Monday, June 15, 2009

Loosing the Cincture

At a Friday Vespers in St Peter's, Pope Benedict will launch the Year of the Priest, a Vatican-led global effort both to affirm the world's 400,000-plus clerics and promote a deeper spirituality and discipline on their part.

The special celebration coincides with the 150th anniversary of the death of St John Vianney, the patron of parish priests... behind the scenes, however, a recent move by the pontiff has enhanced his Curia's faculties to expedite the dismissal from orders of clerics living in "irregular" states:
Cardinal Claudio Hummes, the Brazilian-born prefect of the congregation [for the Clergy], informed bishops of these new authorizations in a nine-page letter dated April 18. UCA News obtained a copy of the letter in early June.

In the first part of the letter, the Franciscan cardinal offers two reasons for the papal decision: to reaffirm priestly celibacy as "a gift that the Church has received and wishes to protect" and to assist bishops "in their daily task of preserving and promoting ecclesiastical discipline."

In other words, the Pope wants the more than 400,000 Catholic priests in the world to live a celibate and upright life, and wants bishops to ensure that they do so, or else dismiss them from the ministry.

A third reason for the new administrative procedures also emerges from the letter: The Pope wishes to restore order in the Church by regularizing situations of priests who have left the ministry without requesting dispensation.

According to Cardinal Hummes, "the vast majority of priests live out their priestly identity with serenity and exercise faithfully their proper ministry." However, he insisted that "when situations of scandal arise, especially on the part of the Church's ministers," the bishop must act promptly and decisively "according to the laws of the Church."

The letter makes clear that if a priest is not abiding by Church laws, that is, if he is living with a woman, has contracted civil marriage, or engages in other behavior that causes scandal, then the diocesan bishop has a duty and obligation to intervene and restore good order in the Church.

The bishop can begin by admonishing the priest to change his life but if it is clear that the priest has no intention of doing so, then the bishop must initiate a procedure for his dismissal.

The bishop can also initiate the process in the case of a priest who has left the ministry for five consecutive years or more with no intention of returning to the ministry, as well as in the case of a priest who is no longer living a celibate life and has no intention of changing.

In such cases, the bishop will carry out a thorough investigation at the diocesan level, always respecting the priest's legal rights. The bishop will then transmit his conclusion and request for dispensation to the congregation, which now has the power to dismiss the priest and grant the dispensation with or without recourse to the Pope, depending on the case.

Once the congregation dismisses the priest and grants dispensation, the former priest can be fully reconciled with the Church and be able to live a full Christian life and receive the Sacraments.

The new faculties and the more streamlined administrative procedures do not apply to priests who have been involved in the sexual abuse of minors, however. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith handles all such cases....

Records show the exodus from the priesthood began at the end of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).

Pope Paul VI (1963-1978) was greatly distressed by this phenomenon but generally granted dispensations to those who requested it. Pope John Paul II (1978-2005), alarmed at the rising numbers, sought to halt this exodus by making it difficult for priests to obtain dispensations. By 2000, organizations working with priests who had left the ministry claimed the number of departures had reached 100,000.

In mid-2007, the authoritative Italian Jesuit fortnightly magazine, "La Civilta Cattolica," (Italian for "The Catholic Civilization") challenged that number in an article, published with the approval of the Vatican Secretariat of State.

It reported that 69,063 priests left the ministry between 1964 and 2004 but said 11,213 of them later returned. It revealed that these statistics were based on information provided by the bishops to the Vatican but did not clarify if the figures reflected all departures or only those who requested dispensations.

It furthermore revealed that an average of 1,000 priests had left the priesthood each year between 2000 and 2006 but that only half of them requested dispensation.
PHOTO: Getty