Laicization (Catholic Church)

This article is about dismissal of a priest from the clerical state. For laicization meaning secularization, see secularization. For French government policies and similar policies elsewhere, see Laicism.
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In the canon law of the Catholic Church, laicization (or laicisation) is the removal of a bishop, priest or deacon from the status of being a member of the clergy.

The term laicization used by the Catholic Church corresponds closely in meaning to the terms defrocking and unfrocking used in some other traditions. "Defrocking" has no meaning in Catholic canon law.[1]

In general

In the Catholic Church, a bishop, priest, or deacon may be dismissed from the clerical state as a penalty for certain grave offenses, or by a papal decree granted for grave reasons. This may be because of a serious criminal conviction, heresy, or similar matter. A Catholic cleric may also voluntarily request to be laicized for a grave personal reason.[2] Voluntary requests are by far the most common means of laicization, and the most common reason is to marry: Latin Church clergy must as a rule be unmarried.[2] A priest may also seek laicisation voluntarily because he disagrees with major policies or doctrines of the church and wishes to dissociate himself from those policies.

Laicization is sometimes imposed as a punishment (Latin: ad poenam),[3] or it may be granted as a favor (Latin: pro gratia) at the priest's own request.[4] New regulations issued in 2009 regarding priests who abandon their ministry for more than five years and whose behavior is a cause of serious scandal have made it easier for bishops to secure laicization of such priests even against the priests' wishes.[5]

In the two years 2011 and 2012, nearly 400 Catholic priests were laicized, with a peak of 260 in 2011, nearly half of the laicizations being imposed as a penalty.[6][7]


Apart from cases in which an ordination has been declared invalid, in which case no dispensation is necessary, loss of the clerical state does not in itself involve dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, which only the Pope can grant.[8] It involves cessation of all other obligations and all the rights of the clerical state. Though because of the indelible sacramental character he maintains the power of orders, he is forbidden to exercise it except to give sacramental absolution to someone in danger of death. He also automatically loses his offices, roles and delegated powers.[9]

Normally, the same rescript grants both laicization and dispensation from the obligation of celibacy. The person to whom it is granted is not permitted to separate the two, accepting the dispensation while rejecting the laicization, or accepting the laicization while rejecting the dispensation. While married deacons whose wives die are sometimes permitted to marry again, and married ministers of a non-Catholic confession who become Catholics are sometimes permitted to be ordained and minister in the Catholic Church, grants of dispensation from the obligation of celibacy without simultaneous laicization are very rare.[10][11]

A laicized cleric loses rights to such things as clerical garb and titles (such as "Father"). He is freed from obligations such as recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, but like any member of the laity is encouraged, though not obliged, to continue to recite it. The rescript of laicization for a deacon normally contains no special limitations, but that for a priest does prohibit him from delivering a homily (the sermon preached at Mass after proclamation of the Gospel reading, not preaching in general), acting as extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, having a directive office in the pastoral field, or having any function in a seminary or similar institution. It imposes restrictions also regarding the holding of teaching or administration posts in schools and universities. Some of these limitations may be relaxed according to the judgment of the local bishop[12] including the teaching of theology in schools or universities (both Catholic and non-Catholic), maintaining contact with the parish where the priest used to serve, and administering the Eucharist.[13]

A cleric dismissed from the clerical state cannot be reinstated in the sacred ministry without the consent of the Pope.[14]

Laicization of Catholic bishops

The laicization of bishops, by dismissal or voluntarily, is historically very rare, although it has occurred more frequently in recent times. Notably Emmanuel Milingo of Zambia (2009), and Raymond Lahey in Canada (2012) were laicized.[15][16] Józef Wesołowski, a Polish archbishop who had been a nuncio (papal ambassador), was laicized in 2014 on grounds of sexual abuse of minors.[17] The Vatican had made criminal charges against Wesołowski related to his abuse of minors and was going to try him. However, in July 2015 the trial was postponed due to Wesołowski's ill health and then he died on 27 August 2015 before a trial could be held.[18]

At Napoléon Bonaparte's insistence, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord requested laicization in 1802, in order to marry his long-time lover Catherine Grand (née Worlée). Talleyrand was already excommunicated for his part in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. Pope Pius VII reluctantly lifted the excommunication and gave him permission to wear secular clothing, which permission the French Conseil d'État interpreted as a laicization. Talleyrand married Worlée, then divorced in 1815, and lived on as a layman, but on his deathbed in 1838 he signed a document of reconciliation with the Church, prepared by future bishop Félix Dupanloup. Dupanloup then administered the last rites of a bishop to Talleyrand.

Bishop of San Pedro Fernando Lugo requested laicization in Paraguay in 2005 to allow him to run for President of Paraguay.[19] The Church at first refused, going so far as to suspend him as bishop when he ran for office anyway, but eventually granted lay status in 2008 after he was elected.[20]

Difference from suspension

Laicization differs from suspension. The latter is a censure prohibiting certain acts by a cleric, whether the acts are of a religious character deriving from his ordination ("acts of the power of orders") or are exercises of his power of governance or of rights and functions attached to the office he holds.[21] As a censure, suspension is meant to cease when the censured person shows repentance. Laicization, on the contrary, is a permanent measure, whereby for a sufficient reason a cleric is from then on juridically treated as a layman.


  1. CatholicCulture, "'Defrocking' priests: the media keep asking the wrong question"
  2. 1 2 Shaw, Russell B.; Stravinskas, Peter M. J. (1998). Church & state: a novel of politics and power. Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor. p. 595. ISBN 0-87973-669-0.
  3. An example of ad poenam laicization
  4. An example of pro gratia laicization
  5. Catholic News Service, "Pope grants congregation power to more easily laicize some priests"
  6. "Pope Benedict XVI defrocked nearly 400 priests for child abuse" in The Guardian, 17 January 2014.
  7. John L. Allen, Jr, "Anatomy of a now-you-see-it, now-you-don't Vatican denial" in National Catholic Reporter, 18 January 2014
  8. Code of Canon Law, canon 291
  9. Code of Canon Law, canon 292
  10. John P. Beal, New Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Paulist Press 2000 ISBN 978-0-80914066-4), pp. 389–390
  11. Translation of a sample rescript of dispensation from priestly celibacy
  12. Beal (2000), pp. 390–392
  13. "Let dispensed priests play active parish role, Vatican urges bishops", in Catholic Herald (UK).29 September 2011
  14. "Code of Canon Law, Canon 293".
  15. Vatican defrocks African archbishop
  16. CCCB Statement on Raymond Lahey
  17. Vatican laicizes former nuncio in connection to abuse allegations
  18. Payne, Ed; Messia, Hada (2015-08-28), Greene, Richard, "Vatican official accused of child porn, pedophilia dies", Cable News Network, Turner Broadcasting Systems, retrieved 2015-08-29
  19. Vatican laicizes bishop who was elected president
  20. "Paraguay's president, ex-bishop, granted lay status". Catholic World News. Nokesville, Virginia: Trinity Communications. 2008-07-30. Retrieved 2008-07-31.
  21. Code of Canon Law, canon 1333
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