Laicization (Loss of the Clerical State)

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In canon law, laicization is an act by legitimate authority that takes away from a cleric the lawful use, except for emergencies, of the power of orders; deprives him of his rights, privileges, and clerical status; and renders him juridically equivalent to a lay person. Church law clearly points out that laicization in no way affects the power of orders, not even those that are clearly of ecclesiastical origin; rather, the action touches on the lawful use of the power of orders. There are three ways in which a cleric loses the clerical state: (a ) by judicial sentence or administrative decree that declares the invalidity of sacred ordination; (b ) by a penalty of dismissal legitimately imposed for some crime specified in church law; or (c ) by a rescript or letter of the Apostolic See, as for example, the priest who desires to leave active ministry and live as a lay person, either with or without marriage (see CIC 290 and CCEO 394).

Historically, the Catholic Church divided clergy into major and minor clerics. The first category consisted of sacerdotes, that is, bishops and priests, along with deacons; the second category comprised those tonsured clerics receiving the minor orders of porter, acolyte, lector, and exorcist. Since 1972, laicization applies only to deacons, presbyters, and bishops.

Examples of laicization occurred more frequently in history among those with minor orders. A minor cleric who freely married, or joined the military without permission, or without legitimate cause ceased to wear ecclesiastical dress and tonsure and did not resume them within a month after warning automatically incurred laicization. Likewise, religious minor clerics automatically incurred laicization if dismissed from their institute. Church law provided that laicization be imposed in the case of a minor cleric guilty of external carnal sins and the religious minor cleric whose profession is declared invalid due to fraud. Voluntary instances of laicization took place when the minor cleric informed his ordinary that he wished to return to the lay state, and the decree of the same ordinary ordering the return of a cleric whom he judged unsuitable for advancement to major orders.

Ecclesiastical law did not envision the voluntary departure from active ministry by major clerics, as for example, priests. Involuntary departure as a penalty, however, appeared in church history and law. The distinction between deposition and degradation may be found in the Decretals of Gregory IX (Decretales Greg. IX, c. 27, De verborum significatione, lib. V, tit. 40). In either case, the focus of the penalty was upon the use of an individual's power through ordination.

Laicization is connected in canon law with the theological principle that once Holy Orders have been validly received, they constitute an indelible character on that person that can never be invalidated. The loss of the juridical status of a cleric does not mean that a person becomes "unordained," but rather that he loses the right to the lawful exercise of orders and he loses all the privileges and obligations (except that of celibacy) of a cleric. The most significant effect of the loss of the clerical state is the prohibition from exercising the power of orders and the subsequent deprivation of all offices, functions, and any delegated power.

1917 Code of Canon Law. There were no commonly known procedures for voluntary departure or laicization in the 1917 code. One reason may be that dispensations from the priestly vow of celibacy were not granted. Prior to 1970, the law and the practice for a laicized priest was that he retain his obligation to celibacy. For example, a decree dated April 18, 1936, from the Sacred Penitentiary stated that for the Latin Church "dispensation from [sacred celibacy], in past times, was hardly ever granted, and according to the present discipline is never given, even in danger of death" (AAS 28[1936] 242). From 1939 to 1963, such dispensations were granted in 315 instances. Since that time, the number of dispensation requests rose into the thousands. When such a dispensation from celibacy is requested and granted by the supreme authority of the Church, it always includes the loss of the clerical state and significantly restricts the person's ability to participate in public church functions.

The 1917 code contained procedures for involuntary loss of the clerical state. The distinction between the two penalties of deposition and degradation found expression in CIC canons 2303 and 2305. Both penalties could be inflicted only for offenses specified as punishable by these penalties under the law of the code. In addition to the case mentioned in canon 2305, §2, the 1917 CIC lists five others in which the law warrants the imposition of the penalty of degradation (see canons 2314, §1, 3°; 2343, §1, 3°; 2354, §2; 2368; and 2388, §1). Deposition, while leaving in effect the obligations arising from the reception of sacred orders, carried a suspension from offices and ineligibility for offices and positions in the Church. Degradation includes deposition, perpetual deprivation of the right to wear ecclesiastical garb and the reduction of the cleric to the lay state whereby the cleric was relieved of the obligations of the clerical state, except that of observing celibacy.

Changes were introduced in the wake of Vatican Council II. The first may be classified as terminological while the second concerns the development of procedures governing voluntary departures and later involuntary departures from the clerical state. The major moments of this change may be marked by the norms issued by the Holy See, especially those of 1980; the revision of church law in 1983; the norms issues in 1988 by Pastor bonus and subsequent directives.

Vatican Council II. The Church altered its view of the clerical state as a result of the insistence of the Second vatican council on the fundamental equality of all the People of God. The change is clear with respect to membership. Entrance into the clerical state, according to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, came about with the reception of tonsure followed by the minor orders. With the suppression of both of these entrance rites in 1972 by the motu proprio Ministeria Quaedam (AAS 64 [1972] 529534), ordination to the diaconate marks one as a cleric. Therefore, the present discipline on the loss of the clerical state applies only to deacons, presbyters, and bishops. The change is equally clear with respect to the loss of the clerical state. The material on the loss of the clerical state in the 1917 code was entitled "The Reduction of Clerics to the Lay State," which clearly implied the inferiority of the laity. The use of "loss of the clerical state" and "return to the lay state" more accurately reflect the conciliar emphasis on equality, which became one of the principles guiding the revision of the code. Vatican II deliberations pointed to the difference between involuntary and voluntary loss of the clerical state, but left the implementation to the Holy See.

At the request of many bishops at Vatican Council II, Pope Paul VI launched a twofold approach to the question of procedures for voluntary departure from active ministry. On one hand, church teaching would continue to explore the great value placed on priestly celibacy in the Latin Church (CLD 7:9295). On the other hand a special 18 member commission was formed in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. They set forth on Feb. 2, 1964, an instruction announcing their exclusive competence to deal with petitions for the return of priests to lay status, dispensed from all obligations of the clerical state, including celibacy (CLD 7:10021015).

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith instituted in 1964 a procedure whereby the gathering of information with respect to a petition take place by a strictly judicial process through ecclesiastical court authorities under the local ordinary. Each dispensation request, after examination by the special commission was reserved to the pope. The policy required two items: the dispensed priest live outside the area of his previous priestly ministry and any celebration of canonical marriage was to be privately celebrated and witnessed by the ordinary. The same congregation replaced this first procedure on Jan. 13, 1971. Preparation of a petition no longer required judicial procedure, which was replaced by an administrative and pastoral procedure of data-gathering. Presentation of a petition to Rome need no longer be made necessarily by the local ordinary. Instead, the responsible agent was the petitioner's personal superior the bishop in the case of his diocesan priest, the major superior in the case of religious priest. The new norms required that the laicized priest refrain not only from strictly priestly functions, but also from certain specified functions often associated with priestly ministry, e.g., the function of homilist and the office of rector, spiritual director, or professor in seminaries, theology faculties, and similar institutes. Further, he should not hold the position of religion teacher, nor the office of principal of a Catholic school. Restrictions on the externals of a marriage ceremony of the laicized priest were generally retained as in the instruction of 1964. (AAS 63 [1971]:303312 or CLD 7:117121).

Eighteen months later the congregation gave authentic clarification to some doubts arising in the 1971 norms in a circular letter of June 26, 1972. Laicization should never be the first, but only the last resort in salvaging a disintegrated priestly commitment; and ordinaries are encouraged to use every means to help prevent a priest from seeking a dispensation on impulse, in a state of depression, or without truly mature and solid motivation. Once dispensed and canonically married, the former priest may never be readmitted to the exercise of orders, but the dispensed priest, if unmarried and convinced that he mistakenly sought laicization may apply to the Holy See and seek the recission of his laicization. The circular letter reminded bishops that they may not resort to the emergency powers granted them by canon 81 of the 1917 code to dispense a priest from celibacy since the office of priesthood involves the public order and the common good; a priest is not free to set it aside at his own discretion once he has freely accepted it (AAS 64 [1972] 641 or CLD 7:121124).

Procedures and Norms after 1980. On Oct. 14, 1980, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a letter to all local ordinaries and moderator generals of clerical religious institutes "on the mode of procedure in the examination and resolution of petitions which look to a dispensation from celibacy" (AAS 64 [1972]:1132 or CLD 9:9296). Appended to the letter were eight procedural norms to be followed in the instruction of each case.

The norms adopt a position that a dispensation is a relaxation of the law in a particular case and should never be viewed as a right; that is, a dispensation from priestly celibacy is anything but an inevitable, almost automatic, result of an administrative process. The norms presumed that before applying, each petitioner already has used all the resources available to solve his problems, i.e., the help of priestly brothers, friends and relatives as well as counseling by spiritual and psychological experts. The norms attempt to stress the individuality of each case and the need to develop an approach that addresses the uniqueness of the petition being prepared. Therefore, the norms must always be interpreted in the light of guidance found in the congregation's letter. Paragraph five of that letter, for example, speaks of cases of priests who long abandoned the priestly life, cannot withdraw from their present state and wish to sanate it; cases of those who should not have received priestly ordination because they lacked due sense of freedom or responsibility, or because the competent superiors were not able, at the proper time, to judge in a prudent and sufficiently suitable manner whether the candidate was really fit to live his life perpetually in celibacy dedicated to God.

The 1983 Code of Canon Law identifies three ways by which a member of the clergy can lose his juridical status as a cleric and thus be returned to the lay state. Canon 290 states that a cleric loses the clerical state by:(1) a juridical decision or administrative decree that declares the invalidity of sacred ordination; (2) the legitimate infliction of the penalty of dismissal; and (3) a rescript of the Apostolic See that is granted to deacons for serious reasons only and to presbyters for only the most serious reasons. Except for the case of the declaration of the invalidity of sacred ordination (c. 290) laicization does not entail, and is distinguished from, a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy (c. 291).

The theology of orders determines that which is necessary for the validity mentioned in canon 291, namely requirements of the minister, candidate, their intentions, and liturgical form. Procedures for claiming the invalidity of orders are found in canons 17081712. The loss of the clerical state by imposition of the penalty of dismissal (c. 291) requires a careful procedure as outlined in canons 17171731 and can be imposed only for reasons identified in the law. Similar to the 1917 code, the new code cites six instances: cc 1364, §2; 1367; 1370, §1; 1387; 1394, §1; and 1395. Such an imposed penalty is considered an expiatory one, that is, it is meant to repair or compensate for damage done to the ecclesial community. It can never be inflicted automatically or by decree, but must be imposed.

Pastor bonus. Pope John Paul II transferred competence for dispensation requests to the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments under articles 63 and 68 of the Apostolic Constitution on the Roman Curia, Pastor bonus, of June 28, 1988. Competence for cases submitted prior to this date were retained by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The competency called for by Pastor bonus was confirmed in a letter of Feb. 8, 1989 (Notitiae 25 [1989] 485). All petitions of secular and religious clerics in Latin or other Churches sui juris in common law or mission territories come to this congregation. Further clarification on competency occurred in a July 25, 1989, letter to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life regarding dispensations from the obligations arising from the ordination to the diaconate by religious men (Notitiae 26 [1991] 5354).

Since Pastor bonus, a number of practical instructions on processing laicization petitions became available. "Documents Necessary for the Instruction of a Case for the Dispensation from the Obligations of Priestly Celibacy" was issued by the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments in April 1991 (CLSA Roman Replies & Advisory Opinions [1991] 24). The next year the congregation issued "Loss of the Clerical State by a Deacon and a Dispensation from All the Obligations of Ordination" through Archbishop Daniel Pilazczyk, May 11, 1992 (CLSA Roman Replies & Advisory Opinions [1992] 611). Finally, a circular letter was sent on June 6, 1997, to all ordinaries and superiors concerning the laicization of priests and deacons (Origins 27/11 [Aug. 28, 1997] 169, 170172).

The Effects of the Loss of the Clerical State. While more attention focuses on the procedures on loss of the clerical state, there are a number of consequences applicable to all three modes. CIC canon 292 and CCEO canon 395 state that one who loses the clerical state is no longer bound by its obligations but also no longer enjoys its rights (cc. 279289). With the exception stated in canon 976, one who loses the clerical state is forbidden the exercise of sacred orders. It is necessary therefore to examine individual rescripts for restrictions imposed on the departing cleric.

A Return to the Clerical State. The present law of the Church provides for such a possibility with CIC canon 293 and CCEO canon 398. "A cleric who loses the clerical state cannot be enrolled among clerics again except through a rescript of the Apostolic See." No further procedures are set forth. As a commentary on this topic, one might consult M. Souckar, "Return to Ministry of Dispensed Priests," Jurist 54 (1994) 605616.

Bibliography: pope paul vi, "Tradition of Priestly Celibacy Reaffirmed (Feb. 2, 1969)," Canon Law Digest [CLD] 7:9295; "Reduction to Lay State: Norms," CLD 7:10021015; "Reduction to Lay State: Circular Letter to Ordinaries (Jan. 13, 1971)," CLD 7:117121; "Reduction to Lay State; Procedural Norms; Interpretation (June 26, 1972)," CLD 7:121124; "Reduction to Lay State: Norms (Oct. 14, 1980)," CLD 9:9296; "Documents Necessary for the Instruction of a Case for the Dispensation from the Obligations of Priestly Celibacy," CLSA Roman Replies & Advisory Opinions (Washington, D.C. 1991) 24; "Loss of the Clerical State by a Deacon and a Dispensation from All the Obligations of Ordination," CLSA Roman Replies & Advisory Opinions (Washington, D.C. 1992) 611; "Circular Letter to All Ordinaries and Superior (June 6, 1992)," Origins 27:11 (Aug. 28, 1997) 169, 170, 172. j.e. lynch, "Loss of the Clerical State," The Code of Canon Law: A Text and Commentary, ed. j. a. coriden, et al. (New York/Mahwah, N.J. 1985) 229238. f. j. schneider, "Loss of Clerical State," New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law, ed. j. p. beal et al. (New York/Mahwah, N.J. 2000) 382392. m. souckar, "Return to Ministry of Dispensed Priests," Jurist 54 (1994) 605616.

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Laicization (Loss of the Clerical State)

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