Q1: I have been discerning a call to the priesthood … [and] I have met with the vocations director and the bishop of this diocese. The bishop said I cannot be ordained a priest because I have a child out of wedlock, from a relationship which ended years ago. I changed my life after that time, and live fully in accord with God’s laws … can I really be barred from the priesthood because I have a child? –Raoul
Q2: I was once engaged, never married, … the engagement ended for mutual reasons. I’ve always been drawn to the priesthood, I feel like this is my calling. Am I still eligible for the priesthood if I was engaged but never married? –Jim
A: Readers might be surprised to hear how often questions come to this site about men being ordained (or not) despite issues in their past lives. As a general rule, they involve men who may have engaged in immoral activity in years gone by, but have subsequently turned to God and changed their behavior dramatically. What happens if such men feel called to the priesthood? Are they unable to become Catholic priests because of what they did in the past?
With regard to a prospective seminarian having an illegitimate child, there is no clear, black-and-white answer to this question in the code, because there is no canon which specifically addresses this particular situation. Instead, canon 1042 provides us with a short list of impediments to the reception of the sacrament of holy orders:
—a man who has a wife (c. 1042 n. 1—unless he is going to be ordained not to the priesthood, but to the permanent diaconate, as discussed in “Can a Deacon Ever Get Married?”);
—a man who engages in work/activity that is not suitable for the clergy, as per canons 285 and 286 (c. 1042 n.2, and see “Can Priests Hold Public Office?” for more on this);
—a neophyte (i.e., someone who just recently became a Catholic), unless the bishop/superior judges that he has been “sufficiently proven” (c. 1042 n.3).
In addition to this list of impediments, canon 1041 gives us a list of irregularities for the reception of holy orders. As we saw in “Am I Permanently Barred from Ordination to the Priesthood?” an irregularity is an impediment which, by its nature, is permanent. The list includes:
—a man with some kind of mental illness/psychic defect which renders him unqualified to properly carry out priestly ministry (c. 1041 n. 1);
—one who has commited the crime of apostasy, heresy, or schism (n. 2);
—one who has invalidly attempted marriage under any of the circumstances listed (n. 3);
—one who has committed homicide or procured a completed abortion (n. 4);
—one who has mutilated himself or someone else, or has attempted suicide (n. 5);
—one who has carried out an action reserved to a bishop or priest, without (yet) having been ordained to that order (n. 6, and see “How Can You Tell a Real Priest From a Fake?” for more on this issue).
Note that as is addressed in the abovementioned articles, some of these irregularities and impediments are routinely dispensed (see c. 85, and “Marriage Between a Catholic and a Non-Catholic” and “When Can You Get a Dispensation, and Who Can Grant It?” for more on what a dispensation is). Now if there’s no clear prohibition on the ordination of a man who has an illegitimate child, no dispensation would even be needed—so why did Raoul’s bishop say that Raoul can’t become a priest?
The fact is, if a man wants to become a priest, it’s the bishop (if he wants to become a diocesan priest) or the major superior (if he wants to become a priest in a religious institute) who ultimately makes the decision as to whether this man is suitable or not. As we saw in “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?” canon 1025.1 tells us that among other things, a candidate for ordination must be considered by his bishop/religious superior to be beneficial to the ministry of the Church. If the bishop or superior feels that the candidate is for some reason unfit, the man cannot insist that he be ordained. Simply claiming that “I am convinced God is calling me to the priesthood” is not enough—as the life of St. Benedict Joseph Labre (to cite only one example) can attest. See “Can the Bishop Refuse to Ordain Me Because I’m Too Old?” for more on this.
When a man expresses interest in the priesthood, he will naturally meet with the bishop/superior (perhaps after meetings with a vocations director, as in Raoul’s case), to discuss the whole situation. A big part of that discussion will naturally involve learning who the prospective priest is, and what he’s been doing with his life up to this point. The spiritual state of the man will understandably be a major topic of discussion as well. No bishop or religious superior is going to accept a man as a candidate for the priesthood, if he doesn’t know him well enough!
It should go without saying that a man who hopes to become a priest is doing his best to live a life “fully in accord with God’s laws,” as Raoul put it. At the same time, we are all sinners, so no candidate for the priesthood is going to be flawless. Many respectable, virtuous adults—whether they’re contemplating the priesthood or not—led wild, immoral lives before cleaning up their act when they got older. The question that a bishop or religious superior will have to ask is, is a prospective priest’s past life so problematic that it will create difficulties for him (and for the diocese or religious institute) if he becomes a priest? And will it cause scandal, or at least confusion, among the faithful to whom he is expected to minister?
Many of our past sins leave no publicly known, visible impact on our lives; but this is definitely not the case for someone who has engaged in extramarital sexual activity, and fathered a child outside of marriage. Every child is a gift from God, of course; but an illegitimate child is unwittingly a constant reminder of the immoral conduct of his parents in years gone by. Many such parents make truly heroic efforts to raise these children responsibly, acknowledging their past faults in the process. But what could this scenario potentially do to the life of a priest, in the eyes of his parishioners?
The only correct answer here is, “It depends.” Imagine, for starters, that Raoul has a five-year-old daughter with a woman who is also unmarried. In this scenario, Raoul is paying child support, and will do so until his daughter is much older. Let’s say that the mother and daughter live in the same diocese as Raoul and are practicing Catholics, active in their parish; and Raoul sees his daughter often, sometimes at parish-related activities. People are generally aware that Raoul is the father of this girl, and that for whatever reason, her parents aren’t married.
It should be fairly easy to see what kind of confusion would result in Raoul’s ordination to the priesthood in this same diocese! Many of the faithful would instantly be scandalized at the notion that the man whom this little girl refers to as “Daddy” is now administering Catholic sacraments. Aren’t priests supposed to be celibate? Wouldn’t it be better for the man to marry the mother of his child than to become a priest? Should he stay away from the girl now that he’s ordained, and should she stay away from him? These and many other questions would be the talk of the town—and with good reason.
Now let’s imagine a different sort of situation. Pretend that Raoul has an 18-year-old daughter by a woman who later married someone else. Both the mother and the daughter took the husband’s name, so it’s not even clear to most people that the girl is Raoul’s daughter. Imagine that Raoul no longer sees her very often, since the girl lives with her mother and stepfather 200 miles away. Maybe they aren’t even Catholics. It should be evident that these circumstances are quite different, aren’t they? A bishop or religious superior might look at the totality of this situation, and conclude that if Raoul is ordained a priest, his past isn’t necessarily going to be a problem.
Most real-life cases probably fall somewhere between these two extremes—and the bishop/religious superior is going to have to make his own judgement call as to whether to accept the man as a seminarian or not. If his decision is “no,” the prospective priest might vociferously disagree with the reasoning behind it; but at the end of the day he pretty much has to accept it. Going over the bishop’s or religious superior’s head, and appealing to Rome, is not the answer in this situation: the Vatican will invariably defer to his judgment. Rome is, in short, not going to force a seminarian down any bishop’s or religious superior’s throat! Yes, it’s possible that the bishop/superior is apparently being unreasonable, as we saw in “Why Would a Bishop Refuse to Ordain a Seminarian?” but if that’s the case, the best bet in general is to apply to another diocese or religious institute instead.
Note that we haven’t yet addressed Jim’s question. In his case, he was engaged to be married, but for unstated reasons the engagement was broken off. Can he become a priest, given this event in his past?
Well, the mere fact that someone was once engaged, and later decided against getting married, is hardly a moral failing in itself! Jim will certainly mention this life-event, in his discussions with his diocesan vocations director or bishop, or with the religious superior if he’s aiming to join a religious institute. The diocese or religious institute, in turn, will certainly be interested in hearing the full story. Why did the marriage never take place? If Jim and his fiancée merely agreed that it wasn’t such a good idea after all, that’s one thing; but if (let’s say) she broke off the engagement after Jim was arrested for beating her up in a drunken rage, or if Jim broke it off after she told him she was pregnant, and then completely abandoned her and the baby, that would be quite another! Once again, the bishop or religious superior will have the final say as to Jim’s acceptance into the seminary program, and he’ll want to look at Jim’s full background (among other things) before making a decision.
By this point, it should be clear why the Code of Canon Law is silent on the points our questioners raise. The circumstances surrounding our past actions can vary dramatically from person to person, and so it is critical for those responsible for selecting new seminarians to get the full story. Let’s pray for bishops and religious superiors who are charged with this task, that they make the right calls and choose men who will be truly holy priests, and genuinely beneficial to the ministry of the Church.
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