Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?

Q: I thought once a man was ordained a priest, he is always a priest. So how is it that some priests get permission to leave the priesthood and get married? Sometimes you hear about somebody being a “former priest,” and I don’t see how that’s possible. – David

A: This is certainly an excellent question, because it is true that the Church teaches that “you are a priest forever” (Ps. 110.4). The fact that one nevertheless occasionally encounters an “ex-priest” would therefore appear to be a contradiction.

There is a delicate distinction that must be made between the metaphysical fact that a man is always a priest once he has been ordained, and the canonical status of a laicized priest. And as we have seen so many times before, canon law is in complete accord with theology on this subject. Let’s take a look at what both of them have to say.

The Catechism states that the sacrament of Holy Orders confers an “indelible spiritual character” on the man who receives it (CCC 1582). Like the sacrament of Baptism, it can never be erased—a baptized Christian can cease to practice his faith, and even publicly deny Christ, but he can never undo his baptism. Priestly ordination works in exactly the same way.

Similarly, canon 290 of the Code of Canon Law states bluntly that once a man validly receives sacred ordination, the sacrament never becomes invalid. As David says in his question, once a priest, always a priest. A cleric can never become a layman again.

At the same time, however, it is possible for a priest to be released from the duties and responsibilities that are connected to the clerical state (CCC 1583). Practically speaking, this would mean that a priest no longer functioned outwardly as a priest. He would no longer engage in ministry within his diocese or religious institute; no longer celebrate Mass or confer the sacraments; no longer be called “Father” or wear clerical clothing; and no longer be supported financially by the Church. To the world he would appear to be a layman, working at an ordinary job and living the normal life of the laity. Canon law refers to this change as the “loss of the clerical state” (cf. cc. 290-293). Common parlance calls it laicization.

Why would a priest lose the clerical state? It can be imposed upon him, as the most serious penalty for a priest who has committed an ecclesiastical crime, but that does not take place very often—nor should it. Ordinarily, it happens because a priest voluntarily requests it. For any number of reasons, he may conclude that he cannot continue living the life of a priest. Ideally, of course, the realization that it will be impossible to live and work as a priest for the rest of one’s life should be reached when a man is still a seminarian, during the years of theological study and spiritual formation leading up to his ordination. But sometimes life simply doesn’t work that way. Various combinations of emotional and health issues, deaths and other events within the priest’s family, and of course the immense stress of being constantly overworked while feeling unappreciated may lead a priest to reach this decision after he is already ordained and engaged in priestly ministry.

When this occurs, and a priest is released from the clerical state, he is still technically a priest, but as canon 292 notes, he may no longer exercise the power of orders. Since this is what the priest is requesting anyway, there is usually little fear that he will violate this restriction. But in theory, if a laicized priest were to say Mass, it would be a valid Mass, since he never loses the ability to celebrate the Eucharist. It would, however, be illicit. (The difference between an invalid act, and an act that is valid but illicit, was discussed in greater detail back in the October 18, 2007 column.)

Theoretically, if at some point in the future the laicized priest changed his mind, and wanted to live as a priest again, this would be canonically possible—but he would have to receive permission to be once more “re-instated” directly from Rome (c. 293). For obvious reasons, the Church does not want undecided men easily moving back and forth, in and out of the priestly state! But in any case, a previously-laicized priest returning to ministry would not be ordained again, as he would still be an ordained priest already.

The fact that it is impossible to “un-ordain” a priest explains the otherwise curious wording of canon 976. This canon states that any priest, even one who lacks the faculty to hear confessions, can validly and licitly hear the confession of anyone who is in danger of death. Thus even a laicized priest, who certainly has lost his confessional faculties, can hear the confession of someone who is dying. In fact, canon 986.2 goes even farther: in an urgent situation, every priest is obliged to hear the confession of a Catholic in danger of death. If, for example, a priest who had lost the clerical state were driving home and encountered a car accident, and found there a Catholic victim who at least appeared to be near death, that laicized priest would actually be required under canon law to hear his confession and grant him absolution. This is, of course, totally in keeping with the theological concept that an ordained priest always remains a priest.

To return to the particulars of David’s question, can a laicized priest get married? We all know that as a rule, Catholic clergy are required to be celibate (c. 277.1). (An exception would be found in some countries among the clergy of many of the Catholic Churches that are not of the Latin rite, such as were discussed in the September 20, 2007 column.) One might presume that once a priest has been reduced to the lay state, his obligation to remain celibate ceases.

But not so fast. Canon 291 addresses this issue specifically, and notes that the loss of the clerical state does not carry with it an automatic dispensation from the requirement to stay celibate. In fact, such a dispensation would have to be requested separately, and can only be granted by the Pope himself.

While the law clearly does provide for this possibility, it is well known in canonical circles that Pope John Paul II, who promulgated the current code that includes this canon, for many years routinely denied all requests for this dispensation. While Benedict XVI has only been Pope for a comparatively short time, it is difficult to imagine that he will in the future take a radically different stance on this issue. This means that practically speaking, while a priest can receive permission to leave the active priesthood, he ordinarily will not receive permission to marry.

So if David has in fact met one or more married men who have said that they were former priests, what conclusions can be drawn from this? It is entirely possible that such a laicized priest received permission to marry before John Paul II had established his practice of refusing such requests; or perhaps the priest constituted an extremely rare exception to this unofficial rule.

But unfortunately there is another possibility. Some priests have simply walked away from the Catholic Church entirely, and have married outside the Church without obtaining (or often without even seeking) permission from their superiors. While individual circumstances can vary, their status is often akin to that of a soldier who has “gone AWOL.” These priests fall under the provisions of canon 1394.1, which notes that a cleric who attempts marriage incurs suspension; and canon 194.1 n. 3, which states that a cleric who attempts marriage ipso facto loses any ecclesiastical office he may have.

Note that both of these canons speak of “attempting marriage.” There are two reasons for this phraseology. Firstly, canon 1087 asserts unequivocally that a man who has been ordained cannot validly marry in the Church—any such marriage will automatically be invalid. Secondly, if a priest (or any other Catholic, for that matter!) marries in a non-Catholic ceremony without receiving any permission from proper church authorities, the marriage will not be recognized by the Catholic Church as a valid marriage anyway (see the August 23, 2007 column for further discussion about the canonical form of marriage).Thus this terminology is very exact.

To sum up, we can see that both Catholic theology and canon law acknowledge that sacred ordination is forever, but there are real-life situations where it is possible for an ordained priest to live as a layman and still be a Catholic in good standing. There are nevertheless some other priests who have turned their backs entirely on the Church, and while they too remain Catholic priests in actual fact, their status within the Church has yet to be straightened out. In this the Year of the Priest, let’s pray for these priests to return and take steps to regularize their canonical situation. And let’s also pray that all Catholic priests be given the graces and strength they need to persevere in their often difficult ministry, which is so critical to the continued life of the Church.

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  • Demark

    Your summary does not answer the question properly and is misleading. Canon law does allow dispensation from the vow of celibacy, which can only be granted by the Pope. If it is granted, then the priest is free to marry and that marriage would be Sacramental. In that case, the priest can never return to the priesthood.

  • Oldies4me

    Before ordination, a candidate for the priesthood MUST take a perpetual vow of celibacy. However, if he later decides to get married, he goes to his superiors and gets himself laicized, breaks his PERPETUAL vow of celibacy and gets married. Yet he remains a priest. You talk about a devious loophole. Now, shall we talk about Catholic divorce vs. anullment?

  • Demark

    Laicization is the process which enables a priest to return to and live in the ‘lay’ state. He cannot ‘break’ his vow of celibacy himself! The Church (having the Keys of Peter) is able to dispense a priest from his vow of celibacy. These are two separate things.
    He only retains the permanent ‘character’ on his soul of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, as one does with Baptism and Confirmation. And, yes, in an emergency he is able to act as a channel of the sacrament and give absolution to a dying person. Nothing devious about that. Pretty straight forward.

  • Demark

     ”..the rule of clerical celibacy is a law and not a doctrine, exceptions
    can be made, and it can, in principle, be changed at any time by the
    Pope.

    “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the
    sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy..”

    It is a vow of perpetual continence – not a perpetual vow of celibacy.Please excuse the need to be precise in this regard.

    “http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clerical_celibacy

  • Cbooth151

    A single candidate for the Catholic priesthood does not voluntarily accept singleness. If he doesn’t take a MANDATORY vow to remain unmarried, he can’t become a priest. But that’s where the “sacred” loophole comes in. After a candidate for the priesthood takes the vow to remain celibate forever, he is then ordained as a priests. But when he later meets a woman that he wants to marry, he goes to one of his superiors who tells him that it’s okay to break his vow of celibacy, which was a condition for his becoming a priest in the first place. This superior laicizes the priest so that the priest can now get married, which is something he could NEVER have done when he took his vow of celibacy before he was ordained as a priest. Sneaky, don’t you agree? Not to mention, unscriptural.

  • Cbooth151

    <<>>

    Do you know what “perpetual continence” means? It means NO SEX FOREVER. So, why would an unmarried priest vow never to get married, break that vow, and then agree never to have sex for the rest of his life? 

  • AUSTINMCGINLEY

    I AM A LAICIZED DOMINICAN PRIEST.  MY QUESTION IS WHY IS THE CHURCH SO HARSH IN ITS TREATMENT OF LAICIZED PRIESTS?   I AM A GOOD MAN, NEVER MARRIED ,UR ASKED TO BE  ”REDUCED TO THE LAY STATE” BECAUSE I DISAGREE WITH MUCH OF THE CHURCH’S TEACHINGS.  THEY ARE SO HUNG UP ON SEXUALITY.  I AM NOT A JUDAS, A LEPER, AN OUT CAST.  BUT THAT’S HOW THE CHURCH LOOKS UPON US.  BLESSED POPE JOHN PAUL II CALLED US “THE DEFECTORS”  ALL OF THE HIERARCHY FROM THE POPE ON DOWN SHOULD MEDITATE N THE PRODIGAL SON, WITH SPECIAL ATTENTION TO HIS FATHER WHO RAN DOWN THE ROAD TO GREET & KISS HIM.  NOT SO FOR THE POPE & BISHOPS.  THAT’S VERY SAD INDEED !!!!!!!!

  • Demark

    I did not know that Pope John Paul called you “the defectors” – that is an insult and very wrong, especially as the onus is on the ordaining Bishop who is admonished to ‘not lay hands on lightly’ and this rule forms the basis of his responsibility an culpability. In fact, God holds them responsible for the past and future sins of the person they incorrectly ordain.

    “The chief responsibility, however, rests with the bishop, who according to the severe law of the Church: ‘Should not confer Hoy Orders on anyone, unless from positive signs he is morally certain of canonical fitness; otherwise he not only sins grievously, but also places himself in danger of sharing in the sins of others’ (canon 973) This canon is a clear echo of the warning of the Apostle to Timothy: ‘Impose not hands lightly on any man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins’ (I Tim.5,22). Our Predecessor, S. Leo the Great, expounds: ‘is to confer the sacerdotal dignity on persons not sufficiently approved’,..is for the ordainer to become as unworthy as the unworthy man who he ordains. For as S. John Chrysostom says: ‘You who have conferred the dignity upon him must take the responsibility of both his past and his future sins.’
    ‘It is not enough,’ says the holy bishop and Doctor, S. Alphonsus de Liguori, ‘that the bishop knew nothing evil of the ordinand, but he must have positive evidence of his uprightness.’ (Encyclical Letter of Pope Pius XI, Ad Catholici Sacerdotii taken from Moral and Pastoral Theology, by Henry Davies)

    Rest assured all ex-priests that the ‘blame’ is not yours. The Church is fully responsible in this domain and that is why, ratified by heaven, they are able to dispense and laicize a priest for sufficient cause.

    The fact that churchmen, even the Pope, are nasty in this regard is a cross that must be borne by those already wronged by the system they manage. Be sure that God sees all and loves you dearly and His Will has been directly expressed by the granting of the dispensation. After all, He does act through His Church. God bless
     

  • Demark

    Chooth151 – I am struggling to follow you in the celibacy thing.

    A candidate for the priesthood (not ordained yet) makes the vow of chastity as required by the Church. This means he binds himself (willingly)  to serving God in the purity of state that is required for the priesthood. No-one forces him to do this?

    Also a superior cannot dispense a priest from the vow of chastity. Only the Pope has the right to dispense from this vow. He would have to make application to his Bishop to enter into the process of laicization and dispensation from this vow.

    Dont tell me that a person who enters the seminary and desires to study and be ordained a priest is not aware of the conditions by which he must abide by and fulfil. That is incredible. If he does not like the rules, he must not play the game!

    One can join for example, the Maronite Rite which does allow for married priests,  maybe not easy, but if one is keen enough there will be a way.

  • Cbooth151

    To begin with, I was basically talking about a vow of celibacy, not chastity. Okay? I don’t know why you’re struggling to follow what I said, which was pretty straightforward. A candidate for the Catholic priesthood is required to take a vow of celibacy before ordination, which means that upon become a priest, he strongly promises never to get married. However, if that priest later has a change of heart, all he has to do is go to his superior (the Pope or whoever), who will have the priest laicized, which will pave the way for the priest’s being allowed to break his vow of celibacy, which was a condition of his being ordained into the priesthood in the first place. That is a loophole, which violates the Bible’s view of taking vows. It urges one to use extreme caution BEFORE making a vow, carefully considering the obligations to be assumed. As Deut. 23:22, 23 (NAB) says: “When you make a vow to the LORD, your God, you shall not delay in fulfilling it; otherwise you will be held guilty, for the LORD, your God, is strict in requiring it of you. Should you refrain from making a vow, you will not be held guilty.” And unlike what you say, no one has the power to undue a vow made to God, not even the Pope. If the laicized priest get’s his vow of celibacy anulled, what about his obligation to Canon 277 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law, which states: “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence,” which means, “no sex forever”? Can he break that law too? Apparently so, since no laicized priest who desires to get married wants a marriage without sexual intimacy. Since it is clearly possible for a priest to circumvent Canon law, why should it be necessary for a priest to take a vow of celibacy when he know that vow can be nullified at any time by the Pope? Doesn’t that render a vow of celibacy meaningless? Maybe not, because, according to you, a priest who makes a vow of celibacy “binds himself (willingly) to serving God in the purity of state that is required for the priesthood,” as long as he doesn’t change his mind about not getting married at a later time. Then, that vow of celibacy that he took as a condition for joining the priesthood becomes meaningless.  

  • Cbooth151

    BTW, a compulsory priestly vow of celibacy is entirely unscriptural, and the Catholic Church is well aware of that fact. For instance, The Catholic Encyclopedia acknowledges: “We do not find in the New Testament any indication of celibacy being made compulsory either upon the Apostles or those whom they ordained.” Pope John XXIII, added: “Ecclesiastical celibacy is not a dogma. The Scriptures do not impose it.”

    You say that if a priest “does not like the rules, he must not play the game!” Tell me, where in the Bible does it say that taking a vow of celibacy is a part of “the game” to become a priest? Answer: NOWHERE! When Jesus spoke of the advantages of remaining single, he was speaking of ALL Christians, not just the ones who held higher positions in the congregation. To all of them, Jesus said: “Let him that can make room for it make room for it.” (Matt. 19:12) NOWHERE did Jesus require a vow of celibacy from anyone. And neither did Paul, and you can’t prove otherwise.

    One last thing. You said: “One can join, for example, the Maronite Rite which does allow for married priests.” Maybe so, but you left out that those men were already married BEFORE they joined the Church. And if their wives should precede them in death, those widower priests have to take the same vow of celibacy that unmarried Catholic candidates for the priesthood must take before they are ordained as priests.

    As I have already said, compulsory clerical celibacy is governed by Church law, not by the Bible.

  • AUSTINMCGINLEY

    I HAVE A GREAT DEAL OF ANGST OVER  JESUS, THE  PENNILESS  MAN WHO SOUGHT OUT THE OUTCASTS…FROM TAX COLLECTORS TO PROSTITUTES. HOW DID WE EVER GET FROM JESUS TO THE CHURCH OF TODAY?  CAN YOU POSSIBLY IMAGINE JESUS DRESSED UP LIKE THE POPE? OR THE CARDINALS & BISHOPS?   THE CHURCH IS VERY WEALTHY.  THE POPE IS CLOTHED IN THE FINEST MATERIALS, LET ALONE ALL THE BEJEWELED “ACCESSORIES”  I HONESTLY BELIEVE JESUS WOULD BE SCANDALIZED BY TODAY’S HOLY, ROMAN, CATHOLIC CHURCH.  I THINK HE WOULD AGAIN DRIVE THOSE OUT WHO HAVE MADE HIS FATHER’S HOUSE A DEN OF THIEVES!

    THE ANSWER OF HOW WE GOT FROM JESUS TO WHERE WE ARE NOW IS THAT AFTER HIM, WE GOT MORE CHURCHIANITY THAN CHRISTIANITY.  JESUS NEVER HEARD OF CHURCHIANITY.

    BUT, LIKE ALL ORGANIZATIONS, THEIR MAIN GOAL IS TO PERPETUATE ITSELF VIA “CONTROL” AND ITS OWN PROPAGANDA.  OLD EXAMPLE: EAT MEAT ON A FRIDAY AND YOU END UP IN HELL. DO WHAT WE SAY, “OR ELSE”!  WHAT NONSENSE.  90% OF WHAT THE CHURCH TEACHES HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH JESUS THE CHRIST.

    I INTRODUCED MYSELF TO MY PASTOR AS A LAICIZED PRIEST.  HE TREATED ME LIKE A LEPER!!

  • Cbooth151

    Scripturally speaking, there is no such thing as a laicized priest. The Catholic Church teaches many things that have nothing to do with what Jesus instructed. And Jesus never mentioned “laicized priests.”
     
    Because of its false teachings, the Catholic Church falls into the same classification as the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. Of them, Jesus said: “You have nullified the word of God for the sake of your tradition. This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines human precepts.” (Matt. 15:6-8)

  • Cbooth151

    It is obvious that Catholic Canon law and the Bible are two different things. Whereas the Bible says that a vow must always be honored, you say that Canon law allows “dispensation from the vow of celibacy,” which, in English, means that once a sacred vow is made, it can easily be violated so that a priest who had taken a vow of celibacy as a condition for becoming a priest, can break that vow and remain in the priesthood. And what about Canon 277 of the Catholic Code of Canon Law, which says that the clergy must refrain from having sex for the rest of their lives (“Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence.”)? Can that obligation to Canon law be anulled too? Yes. So, in that case, why should priests be compelled to take a vow of celibacy in the first place? It’s a worthless promise that can be broken at any time. 
     
    Shame on the Church.

  • Austin McGinley

    I was laicized 30 years ago -not to marry but because the Canon Lawyers were running the church with their man-made laws which they try to pass off as God’s law. This is still going on. Look at the Curia. What a comedy of errors; the Holy Father is their “front-man” As one well known author says, “WE got so far from Jesus that we got Churchianity instead of Christianity.”

    In 9 years of study, I never had one single course on Christology. NOT ONE! Scripture study.. was a farce. A typical exam question” “How far is it from Jerusalem to Nazareth?” Pretty deep stuff, huh? Or, what were the exact words of Jesus? Who knows, He didn’t speak Greek . Nor had He ever heard of Christianity Anyway, all this church stuff about a non-cleric priest is just a stupid oxymoron Maybe I’ll write a book entitled “Jesus Visits the Vatican” If he did he would not lose much time in St Peter’s Square. He would be out in the streets…like Mother Teresa…tending the poor, the ill, the outcasts. It has been said “Jesus was crucified because of whom He ate with” If the Church had any sense at all, it would stop the nonsense of worshipping ITSELF Instead of Him, the Son of God,, not the founder of the One, Holy, Roman, Apostolic Church. He’s got to wonder, “How could they have misunderstood My simple command “Love your enemies” If you want to be a Chrstian, you have no other choice!!!

  • laywoman, mother

    Yes. I think if we met Christ now we would honor him with fine garments, which in our long history were once considered appropriate to be very fine; now we would prefer clean and hansdomely made perhaps, rather than hand him something coarse. Most of the clerics I know are wonderful representatives of our real faith. They don’t have your holier than thou attitude. The Church has over a billion people now. Jesus would be a kind pastor and much of the “pomp” is for the self expression of those of us who love our pastors, it reflects all of our love of Christ, as does the beautiful church music created, beautiful atmospheres, etc.

  • ferdinandgajewski

    I’ve listened to interviews of Malachi Martin who, though laicized at the time of the interviews (?), mentions now and then that he celebrates the old mass daily.

  • Mike Rong

    How could a finally vowed priest for ever break his own VOLUNTARY VOWS that he took and pronounced with his own lips and tongue before the Triune God and a large attending people of God, and so easily get out of priestly line and sometimes get married? Did he not know that to vow before God and again break the same is his stupidity and playfulness? He was given ample to chances to leave the idea to be ordain a priest before his final vows or priestly ordination. Is it not same as to put his hand on the ploughshare and to look back? There are so many proper and improper reasons for leaving the priesthood. Most of them are sexual and illicit relations with the opposite sexes. I was also a seminarian during 1975, but I found myself impossible for continuing as a seminarian or a future priest. So I consulted my spiritual priest in 100% sincerity about my inability to continue in this line as I was involved with a girl in between my minor seminarian life itself. My bishop asked me whether I went to major seminary to have a visit to a new city; my sincere answer was that I WANTED TO TRY HARD LOOK BACK, but…..! My spiritual Priest told me this very frankly,”Son, is better for you to be a GOOD CATHOLIC than to be a BAD PRIEST!” it really opened my eyes. So after I made my one week of personal retreat in front of the Eucharist in the seminary chapel, I decided to BE A GOOD CATHOLIC FATHER OF THE GOOD FAMILY. Not to deceive MY LORD BY MY FAKE VOWS like that! Now I am happier than that of before……as pure as a dove in the eyes of God! THIS REALLY SOUNDS HEALTHY AND WISE……isn’t it?

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