Archbishop Column - August 12, 2005
August 12, 2005
Ordained priesthood is a lifetime commitment
I have read some curious statements lately by a few men who have left priestly ministry of their own volition. They have indicated that they were making a career change, or seeking a new lifestyle. Some have even indicated that they thought God was calling them to a new vocation. But these statements and attitudes are contrary to the teaching and discipline of the Church regarding the ordained priesthood.
Every ordained priest promises, with total freedom, a lifetime of service to the people he is sent to serve. He promises that he will live as a chaste celibate for the sake of the Kingdom that he will use his sexuality and other gifts in loving service to many people. He promises lifelong respect and obedience to his bishop (or his superior for a religious order priest).
These are not just empty promises. The Church binds a priest to these commitments for the rest of his life, just as the Church binds a husband and wife together in the Sacrament of Marriage for the rest of their lives. The Sacrament of Holy Orders, like the Sacrament of Matrimony, is a lifetime commitment to love and fidelity. A priest cannot decide to leave priestly ministry anymore than a husband can decide to leave his wife. If he does, then he breaks his sacramental commitment to Jesus and his people.
Consequences of leaving priesthood
One who of his own volition leaves priestly ministry is not free to live in a way that is not compatible with his priesthood. He is not free to marry, any more than a man bound sacramentally to a wife is free to leave her and marry someone else. If he does, then like the married man, he must marry out of the Church and separate himself from the sacramental life of the Church.
Sometimes the impression is given that, if a man leaves priestly ministry of his own volition, all he has to do is apply for a dispensation from the pope to be free from his priestly obligations. But this is not true. The pope will not dispense a priest from his priestly obligations, including the obligation of celibacy, unless because of age or health problems or some other serious reason it is evident that he will not be able to return to priestly life or live a celibate life. A priest remains a priest forever because the effects of the Sacrament of Orders cannot be reversed. Only for serious reason will the pope dispense one who has left priestly ministry from the obligations of priesthood and allow him to live as a layman in the world.
A permanent bond with Jesus and his people
The theology and magisterial teaching of the Church over the centuries is that the Sacrament of Holy Orders, like the Sacrament of Marriage, establishes a permanent bond with permanent obligations and privileges for the ones who receive the sacrament. The stability of family life, especially for the children, depends on the permanence of the marriage bond between a husband and wife. We believe that Jesus helps solidify the marriage between baptized partners through a sacramental bond.
By the same token, the stability of the Church depends on the permanent ministry of bishops, priests and deacons. The permanent bond between Jesus and his priests, and the bond between priests and their people, are necessary ingredients for stable church life. From the beginning of apostolic ministry in the Church, it was recognized that bishops and priests were ordained for a lifetime of service to people. Gradually, it was recognized that priestly celibacy, in imitation of Jesus, was an important charism in the Church, giving witness to the singular identity that priests have with Jesus and his people. Celibacy became a prerequisite for priestly ministry in the Roman Catholic Church early in her life.
The Church does not accept the position that the Sacrament of Orders can be lived temporarily or abandoned when one feels like it. The Sacrament of Orders transfigures a man to be able to minister in the place of Jesus as the personal representative of Jesus. This is the reason a priest cannot take on the mantle of priestly ministry temporarily and then later abandon it. It is a lifetime commitment to Jesus and his people.
Compassion for those who cannot return to priestly ministry
The Church will be compassionate to older men who are unable to return to priestly life for serious reasons, and dispense them from their priestly obligations though they remain priests until they die. But the Church will not dispense younger men who leave priestly ministry because they want to change lifestyles or to marry. In the long-run, for the stability of the Church, it is a good thing that the Sacrament of Orders binds a man for a lifetime, just as it is good for the stability of marriage and family life that the Sacrament of Marriage binds a husband to his wife and family for a lifetime.
In individual cases church law may seem unfair, but for the common good of marriage and priestly life in the Church, the law is a blessing for all the people of the Church.
Ordained priesthood is and will continue to be a lifetime commitment which cannot be set aside by individual priests. Only the pope, for serious reasons and after a period of time, is able to dispense a man who has left priestly ministry from the obligations of priesthood. The expectation of the Church is that those who make permanent commitments will keep them.