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SACRED CONGREGATION FOR THE DOCTRINE OF THE FAITH

Norms for preparing petitions in diocesan or clerical religious Curias
for reducing priests to the lay state with a dispensation
from all the obligations arising from Sacred Orders

 

I. Inquiry to be undertaken before proposing to the Holy See the cases of those who intend to abandon the priesthood

1. Before proposing to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a cause for the reduction to the lay state with a dispensation from the obligations connected with sacred ordination, the Ordinaries involved, that is the diocesan Ordinaries for secular priests and the Major Superiors for religious priests, must attempt for an appropriate period of time and with every means available to help the petitioner to overcome the difficulties which he experiences (cf. Paul VI, encyclical letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, n. 87), for example, transferring him from the place in which he is exposed to the danger and, according to the nature of the case, giving him the help of brother priests, friends, relatives, doctors, or psychologists.

2. If all these efforts do not produce any result and the petitioner persists in requesting the dispensation, the necessary information is to be gathered to resolve the case.

II. Nature of the investigation to gather the information

1.  Because the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith judges whether the reduction to the lay state with the dispensation from its obligations can be proposed to the Supreme Pontiff on the basis of its knowledge about the case, the pressing demands of the petitioner alone are not sufficient, but it is absolutely necessary that these requests are supported by information gathered by the competent ecclesiastical authority, according to the manner indicated in n. III.  This investigation is thus instructed so as to discover the truth of the matter, that is, to clarify the motives of the petitioner for requesting the reduction to the lay state with the dispensation from its obligations.  Thus, one may discover through interrogations, documents, witness depositions, opinions of medical experts and the like, if the request of the petitioner corresponds with the truth.

2. This investigation does not involve however all the characteristics of a juridic process.  It does not look to demonstrate the invalidity of sacred ordination or of the obligations undertaken, following the norms of canons 1993-1998, but it is limited only to the dispensation from those obligations, if it is granted, to a priest who is reduced at the same time to the lay state.  Therefore, the competent authority does not constitute a tribunal strictly speaking, but either personally or through a delegated priest, is to conduct an investigation regarding the pastoral office first of all.  But this investigation is to take place according to precise rules, asking precise questions and seeking precise answers, so that the final opinion of the same authority is to be deduced according to the truth of the matter.

3. The investigation regards first of all the following items:

a) The background of the petitioner:  time and place of birth, previous events or personal history, the family situation in which the petitioner was born, his morals, studies, the votes taken by which he was promoted to ordination, and, if the petitioner is a religious, for the admission to vows, the date and place of sacred ordination, the curriculum of priestly ministry, the juridic condition in which is finds himself now, whether in an ecclesiastical or civil forum, and other similar things.

b) The causes, connections, and circumstances regarding either the difficulties he presently suffers or regarding his defection:  before ordination, such as sicknesses, immaturity of a physical or psychic nature, failures regarding the 6th commandment during the time of formation in Seminary or in the Religious Institute, pressures on the part of the family, errors of the Superiors, whether in the internal forum (provided the permission of the petitioner) or in the external forum, in the judgment of the vocation; after ordination, a failure to adapt to sacred ministry, difficulty or crisis in the spiritual life or in the life of faith, errors regarding celibacy and the priesthood, dissolute behavior, and similar things.

c) The faith that the petitioner deserves:  that is, if the information found in the petitioner’s request corresponds to the truth.

d) Interrogation of witnesses useful according to the scope of the investigation, including parents, brothers and sisters, the Superiors and classmates from Seminary or Novitiate, and Superiors and brother priests in the ministry, insofar as it may be appropriate.

e) According to the nature of the case, and insofar as it contributes to the scope of the investigation, examinations by persons competent in the fields of medicine, psychology, or psychiatry.

The authority responsible for conducting the investigation can add all those things that are considered useful for a fuller understanding of the case.  All these things are to be presented, if possible, under oath and are covered by the obligation of secrecy.

4. The petitioner, after the request has been sent to the proper Ordinary but before a response is anticipated by the Sacred Congregation, must be impeded from the exercise of orders for the sake of prudence (cf. can. 1997).

III. The competent authority responsible for conducting the investigation

1. In cases seeking the reduction to the lay state with the dispensation from the obligations of the clerical state, the responsibility for proposing the request to the Supreme Pontiff, by means of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, falls to the proper Prelate of the petitioner, that is the local Ordinary of incardination for diocesan priests, and the Major Superior for religious priests.

The Ordinary of incardination or the Major Religious Superior does not require the previous permission of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the faith to undertake the investigation according to the current norms, but generally fulfills this task by proper right and duty.  Having completed the investigation, the competent authority is to send the acts to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  This Sacred Dicastery will examine the case as soon as possible, and if it agrees that the request should be presented, will propose it to the Holy Father, who alone decides if the reduction with the dispensation should be conceded or not.

3. When the priest lives very far from his proper diocese or from the seat of the proper Major Superior:

a) If he makes recourse to the proper Ordinary, diocesan or religious, it will be for the same Ordinary to ask the local Ordinary where the petitioner actually lives to conduct the investigation and to communicate to this Ordinary whatever is useful in this regard.

b) If he makes recourse to the local Ordinary where he regularly lives, it will be for this Ordinary to notify the proper Ordinary of the petitioner about the case, whether he be a diocesan or a religious priest, and to request from this Ordinary whatever is necessary to complete the investigation.

In both cases, the Local ordinary, where the petitioner regularly lives is to transmit the acts of the interrogatory to the proper Prelate of the petitioner, whether diocesan or religious, adding his own opinion.

4. For a proportionate reason, the priest petitioner can ask the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the case be entrusted to another authority, beyond those established in these norms, other than the proper Ordinary, whether diocesan or religious.  But even in this case, the Ordinary to which the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entrusts the duty to carry out the investigation must request under the obligation of secrecy for the appropriate information and the opinion of the proper diocesan or religious Ordinary of the petitioner; but in this case, he [the instructing Ordinary] is to transmit the acts directly to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

5. When the petitioner is a religious or a secular priest living outside his proper diocese, the local Ordinary where the petitioner lives is always to be interrogated by the competent authority to know whether he thinks that there is any fear of scandal if the dispensation is granted and the petitioner enters a canonical marriage.

IV. Acts to transmit to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

Having completed the investigation, the proper Ordinary of the petitioner, whether diocesan or religious, should transmit to the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the following documents:

1) the written request of the petitioner;

2) the acts of the investigation (cf. n. II, 3);

3) his opinion, in which he should describe the efforts employed to help the petitioner overcome the difficulty, and what actions he intends to take to avoid potential scandal among the faithful, should the dispensation be granted;

4) in the cases mentioned under n. III, 5, the local Ordinary where the petitioner actually resides should give his opinion regarding the potential for scandal in that territory;

The competent authority is to take care that the transmitted acts are complete, allowing cases to be resolved more quickly.  On the contrary, the resolution of the case may be delayed if some necessary document is lacking.

V. The rescript of reduction to the lay state with a dispensation from the obligations connected to sacred ordination

1. The Rescript inseparably includes the reduction to the lay state and the dispensation from the obligations arising from sacred ordination.  The petitioner is never permitted to separate these two elements, and thereby accept one while refusing the other.  If the petitioner is a religious, the Rescript also includes the dispensation from vows.

This also includes, in so far as it may be necessary, the absolution from censures incurred and the legitimization of any children.

The Rescript takes effect from the moment the petitioner is notified by the competent authority.

2. The Rescript is sent to the proper Prelate of the petitioner, which is the diocesan Ordinary for a secular priest and to the Major Superior for religious, so it may be communicated to the petitioner, except in the case mentioned in n. III, 4.

If the petitioner is a religious priest, or a diocesan priest who is living outside the territory of his proper diocese, the local Ordinary of incardination or the Major Religious Superior is to notify the local Ordinary where the priest regularly lives about the pontifical dispensation and is to ask him, if it be the case, to communicate the Rescript to the petitioner and to grant the delegation necessary for the celebration of a canonical marriage.  But if particular circumstances suggest otherwise, the abovementioned Ordinary may appeal to the Sacred Congregation.

4. In the parish baptismal register of the petitioner and of the partner, a notation is to be added indicating that the local Ordinary is to be consulted if a document or a notice is requested.

VI. Conditions to be observed by the dispensed priest

1. On account of the reduction to the lay state and the dispensation from the obligations connected with the priesthood, and even more so if a marriage has been contracted, the priest must remain distant from the places in which his priestly state is known.  The local Ordinary where the petitioner lives, by common accord with the proper Ordinary of incardination or the Major Religious Superior, and in so far as necessary, may dispense from this clause of the Rescript, if it can be foreseen that the presence of the dispensed petitioner will not give rise to any scandal.

2. Regarding the celebration of a canonical marriage, the Ordinary is to personally see that any pomp or ostentation is avoided and that it be celebrated by an experienced priest without witnesses, or if necessary, with two witnesses; the acts of this marriage are to be safeguarded in the secret archives of the Curia.

It falls to the local Ordinary where the priest lives, together with the proper Prelate of the petitioner, whether diocesan or religious, to determine whether the dispensation, as well as the celebration of the marriage, is to be kept secret or in what way it may be communicated, with due caution, to neighbors, friends, and employers in such a way to provide both for the good reputation of the petitioner himself and for his socio-economic rights given his new state of life as a layman and a husband.

3. But if the priest reduced to the lay state and dispensed from the obligations connected with sacred ordination does not observe the caution given to avoid scandal, and even presents his case in the public domain to provoke scandal (through newspapers, radio, television, or similar means), driven by ill will to disparage sacred celibacy, the Ordinaries to whom it falls, and even the religious Superior in the case of a religious, have the right to make known that the priest in question was reduced to the lay state and dispensed from his obligations, as the Church does not consider him suitable for the exercise of the priesthood.

4. The Ordinary to whom it falls to communicate the Rescript to the petitioner is to exhort him strongly to participate in the life of the People of God in a way suited to his new condition of life, to give good example, and to show himself a beloved son of the Church.  Furthermore, the Ordinary is to inform him that any priest reduced to the lay state and dispensed from his obligations is prohibited:

a) to assume any function of sacred orders, except those provided for by canons 882 and 892 2;

b) to have any liturgical role in celebrations with the people where his condition is known, or to give the homily;

c) to have any pastoral office;

d) to take on the office of Rector (or another position of authority), Spiritual Director or Teacher in Seminaries, Faculties of Theology or in similar Institutions;

e) to hold the office of Director in a Catholic school or the duty of a teacher of  religion in any school, whether Catholic or not.  The local Ordinary nevertheless, according to his prudent judgment in individual cases, may permit the priest reduced to the lay state and dispensed from the obligations connected to sacred ordination to teach religion in public schools and, in an exceptional way, even in Catholic schools, provided that there is no fear of scandal or wonder.

The Ordinaries, including the Major Superiors for religious, to whom it falls to watch over the priests reduced to the lay state and dispensed from the obligations connected with sacred ordination, are, within the limits their ability and with paternal and pastoral love, to help them so that they live decorously.

VII. Cases processed ex officio

The things established in these regulations for the cases in which a priest asks spontaneously of his own free will for the reduction to the lay state with dispensation from the obligations arising from sacred ordination, are to be applied, with any necessary adaptations and after the required investigation, also in those cases in which it appears that the priest should be reduced to the lay state because of a perverse lifestyle, doctrinal errors, or another grave cause.  The reduction may be granted together with a dispensation, granted for the sake of mercy, lest the priest run the risk of eternal damnation.

         

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