Why Would an Illegitimate Man be Barred from the Priesthood?

Q: I heard about a boy who wept when he found out that he could not be admitted to our local seminary. The reason I heard was because he was an illegitimate child.

I also read in the Catholic Encyclopedia that illegitimacy was indeed an impediment from receiving the sacrament of holy orders.  Thanks to your post I learned about the canons regarding the impediments to ordination.

Now I am curious, does the law prohibiting illegitimate children from becoming priests still hold?  The current Canon Law does not seem to include it. –Kevin

A: This question is more complicated than it may seem at first glance, because there are several different canonical distinctions that first need to be made before answering it.  Let’s walk through the various issues step by step—and when we’ve finished, it should be clear that the answer to Kevin’s question could best be summed up as “no, but.”

Although we Catholics generally have the right to receive the sacraments (c. 843.1), no man has the automatic right to ordination merely because he says he feels called to the priesthood.  On the surface this may sound like a contradiction.  But as was discussed in “Can Homosexual Men Be Ordained to the Priesthood?” a bishop or religious superior must first determine that a man seeking ordination will be useful for the ministry of the Church (c. 1025.2).  This is necessary because the sacrament of Holy Orders is, by its very nature, directed towards the salvation of others, and not just towards the personal sanctification of the recipient of the sacrament (CCC 1534).

As we saw in “Am I Permanently Barred From Ordination to the Priesthood?” (which is the post Kevin mentions in his question), the current Code of Canon Law contains a list of irregularities for the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  An irregularity is an impediment which by its very nature is permanent.  To illustrate the difference with some examples, being married constitutes an impediment to priestly ordination (c. 1042 n. 1); but if the wife passes away, the impediment obviously ceases.  Thus this impediment cannot be considered permanent.  In contrast, having attempted suicide constitutes an irregularity for receiving Holy Orders (c. 1041 n. 5).  Once a man has in fact tried to kill himself, that incident always remains a part of his past life, as it can never be undone—and so it constitutes a permanent impediment.

Canon 1042 lists the irregularities for the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  These include insanity (c. 1042 n. 1); apostasy, heresy, or schism (n. 2); marrying invalidly outside the Church, while still being married in the eyes of the Church to a first spouse (n. 3); homicide, or procuring an abortion, or cooperating in this act (n. 4); attempting suicide, or gravely/maliciously wounding oneself or another person (n. 5); performing an action that is reserved to priests or bishops (such as celebrating a “Mass” without having the ability to do that, n. 6).

As was seen in the abovementioned column, if a bishop decides in a particular case that he wishes to ordain a man who is irregular for the reception of Holy Orders, these irregularities can be dispensed.

By telling some men that they are permanently impeded from receiving priestly ordination because of certain past or current issues in their lives, the Church isn’t trying to be cruel or unforgiving.  (Keep in mind that countless people around the world apply to schools, and for jobs, and are rejected every day!)  Instead, these restrictions exist because the Church seeks to uphold the dignity of the priesthood as much as humanly possible.  Becoming a priest is a great honor—and not a right, as mentioned earlier.  The priest is a visible representative of the Church to the world, as the Catechism states:

Through the ordained ministry, especially that of bishops and priests, the presence of Christ as head of the Church is made visible in the midst of the community of believers (1549).

It follows as a matter of course, then, that the Church seeks to be selective about the men it ordains as priests, even if there is a shortage of vocations.  This is why canon 241.1 asserts that a bishop is not even to admit a man to the seminary without first considering his human, moral, spiritual, and intellectual qualities, physical and psychic health, and correct intention.  Note that this list of characteristics (which is not necessarily exhaustive) is different from, and in addition to, the lists of fairly cut-and-dried irregularities and impediments found in the abovementioned canons 1041 and 1042.  In other words, just because a man hasn’t incurred an irregularity or impediment, doesn’t mean that a bishop (or religious superior) necessarily has to accept him as a candidate for the priesthood!

So how does being illegitimate fit into all this?  In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, which is no longer in force, canon 984 n. 1 asserted that illegitimate men were irregular for the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  The current code, promulgated in 1983, no longer lists illegitimacy as an irregularity.  It’s difficult to appreciate the reasons for eliminating this irregularity without understanding why it was included in the first place.  Briefly put, in generations past it was primarily a question of inheritance.

For centuries, if an upper-class man living in the Christian world had an illegitimate son, that son was ordinarily not his legal heir.  The boy could not inherit his father’s title (if he had one), his land, or his business.  A father who openly acknowledged his bastard child might very well choose to have him educated, and find ways to ensure his financial security in future; but if the very existence of such a boy was socially awkward for his father, Dad might conclude that the easiest solution was simply to put his illegitimate son into an obscure monastery somewhere and be rid of him!

If this had been permitted, the ranks of the Catholic clergy could eventually have devolved into little more than a dumping-ground for social outcasts.  Obviously this would have obscured the great dignity inherent in the Catholic priesthood, and sent a message to society at large that priests aren’t really respectable people after all.  As if this weren’t enough, the Church would also have had to deal with large numbers of clerics who had been ordained, not because they were interiorly called to the priestly ministry by God Himself, but because their fathers said so.

The inclusion of illegitimate birth on the list of irregularities for Holy Orders was thus intended not to disparage a man whose parents were not married (something that is hardly his fault!), but to protect the integrity of the priesthood.  But of course nowadays society has changed, and the question of what’s-a-nobleman-to-do-with-an-illegitimate-son isn’t a typical familial/economic issue any more.  In most cultures, having children out of wedlock is still socially frowned upon; but the routine desire to shove an illegitimate boy into the seminary if possible simply isn’t there.  Thus the inclusion of illegitimacy on the Church’s list of irregularities for ordination served its purpose in the past, but is no longer necessary.

But does that mean that the illegitimate boy whom Kevin describes was treated unjustly, when he was refused entrance to the seminary?  Not necessarily.  Even without knowing the prospective seminarian’s personal details, we can surmise that his illegitimacy may be only one facet of a much larger and more problematic background.  Depending on what part of the world we’re dealing with, it could be that the bishop has found that in his diocese, sons of unwed mothers tend almost invariably to be involved in violent gang activity, and he understandably wants to keep gang-members out of his seminary!  In some countries, these young men grow up in such dire poverty that entering the seminary can seem like a path to a much better life—in other words, they may view ordination as the ticket to lifelong financial stability, without having an actual vocation to the priesthood.  Or the bishop might have learned from experience already that such boys in his diocese tend to be raised in an environment where lying is considered completely acceptable, and seminary training fails to completely drum this habitual vice out of them.  The possibilities are numerous, and the final decision is always the bishop’s.

Further discussion with Kevin indicated that social problems in his region of the world are in fact quite consistent with some of the suggestions above.  The diocesan bishop had broader reasons for declining to accept this young man as a seminarian in his diocese—he was not rejected solely because he was an illegitimate child.

It’s important to keep in mind that once a man has been ordained a priest, there’s no going back.  (See “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this.)  A diocese may very well be in desperate need of new priests; but the bishop has to keep in mind that if he ordains someone with serious mental, emotional, or moral issues, the diocese is going to be stuck with him!  Unlike a school administrator or business owner who realizes his organization made a bad choice in accepting/hiring a person, a bishop can’t simply expel or fire a priest from the priesthood if he later recognizes that ordaining him was a big mistake.  There’s no doubt that sometimes men who want to become priests are deeply disappointed when they are rejected, but the Church has to try to keep standards high.  The dignity of the clerical state depends on it.

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