Can a Priest Have His Ordination Annulled?

Q: Some years ago my diocese had to settle a number of sex-abuse lawsuits, all involving the same priest. More recently I learned that in the chancery, the diocesan staff had considered making the claim that the priest’s ordination was invalid. In this way, I guess maybe they thought they could argue that the diocese wasn’t legally responsible for his actions, if he wasn’t really a priest of the diocese.

They never used this argument… but now I’m wondering if a priest could theoretically petition for an annulment, like a married person? How does one determine whether a priestly ordination is valid or not? –Amy

A: We Catholics are all aware that the Catholic sacrament of marriage is frequently celebrated, but found later on to have been invalid. So why don’t we ever hear of the same sort of thing happening with a man’s ordination to the priesthood? Let’s look first at the requirements for a valid ordination, and then at the specific situation Amy mentions in her own diocese.

If you’ve ever been to an ordination ceremony (which is normally situated within the celebration of Mass), you know that it can be extremely long and seem complicated. In fact, as it developed over the centuries, the ordination ritual became so complex that in decades past, questions were raised about which liturgical elements were actually necessary components of the sacrament itself, and which were “merely” additional ceremonial actions. This isn’t an idle question: if an element that constitutes an integral part of the sacrament is done improperly or omitted altogether, this will naturally affect the validity of the ordination.

As canon 841 notes, only the supreme authority in the Church can approve or define what is needed for a sacrament to be valid. Thus Catholic theologians could weigh in with their own professional opinions on this subject, but the final say belonged to the Pope.

And with his 1947 Apostolic Constitution Sacramentum Ordinis, Pope Pius XII resolved the uncertainty about this issue. Pius stated that

We of Our Apostolic Authority and from certain knowledge declare, and as far as may be necessary decree and provide: that the matter, and the only matter, of the Sacred Orders of the Diaconate, the Priesthood, and the Episcopacy is the imposition of hands; and that the form, and the only form, is the words which determine the application of this matter, which univocally signify the sacramental effects—namely the power of Order and the grace of the Holy Spirit—and which are accepted and used by the Church in that sense. (SO 4)

So the Pope spelled out the required form and matter for the valid conferral of this sacrament. And these have not been changed; the current Catechism of the Catholic Church basically repeats the same statement in paragraph 1573. The other necessary element for a valid sacrament, of course, is a proper intention on the part of the minister—in this case, the ordaining bishop. (Pius XII did not discuss the issue of intention in his Apostolic Constitution, because it was not part of the confusion that needed to be resolved.) Taken together, these are the bare bones that are needed to confer the sacrament of Holy Orders validly in the Catholic Church.

If you want to be really precise, there is one other important factor, which was so obvious to everyone back in 1947 that Pius XII would never have dreamed of mentioning it: the only person who can validly receive the sacrament of Holy Orders is a baptized male. This is stated unequivocally in canon 1024. See “Can Women be Ordained Priests? “ for a more in-depth discussion of this issue.

So for a Catholic priest’s ordination to be found invalid, what would have to be established? In short, that the bishop failed to impose his hands on the man to be ordained; or omitted/changed the necessary words, as found in the liturgical books; or deliberately intended that he would not ordain the man upon whom he externally appeared to be conferring the sacrament. It should be clear from this that it’s relatively easy to ordain a priest validly.

While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting that in practice, it is virtually impossible to prove that the ordaining bishop withheld the intention to confer Holy Orders during the ordination ceremony. Short of an honest admission by the bishop himself, there’s no way for anybody to know what was going on in the bishop’s head at the moment he appeared to confer the sacrament. This is of course true of other sacraments as well: if they are conferred by a Catholic cleric, the Church naturally assumes (in the absence of any concrete evidence to the contrary) that he meant what he said and did! This is, incidentally, the fundamental reason why many marriages are found to be null—i.e., in many cases it can be proven that one of the spouses did not mean what he/she said when the wedding vows were exchanged. Marriage, unlike the other sacraments, is conferred by the spouses on each other, not by the Catholic cleric who officiates. (This was discussed in greater detail in “Marriage and Annulment.”)

So if we apply all this to the priest-abuser in Amy’s diocese, it should be pretty clear that the diocese would have tremendous difficulty in finding his ordination invalid. Note also that if this priest was ordained in the company of other men, any problem in the conferral of Holy Orders on one of them would presumably apply to them all. And if (let’s say) the diocesan bishop wanted to allege that he willfully withheld his intention to ordain this man, it would be only logical to conclude that the bishop did this at other ordination ceremonies as well. Imagine the chaos that such a bizarre claim would cause!

But the potential chaos would be even broader. Let’s imagine that this priest in Amy’s diocese, who was later found to have abused children, had been ordained for ten years before the abuse became known. If his ordination were invalid, this would mean that if he was engaged in parish ministry during those ten years, all the sacraments he celebrated would have been invalid, if their valid celebration required Holy Orders. All the confessions he heard, the Masses he celebrated, the anointings of the sick, they never really took place. If he had been appointed to the office of pastor of a parish, or parochial vicar, his appointment was invalid too, since these offices are by their very nature reserved only to priests (c. 521.1 and c. 546). This would mean that the marriages he celebrated were all invalid too, for lack of canonical form (c. 1108), since this man was not actually authorized to receive the spouses’ vows in the name of the Church (see “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” for more on how canonical form works). About the only thing that we could safely assume to be valid would be the baptisms he conferred, since (as was discussed in “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity,“) you don’t need to be a priest to baptize validly.

As if that’s not enough, this man presumably accepted stipends for the celebration of Masses for the donors’ particular intentions. (See “Mass Intentions and Stipends“ for more on this.) But if he wasn’t really a priest, he didn’t really celebrate those Masses—so the faithful gave stipends to the parish for Masses which still need to be celebrated. The diocese would have to identify all those hundreds/thousands of intentions and arrange to have the Masses said by someone else.

What a mess!

Perhaps it’s fortunate for us all that it’s so hard for a priest to be invalidly ordained! If the Church were constantly finding ordinations to be null, sacramental life in our parishes would effectively grind to a halt. We’d be endlessly wondering if the sins we’d confessed had really been absolved, or whether the monstrance before which we kneel in adoration actually contained the Eucharist or not. And if it were easy to be invalidly ordained to the priesthood, what would that imply about the validity of the episcopacy? The fears about invalidity would extend even to the Pope himself!

Obviously the Church could not function like this. And so it’s quite understandable that the bishop and others working in the chancery in Amy’s diocese might have looked at the possibility that the priest-abuser wasn’t really ordained… but once they talked it through, they must have quickly realized that absent some truly extraordinary evidence, it’s not even worth considering. If it were easy to ordain a man invalidly, it seems safe to assume that the Church would have virtually ceased to exist long ago.   On the contrary, the sacrament of Holy Orders has been handed down through the generations for nearly 2000 years, which is exactly what Christ intended.

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