A reader writes:
First, I very much enjoy your blog. I hope you can keep at it for long time. Now, my question concerns what is the proper way to dispose of religious objects such worn out bibles, tarnished or worn crucifixes, old prayer cards, broken rosaries, religious pamphlets, etc.? Some of my coworkers and I had a discussion today about what to do with them. One person couldn't bring himself to dispose of them in the trash out of respect. Another felt that broken or worn items could be thrown out without any guilt. Can you help us out? We all want to do the right thing.
The disposition of this type of religious object is not something that is regulated by canon law. Consequently, there is not a canonical "right answer" here.
Catholic doctrine also does not treat the subject in any detail, and thus there is no doctrinal "right answer" beyond the general axiom that a religious object should be treated with the reverence that is due it. The question is: How much reverence is that?
It is difficult to give a definite answer, but there are certain levels of reverence that would clearly be wrong. For example:
1) So little reverence that we commit actual sacrilege with the items (e.g., using them as part of a Black Mass)
2) So much reverence that we can never get rid of them and have to squirrel them away when they can no longer be used.
The correct answer falls somewhere between these two extremes, and it is likely to vary from one object to another. Indeed, a pious custom of many Catholics is to distinguish between those objects that have been blessed and those that have not. This appears to be a useful division in that in the case of blessed objects, the Church has in at least a minor way consecrated the item to sacred use, while in the latter case it has not. It thus would make sense to show more reverence in the disposition of a blessed object than an unblessed one.
Correspondingly, a common pious custom is to dispose of blessed objects by either burning them (if they are flammable) or burying them (if they are not). In the former case, the object is destroyed, thus removing its blessing, and the ashes (or other remains) can simply be thrown away.
In the case of objects that were never blessed (or that have been destroyed, removing their blessing), this custom holds that they can simply be thrown away like any other non-blessed object.
As indicated, this is a pious custom and not a matter of law or doctrine, so individual consciences may vary without there being sin. If one person feels comfortable disposing of a religious object in a way that happens to be different than my preferred way of doing it, I would not on that account tell him he's doing anything wrong. If the Church wanted to mandate ways of doing this, it would.
The key thing is not the physical manner of disposing of these objects but the fact that one is doing so with a right heart. If one "reverently throws away" something then his heart is displaying reverence, which is the important thing. What physical act is used to express this reverence is not what is at issue--be it burning or burial or even if there is no outward act but simply a grateful recognition of the role God has allowed the object to play in one's religious life.