One comment (from L.) that got me to start this blogging was: "I`ve always wondered how Canon Law applied to priests who got married -- I know a few, but have always been too shy to ask!"
Basics: We are talking Roman Catholic Church. Canon law is the Catholic Church's set of internal laws which were most recently totally revised in 1983. The canon laws are numbered and I will include the numbers below.
For the first 1200 years of the Church priests were generally allowed to be married. In fact, 39 popes were married. In the year 1139 the Second Lateran council changed the rules. All existing priest marriages were declared invalid and future priests were required to maintain celibacy.
Celibacy officially means not just not being married it also means not involved in any sexual activity (with females, males, self, animals, etc.).
In our lifetimes the predominant issue has been that many priests have desired to be married. In the past 25 years over 100,000 priests, worldwide, have married.
The Church resists allowing priests to be married. For a priest to legally get married under canon law he must be granted a special dispensation to release him from the rule of celibacy.
However the process to grant the dispensation and the actual wording of the dispensation are problematic. When applying for the dispensation a priest must put together a lot of paperwork. Part of the paperwork almost requires him to say that he never should have been ordained a priest in the first place.
The document that grants dispensation from celibacy, called a rescript, includes wording that says the priest loses rights to the clerical state, loses his office of priest, and is no longer bound by the duties of the clerical state. The priest is then allowed to marry under Church rules.
However, the rescript wording also includes a prohibition of exercising any sacred ministry. Thus the priest may not participate in a parish as a lector/reader, eucharistic minister, or any functions of a deacon or priest.
So, when priests decide to get married do all of them apply for and get the dispensation? No, many do not.
Myself, I did not apply for the dispensation because of the things that I have just described. I could not testify that I never should have been ordained in the first place. I also did not want the restriction that I could not act in any form of church ministry.
In my case then, the canon law that applies is number 1394 which states that a cleric who attempts even a civil marriage incurs an automatic suspension (in Latin that is: latae sententia). So, officially I am suspended.
But the good thing about my approach is that there is another canon, number 1335, which says that my suspension is itself suspended whenever anyone asks for anything sacramental. Thus I can fully function as a priest if anyone asks for anything. For example, if someone or some group wants me to celebrate a mass that would be permitted under canon law.
Using this exception canon, many married priests are involved actively in many ministries from doing weddings, to being hospital chaplains, to operating full parishes.
Myself, I have done very little minsitry since I got married 19 years ago. Since I am now divorced and not married I plan to talk with my bishop to see if he will allow me to work again in parishes. If he does not want to allow that I may look for where my services might be useful and do ministry anyway, since that is legal under Church law and since there is clearly a shortage of priests.
Though the Cathilic Church resists allowing its priests to be married, in the past 20 years the Church has accepted many (about 100 in the U.S.) priests from other churches (like the Episocpal Church) to transfer to the Catholic Church and the Church has allowed them to have their wives and children at their parishes. Of course that situation raises the ire of many good Catholic priests who have followed the rules but still desire the companionship and fulfillment of marriage.
Here I have covered the basics of priests getting married. If you have specific questions please add comments and I will give you more information.
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