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Letter to Bishops and General Superiors
regarding the reduction to the lay state


In the Encyclical Letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus of June 24, 1967, the Supreme Pontiff Paul VI spoke “with fatherly love, with trepidation and great sorrow… of those unfortunate priests who always remain our dearly beloved brothers in the priesthood, who retain the sacred character conferred by their priestly ordination impressed on their soul, but have nonetheless been sadly unfaithful to the obligations they accepted when ordained.”

In the same document, the Supreme Pontiff, having recalled the reasons for which the Church grants to some priests the concession of the reduction to the lay state with dispensation from the obligation of observing celibacy, admonishes “that every persuasive means available be used to lead our brothers from this wavering state and restore to them peace of soul, trust, penance, and their former zeal. It is only when no other solution can be found for a priest in this unhappy condition that he should be relieved of his office.” The Holy Father continues that, if this priest “should demonstrate that he cannot return to the priesthood, but demonstrates nevertheless a serious and good disposition toward living Christianly as a lay person, the Holy See, having studied all the circumstances with their bishops or with their religious superiors, sometimes grants a dispensation, thus letting love conquer sorrow” (AAS 59 [1967] 690-691).

An in fact, the Supreme Pontiffs, Pius XII, John XXIII, and Paul VI, subjected requests for the reduction to the lay state with the dispensation from the obligation of observing celibacy to the then Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office, so that, if their judgment was favorable, they would then be submitted for consideration in a Pontifical Audience.

Therefore this Sacred Dicastery sent a letter on February 2, 1964, “to all Cardinals, Bishops, local Ordinaries and Superiors General of Religious Families” in which they were informed that a special Commission has been constituted before this Sacred Congregation whose duty was that of evaluating requests for reduction to the lay state with dispensation from the obligation of observing celibacy. To this letter were attached the Norms for preparing the causes regarding sacred ordination and its obligations, according to which the local Ordinary of the place where the petitioner (also called the “actor”) habitually resides, must constitute a Tribunal composed of a judge, a Defender of the Bond of Sacred Ordination, and a Secretary, to conduct a process in a judicial manner. The questionnaire for the petitioner contained 27 articles while the “judicial examination” of the relatives and the witnesses contained 22 and 23 articles respectively.

After some time, many of the Cardinals, Bishops, and Superiors General of Religious asked that the regulations be reduced to a simpler form which would consequently reduce the time required for the resolution of the causes, both in the diocesan Curias as well as in this Sacred Congregation.

Considering all these things, the Plenary Assembly of this Sacred Congregation, held on December 3, 1969, decreed that the norms recorded here were to be abrogated and substituted with other new and simpler norms. The Holy Father, after consideration, ratified the decision of the Cardinal and Bishop Fathers.

So this Sacred Congregation broke down the norms according to the recommendations of the Bishops and Superiors General, and combined them based on the conclusions derived from the experience gathered from the thousands of cases which the Sacred Congregation examined from almost every corner of the world. From here, new Norms were drafted and submitted to the Holy Father on December 14, 1970, who granted his approval.

Now with this Letter, the new Norms are communicated to the individual local Ordinaries and to the Superiors General of the Clerical Religious Institutes. The Superiors General are kindly asked to communicate these norms to all the Major Superiors (i.e. Provincials and those equivalent to Provincials) within their Institute.

The principle differences between the Norms of 1964 and the present Norms can now be illustrated.

1) In place of the “judicial process” instructed in the Tribunal, now a simple investigation is conducted with the scope of determining if the motives advanced in the petition for the dispensation from the obligations of celibacy have merit and if what the petitioner has asserted corresponds to the truth. This type of investigation, therefore, is less juridically rigorous, is based instead on pastoral criteria, and proceeds in a simpler way. Nevertheless, the inviolable principle remains that this investigation be conducted so as to discover the objective truth.

2) The norms of 1964 subjected the entire process to the local Ordinary of the habitual residence of the petitioner; but this Ordinary may not be the proper Ordinary of the secular priest petitioner, and was never the proper Major Superior of the religious petitioner. The new Norms entrust the duty to conduct the investigation to the proper Ordinary of the petitioner, whether diocesan or religious.

If the petitioner lives far from his proper diocese or from the seat of the proper religious Major Superior, the Norms entrust the above mentioned competent authority (i.e. Prelate) the mandate to ask, with the letters indicated, that the local Ordinary where the petitioner lives conduct the investigation.

3) In this Sacred Congregation, the examination of the acts sent by the competent Prelate will be adapted according to simpler regulations. Presuming the integrity of the acts, the examination of the case will take place in a short period of time. If the votum of the competent Prelate is favorable and the votum of this Sacred Congregation confirms this finding, the case will be presented to the Holy Father directly for the dispensation from the obligations of observing celibacy; and if this is granted, the rescript will be sent within a brief period of time to that Prelate who submitted the case.

4) Up to now, the Rescript of reduction to the lay state with the dispensation from the obligations of observing celibacy was sent with a letter to the local Ordinary where the petitioner resides, and the same Sacred Congregation informed the petitioner’s proper Ordinary of incardination or the religious Major Superior. From now on, instead, the same Prelate approached by the petitioner on account of incardination or religious profession, and who conducted the investigation of the case, will communicate the Rescript to the petitioner, directly or through the local Ordinary where the same petitioner resides.

5) The new Norms permit the competent Prelate (the Ordinary of incardination, the religious Major Superior, or the local Ordinary where the petitioner resides), according to his prudence and in so far as may be necessary, the faculty of dispensing from the obligation – which had been strict up to now – of maintaining secrecy regarding the dispensation and the canonical celebration of marriage.

6) The Norms contained in number VI, were arrived at after frequent consultation and diligent examination conducted by a combined group from this Sacred Congregation and other competent Dicasteries; and the Holy Father has confirmed these Norms with special attention.

These Norms now enacted seek to improve and complete the previous Norms of 1964. It is obvious that the observance of these Norms entails a most grave obligation, which obliges all Bishops and Religious Superiors. This obligation is closely connected to this same Sacred Congregation and to the Holy Father, himself, who above all wants it to be observed: That every attempt be made (before recourse to the Supreme Authority of the Church to resolve the cases worthy of mercy, which are recalled in the Encyclical Letter Sacerdotalis Caelibatus) to lead priests who are tempted to depart to conquer their difficulties.

Beyond this Letter with its associated Norms, we testify to our firm and genuine desire to help Bishops and religious Major Superiors to bring priests in danger back to the right path.

And while we communicate the above details on account of our office, we gladly share our deep sentiments of esteem which we confirm gratefully in the Lord.

Rome, January 13, 1971

+ Franjo Cardinal Seper

+ Mons. Paul Philippe