Can a Laicized Priest Return to the Priesthood?

Q:  I was ordained a priest for the Diocese of X, and then left the priesthood to get married.  Here I am sixteen years later, the marriage ended, no children.  I have been reassessing my life … [and concluding that] it was a bad decision overall…..  I really want to return to active ministry if it is at all possible.

Does canon law permit this?  And if so, does it ever happen in practice?  If it can be done, I assume I will have to schedule a meeting with the current diocesan bishop, but I don’t want to ask for an appointment if there is no point in it.  Any information you could provide would be appreciated …. –James

A:  We took a look at the basic issues surrounding Catholic priests who leave the priesthood in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?”  But James raises a further question: once a priest leaves the priesthood, what, if anything, can he do if he later wishes to come back?  Let’s briefly review the Church’s theological teaching about the sacrament of ordination and the Catholic priesthood, and then the relevant procedures spelled out in canon law should seem entirely logical.

The Catechism states that the sacrament of Holy Orders confers an “indelible spiritual character” on the man who receives it (CCC 1582).  Like the sacrament of Baptism, it can never be erased: a baptized Christian can cease to practice his faith, and even publicly deny Christ, but he can never undo his baptism.  Priestly ordination works in the same way.  In technical theological lingo, the sacrament of Holy Orders—like Baptism—effects an ontological change in the person receiving the sacrament, who is henceforth permanently different.

As we have seen so many times before in this space, canon law follows theology.  Thus it’s no surprise that canon 290 of the Code of Canon Law states bluntly that once a man validly receives sacred ordination, the sacrament never becomes invalid.  In short, once a man is ordained a Catholic priest, he is always a priest.

That said, the abovementioned “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” explained that it is indeed possible for a validly ordained Catholic priest to leave active priestly ministry and live as a layman again.  The Catechism explains that there is no contradiction here:

It is true that someone validly ordained can, for a just reason, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is forever.  The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently (CCC 1583).

Practically speaking, this means that a priest who returns to the lay state is still a priest, but he no longer functions outwardly as a priest. He may no longer engage in ministry within his diocese or religious institute; no longer celebrate Mass or confer the sacraments; no longer be called “Father” or wear clerical clothing; and no longer be supported financially by the Church.  To the world he appears to be a layman, working at an ordinary job and living the normal life of the laity.  Canon law refers to this change as the “loss of the clerical state” (cf. cc. 290-293).  Common parlance calls it laicization.

But what happens if a priest is laicized, and later decides that he wants to return to the priesthood again?  Canon 293 indicates that this is entirely possible, when it states, “A cleric who loses the clerical state cannot be enrolled among clerics again except through a rescript of the Apostolic See.”  Thus it can be done—but it’s going to depend on the priest’s individual circumstances.  The undeniable fact is that in some cases, it might be fairly easy (relatively speaking) for a laicized priest to return to ministry again; while in other cases, it will be absolutely out of the question.

One of the biggest factors in determining this is, what led to the priest’s laicization in the first place?  We saw in “What Does it Mean to ‘Defrock’ a Priest?” that some priests are forcibly laicized, as the ultimate punishment for some crime they had committed—and nowadays that crime almost invariably involves the sexual abuse of minors.  If a priest was laicized because the Church had established his guilt in a criminal matter, that obviously means that church authorities have concluded that we don’t want this man engaging in priestly ministry in the Catholic Church!  So if, in theory, such a priest were later to seek to return to active ministry in the Church, what bishop or religious superior would possibly agree to accept him?  Absent some sort of finding that the original criminal accusations against him were actually false, and that the establishment of his guilt was erroneous, there’s no clear reason why a priest who has been removed from ministry as a punishment would later be readmitted.

Quite different is the case of a priest who voluntarily seeks to leave the priesthood and return to life as a layman.  In most cases, such priests request not merely laicization, but also a release from their promise of celibacy—because they wish to get married.  (See “Celibacy and the Priesthood” for more on this.)  These requests are sent to Rome, and if they are approved, the laicized priest is able to marry validly in a Catholic ceremony.  The Vatican rescript granting him this permission will say that any such marriage is to be low-key and as private as possible, in order to avoid confusion among the faithful—who otherwise might naturally be led to conclude that “it’s now okay for our Catholic clergy to get married.”

Priests who have followed this route, and have been lawfully released from the obligations of the clerical state by their hierarchical superiors, have procedurally done it right.  While there’s no question that this is a sad occurrence for the Universal Church, which thereby loses a priest in active ministry, the priest who is laicized in this way nevertheless remains a Catholic in good standing in the eyes of the Church.  Note that this is a far cry from a priest who is laicized after a criminal proceeding, as a punishment!  Yes, they both are laicized priests; but their back-stories couldn’t be more different.

Thus it should be evident that when a laicized priest seeks readmission to active ministry, the final decision will depend a lot on the circumstances which led to his laicization, and on his current status as a Catholic in good standing (or not) in the eyes of the Church.  The next question to examine is, who decides whether a laicized priest can return to ministry?

Firstly, it’s up to the priest’s hierarchical superior.  If a diocesan priest is laicized, and later wants to return to ministry as a diocesan priest, the diocesan bishop has to agree to take him back.  Or if a priest who was a member of a religious institute (like the Dominicans or Paulists) is laicized and then wishes to be readmitted to his institute, his religious superior(s) have to want this too.  If the laicized priest’s bishop/religious superior has since died, his successor can of course make this decision.  And in theory, if a priest from (say) Diocese A is laicized, and years later he wants to return to ministry as a priest of Diocese B, this is not procedurally impossible—but once again, this has to be agreed to by the Bishop of Diocese B.

Ordinarily, the bishop/religious superior will conduct an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the laicized priest’s departure, his reasons for coming back, his current overall spiritual/mental status, etc.  This is only common sense: if a priest was uncertain/confused about his purpose in life at the time he sought laicization, he naturally should show every indication that now, when he wants to come back, he has resolved these personal issues.  No diocese or religious institute wants or needs a priest to leave, then come back and later leave again.  After all, the priesthood is not supposed to be entered through a revolving door!

If a bishop/religious superior has decided that the laicized priest should be permitted to return, the abovementioned canon 293 kicks in, and the request has to be sent to Rome for final approval.  Once again, the Vatican will investigate the full situation, and listen to the bishop’s reasons for wanting the priest back.  If Rome disagrees and declines to approve the request, the laicized priest is basically out of luck.  But if the Vatican decides to approve it, the priest can be readmitted to active ministry and incardinated (again) into the diocese or religious institute (see “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I” for more on what incardination is and how it works).

It’s impossible to know James’s precise situation, just from reading his email.  But the fact that he and his ex-wife had no children is surely a positive factor.  Think about it: if a laicized priest requests to return to priestly ministry, but has young children who need both a father and financial support, the odds are pretty high that neither his bishop nor Rome will be willing to take him back.

Another major issue is of course the wife!  If she has died, or lives hundreds of miles away and is utterly indifferent to what her ex-husband wants to do with his life, that’s one thing; but if she lives nearby, and/or is angry with him or the Catholic Church (or both), and/or is surely going to create a public scene if he returns to ministry … that’s quite another.  Complex or unresolved family issues like this will almost certainly prevent a laicized priest from returning to the active priesthood again, at least at this time.

How common is it for laicized priests to seek to return to ministry?  Since these cases are of course not aired in public, there are no regularly published statistics on the question; but an interesting and surprising set of figures was printed in a Vatican publication back in 2007.  Although the statistics it cites are now about 20 years old, they clearly indicate that a sizeable number of priests who were previously laicized have successfully sought to return to ministry:

…[I]t is rather significant that over about thirty years, 11,213 priests have been readmitted to the priestly ministry who had abandoned it for the most varied reasons. […] While fully respecting those who decide to serve the Lord better in a different state of life that they have embraced after realizing that they were not suited for the priestly life, the Church cannot help but rejoice at every return to the priestly ministry, finding once again a person willing to serve with all of his being the ecclesial community and the cause of the Gospel.

Clearly, the process we’ve just examined has indeed been put to use, successfully, many thousands of times!  It appears that in these cases, priests who were really meant to be priests had left the priesthood, but subsequently were welcomed back again.  Praise God!  We don’t know James’s full story, but perhaps he is being led by Him to do the same?

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