A ZENIT DAILY DISPATCH
When a Priest lives in Public Sin

ROME, 17 AUG. 2010 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: May you please help me to answer these delicate questions? When a priest is in grave sin and publicly known to be in mortal sin (drunk often; with women, etc.) and the bishop allows him to say Mass publicly, what does canon law say about this? Or, if a priest has even impregnated a woman and then encouraged her to get an abortion (a reality for us here), shouldn't that priest have sanctions put on him rather than letting him celebrate Mass publicly? If the bishop says he is not to judge the priests, then who should? — K.G., Sudan

A: These are indeed delicate questions and sad ones to answer. I am not a canonist and so cannot answer regarding the intricacies of the canonical process. However, I can offer some moral pointers with respect to the sacraments.

A priest who falls into grave sin, just like any member of the faithful, should seek sacramental reconciliation as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he should abstain as far as possible from celebrating the sacraments.

By "as far as possible," I mean that if it is impossible for a priest to go to confession before attending to the needs of the faithful, then he should make an act of perfect contrition and celebrate the sacrament. The act of contrition implies both the intention of confessing as soon as possible and the firm resolve not to sin again. This moral principle, of course, is applicable to momentary (and usually secret) lapses.

The case mentioned by our reader would imply a graver situation in which the priest is openly living in an objectively immoral situation with no apparent signs of willingness to change. Although only God knows the heart, a public sin requires some form of public separation from the life of sin. Sacraments celebrated by an unrepentant priest are gravely sacrilegious acts. They would be valid but illicit.

A priest who induces a woman to abort is automatically excommunicated and also irregular and impeded from exercising his ministry (Canons 1398, 1041.4; 1043). He cannot celebrate any sacraments nor himself receive sacramental absolution until the excommunication is formally lifted. If he were to continue to act as a priest, not only would the celebrations be sacrilegious, but the sacrament of penance and matrimony would also be invalid.

If his excommunicated state were publicly known, then the faithful should not assist at any celebration nor request any spiritual goods from him except in the case of imminent danger of death. Even if he were the only priest available, the faithful should not go to one of his Sunday or daily Masses.

In such situations a bishop cannot "allow" a priest to continue as normal. The bishop has a grave responsibility toward assuring the holiness of the sacraments. A bishop could not give a positive permission for a sacrilegious act without himself becoming guilty of the sin of sacrilege. If he were to knowingly turn a blind eye, he would become morally responsible due to culpable negligence and would have some serious questions to answer on Judgment Day.

At the same time, the faithful should not presume that the bishop is aware of everything that goes on. If they have certain proof, and not just hearsay, of a priest's publicly immoral behavior they should present it to the bishop.  If the evidence is solid, the bishop should follow the established canonical procedures, first removing the priest from ministry and then deciding how to move forward. If the bishop refuses to act, they should address the case to the apostolic nuncio or directly to the Holy See.

In the first case, and provided there was no abuse of minors involved, the bishop should see if there is any hope of an authentic conversion by the priest that would allow him to start anew in some other situation where his past weakness was unknown. I am aware of several such conversions, such as one in which God made use of a grave illness to bring a very corrupt parish priest to his senses and recover the meaning of his mission and his life. Today, many years later, he is regarded as an exemplary minister of the Gospel.

If change seems impossible, or if he abused minors, he should be removed from ministry. If he has fathered children, his parental responsibilities have priority over remaining in the priesthood.

In the case of the priest automatically excommunicated by inducing an abortion, the gravity of this sin must necessarily exclude him from the exercise of the priesthood. One hopes that he will repent and have the excommunication lifted, but he can no longer function as Christ's representative. His removal from ministry is a just and even minimal punishment for having been instrumental in taking innocent life.

Such sad and heartbreaking situations should move us all to pray for the holiness of priests and make reparation for their sins.

* * *

Follow-up: When a Priest Lives in Public Sin [8-31-2010]

After our response on a priest living in public sin (see Aug. 17), a priest asked: "Father, are you sure about your assertion that the sacraments of marriage and penance would be invalid if administered by a priest who had incurred automatic excommunication by procuring an abortion for someone?"

I think our reader is correct to doubt my reasoning and I need to nuance the reply a little. Canon 1331 deals with excommunication:

"Can. 1331 §1. An excommunicated person is forbidden:
"1/ to have any ministerial participation in celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist or any other ceremonies of worship whatsoever;
"2/ to celebrate the sacraments or sacramentals and to receive the sacraments;
"3/ to exercise any ecclesiastical offices, ministries, or functions whatsoever or to place acts of governance.
"§2. If the excommunication has been imposed or declared, the offender:
"1/ who wishes to act against the prescript of §1, n. 1 must be prevented from doing so, or the liturgical action must be stopped unless a grave cause precludes this;
"2/ invalidly places acts of governance which are illicit according to the norm of §1, n. 3;
"3/ is forbidden to benefit from privileges previously granted;
"4/ cannot acquire validly a dignity, office, or other function in the Church;
"5/ does not appropriate the benefits of a dignity, office, any function, or pension, which the offender has in the Church."

However, Canon 1336 §1.3, regarding expiatory penalties, specifies:

"Can. 1336 §1. In addition to other penalties which the law may have established, the following are expiatory penalties which can affect an offender either perpetually, for a prescribed time, or for an indeterminate time:
"2/ privation of a power, office, function, right, privilege, faculty, favor, title, or insignia, even merely honorary;
"3/ a prohibition against exercising those things listed under n. 2, or a prohibition against exercising them in a certain place or outside a certain place; these prohibitions are never under pain of nullity."

Therefore, according to the canons, especially 1336 §1.3 the priest's excommunication would not automatically render confessions and matrimonies he celebrated invalid. This would be especially true if they were received in good faith and in ignorance of the priest's situation.

However, if the excommunication is declared and public, then I would say that there is a real probability of invalidity. Canon 1331 §2.1 declares that the offender who wishes to act against the prohibitions in order to celebrate the sacraments should be prevented from doing so.

It should also be remembered that the validity of the sacraments of reconciliation and matrimony requires, besides priestly ordination, some other official authorization.

Thus no priest may validly hear confessions until he has received faculties from his bishop. If a priest performs a wedding without the delegation from the pastor, such a wedding is technically invalid. It is, however, relatively easy to canonically correct the error without having to go through the celebration again.

It is true that the ministers of matrimony are the couple themselves, but the Church links the validity of the celebration to the presence of an authorized official witness. In virtue of his office the pastor and associate pastors have habitual faculties to officiate at weddings. Other priests and deacons may validly do so only if delegated by the pastor. In special cases, due to a shortage of clergy, the bishop may delegate a layperson to act as official witness.

An exception to these limitations is the case of imminent danger of death of a penitent or of a person who desires to get married.

If anyone, except for the case of imminent danger of death, were to knowingly request these sacraments from an excommunicated priest (instead of impeding the celebration as required by the canon), they would be guilty of participating in a sacrilegious act.

For this reason, although the canon itself does not declare that these sacramental acts are invalid in virtue of the excommunication, I believe there is a high probability that they would be invalid because those who seek the sacraments know that the minister lacks the necessary authority and communion within the Church to act as a true minister of grace.

After all, a confession that entails committing a sin could hardly bring about reconciliation.

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