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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.

Laicization is 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. It has been remarked that "defrocking" has no meaning in (Catholic) canon law.[1]

In general[edit]

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: clergy of the Latin Church must 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 favour (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 behaviour 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]


A laicized cleric is forbidden to exercise ministerial functions under nearly all circumstances, but an indelible priestly character is held to remain on his soul (as is sung at a priest's ordination, "You are a priest forever, like Melchizedek of old").[8]

In being dismissed from the clerical state, the cleric is normally relieved of any and all offices, roles, and obligations, including his promise of obedience to his bishop (but not including his vow of chastity, unless separately dispensed by the Pope, as described below).

In general, any exercise of his power to administer the Sacraments is considered valid but illicit, except in certain extraordinary circumstances. He is debarred from celebrating some sacraments, but he may still perform others under special circumstances. For example, if a penitent is in danger of death, a dismissed priest may hear his confession, and indeed is obliged to if the penitent desires, and confer absolution. Additionally, he may perform any religious rituals that are permitted to any lay person, such as baptism or praying, although laicized priests have generally been discouraged from taking publicly visible roles, however minor, such as serving as an extraordinary minister of the Eucharist, that is, one who brings the consecrated Eucharist to those who are gravely ill, or otherwise confined.

Loss of the clerical state by itself does not release the cleric from his vow of celibacy;[8] the cleric cannot be married in the Church without a separate dispensation for this vow from the Pope.

A cleric dismissed from the clerical state cannot be reinstated in the sacred ministry without the consent of the Pope.[9]

In a February 2001 letter written by Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Vatican appealed to diocesan bishops to encourage priests who left the ministry in order to marry to play a more active role in parish life. Prior rules prohibited laicized priests from celebrating Mass, delivering homilies, administering the Eucharist, teaching or working in seminaries, and placed restrictions on teaching the faith in schools and universities. Under the new instructions and at the local bishop's discretion, the teaching of theology in schools or universities (both Catholic and non-Catholic), contact with the parish where the priest used to serve, and administering Holy Communion are permitted.[10]

Laicization of Catholic bishops[edit]

The laicization of bishops, by dismissal or voluntarily, is very rare, although it has happened a few times. Notably Talleyrand in France (1801), Emmanuel Milingo in Zambia (2009), and Raymond Lahey in Canada (2012) were laicized.[11][12][13]

Bishop of San Pedro Fernando Lugo requested laicization in Paraguay in 2005 to allow him to run for President of Paraguay. 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.[14]

Difference from suspension[edit]

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.[15] 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.