian Reform was comprised of two large compendiums of decree, simony was addressed in only one of them — the Libertas Ecclesiae. Following the implementation of this decree, simony was considered a serious crime against the integrity of the Church.

Simony is not confined to, nor exclusively a crime against, the Roman Catholic Church. The act of paying for sacraments has occurred in numerous religious orders and sects in nearly every period throughout history. In the Church of England, for example, the Anglican order experienced numerous crimes wherein corrupt clergy would sell sacraments or absolutions in exchange for money from parishioners. Though English law considered the act as a criminal offense, secular courts of the time did not often adjudicate such matters. This is due to the fact that such a crime was considered a matter of ecclesiastical jurisprudence rather than a matter fit for general common law.

Beginning with the Concordat of Worms in 12th century Germany, simony as a crime became less of a matter for secular governments to punish, though it is still considered a criminal offense to this day. In fact, the crime has not carried a significant legal penalty in nearly a millennium, and even the Church rarely adjudicates such matters today. In cases in which simony is found to have occurred, the offending party is subject to the loss of Church office and whatever remuneration is necessary to ensure the offending party does not profit from the offense. Usually no further penalty or punishment is handed out.

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