Friday, July 8, 2011

Priests: Can They Be 'Excommunicated'? And Can They Get Married?

Hello, Coffee Talkers!

A couple interesting questions have come to my attention, in light of recent events. These questions are complex and multifaceted, and I'll admit that I'm no expert in questions regarding the priesthood -- a canon lawyer or someone involved in priestly formation and direction would be more fully educated regarding these questions. Still, I do have some knowledge of these things, and so I'll do my best to share what I do know in a way that is (relatively) succinct and easy to understand.

First question: What constitutes excommunication? Are priests never excommunicated? What does it mean to say that a priest is "a priest forever"?

Second Question: [In regard to certain priests being unfaithful to their vow of celibacy], for me it always leads back around to the issue of "priests being married". I think the majority of Catholics agree. Not that married priests would not have their own set of issues. What do you think, Leslie -- 100 years from now, might they be able to marry?

Okay, here we go! First, let's talk about excommunication. There was a time in the history of the Church when excommunication referred to two different states. The first was called "minor excommunication," which referred to a person being barred from receiving Eucharistic communion because they were in a state of mortal sin and had not yet been to sacramental confession. This is, of course, a situation that can be easily rectified in modern times by going to confession! The second type, called "major excommunication," referred to a person who was formally declared by a bishop or by the Pope to no longer be in communion with the Catholic Church because of a very serious and deliberate act contrary to the Church's teaching. Only this latter definition of excommunication is in popular use today, and it means that the excommunicated person cannot receive any of the Church's sacraments or participate in her public worship until such a time as suitable reparation and satisfaction have been made. The Church always leaves a path to reconciliation open to excommunicated members, and it is the hope that their time of exile from the ecclesiastical community will be short-lived.

In regard to priests, yes, priests can be excommunicated. If they are, they not only face the same restrictions as an excommunicated lay person, but they are also forbidden from the administration of the sacraments or other sacred rites and they may not exercise any acts of spiritual authority. This does not, of course, mean that an excommunicated person (lay or cleric) ceases to be a Christian -- they are always a Christian by nature of their baptism (which brought about an ontological change, or changed the nature of a person's being). Similarly, a priest, having received the sacrament of Holy Orders and having been ordained a priest through Apostolic succession, once validly ordained, always remains a priest. He may be removed from his ministry due to excommunication, or he may be 'laicized' by his own request for no morally problematic reason. In either case, however, he remains a priest ontologically (or in his soul's nature of being). However, he can no longer exercise priestly functions. See this article on what an ex-priest can and can't do for more details.

In regard to the second question, let me answer this question from its end to its beginning. Do I think that priests might someday be able to marry? Yes. In fact, many priests already are married. There are more than 20 different rites of Catholicism, and in the Eastern rites, it is common to allow priests to marry (although they may not marry after being ordained, and they may not serve as bishops if they are married). Also, although the normal practice for Roman Catholic priests is to be and to remain unmarried, we do have some married Roman Catholic priests who, by a special pastoral provision, converted to Roman Catholicism after having previously served as married priests in the Anglican (or Episcopal) Church. For my local friends, you may be interested to know that the current priest chaplain at St. Mary's hospital is one of these married priests under the pastoral provision. 

I have known several married Roman Catholic priests in the USA, and it has been an honor and blessing to know them. However, not one of them has argued in favor of priests in the Roman Rite being regularly married. Why, we may wonder? Here are a few of my own thoughts -- 1. Eastern Rite churches in the US are significantly smaller in numbers of parishioners than Roman Catholic parishes; 2. the demands of time and emotional, spiritual, and physical efforts devoted by the average Roman Catholic priest would significantly limit the time available to care for and support a wife and children; and 3. most of the married priests I know became Catholic when they were not in the midst of life with a young family, and I think they can see the serious challenges of being a married priest more realistically than we can.

Lastly, and most importantly, I want to say this very clearly: priestly celibacy is not the cause of any of their personal indiscretions, and allowing priests to marry would in NO WAY solve individual problems of abuse and infidelity. I mean no disrespect when I say this, but I'm just not sure why so many Catholics think that if priests could marry they would not have the problems that a very public few of them have had/are currently having. This argument makes NO SENSE! This becomes more clear when we look at similar indiscretions committed by men who are not priests. Let me try to illustrate by way of a couple examples:

1. Bob and Sue are married with children. All seems well in their marriage, until Sue learns that Bob has a serious problem with child pornography. I would hope that no one would suggest that if Bob had only had another wife, or a mistress, or even a prostitute, he would not have felt the need to resort to child pornography. Bob has some serious problems that cannot be resolved simply by having a wife.

2. Frank is an unmarried man, and a teacher. He is accused of having inappropriate relationships with several of his students. No one would say that this problem would not have come about if Frank could only have married. Frank could have married, but it clearly would not have resolved whatever deeper problems he had.

I suspect that there are a lot of underlying assumptions about human sexuality that play into the idea that priests need to be married, and I suspect that a lot of these ideas come from the perspective of modern secular psychoanalytical theories and such rather than from a philosophy of the human person that is compatible with Christianity. I'll get into this more tomorrow. I'm sure this is more than enough for us all to ponder for now!

As always, thanks for stopping by! Be assured of my prayers.

Peace and all good,


  1. Thanks Leslie, for your update. What makes the most sense to me is the fact of practicality, that for a young priest, to raise a family and hold together a congregation would be overwhelming. On the other hand, the examples you sited from Bob and Sue, and Frank, saying if "Bob had another wife" or if Frank "had a wife" those sins would not have been committed, are also generalizations. What about lack of "emotional connection" in a priest's relationship with Jesus? esp. as the years go on. I have known 6 priests now, not very personally, but have touched my families life, even if just on EWTN that have swayed. And honestly, the word "psychopath" comes to my mind, and I'm just being honest, Leslie. I am hearing that the younger generation of priests coming in are traditional and strong and that makes me happy. I pray for priests all the time, esp. in adoration, and when you keep hearing about things happening with them, it's extremely disconcerting, and one starts to consider other possibilities. Because priests are human after all.

  2. In regards to the 'minor excommunication' the church still practices it. Nancy Pelosi was asked to no longer receive communion until she confesses and must stop speaking publicly in support of things that contradict the teachings of the Catholic Church. Also no one is suppose to serve her communion until she has done this. So it's still practiced but under certain circumstances.

  3. Thanks for the comments! First, @Anonymous, you're right to point out that my examples are clearly based on generalizations (and an oversimplification of the matter at hand). I did not want to give real examples and cause scandal -- I was simply trying to point out (in a general way) that I don't believe priestly celibacy to be the underlying reason behind particular problems in the priesthood. People with deviant behaviors, priest or not, have other issues that need to be dealt with than not having a spouse -- that's all I meant to point out. Not quite sure what you mean by the 'psychopath' part of your comment -- that these men who left the priesthood were psychopaths? Or you think it was just a lack of emotional connection that led them to leave their role as ministerial priests? Or both? In any case, it is very good of you to pray for priests, especially in adoration. Yes, priests ARE human, so thank you!

    @jacqueline, I was merely indicating that the use of the TERM excommunication in modern times generally refers only to 'major', or formal, excommunication, not that the 'minor' practice of individuals being barred from Eucharistic communion does not exist anymore. Of COURSE, anyone in a state of mortal sin is prohibited from receiving communion until they go to confession and receive absolution. (Still, if I have committed a mortal sin but not yet gone to confession, I would not generally refer to myself as having been excommunicated in modern times -- this is the distinction I was trying to make). However, very few people's sins are known publicly, so for a person to be formally denied communion usually requires a statement from the bishop or pope, and I believe that this act makes it fall into the category of major excommunication, anyway. (Again, excommunication is not an area of expertise for me, so I'm always open to new information.)

    Regarding Nancy Pelosi, while there are many people and organizations that have personally called for her excommunication, I have not heard of this actually taking place from the authority of the Church. It seems that it would have been very public news. WHO asked Nancy Pelosi to stop receiving communion? If it was a directive from her bishop, then it becomes excommunication in the formal sense; if it was just 'Joe Catholic', lay coordinator of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion at the parish Nancy Pelosi sometime attends (for example), well, then that would seem to me not to be 'minor' excommunication, but to have been beyond Joe's realm of authority and an act that would need to be left to the bishop alone (thus making it major and not minor). I'd really need more information to comment further -- do you have any sources for the alleged 'minor excommunication' of Nancy Pelosi? If so, I'd be very interested to see them, since all that I've heard up until now suggests otherwise.

    As always, I welcome your comments and input, so thank you!

  4. Hi Leslie. I knew Fr. Whimpi, I believe his nick name was, before he became one of the worst child molesters. I was in the 8th grade. The fact that this man went from having this saintly, angelic aura about him, to slipping into the gravest behavior, smacks of psycopath, simply because he started to live two different lives. it is almost incomprehensible. psycopath might have been a bit of a reach, maybe I should have said schizofrenic. Guess the most important issues for new priests are: the REASON they become priests, and keeping close to a COMMUNITY of fellow priests, whom they know believe the same. The rogue priests just kind of go off and do whatever they please, and other priests look the other way. You never hear of another priest blowing the whistle on another, it's the victims that come forward finally.

  5. Thanks for the clarification. Yes, there is something very wrong with that kind of behavior, although all of us can have some tendency toward compartmentalizing our lives in unhealthy ways. There is definitely a great need for community to counteract selfishness and unhealthy behaviors -- "it is not good for the man to be alone" and "how good it is for brothers to dwell in unity" are two Scripture verses that come to mind here. I can't speak to how much other priests do or don't know -- especially if the erring priest is really that much off on their own. I'll address this all a bit more in tonight's post. Blessings!

  6. 1. Eastern Rite churches in the US are significantly smaller in numbers of parishioners than Roman Catholic parishes

    me: yeah but we'd almost certainly have more of them in the West if they could marry and so this would even out.

    2. the demands of time and emotional, spiritual, and physical efforts devoted by the average Roman Catholic priest would significantly limit the time available to care for and support a wife and children

    me: maybe but if we were a little smarter about how we did things and let lay people run the business aspects of the parish while the priests ran the sacraments and the liturgy, then I think that this concern would be largely a non-issue. Why should priests be hiring contractors to fix leaky roofs anyway?? How do pastors from other denominations manage???

    This is why I think the Church should offer ordination to pastors of other denominations who convert, even if they are married. With discretion...they should not be too recent in their conversion and they should have to be willing to go through the normal seminary screening process.

    But the Catholic priesthood in the US desperately needs some fresh faces, and fresh blood with the goal of shaking it up a little bit culturally. Many of the Protestants have excellent teaching and preaching ability and in many cases know how to build a dynamic Church community-- sometimes from scratch. How many Catholic priests can we say that of??

    I say try it out....Start reordaining Protestant pastors on a trial basis and reassess things after 20 years or so to see how the experiment worked.

    It's really silly to stick to old disciplines just because they are old. And that I think is what were talking about here when it's all said and done.

  7. I agree that allowing priests to marry, would not have prevented priests from the predatory problems. I do, however, think that allowing priests to marry (or at least have the choice to) would attract a higher caliber of priets. We have a situation inwhich some priests were attracted to the priesthood to hide their sexuality. We also have lost priests, who have fallen in love. This happened in my church, a priest fell in love with a nun, they both stepped down and married, they became just a part of the laity in our church. I also knew a seminary student who was contimplating the priesthood, he dropped out knowing that he could not remain celebate. He knew he would want to marry. By demanding celebacy, we limit quality candidates.