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Saturday, January 07, 2006


Dear Catholic Exchange:

If a priest leaves the priesthood, can he then be married? A marriage is annulled or found to never really have been a marriage, but a priestly vocation cannot be annulled without making the sacraments he has presided over false. How does our Church explain this?

Mrs. Abrahamson

Dear Mrs. Abrahamson,

Peace in Christ!

As you are probably aware, clerical celibacy is the norm in the Latin Rite of the Church and generally preferred in the Eastern Rite of the Church as well.

With the exception of the Permanent Diaconate, Marriage is an impediment to receiving Orders in the West (canon 1042.1). Furthermore, Orders is an impediment to Marriage (canon 1087). This applies to the Western Church.

In general, for those Oriental or Eastern Churches in union with Rome, there is a different discipline. The Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches states that Holy Orders is an impediment to Marriage, but Marriage is not an impediment to Orders (canons 804 and 762). This means a married man can be ordained a priest, but once ordained, a priest cannot later marry. It is noted that to be consecrated a bishop, the man must not be bound by marriage (canon 180.3).

There are rare situations in which a priest can lose his clerical state. The ways in which this can happen are set forth in Canon 290.

“Sacred ordination once validly received never becomes invalid. A cleric, however, loses the clerical state:
1° by a judgment of a court or an administrative decree, declaring the ordination invalid;
2° by the penalty of dismissal lawfully imposed;
3° by a rescript of the Apostolic See; this rescript, however, is granted to deacons only for grave reasons and to priests only for the gravest of reasons.”

The rarest of all is a declaration of nullity of his ordination due usually to a defect in the consent of the priest, the intention of the ordaining minister or a defect in the ordination rite itself. Only in this case would the declaration of the Church amount to saying “this man never really was a priest and his sacraments were invalid.”

The most common forms of laicization occur under section two of Canon 290 (section three has been rarely invoked or commented upon). This laicization is employed to remove problem priests involuntarily from active ministry. Canonically laicization does not in itself entail a dispensation from the vows of celibacy that priests took upon ordination. Just because a priest is laicized does not mean automatically that he is dispensed from his vows of celibacy. This dispensation is provided for by Canon 291 and is reserved to the Pope himself.

Originally dispensations were difficult to obtain but as many priests began to have difficulties with vows in the late 1960s, Rome responded by creating a more streamlined process for a priest to petition for a dispensation. Priests themselves were able to petition to be dispensed from celibacy through their own bishop who was enjoined to investigate the matter to ascertain the truth of the priest’s reason for seeking dispensation. Once a dispensation from celibacy was granted this carried with it the automatic reduction to lay status. (Thus dispensation from celibacy included laicization though the reverse as we have seen is not always the case.) Though he is permitted to marry and remain reconciled with the Church, a dispensed priest may not function in a liturgy, preach homilies, teach in any kind of school, or administer the sacraments generally. Dispensation from vows or celibacy and laicization in general, in other words, are both very serious actions which ought to be done only for the gravest of reasons.

This most common form of laicization coming as a result of dispensation of celibacy vows is by no means a statement that the priest no longer possesses the gift of the sacrament of Holy Orders. Once a priest always a priest, one might say. A priest once ordained receives an indelible character on his soul which configures him to Christ in a unique way (Catechism no 1563). There is no basis to doubt the validity of the sacraments celebrated by the priest when he did function as a priest simply because he has now been reduced to lay status. In other words, laicization is in the vast majority of cases a decree stating that the Church no longer gives a priest permission to continue in his ministry or enjoy the privileges of the clerical state. It is only very rarely that the Church decrees that a given man never was ordained validly to begin with.

United in the Faith,

Pete Brown
Information Specialist
Catholics United for the Faith
827 North Fourth Street
Steubenville, OH 43952
800-MY-FAITH (800-693-2484)

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