[sahy-muh-nee, sim-uh-]
simony, in canon law, buying or selling of any spiritual benefit or office. The name is derived from Simon Magus, who tried to buy the gifts of the Holy Spirit from St. Peter (Acts 8). Simony is a very grave sin, and ecclesiastics who commit it may be excommunicated. The temporal price may be one of many kinds, e.g., money or high office. What is sold may be the performance of a sacrament or any other spiritual service; it is also simony to sell a benefice or endowment or other temporality to which anything spiritual is attached. Because of the frequency of simony at times in the history of the Roman Catholic Church, the legislation of the church is very strict; e.g., simony in the election of a pope invalidates the election (law of Julius II, 1503); no priest may ask for a baptismal fee in any way; and Mass stipends are fixed by the bishop and are governed by the expense of the Mass and the necessities of the priest. Since the Council of Trent the sale of indulgences is prohibited in any form, and no blessed article may be sold as blessed. The prevalence of simony was most important in bringing about the 11th-century papal reform movement.

Simony is the ecclesiastical crime of paying for holy offices or positions in the hierarchy of a church, named after Simon Magus, who appears in the Acts of the Apostles 8:18-24. Simon Magus offers the disciples of Jesus, Peter and John, payment so that anyone he would place his hands on would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. This is the origin of the term simony but it also extends to other forms of trafficking for money in "spiritual things".

Roman Catholic Church

The intertwining of temporal with spiritual authority in the Middle Ages caused endless problems with simony and accusations of simony. Secular rulers wanted to employ the educated and centrally organized clergy in their administrations, and often treated their spiritual positions as adjuncts to the secular administrative roles.

Canon Law also outlawed as simony some acts that did not involve the sale of offices, but the sale of spiritual authority: the sale of tithes, the taking of a fee for confession, absolution, marriage or burial, and the concealment of one in mortal sin or the reconcilement of an impenitent for the sake of gain. Just what was or was not simony was strenuously litigated: as one commentator notes, the widespread practice of simony is best evidenced by the number of reported ecclesiastical decisions as to what is or is not simony.

Simony did serious harm to the moral standing of the Roman Catholic Church. Dante Alighieri condemns simonists to the eighth circle of hell in his Inferno, where he encounters Pope Nicholas III buried upside down, the soles of his feet burning with oil, in a mock baptism. Nicholas goes on to predict the damnation of both Pope Boniface VIII, the Pope in office at the time the Divine Comedy is set, and Pope Clement V, his successor, for that sin. Writers in the early Renaissance, such as Niccolò Machiavelli and Erasmus, condemned the practice, while Blaise Pascal attacked the casuistic defenses offered by those accused of simony in his Lettres provinciales.

Church of England

The Church of England also struggled with the practice after its separation from Rome. While English law recognized simony as an offense, it treated it as merely an ecclesiastical matter, rather than a crime, for which the punishment was forfeiture of the office or any advantage from the offense and severance of any patronage relationship with the person who bestowed the office. The cases of Bishop of St. David's Thomas Watson in 1699 and of Dean of York William Cockburn in 1841 were particularly notable.

As of 2007, simony remains an offence. An unlawfully bestowed office can be declared void by the Crown, and the offender can be disabled from making future appointments and fined up to £1000. Clergy are no longer required to make a declaration as to simony on ordination but offences are now likely to be dealt with under the Clergy Discipline Measure 2003, r.8.



  • Lord Mackay of Clashfern (ed.) (2002) Halsbury's Laws of England, 4th ed. Vol.14, "Ecclesiastical Law", 832 'Penalties and disability on simony'
  • 1359 'Simony' (see also current updates)
  • Weber, N. A. (1913) " Simony", Catholic Encyclopaedia

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