What Ex-Priests Can & Can’t Do

by Jimmy Akin

in Canon Law

For a while I’ve been meaning to do a post on what former priests who have been laicized are and are not allowed to do, since questions come up about this periodically.

The place where the rules are spelled out, somewhat surprisingly, is not in the Code of Canon Law or any other universally-binding piece of law but in a document that is issued to each priest as he is laicized.

That document is known as a rescript of laicization, and one is issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for each priest who is laicized. What it says on that rescript is what that priest is allowed to do or not do.

This does not mean that they cut different deals with different priests. Instead, it seems that they base the rescripts on the same template (kind of like a form letter) and basically lay down the same rules for each priest who is laicized.

In the below-the-fold part of this post, I’ve reproduced what I’m given to understand is the standard rescript of laicization that was implemented in 1980 and that, with minor modifications, has been in use ever since.

(The minor modifications would concern things like the name of the current pontiff, the fact that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is now called just the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and updating the numbers of a couple of canons that allow laicized priests to hear deathbed confessions, since the numbers are different in the 1983 Code than they were in the 1917 Code).

The main do’s and don’ts that pertain to how the priest is to conduct himself on an ongoing basis are found in sections 4 and 5 of the rescript and can be summarized as follows:

1) He can’t celebrate any of the sacraments except for hearing deathbed confessions. It is especially noted that he can’t give homilies.

2) He can’t serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.

3) He can’t serve any "directive office in the pastoral field" (e.g., serving as a parish administrator).

4) He can’t do anything at all in a seminary.

5) He can’t serve as a director or teacher in a Catholic university.

6) He can’t teach theology or any closely related discipline (e.g., religious studies, history of theology) in a non-Catholic university.

7) He can’t serve a director (e.g., school principal) in a parochial school.

8) He can’t serve as a teacher in a parochial school unless he gets the bishop’s permission.

9) He shouldn’t live in or frequent places where his status as an ex-priest is generally known, unless he gets the bishop’s permission.

By extension (though there are some doubtful cases), anything a laicized priest is not forbidden to do in his rescript is something he is permitted to do.

In doubtful cases the text of the rescript that was given to an individual priest should be consulted, and the interpretation of the local bishop followed regarding whether a particular action or office violates the instructions the rescript contains.

Rescript of Laicization

Prot. N. ___________________

Father __________________, a priest of the (Arch) Diocese of _____________________, has petitioned a dispensation from priestly celibacy.

His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, after having received a report on the case from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on (date, month, year), has granted the request but with the following provisions:

1. The rescript has its effect from the moment of notification made to the petitioner by the competent ecclesiastical authority, and inseparably includes a dispensation from priestly celibacy and, at the same time, loss of the clerical state. The petitioner never has the right to separate those two elements, that is, to accept the first and refuse the second. If the petitioner is a religious, the rescript also contains a dispensation from the vows. Further, the said rescript carries with it, insofar as it is necessary, absolution from censures, not excepting the excommunication which may have been incurred because of a marriage attempted by the parties; it also includes legitimation of offspring.

2. Let notice of the grant of dispensation be recorded in the baptismal register of the petitioner’s parish.

3. With regard to the celebration of a canonical marriage, the norms set down in the Code of Canon Law must be applied. The Ordinary, however, should take care that the matter be discreetly handled without pomp or external display.

4. The ecclesiastical authority to whom it belongs to communicate the rescript to the petitioner should earnestly exhort him to take part in the life of the People of God in a manner consonant with his new mode of living, to give edification, and thus to show himself a most loving son of the Church. However, at the same time, he should be informed of the following points:

a) the dispensed priest automatically loses the rights proper to the clerical state as well as ecclesiastical dignities and offices; he is no longer bound by the other obligations connected with the clerical state;

b) he remains excluded from the exercise of the sacred ministry, with the exception of those functions mentioned in canons 882 and 892, §2, and, as a result, he may not give a homily. Moreover, he may not function as extraordinary minister in the distribution of Holy Communion nor may he discharge any directive office in the pastoral field;

c) similarly, he may not discharge any function in seminaries or equivalent institutions. In other institutions of higher studies which are in any way whatever dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, he may not exercise the functions of director, or office of teaching;

d) however, in those institutions of higher studies which are not dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, he may not teach any discipline which is properly theological or closely connected with the same;

e) on the other hand, in institutions of lower studies, which are dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, he may not exercise the function of director or the office of teaching unless the Ordinary, in keeping with his prudent judgment and provided that there is no scandal, shall have decided to decree otherwise as far as the office of teaching is concerned.

5. As a rule, the priest who has been dispensed from priestly celibacy, and, all the more so, a priest who has married, ought to stay away from places where his previous status is known. Nevertheless, the Ordinary of the place where the petitioner is staying, after he has listened, insofar as it may be necessary, to the Ordinary of incardination or the major religious superior, will be able to dispense from that clause attached to the rescript, if it is foreseen that the presence of the petitioner will not beget scandal.

6. Lastly, some work of piety or charity should be imposed on him. At an opportune time, however, a brief report should be made to the sacred Congregation on his performance, and, finally, if there should be any wonderment on the part of the faithful, let a prudent explanation be provided.

All things to the contrary notwithstanding.

From the offices of the S. C. for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the (date, month, year).

[Published in Canon Law Digest, vol. 9, pp. 99-101.]

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franksta May 9, 2006 at 12:45 pm

Pretty draconian, IMHO. Not even an EMHC? I suppose it does leave open things like lector or catechist. And what do you think is the interpretation of “some work of piety or charity should be imposed on him”?

Old Zhou May 9, 2006 at 12:53 pm

Actually, franksta, I don’t think that he would be able to be a lector or catechist, as this is related to either sacred ministry (lectors actually should be “installed” in their ministry, and most seminarians were “installed” as lectors by their bishop on the way to ordination), or the office of teaching, for a catechist.

Paul Ambro May 9, 2006 at 1:16 pm

What about celebrating the Mass by himself? I assume since he has an indellible mark and is forever a priest, that a valid consecration occurs if he performs it, right?

franksta May 9, 2006 at 1:16 pm

That’s true…I am aware of the “minor order” (now merely “ministry”) of lector given to seminarians (whatever happened to subdeacons?). But in the parishes I have been connected with, I’ve never heard of lay lectors being installed in any way…at best, there’s a brief training session, then “how often do you want to be on the calendar?” As I read the rescript, the emphasis seems to be on “office of teaching” in seminary/college/parochial school, not parish catechesis, but I could be wrong.
In any event, I am curious about (at least anecdotally) what is typical for the “work of piety or charity imposed”.

Eric G. May 9, 2006 at 1:25 pm

Jimmy or someone else:
Why can’t an “ex-priest” in good standing with the Church teach in Catholic universities, or teach theology or other related disciplines in non-Catholic universities? What’s the logic to this?

MissJean May 9, 2006 at 3:03 pm

Eric, I suppose it’s the nature of being an ex. The ex-priests I’ve known left to get married (after the kids were born). They might be Catholics in good standing now, but I wouldn’t trust them to teach about priestly celibacy. Or, really, any celibacy – as one of them was my classmate’s dad and informed us that “Celibacy is unreasonable, especially when you’re young and curious.” (If I had been braver back then, I would have answered with “Quit hitting on us, you ol’ pervert!”)
Unless, of course, you really believe that adage “Those who can do, and those can’t teach”, I don’t see why ex-priests would be high on the list for teaching at Catholic universities or presenting themselves as Catholic theologians in another Christian setting.

Ken Crawford May 9, 2006 at 3:16 pm

Eric G., another way to think of this is like divorce. While the Church will allow for divorce, it will never allow for re-marriage (an annulment being a different thing). When a priest decides he can no longer be a priest, it is a similar failure to live up to one’s commitments as at least one party in a failed marriage. That “ex-priest” needs to refrain from serving as a pseudo-priest just as a divorced person must refrain from a pseudo-marriage. And since teaching the faithful is an aspect of being a priest, teaching at a University as a layicized priest would be a way to become a pseudo-priest.
Paul Ambro, don’t confuse illicit with invalid. The Church saying he should not (illicit) consecrate does not mean he is incapable (invalid) of doing so.

jd May 9, 2006 at 3:21 pm

the other thing about priests dismissed from the clerical state in universities is that they may be a source of scandal to the faithful, so generally they’re kept out of the public eye.
Jimmy: you basically hit it all on target. I might offer a few tiny clarifications:
The Code of Canon Law doesn’t spell these things out because dismissal from the clerical state is a rescript, which is, as you well know, a favor granted personally to a particular person. Therefore, the circumstances of that particular cleric govern the conditions of the rescript. Because canon law doesn’t operate through precedent, the circumstance of every cleric is judged individually, and the results could be different every time (though generally rescripts include all the things you included.)
There is a distinction between dismissal from the clerical state and dispensation from the obligation from celibacy. With regard to “laicisization” dispensation from the obligation from celibacy is the broader (it includes dismissal from the clerical state) and dismissal from the clerical state the more specific. One can be dismissed from the clerical state without being dispensed from celibacy (this often happens when a person is granted a penal rescript, or if a homosexual is being laicized, and has happened in a few other kinds of cases.)
Canons 290-293 provide a brief outline of the loss of the clerical state.
ed- feel free to offer any corrections.

Jay May 9, 2006 at 3:22 pm

I’m not sure what the precise interpretation of “ecclesiastical authority” is, but certainly the rule is not much followed at the major American Jesuit university of which I am an alum. I had several ex-Jesuits as professors, one in theology. On the other hand, I would say that I never heard any of them ever mention it in class or otherwise to students; it was more the subject of gossip by those who found out about it somehow (“Did you know Prof. X used to be a priest?”). The one exception would be a rather prominent English professor who, several years before I came, came out as gay, left the Jesuits, and now claims to be a priest in some sort of alternative “Catholic” church.

bearing May 9, 2006 at 3:39 pm

I’m guessing that the forbidding of various positions of authority has to do with avoiding confusion about whether they have any “pastoral” authority.

Rich May 9, 2006 at 4:23 pm

Who cares how “draconian” this may be? This guy had YEARS to plan, pray, and think about his decision to be a priest. Why are we supposed to be suddenly sympathetic to his inability to be, say, a CCD teacher to a bunch of 3rd graders? He is responsible for his own years of “decisions and undecisions” and we should not take it upon ourselve to lament his inability to exercise his “expertise” as an ex-preist any further.

Rich May 9, 2006 at 4:24 pm

Who cares how “draconian” this may be? This guy had YEARS to plan, pray, and think about his decision to be a priest. Why are we supposed to be suddenly sympathetic to his inability to be, say, a CCD teacher to a bunch of 3rd graders? He is responsible for his own years of “decisions and undecisions” and we should not take it upon ourselves to lament his inability to exercise his “expertise” as an ex-preist any further.

Maureen May 9, 2006 at 4:58 pm

Be charitable, guys. We mostly hear about ex-priests who are nogoodniks, and don’t hear about the ones who just didn’t discern well enough. Because the nogoodniks tend to get into trouble again, whereas the guys who made honest mistakes and honestly asked to be laicized before something bad happened are following the instructions.
Considering some of the boners I’ve pulled, especially when I had lots and lots of time to think about them beforehand and thus had time to make really elaborate boners…. Well, I’m sure as heck in no position to make snarky comments. Not while there are people around whom I advised badly, and people whom I didn’t do enough to help because I was afraid to screw up — and who are thus no longer around.
Personally, I’d think that losing the faculties to celebrate the Sacraments would be punishment enough for anyone. But I can see why the Church made rules like this.

Anonymous May 9, 2006 at 6:06 pm

Anyone can make a mistake. Many of them probably just want to get on with their lives quietly.

Jesuit John May 9, 2006 at 8:51 pm

Could the gossip about the X-Jesuits be confusing being a Jesuit with being a priest? There are basically no extraordinary restrictions put on X-Jesuits who were never ordained…

Jay May 10, 2006 at 12:50 am

Well, true, but I know for sure that a couple of them were ordained. I’m not talking about people who dropped out of seminary when they were 20.

Joy Schoenberger May 10, 2006 at 4:11 am

Can a laicized priest become a priest again? (Sort of like a divorced Catholic couple reconciling?) Suppose some Pauline super-conversion were to occur, the ex-priest goes to confession, and makes good with God and his bishop. Could he be reinstated?

Leah May 10, 2006 at 3:07 pm

I know of a number of laicized priests that work for the chancery in my diocese (several former religious sisters as well). It makes me sad.
Actually, one of the ex-priests recently passed away. The death notice distributed by the diocese listed him as Father So-and-so, an inactive priest. I thought that was confusing – it sounded like he had retired or something.

Flambeaux May 11, 2006 at 9:33 am

I have some direct experience with the situation you raise.
Regarding Jesuits, the problem is that most don’t understand how the Jesuit formation process (nearly 12 years long, in the quickest of cases) actually works.
My paternal grandfather was a Jesuit long before V2. He was six months from Ordination and Final Profession when he approached his superior and asked to be dispensed from his prior professions of vows. A couple of years later he met my grandmother, etc. He spent his life working for the local Sewerage & Water Board as a chemist, and tried to raise his boys in the Faith.
By way of him, and my lifelong association with the Society, I know many for whom this story would sound familiar. It could easily be whispered about, especially among students, that so-and-so was a “priest”, when the actuality of the story is different.
Two other possibilities raise themselves in my mind based on my experience.
1) As most people don’t understand the difference between a priest and a brother with in the Society of Jesus (or anywhere else for that matter), that a man may have been a brother is another possibility. I don’t know how their rescripts would be worded, but since they are clerics, I expect it would be similar.
2) They may be “ex-priests” but not Catholic ones. I know many Anglicans who renounced their orders and now teach at the university level, that being the only thing, besides priesthood, for which their extensive educations prepared them.
It is also that these are mere urban legends, as many “former priest” stories can be. Either wishful thinking (from those who admire the man, but misunderstand the priesthood) or damnable detraction (from those who dislike the man).
Just my deux centimes.

Susan Peterson May 15, 2006 at 3:30 pm

I don’t quite see how you could keep someone from teaching anything he wanted to in a non Catholic university. The man is no longer employed by the church. The church after all, would not try to tell me, a laywoman, where I could or couldn’t work or teach or in what subjects. The ex-priest is a layman. He is free to make a private contract with a private employer.
Considering that priests have training in theology and church history, teaching the same seems to be one of the few jobs open to them without much retraining.
I don’t think we should assume that because a man didn’t keep his vow of celibacy, perhaps made for the wrong reason (ie, not disappointing his mother.. or not being a failure at what he set out to do) that he would necessariliy teach false theology or inaccurate church history. In any case, we aren’t in control of what is taught in non-Catholic universities.
I really also think it is wrong not to let such a man become a leader in his parish as a lay person. He has a new life as a married Catholic and a layman…let him be an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, or teach CCD. If his teaching isn’t orthodox, well fire him for that. But don’t treat him like damaged goods and a pariah for the rest of his life.
Just my opinion
Susan Peterson

edwin B.T. May 30, 2006 at 1:15 am

naturally, ex-priests need in some way or another, need assistance. possible job or ministry. i think that it’s a christian gesture for the bishop and other brother priests to assist their “ex-brother priest” face the new direction in life. most of the the time lay people may think that given rules are somehow condemnation. the ex-priests should be given a proper plece for them in the church. i

Dean Whinery June 3, 2006 at 2:51 am

Maybe I’m oversaturated with the Baltimore Catechism, but it seem to me that a laicised priest could still baptize in the same way any other layman might be called upon to do an ememrgency baptism. As long as the proper Trinitarian form is used, baptism is baptism, yes?

Tom Cox June 12, 2006 at 4:09 pm

Just wondering if there is any regulation in the situation where a laicized priest wishes to anoint his gravely ill parent. The Hospital Chaplain is available, so it’s not as if the Sacrament of the Sick is unavailable. What to do?

Roman July 18, 2006 at 8:51 pm

Once a priest – always a priest (no matter what). I’m one of “them.” I strongly believe, that being 100% faithful Catholic to the teaching of the Church, many people could benefit (including priests or seminarians) from some of my experience after. I missed being able to be a “channel” for God and distribute Holy Sacraments to them – there is nothing like this on Earth. I could use so much of knowledge and experience for some retreats and teaching – sacraments, devotions and protection of our Church or individual souls.

Roman July 20, 2006 at 7:40 pm

I should explain: “No matter what” (in the above comments) means this life and the other – eternal. Total obedience to the Church (local and global) is the key to every spiritual growth. Like children in Fatima, God will find the way at the right time, place, circumstance, etc. Missing special graces makes me appreciate them much more now then ever before. I needed to grow! I can do things with local bishop permission, so that’s the point of action after much prayer and fasting. I actually thought of starting a ministry to the priests that are not functioning. One condition would have to be placed – nothing in your past that was illegal but this also needs more prayer and planning.

Roman July 20, 2006 at 7:56 pm

If I can humbly add another explanation (especially to Rich). It is much more complicated than just simply “years of planning…” I was told “always listen to your spiritual directors” – unfortunately before I was more mature (God’s grace and experience) the Church is filled with God’s grace given to … people (sinners). Some parts of such difficult decissions belong to people we trust. But what if … It is only God’s grace that I’m still alive – depression was terrible. I could help so many people, but when God wants me – the place will be prepared to do HIS work.

Michael July 9, 2007 at 10:13 am

Interesting reading all your comments about ex-priests. What advice would you give to someone who sincerely believes he is no longer faithful to the church’s teaching on chastity and celibacy, who actually is expecting a child but continues to function as a priest, just because he wants to externally put up a good face ? Don’t you think it is more courageous an honest thing to come up to your bishop and asked to be relieved? Please just seeking clarifications from people i believe are more experienced and experts on the issue.

A.Thomas October 11, 2007 at 4:32 am

I would be happy to be assisted in my stage as former priest to realize a non-profit organization I intend to start in India.
Would any individaul or agency ready to help me in this ?
Welcome to join me to make a better world

christy February 20, 2008 at 8:03 pm

Can an ex-priest get married? If he is married is he in good standing with the Church and can he receive communion?

A Hanrahan April 12, 2008 at 3:29 pm

Its a tradgedy for the mystical body of christ when a priest seeks laicization.We have to say yes every day of our lives like in a marriage, for richer for poorer ,for better for worse,in good times and in bad.If we do not have a deep prayer life and a special relationship with the Mother of God we will not make it. The flesh, the world or the devil will end up conquering us. Lets us cling, be wrapped up and enfolded in Our Iadys Immaculate Heart so that she can beget our souls in Jesus and Jesus in our souls.

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