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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: 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 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]


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][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[edit]

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] Jozef Wesolowski, a Polish archbishop who had been a nuncio (papal ambassador), was laicized in 2014 on grounds of sexual abuse of minors.[17]

At Napoléon Bonaparte's insistence, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord requested laicization in 1802, in order to marry his long-time lover Catherine Grand. 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 Worlee, 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 Dupanloud. Dupanloud 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.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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.