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To defrock, unfrock, or laicize ministers or priests is to remove their rights to exercise the functions of the ordained ministry. This may be due to criminal convictions, disciplinary matters, or disagreements over doctrine or dogma. It may also be voluntarily for personal reasons (taking over a family business, declining health, running for civil offices, old age, or for various other reasons). Various Christian denominations have different procedures for doing this. While the functional meaning is the same, "defrocking" carries implications of forced laicization for misconduct, while "laicization" implies no judgement either way and may be initiated by the request of a priest to be released from vows.
In the Catholic Church, a priest, deacon, or bishop 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 any personal reason. Voluntary requests are by far the most common means of laicization, and the most common reason is to marry. 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.
A dismissed 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").
In being dismissed, the cleric is normally relieved of any and all offices, roles, and obligations, including his vow 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 dispense 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; 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.
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.
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 defrocked.
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.
Eastern Orthodox doctrine does not state that the priesthood confers an indelible character on the person's soul. Laicization removes the ordained status completely. From the time of laicization all actions of a former cleric that would have been considered sacred are normally considered invalid.
Laicization of a cleric may come as a result of a request for removal from sacred orders, or as an ecclesiastical punishment. In the first case, very often, the cleric may ask to be laicized in order to enter a second marriage after the divorce or the death of the spouse. In this case, the man remains in good standing with the Church but is no longer a cleric.
Forced laicization or removal from sacred orders is a form of ecclesiastical punishment, imposed by the ruling bishop of this cleric for certain transgressions. According to the canonical procedure, if the cleric is found guilty of an infringement of a sacred vow, unrepentant heresy, breaking of canon law or ecclesiastical discipline, he can be suspended from exercising all clerical functions. If, disregarding his suspension, he continues to liturgize or does not repent of his actions, he may be permanently deposed from the sacred orders (in common parlance, "laicized"). Strictly speaking, the deposition can be appealed at the ecclesiastical court, but, in modern practice, the bishop's decision is usually final.
Laicization as an ecclesiastical punishment may carry with it the excommunication of the former cleric from the church for a certain period, or indefinitely. The anathema, the permanent act of excommunication, against a member of the church or a former cleric is usually imposed by the decision of the synod of bishops or the ecclesiastical council. In such cases, this not only defrocks the former cleric but also banishes him from entering an Orthodox church, receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments, and being blessed by a priest.
In Anglicanism, defrocking is extremely rare and often impossible. Different provinces in the Anglican Communion handle this differently; the Canons of the Church of England, for instance, state "No person who has been admitted to the order of bishop, priest, or deacon can ever be divested of the character of his order..." though the CofE has processes to allow any clergy (by own volition or otherwise) to cease to function in the role. Anglican clergy are generally licensed to preach and administer sacraments by the bishop of the diocese(s) in question; however if a bishop suspends this licence, the deacon or priest may no longer exercise these priestly functions lawfully in that diocese. Within the Church of England The Clergy Discipline Measure 2003 provides for a range of sanctions up to a life-long ban from the exercise of ministry.
In the Anglican Church of Canada "deposition from the exercise of ministry if the person is ordained" is arguably equivalent to defrocking. These powers are given to the diocesan bishop (in most cases) subject to appeal to a diocesan court, or the diocesan court may exercise primary jurisdiction when the bishop asks it to (for diocesan bishops the provincial metropolitan is given primary jurisdiction, for metropolitans the provincial House of Bishops is given jurisdiction, for the primate it is the national House of Bishops). All these powers are subject to appeal to courts of appeal and on matters of doctrine to the Supreme Court of the Anglican Church of Canada (Appendix 4, General Synod Canon XVIII - Discipline). General Synod 2007 clarified deposition, including forbidding the practice of suspending the license in cases where discipline proceedings could be commenced instead (Resolution A082).
According to the constitutions and canons of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Title IV "Ecclesiastical Discipline", there are three modes of depriving a member of clergy from exercising ministerial rights: inhibition, suspension, or deposition. Inhibitions and suspensions are temporary. Clergy who are deposed are "deprived of the right to exercise the gifts and spiritual authority of God's word and sacraments conferred at ordination." (Title IV, Canon 15, Of Terminology Used in This Section, Deposition).
In the United Methodist Church, when an elder, bishop, or deacon is defrocked, his ministerial credentials are removed. Defrocking is usually the result of blatantly disobeying the Order and Discipline of the United Methodist Church and violating Biblical standards. A defrocked clergyman is prohibited from celebrating the sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion). A United Methodist Elder or Deacon may only have their credentials revoked through voluntary surrender or church trial. A minister who enters the status of honorable location retains their ordination credentials unless they voluntarily surrender them, while a minister who is involuntarily located may or may not, at the discretion of the Board of Ordained Ministry of their Annual Conference, retain their credentials of ordination. As a general rule, Elders may only lose their credentials through voluntary surrender or action of a church court. Ministers who are found not competent to exercise their office may be suspended from ministry, but only for the duration of the incompetence. The United Methodist Book of Discipline outlines the specific rules for each option. Elders and Deacons may not simply be defrocked by a Bishop, but only through ecclesiastical due process.