Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Forced Laicization?

As mentioned in the September WEORC newsletter, the Pope has given the Congregation of the Clergy the authority to start a “non-voluntary” laicization process for priests who leave active ministry and haven’t petitioned for laicization. The actual process hasn’t really been laid out clearly yet, but that hasn’t slowed down several bishops to at least use the threat of what some feel is a “forced” laicization.

For example, Cardinal George of Chicago has a few hundred resigned priest personnel files on his desk that he wants to tidy up. So he has instructed his people to locate “former” priests and inform them that if they don’t go willingly, they would be subject to the new “forced” laicization process. Several letters to this effect were mailed out. Not knowing how widespread this current undertaking extended, we did an informal survey of a few dozen Chicago non-canonical priests that we knew.

Of this sample group, 22% have already been laicized, and hadn’t received any letters from the diocese. The previous process called for priests to “voluntarily” seek laicization. Still a couple of these men entered into the process under some duress – i.e., in the hope to get or retain a job with a Catholic institution.

Under the current process of resigning ministry, a priest must sign a letter of resignation to the Cardinal and formally request laicization to be eligible for any kind of separation package. So rather than under duress, these new requests for laicization appear, as one responder suggested, more the results of a bribe.

Of the 78% of the inactive priests who have not been laicized in the sample, about 25% have received letters from the Diocese informing them of the impending canonical process. They tend to be amused that 10, 20, or 30 years after resigning their positions, they are still considered a “problem” that needs to be “dealt with”. The other 75% of the non-laicized who didn’t receive letters are happy to be under the radar of the Cardinal – at least for now.

While few are interested in laicization, we are not sensing a lot of energy will be spent on fighting any forced laicization process for several reasons.

1. Who cares?

The Cardinal has never showed any interest in resigned priests over the years, and probably doesn’t know where most of them are – so they will never hear from him. His only interest in them now is to create a greater distance from them.

While this “house cleaning” effort could seem purely punitive on the Cardinal’s part, it may also be a “liability reduction” activity. His cadre of lawyers wants to diminish any diocesan liability for the actions of “rogue” priests.

2. The rules will always be changed to suit the rule-maker.

Under John Paul II hundreds who sought laicization, did the paperwork, submitted testimonies, etc, were told they couldn’t be laicized since there was no evidence that they didn’t have a genuine vocation to the priesthood. Now the rules have been changed again, and these same men, and others who haven’t requested laicization, are being summarily dismissed. Obviously the rules can be changed to suit the rule-maker. The Pope opened the doors for married Anglican priests to become Catholic, knowing that celibacy is not essential to priesthood. At the same time he writes off his own Catholic priests who are married, and hasn’t seriously considered ordaining “viri probati”.

3. What difference does it make?

It is not clear what the benefit of laicization is to resigned priests. Does this mean that “former” priests can now become Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, rather than Ordinary Ministers of the Eucharist? Do they retain any of the minor orders, and can be Lectors, and Acolytes – washing the sacred vessels after communion? Can they be catechists or teach theology? What about the provisions in Canon Law to provide emergency sacramental services such as anointing of the sick and hearing confessions? In what sense does laicization benefit the Church since the ontological character of the priest doesn’t change – “once a priest, forever a priest”? At the end of the day, what is the big difference?

4. Aren’t there more important issues in the Diocese than this right now?

Even bracketing sex and embezzlement scandals for a moment, there are certainly more pressing issues to be addressed? Schools and parishes still being consolidated and closed. Expenses are up millions, and donations are down millions. The “new” English liturgy is being crafted by those in Rome who don’t speak English. The Diocese felt the need to spend $1.3 million on ads inviting lapsed Catholics to come home. If they left because they were bored or unwelcome, has anything really changed for them to come home to? According to USCCB statistics, over 30% of married Catholics were not married “in the church”. If it weren’t for recruiting seminarians from overseas, there would be about one Chicago ordination annually for the past decade. There is little being done to address the health, immigration and justice issues.

Does the Cardinal seek to scapegoat some aging, resigned priests as the cause of these problems?

Bottom line, many of the “former” priests we spoke with feel that they have a vocation to priesthood and to marriage. They did not request laicization because that would be a false admonition that their ordination was a mistake. The Cardinal and the Congregation can have their day in their own Canonical Courts and pontificate as they wish, but these men remain priests and disciples of Jesus Christ.

Cardinal George is not alone in such an endeavor. Some other bishops are ardently hunting down their own inactive clergy. One priest ordained by the Diocese of Bismarck, currently a married minister for a Lutheran parish, received a similar letter. He was asked to abandon his wife and attempt at civil-marriage, then return home to Mother Church or face laicization. His story and response to Bishop Zipfel can be found in the current issue of CORPUS Reports.