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 “Are They Really Catholic? Part II.”).

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 “Are They Really Catholic? Part I.”) 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 frequently 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 “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” 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. 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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