Am I Permanently Barred from Ordination to the Priesthood?

Q: I have been discerning my vocation, trying to determine whether or not I am called to be a priest.  I happened to find a commentary on canon law in my school library… it says that a person is barred from being a priest, permanently, if they have ever been a heretic, apostate, or schismatic.  I was baptized outside the Church (Lutheran), and professed agnosticism for a time before converting to Catholicism around the time I was 17.  Does that make me incur the irregularity? –Alex

A: Alex has encountered a legal concept that has not been addressed before in this space: the notion of an irregularityIn the current Code of Canon Law, irregularities pertain only to the reception of holy orders.  Canon 1040 defines an irregularity as a perpetual impediment.  While irregularities are a type of impediment, not all impediments are irregularities!  Let’s take a look first at the difference between an irregularity and an impediment, and examine the various issues that constitute irregularities for holy orders in the Church today—and then we’ll finally be able to answer Alex’s question.

Most Catholics are familiar with the notion of an impediment, whether they realize it or not!  The most commonly known impediments concern marriage, and they render a person incapable of marrying validly in the Church (c. 1073).  One of the most obvious impediments to marriage concerns age: canon 1083.1 notes that a man cannot marry until he has reached his sixteenth birthday, and a woman can only marry when she reaches the age of 14.  Anyone younger than this, who wants to marry in the Church, is unable to do so because of the impediment of age.

That means that if someone were (let’s say) to lie about his age and deceive a priest into celebrating his marriage, that marriage would ipso facto be invalid.  But it goes without saying that the impediment of age is not permanent—eventually, of course, everybody reaches the age when it finally ceases! That’s why age is considered an impediment, not an irregularity.

Similarly, there are impediments to receiving the sacrament of holy orders.  For example, canon 1042 n. 1 notes that a man is impeded from ordination if he is married (unless he is being ordained to the permanent diaconate, which is a separate issue).  This impediment would naturally cease if/when the man’s wife passes away, leaving him now able to be validly ordained.  Clearly, therefore, the impediment of marriage isn’t permanent either.

An irregularity, however, by its very nature continues in perpetuity.  Often it refers to something that has already happened in the past, which cannot be undone.  The current code contains a short list of irregularities for the reception of holy orders.  Among others, those who are irregular include persons who have committed apostasy, heresy, or schism, as Alex mentioned (c. 1040 n. 2); anyone who has willfully committed homicide or has actually procured an abortion (n. 4); and persons who have attempted suicide (n. 5).  A man who falls into any of these categories has incurred an irregularity, and thus cannot be ordained.

You don’t have to be a canon lawyer to appreciate the general significance of these sorts of issues, when considering whether a man may be a suitable candidate for the priesthood or not!  The Church is naturally looking for men whose morals are reliably sound, and who also don’t have a past history of unorthodox beliefs.  Otherwise, it’s only reasonable to fear that a man might relapse back into his old behaviors after his ordination, potentially causing tremendous scandal.  As was discussed in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” ordination confers an indelible character on a man that can never be effaced.  That’s why canon 290 observes that once a man is validly ordained, his ordination never becomes invalid.  In short, holy orders is for life.  If a man with a troublesome past is ordained, and he then returns to his troublesome ways, the Church is faced with a permanent problem!

So what happens when a man feels called to the priesthood, but has something in his past which constitutes an irregularity?  First and foremost, the diocesan bishop (or religious superior) needs to be made aware of the matter.  He cannot make a fully informed decision about the suitability of a candidate for the priesthood if he doesn’t know all the facts.

The bishop can then assess the totality of the situation, and determine whether the man really does appear to have overcome the issues in his past life.  After all, repentance and conversion is a pretty fundamental aspect of our faith, and we are all aware that people can change!  It’s certainly possible that a man may have erred in some way in years gone by, but now is firmly grounded in orthodox morality and beliefs.  It’s important to keep in mind that a man could potentially become an excellent priest even if there’s some sort of issue in his past—the priesthood isn’t reserved to the perfect.

If the bishop concludes that he wants to ordain the man even though he has incurred an irregularity, it’s necessary to obtain a dispensation. (The concept of dispensing from an ecclesiastical law was discussed in more detail in “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic.”)  Certain types of irregularities can be dispensed by the bishop himself.  Others, however, can only be dispensed by Rome (c. 1047).

If the circumstances which have resulted in the irregularity have become public knowledge because they resulted in court proceedings against the man, the irregularity can only be dispensed by the Holy See (c. 1047.1).  So, to take an extreme example, if a man who now wants to become a priest was once arrested for murder, the bishop cannot dispense him from the irregularity himself.  The publicity surrounding the man’s past could obviously create tremendous scandal for the Church among ordinary people—and while it’s entirely possible that the man has indeed dramatically turned his life around, the final decision to ordain him nevertheless rests with the Vatican, not with the local bishop.

Concern about scandalizing the faithful is also seen in canon 1047.2 n. 1.  It states that among other things, the irregularity incurred by committing apostasy, heresy, or schism can only be dispensed by the Apostolic See if it has become public.  It’s easy to understand why the Church would be leery about ordaining a man who had previously abjured the faith in some way, and whose departure from Catholic orthodoxy in years gone by was well known.  Let’s say, for example, that a Catholic were to leave the Church for another religion, become a minister in that faith, and then openly attack Catholic teachings.  Now he has realized his error and returned to the Catholic Church, and he wants to become a Catholic priest.  It may very well be that the man knows that in leaving the Church in the first place, he made a grave mistake for which he now is truly sorry, and he firmly intends to remain a Catholic for the rest of his life!  But depending on the circumstances, ordaining him a Catholic priest could possibly cause tremendous confusion among simple people, who might be familiar with the man in his former capacity as a Catholic-bashing minister of another religion.  In short, each individual situation is different—and the circumstances have to be carefully assessed by church authorities.  In such a public case as this, a dispensation from the irregularity could only be granted by Rome.  If, in contrast, the prior apostasy, heresy, or schism of a candidate for the priesthood were a private matter that relatively few people were even aware of, the bishop could dispense the man himself.

This leads us directly to Alex’s question.  He says he was raised a Lutheran, then became an agnostic, and eventually entered the Catholic Church.  Does his non-Catholic past render him irregular for ordination to the priesthood, because of apostasy, heresy, or schism?

The definitions of these terms can be found in canon 751Heresy is the obstinate denial or doubt of a truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith.  Apostasy is the complete repudiation of the Christian faith; and schism is the withdrawal of submission to the Pope or the withdrawal from communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him.  Superficially, one might think that any non-Catholic fits into one or another of these categories—but canonically, such an assumption is incorrect.

The fact is, the legal consequences of these actions pertain only to Catholics, since the Code of Canon Law binds only those who were baptized into the Catholic Church or subsequently received into it (c. 11).  In other words, for persons who were born and raised in another faith—or in no faith at all, for that matter—this terminology and its canonical implications do not apply!  The Church does not, because it cannot, reasonably impute blame to someone who, through absolutely no fault of his own, was not raised in the Catholic faith.  The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, noted of persons who were raised as non-Catholic Christians, “The children who are born into these Communities and who grow up believing in Christ cannot be accused of the sin involved in the separation” (UR 3).

Thus the mere fact that Alex was born into a Lutheran family does not render him irregular for the reception of holy orders.  If, on the other hand, he had been raised a Catholic, and subsequently left the Church and became a practicing Lutheran, that would be an entirely different matter: he would have abandoned the true faith and embraced a heretical one instead, and thus would have incurred the irregularity.  The same holds true for his foray into agnosticism; it occurred before he became a Catholic, not after—so it does not constitute “apostasy, heresy, or schism” as far as the Code of Canon Law is concerned.

This does not mean, of course, that the diocesan bishop must automatically accept Alex as a candidate for ordination to the priesthood in his diocese.  Canon 1025.2 states clearly that a man is only to be ordained if, in the judgment of the bishop or religious superior, he will be useful for the ministry of the Church.  (See “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?” for more on this issue.)  There are plenty of reasons why a man might not be judged suitable for the Catholic priesthood, despite his own personal conviction that he is called to holy orders.  But the mere fact that he was not raised a Catholic from birth is normally not one of them!

We all know that in virtually every corner of the globe today, the Church faces a dire shortage of priests.  At the same time, however, Catholic bishops do not ordain every man who asks for it, and with good reason.  The code has established certain very basic guidelines to ensure that caution is taken with regard to candidates for holy orders whose past lives raise red flags.  Still, since everyone is unique, the law allows enough flexibility for bishops to judge for themselves if it appears that a man will, despite problems in his past, make a good and holy priest.

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