How Can a Priest Transfer to Another Diocese?

Q: I am a priest in good standing in the Diocese of X.  After years of constant friction and acrimony when dealing with my bishop, I discerned after much prayer that it is better to change my incardination and move to another diocese….

I found [another bishop] who fully understands the situation and wants to incardinate me into his own diocese, but my own bishop is refusing me excardination.  He gives no reason and I assume that it is motivated by a sort of vengeance.  Does he have the legal right to do this?  I don’t dare ask the canonists of my diocese this question… –Father J.

A:  In “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I,” we saw that every single Catholic priest on earth is attached either to a diocese, or to a religious institute such as the Dominicans or Jesuits, or to some other comparable structure like an ordinariate (see “Episcopalians Entering the Catholic Church” for more on what an ordinariate is).  This formal attachment is known as incardination.  As canon 265 clearly states, this system is designed so that vagi (the Latin term for “transient” or “wandering”) clerics are not permitted at all.  Every cleric is ordained for a specific place/institute, and has a superior to whom he is directly answerable.

(Incidentally, incardination isn’t reserved just to priests: it begins when a man is ordained a deacon, because at that moment he legally becomes a cleric, as per canon 266.)

But that doesn’t mean that a priest’s incardination can never change.  Imagine, for example, a priest from a war-torn area, who has to flee his country along with thousands of other refugees.  If circumstances are such that he can never go back, he may request to be incardinated into a different diocese in another country.  This will enable him to minister to the people of his new home on a permanent basis, under obedience to the bishop of that place.

Or take the case of a priest who is incardinated in a diocese thousands of miles away from his parents’ home.  Let’s say that both his parents become gravely ill, and he is their only child.  Caring for them looks like it may be a long, ongoing process.  In such a situation, the best solution might be for the priest to move permanently from his current diocese to the one where his parents live, so that he can be nearby and take better care of them, while of course continuing his priestly ministry.

Alternately, a priest who is a member of a religious institute may feel that he is really being called to ministry in a diocese.  Or a diocesan cleric, ministering in a busy parish, might discern that he should really join a monastic order instead.  These can all be legitimate reasons for a priest to seek to leave his current diocese/institute, and be incardinated into a different one.

As was seen in the previous column mentioned above, this is a relatively straightforward process.  The priest obtains a letter from the new bishop (or religious superior), declaring that he wishes to incardinate the priest into his own diocese (or religious institute); and another letter from his current bishop or religious superior, excardinating the priest from his original place of incardination (c. 267.1).  The letter of excardination has no legal effect unless and until the priest has obtained a letter of incardination from his new superior (c. 267.2).  This is to ensure that no cleric is ever without a place of incardination, even for a brief moment!

It goes without saying, therefore, that if Father J. had requested excardination from his current bishop, yet had nowhere else to go, his bishop might reasonably refuse the request.  If Father didn’t have a new bishop or religious superior willing to take him, then a letter of excardination from his current bishop would have no legal effect anyway.

But in this case, Father J. indicates that he does indeed have a bishop of another diocese who wants to incardinate him there.  If the new bishop truly wants Father J. to minister in his diocese, can Father’s current bishop refuse to let him go?

The answer to this question can be found in canon 270.  Excardination can be granted licitly for a just cause, such as (but not limited to) the well-being of the Church, or of the cleric himself.  It cannot be denied except for evident, grave causes.  The canon adds that a cleric who thinks he has been wrongly denied excardination, and has found an accepting bishop, is permitted to make recourse against the decision.

There are a couple of different issues here that merit closer attention.  For starters, what do the terms “just cause” and “grave causes” mean?

Terminology like this pops up all over the Code of Canon Law, and while it’s difficult to define with mathematical precision, the two terms have sufficiently clear meaning when compared to each other.  A cause that is “grave” is much stronger than one that is merely “just.”  The term “just” implies that the cause is reasonable; the term “grave” indicates that it is far more serious.  One has to apply a dose of common sense to individual cases in order to determine whether they meet the criteria.

So, let’s say a priest requests excardination from Diocese X, because he has serious health problems which are chronically exacerbated by the climate in that region, and the bishop of Diocese Y—where the climate is much better for Father’s health—has agreed to take him in.  Since Father’s health is a legitimate concern, this could constitute a “just cause” for the bishop of Diocese X to grant Father’s request for excardination.

In contrast, let’s imagine the case of a priest who wishes to excardinate from Diocese X and incardinate into Diocese Y, because he has a passion for fishing.  Diocese X has no lakes or rivers at all, whereas Diocese Y has plenty of opportunities for him to indulge in his favorite sport.  It would be pretty easy for the bishop of Diocese X to deny Father’s request, on the grounds that this doesn’t constitute a just cause!

From the little we know of Father J.’s situation, it sounds like the bishop who wants to incardinate him into his diocese has established that there is a “just cause” to do this.  Since Father J. speaks of “years of constant friction and acrimony” in dealing with his current bishop, it may be that the spiritual and emotional well-being of Father J. himself are (in the opinion of the new bishop) sufficient reason to accept him.

Now let’s look at the other half of the equation.  For Father J.’s current bishop to refuse to excardinate him, canon 270 asserts that evident, grave causes must exist.  In other words, there must be very strong and very clear reasons for denying Father J. his request.  What sorts of reasons might a bishop have that would justify his refusal of a request for excardination?

Well, if a bishop is dealing with a priest who is having psychological or emotional problems, and is now undergoing therapy for them, he might decide that it’s unwise to let that priest go off to another diocese, where his problems are either unknown or might not be handled properly.  Let’s say that a bishop is dealing with a priest who’s a kleptomaniac.  He’s finally identified the problem, and has the priest in a treatment program which is far from finished.  It might not be prudent to let him walk away at this point, and enter a diocese where this problem will have to be dealt with all over again!

And of course the risks involved in excardinating a priest who’s under suspicion for sexual aberrations need hardly be mentioned.  It might be far better to keep him under close supervision in his current place of incardination, until any questions are resolved.  In such a case, allowing the cleric to go off to a new diocese/institute could be scandalously irresponsible.

Another valid, grave reason for refusing excardination might be a dire shortage of clergy in the priest’s current diocese.  It may very well be that the priest’s current bishop genuinely can’t afford to lose him!  Imagine, for example, that the priest seeking excardination is the only one in the entire diocese who is fluent in a language spoken by many immigrant parishioners, or is the diocese’s only canon lawyer.  Or let’s say that the diocese is so short-staffed that most of its priests are serving two or even three parishes already!  In such a case, the good of the diocese is paramount, and a bishop might justifiably refuse the request.  The “grave cause” could be that the priest is urgently needed right here at home.

Returning to Father J.’s case, it’s worth noting that he specifically states that his bishop “gives no reason” for denying his excardination request.  If a grave reason doesn’t exist, then Father’s bishop has no legal grounds for refusal.  Under such circumstances, the final part of canon 270 applies: a cleric who has found a new bishop willing to incardinate him, and who feels that his current bishop has wrongly denied his request for excardination, can take recourse against his bishop’s decision.

In general, a diocesan bishop has a lot of power—but it isn’t absolute.  Rome can, and often does, overturn the actions of bishops around the world, when they are determined to be legally unjustified.  If in fact Father J.’s bishop truly is “motivated by a sort of vengeance,” and cannot provide a solid explanation for his refusal of Father’s request, then Father J. may very well be able to get the decision overturned.

As we can see, the Church’s laws on incardination are intended to ensure that the clergy don’t wander from one diocese/institute to another, without a single, stable superior.  But at the same time, canon law does provide for those situations in which, for the good of the Church, of the diocese(s), and of the priest himself, it may be better for a cleric to move permanently to a new place.

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