How Can A Priest’s Ministry Be Illicit?

Q:  I am a seminarian, and recently heard a priest tell a story of when he was a catechist, prior to seminary, and had to do a communion service. He had expected a priest to show up and start Mass (he didn’t think he’d have to finish the service, basically), but that didn’t happen. So he ‘panicked’ and went through the Missal as if he were saying Mass. This was a weekday Mass and the people didn’t seem to think he was a priest, but several of ‘his friends’ did come up for ‘communion.’  He never told anyone while in seminary.  He does not seem to be aware of the problem.

Did I just overhear a canonical impediment?  Is this priest validly ordained?  Because if not that seems like it would need to be addressed.  Immediately.  But I want to make sure I am not jumping the gun. –Greg

A: There’s an awful lot going on in this question, and much of it doesn’t look good.  From the sound of things, this priest committed a canonical crime back when he was still a layman—and he is still saddled with its repercussions, whether he realizes it or not.  Let’s take a look.

As Greg describes it, Father “went through the Missal as if he were saying Mass,” many years before his ordination to the priesthood.  He then pretended to distribute the Eucharist, using unconsecrated hosts from his invalid “Mass.”  This would seem to constitute a pretty clear violation of two separate but related canons: canon 1378.2 n. 1 pertains to a person who is not an ordained priest, but who attempts to celebrate Mass; and canon 1379 addresses a person who pretends to administer a sacrament.  Both of these actions are delicts—that’s canonical lingo for crimes—and the punishments for these offenses are mentioned in these canons: attempting to celebrate Mass even though you aren’t a priest incurs a latae sententiae interdict (more on this in a moment); while the delict of pretending to distribute Holy Communion is to be punished by “a just penalty,” which basically means that the punishment in this case is left to the discretion of the bishop.

The concept of a latae sententiae penalty is complex, and was addressed in detail in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?” and “How Does an Excommunicated Catholic Have the Sanction Lifted? (Part I).”  But in short, no Catholic incurs any latae sententiae penalty unless he/she meets all the conditions mentioned in canon 1323; and it seems fairly clear that the priest in this case has not done so.  That’s because canon 1323 n. 2 tells us that a penalty is not incurred if the person did not know that the action constituted a crime and was punishable as such.  Greg tells us that the priest “does not seem to be aware of the problem,” and in fact he appears to have told the story of what happened quite openly, which would indicate that he was and still is unaware of the canonical consequences of his past actions.  It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that the priest did not incur the latae sententiae interdict mentioned in canon 1378.2 n. 1.

And as for the “just penalty” required by the other canon, well, it is evident that the priest did not incur that either.  Greg tells us that “he never told anyone while in seminary,” and as we’ve already seen, the priest doesn’t seem to even know that his actions constituted a crime, which means that his superior(s) never discovered what he had done.  Obviously, then, the priest has never been found guilty and punished by a “just penalty” for violating canon 1379.

Since he didn’t incur any sanctions, this means that canonically, the priest has nothing to worry about, right?  Not so fast.  While it may be true that he was never penalized in any way for committing a delict, his actions nonetheless constituted an irregularity for holy orders—which is a separate legal issue.

As was discussed in “Am I Permanently Barred from Ordination to the Priesthood?” an irregularity is a permanent impediment.  In the current Code of Canon Law, irregularities pertain only to holy orders (cf. c. 1040); and since the man whom Greg describes as having pretended to celebrate Mass and distribute the Eucharist was subsequently ordained a priest, they are obviously relevant to this case.

Canon 1041 n. 6 seems virtually tailor-made for this situation: it states that one is irregular for the reception of the sacrament of holy orders if he has carried out an action which is reserved either to bishops or to priests [like trying to celebrate Mass].  And while ignorance of the law prevents one from incurring a latae sententiae sanction, as we saw above (c. 1323 n. 2), this ignorance does not exempt from incurring an irregularity, as canon 1045 bluntly tells us.  It seems fairly safe to conclude, therefore, that this man was irregular for the sacrament of holy orders … and yet was ordained anyway.  What does this imply?

Greg is clearly worried that this priest, who was ordained despite his having incurred an irregularity, is not a priest at all because the irregularity rendered his ordination invalid.  But in fact, an irregularity doesn’t invalidate the sacrament of holy orders; instead, it renders the sacrament illicit.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for more on the distinction between validity and liceity.)  This priest, therefore, really is a priest, because he really did receive the sacrament of holy orders; but conferral of the sacrament was illegal, because he shouldn’t have been ordained due to the irregularity.

We saw in “Can a Priest Have His Ordination Annulled?” that it’s actually quite difficult to ordain a priest invalidly!  As was discussed in that article in greater detail, for a valid ordination, a bishop must impose his hands on a baptized male and pronounce the correct words, with the intention of conferring on him the sacrament of holy orders.  That’s basically it.

So what is one supposed to do, if the sacrament of orders is found to have been conferred illicitly?  Well, as we saw in “How Do You Fix an Illicit Sacrament?” there’s not much of anything that you can do after the fact, to remedy the illiceity itself.  If the action had been established to have been invalid, one would simply redo it correctly, so that the second time it had the intended effect; but in this case, the man’s priestly ordination by the bishop was valid, and thus it would make no canonical sense to try to do it all over again.

That being said … this priest still isn’t out of the woods yet.  That’s because canon 1044.1 n.1 gives him even more bad news: a man who has received holy orders illicitly because he was affected by an irregularity to receive them, is now irregular for the exercise of orders received.  There’s no question that this is getting a bit complicated, so it might be useful to go back and read that sentence again—especially because it directly applies to the priest whom Greg mentions.  This priest had, as we’ve already seen, incurred an irregularity by pretending to celebrate Mass and distribute Communion; and thus he was ordained a priest illicitly.  Now that he is a priest, canon 1044 tells us/him that if he exercises that order—by celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, etc.—he does all these things illicitly as well.

While we’re on the subject, what about the parishioners who are receiving the sacraments at the hands of this irregular priest?  It’s important to note here once again that an irregularity always causes illiceity, not invalidity, and so the Masses and sacraments that this priest administers are all valid (assuming that they are otherwise being celebrated correctly).  The people are not at all to blame here, and the priest’s irregularity for the exercise of orders does not affect the sacraments that they receive at his hands.

What a mess!  This priest has been irregular for the exercise of holy orders from the moment he was illicitly ordained, and so he needs to get this straightened out as soon as possible, for his own sake.  As was discussed in the abovementioned “Am I Permanently Barred from Ordination to the Priesthood?” the diocesan bishop can dispense from this type of irregularity (cf. c. 1047.4)—but he can’t do so unless and until the priest brings it to his attention.

And this priest won’t bring it to his attention, until he fully understands his own canonical situation.  You have to wonder how a man could graduate from a first-world seminary, without being cognizant of the Church’s law pertaining to irregularities.  As we can see, Greg himself (a seminarian) was immediately aware of the priest’s irregularity once the priest recounted his fake “Mass” and distribution of the “Eucharist.”  Speaking broadly, our clergy-in-training learn about this aspect of the law during the course of their studies, and it definitely does happen that a startled seminarian will discover that he himself is irregular for some reason that he never realized before—and take action to correct the situation.  Somehow, however, this particular priest seems to have slipped through the cracks.

In any case, perhaps Greg can either speak to the priest directly, or ask someone at his seminary to do so.  Once the priest is aware of his irregular status, he can petition the bishop to dispense him from it—and from that point on, all the actions of his priestly ministry will be licit.  In the process, of course, the priest will finally become keenly aware of the serious nature of what he had done before entering the seminary.  Performing the ministry of a priest, without being a priest, is nothing to make light of, and the law reflects that fact.

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