By Msgr. Jonas Achacoso, JCD
Once a priest is ordained, he is a priest “forever according to the order of Melchizedek” (Heb 7:17). Hence, under no circumstance can a priest be “un-ordained” or, at least, there is no known way to undo what was validly done. There may be cases of degradation, defrocking, laicization and dismissal because a priest has committed grievous delicts, or by his own volition, does not want to live priestly life anymore. An example of the former case is that of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and the latter case would be that of Jonathan Morris.
All those terms are used to refer to the process by which validly ordained priests are discharged from their priestly ministry but never from their priesthood, as we have already said. They have been used at specific periods in Church history, which,
analyzing the circumstances and context, would reveal the conceptual development of how the Church herself is understanding such a process.
The term currently used is dismissal from the clerical state. The Code of Canon Law states that: “Sacred ordination once
validly received never becomes invalid. A cleric, however, loses the clerical state: 1. by a judgment of a court or an administrative decree, declaring the ordination invalid; 2. by the penalty of dismissal lawfully imposed; 3. by a rescript of the Apostolic See; this rescript, however, is granted … to priests only for the gravest of reasons” (canon 290).
Please note that the release is an imposition of a penal sanction unless it is given as a grace by the Holy Father through a rescript by gravest of reasons. And there are two ways to carry out the release, either via judicial process or administrative
procedure. Either way is a severe process to handle a serious matter.
The terms degradation and defrocking emphasize very well the penal nature of the release. Precisely in the old Code of Canon
Law (1917), the term “degradation” is used (cf. CIC17, canons 211, 670, and 765). The problem is that the word connotes the superior level enjoyed by the priests and demotion to the laity’s inferior level. Hence, the term is unfair to the laity because the
lay state is not a sorry state of punishment but merely another state of life.
On the other hand, defrocking means taking from the priest the privilege of wearing his priestly vestment or frock. In other words, it is the deprivation of an ordained faithful of his ecclesiastical status by taking off from him the visible signs of the clerical state. This term is the favorite of the media, perhaps because it is very graphic and punitive. I bet you have in mind that scene of the movie Beckett. The term laicization denotes the same nuance as degradation. To laicize is the expulsion of a cleric from his clerical state and is “returned” to be a lay faithful. The process of laicization somewhat implies “un-ordaining” an ordained, something which is impossible, let alone unthinkable, given the Catholic doctrine that once a priest is validly ordained, an indelible character is imprinted in his soul. There is no process of deleting what was imprinted. There is no
known power in the Church to un-ordain an ordained. Hence, the ordained will never become a layperson ever again.
The laity themselves, cognizant of their dignity and proper mission as lay faithful, would not want their state of life to be
described as lower, painful, and negative. This concept is even counterproductive in advancing and promoting the laity’s positive and supernatural role as provided in “Lumen Gentium.” This is the peculiarity of our canonical penal system because we do not have correctional facilities. Once a criminal is convicted in civil penal law, he will suffer the penalty, most likely in a
correctional facility. The canonical way of penalizing is rather moral in nature.
The most proper term for the process is dismissal from the clerical state, which does not imply that the discharged priest goes back to the normal lay state. The juridical status of one dismissed from the clerical state is something else. Hence, unknown to many, there are unwritten laws — in the sense that they are not formally promulgated — but are imposed personally to the discharged priest. Aside from not having the clerical state’s rights, they should not anymore be involved in church ministries as preaching homilies, functioning as a lay minister, holding leadership positions, etcetera.
When a cleric is dismissed from the clerical state, the dismissal does not automatically free him from his obligation of celibacy. There is another process needed, which is called a dispensation. Once dispensed, only then can a former priest exercise again his ius connubii, or his right to marry.
So what is the proper term? The most popular is defrocking and laicization. The term degradation has been relegated in the past. The term dismissal is the appropriate canonical term but is unknown, and perhaps that is why it is used less in media.
The process mentioned is ecclesiastical, meaning carried out and imposed by the authority of the Church.
The Church can defrock, degrade, or dismiss a cleric from the clerical state, but never from the mercy of God. The grace of the ordination remains because once a priest, a priest will remain forever.
Msgr. Achacoso is the author of ‘Due Process in Church Administration’ (2018), recipient of Arcangelo Ranaudo Award (Vatican City), and Administrator of Corpus Christi Church in Woodside, NY.