Episcopal Celibacy and the Case of Bishop Antony

Q: Many priests and people of Mysore Diocese [in India] begged the Vatican for years to investigate the scandalous activities of their Bishop William Antony.  The Bishop has many different mistresses and illegitimate children, and has [allegedly] stolen money from the Church.  Some diocesan priests who complained were murdered.

The Bishop has some supporters, but we assume he has bribed them to say positive things about him.  One of his supporters says that the Bishop has no mistress, he has a respectable wife because he received a dispensation from the Pope to get married.  We would like to know if this could be possible in canon law.  Why would Rome permit a bishop to marry a woman and have a family, when all our priests are required to be celibate?  If this is true, we do not understand the purpose in it…. –Mona

A:  Rightly or wrongly, nowadays it often feels like those Catholic bishops who are genuinely doing their best to spiritually care for the faithful of their dioceses are few and far between!  Tragically, in recent years Catholics worldwide have become all too familiar with scandals caused by bishops’ misconduct.  Some have mismanaged church funds for their own benefit (see “Canon Law and Bishops of Bling” for more on this), while others have deliberately covered up sexual abuse by their clergy (“Why is Cardinal Mahony Voting in the Conclave?” provides an example), or gone to the opposite extreme and thrown the book at innocent priests who were accused with no evidence (“Canon Law and False Abuse Allegations, Part I” and “Part II”), or in some cases even proven to be abusers themselves (think “Cardinal McCarrick” and see “Sex-Abuse Scandals and Papal Responsibility”).

That said … if there were a contest among Catholic bishops around the globe to see who could cause the most scandal, and misuse episcopal power in the most numerous ways, news reports certainly suggest that the former Bishop of Mysore would be a top contender.  Consecrated a bishop in February 2017, he was just recently removed from his post, and an Apostolic Administrator has been appointed by Rome in his place.

For quite a while, there has been an enormous furor in the Diocese of Mysore about the alleged conduct of its bishop!  Let’s examine what is known of the situation as best we can, and then we can focus specifically on Mona’s question about the possibility (or not) of married Catholic bishops.

Kannikadass William Antony was ordained a priest in 1993 for the Diocese of Mysore (also known as Mysuru), located in Karnataka State, India, and was later consecrated bishop of that same diocese in 2017.  It appears that even before Pope Francis named Antony a Bishop Antony episcopal celibacybishop, he already had a scandalous reputation: criminal charges had been filed against Father Antony for assaulting a policeman, and he also had a history of allegations of sexual involvement with his female parishioners—leading to his repeated transfer from one parish to another.  Given his track record, which evidently is well known throughout the Diocese of Mysore, one has to wonder why his name was ever included on a list of possible future bishops for the diocese!  Who in the Indian Catholic hierarchy recommended then-Father Antony as a suitable candidate for the episcopacy, and why?  (See “How Are Priests Selected to be Bishops?” for a detailed explanation of the process.)

The faithful of Mysore began to protest Antony’s appointment as bishop immediately; and many diocesan priests promptly did the same.  They say that they wrote repeatedly to the papal nuncio in India about Bishop Antony’s misconduct, but received no response to their letters.  To be fair, as we saw in “Should We Contact the Papal Nuncio?” a papal nuncio is not the hierarchical superior of a diocesan bishop; bishops are answerable directly to the Pope.  Thus a better approach would have been to write directly to the Vatican, rather than to the nuncio in India.  We can’t be certain, but the nuncio probably forwarded their letters to Rome, asking for an investigation of Bishop Antony.

In any event, by early 2021 the Vatican indicated that it had begun investigating the allegations against Bishop Antonywho has consistently denied any wrongdoing, claiming that his opponents are simply unhappy with his administrative reforms in the diocese.  During his years as a bishop, the number of accusations against Antony increased: He has allegedly used church funds to pay for homes for his mistresses, and to send his illegitimate child(ren) to private school.  (It sounds like canon 1395.1 may be directly relevant here: a cleric who lives in concubinage—i.e., a long-term sexual relationship outside of marriage—is subject to the penalty of suspension, or even to dismissal from the clerical state.  (See “Canon Law and Priests With Illegitimate Children” and “Father Pavone’s ‘Suspension’: Priests For Life, Part II” for more on the sanction of suspension.)

Another alleged incident that is even more sensational involved the kidnapping of a female employee of the diocese, who said she had refused the bishop’s sexual advances.  She was told by her kidnappers that if she revealed what had happened she would be killed.  Subsequently, the woman recanted her story completely, and refused to press charges against the bishop.  (A video of the woman recounting her story can be viewed here.)

Her fellow Catholics in the diocese allege that this is additional evidence that there is some type of organized-crime ring in the region, in which Bishop Antony is involved.  He has been accused multiple times of bullying, making threats, and general intimidation of his opponents.  There are also allegations of bribery: in a bizarre twist, the policeman whom then-Father Antony had allegedly assaulted later dropped all criminal charges against him … and was soon hired as his personal bodyguard!  What does that suggest, other than that the policeman had received some sort of payoff?

At least 37 priests of the diocese protested against the bishopall of whom were soon transferred by him, an undeniable case of retaliation.  But what is far more ominous, four of them were subsequently killed: “two murders, one hanging and one so-called accident,” in the words of an Indian High Court Justice, who has publicly opposed the bishop and demanded his removal.

In August 2020, the Prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples, Cardinal Tagle, requested that Bishop Antony take a paternity test.  (The Congregation, by the way, has now been renamed the Dicastery for Evangelization.)  In this way, at least the veracity (or not) of allegations that Antony had fathered illegitimate children could be determined.  Bishop Antony had already objected to demands by the priests and faithful of Mysore Diocese that he take such a test: there was, he declared, “no need for such a measure just because some disgruntled people make such demands.”  Likewise, once the Vatican had instructed him to take a paternity test, he evidently refused to do so.

On January 7, 2023, the Indian Conference of Bishops (see “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” for more on what a Conference of Bishops is) announced that the Vatican’s Dicastery for Evangelization—acting at the behest of Pope Francis—had removed Bishop Antony from ministry.  Bernard Moras, the retired bishop of Bangalore, was appointed apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Mysore.  (The role of an Apostolic Administrator was discussed in “Who’s in Charge of the Diocese, When There’s No Bishop?”)  As of this writing, it’s not clear where Bishop Antony is.


Let’s never lose sight of the fact that justice requires a presumption of innocence until guilt is proven.  That said, the accusations against Father/Bishop Antony are so numerous, involving so many unrelated people from all walks of life, over the course of several decades … that it strains the bounds of credulity to conclude that they were all made by dishonest people with a desire to harm an entirely innocent bishop.  Something clearly has been going on in Mysore Diocese, and one can only wonder why Bishop Antony remained in office for as long as he did!  The facts suggest that someone(s) else, holding some authority, was/were protecting him for unknown reasons.  Maybe someday the full story will be revealed.

So what does all this scandal have to do with Mona’s specific question, about bishops being dispensed from celibacy and thus permitted to marry?  Quite a lot, in fact!  To begin with, if in theory Bishop Antony really did somehow manage to obtain from the Pope a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, don’t you think he would be flaunting that document to everyone in public?  And there would also be no need for paternity tests, or for his mistress wife to hide in the shadows; she would be able to live with him openly, right?  The mere fact that none of this has happened should show everyone in the Diocese of Mysore that such a claim is baseless.

This alone answers Mona’s question insofar as it specifically pertains to Bishop Antony; but since she also asked a more general question, as to whether dispensing a bishop from celibacy “could be possible in canon law,” let’s take a look at the Catholic Church’s current overall stance on the issue of married clergy—deacons, priests, and bishops.

First of all, if you’re familiar with the basics of early Christian history, you know that at least in the very beginning, there definitely were married men who later became Catholic clergy.  After all, even Scripture tells us that St. Peter had a mother-in-law (cf. Mark 1:29-31), which obviously means he must have had a wife!  Actual practice, and any rules that may have been put in place in the early stages of the life of the Church, are less than clear to this very day; here’s some excellent research on the topic for interested readers.

Note also for the record that there’s a big practical difference between (a) ordaining a man who is already married, and (b) allowing a man who is an ordained cleric to marry afterwards.  As we saw in “Can a Deacon Ever Get Married?canon 1042 n. 1 states that a married man is impeded from receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders, unless he is destined for the permanent diaconate.  A man who is already married, therefore, can be ordained a permanent deacon; but a man who’s already been ordained a deacon cannot then get married: canon 1087 tells us that the clergy “invalidly attempt marriage.”  With regard to permanent deacons, in uncommon situations—like a deacon who is subsequently widowed, but wishes to remarry so that his young children will grow up with a mother figure—Rome certainly can and sometimes does grant him a dispensation, so that he can marry again.  But as a general rule this is not an option.

As for the priesthood, we in the Latin Catholic Church know that our priests are celibate; but in recent decades (especially during the long reign of Pope-Saint John Paul II) when large numbers of married Anglican clergy became Catholics and sought ordination as Catholic priests, the Church has dispensed them from the obligation of celibacy, and ordained them.  Once again, these men were already married before their ordination.  (See “Celibacy and the Priesthood” and “Episcopalians Entering the Catholic Church” for more on this.)  Rest assured, however, that if these married Anglicans-turned-Catholic-priests are subsequently widowed, the odds that Rome will grant them yet another dispensation, so that they can remarry, are effectively zero.

What about bishops?  If you’re looking for a recent example of a married man who later became a Catholic bishop, there actually is one!  In the 20th century, Salomão Barbosa Ferraz was originally a Presbyterian minister in Brazil, and had a wife and seven children.  antony, Salomão Barbosa Ferraz He subsequently became involved with a couple of different groups, akin to the “Old Catholics” (discussed in “What is the ‘Old Catholic Church?’”), which were not in communion with the Pope but had valid bishops.  Ferraz was validly ordained a bishop in one of these breakaway groups … but in later years he sought full communion with the Catholic Church.  Rome received him, as an already ordained bishop—who also happened to have a wife and family.  It’s a very interesting, true story, but it goes without saying that this sort of scenario doesn’t arise every day!

Bishop Ferraz was already married when he became a bishop in the Catholic Church.  But are there any examples of men who were consecrated Catholic bishops, but later were permitted to marry?  In a word, no.  In fact, even in those Eastern Catholic Churches which have married priests, their bishops are all celibate.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part I,” among many others, for a discussion of Eastern Catholic Churches sui iuris—some of which permit the ordination to the priesthood of married men.)

Mona is spot-on when she surmises, “Why would Rome permit a bishop to marry a woman and have a family, when all our priests are required to be celibate?  If this is true, we do not understand the purpose in it.”  A layman who is considering the priesthood normally thinks long and hard about the consequences of choosing a celibate life—as well he should, because once he’s been ordained a priest, celibacy is mandatory, not optional.  There is no going back and getting married, without leaving the priesthood first (as discussed in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?”).

It should go without saying that this applies to bishops too!  Let’s not lose sight of the fact that canon 1394.1 applies to all clergy, including bishops: it tells us that a cleric who attempts marriage incurs a latae sententiae suspension (the concept of latae sententiae penalties was addressed at length in “Have Pro-Abortion Politicians Excommunicated Themselves?”).  This fact alone should make it abundantly clear how seriously the Catholic Church takes the celibacy of its clergy.

Even without knowing all the details of the story of Bishop Antony, we may safely assume that although technically, in theory, the Pope could dispense from the obligation of celibacy … this didn’t happen here.  Absent any public, definitive statement from Rome to the contrary, you should take it for granted that the Bishop of Mysore, and all other bishops for that matter, cannot abandon their promise of celibacy and get married while at the same time remaining a member of the Catholic clergy.  Some things just don’t happen.

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