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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.
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"). Consequently, any exercise of his sacramental power to consecrate the Eucharist is considered valid but illicit.
In being dismissed, the cleric is automatically relieved of any and all offices, roles, and obligations, including his vow of obedience to his bishop, except two: his vow of chastity – if not separately dispensed by the Pope – and hearing the confession of a dying penitent. He is debarred from celebrating some sacraments, but he may still perform others under certain circumstances. 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 religious rituals that are permitted to any lay person, such as baptism.
Loss of the clerical state does not release the cleric from his vow of celibacy. A separate dispensation from this vow is necessary if he wishes to marry.
The laicization of bishops is very rare, although it has happened a few times, notably in the cases of Talleyrand in France (1801), Fernando Lugo in Paraguay (2008), Emmanuel Milingo in Zambia (2009), and Raymond Lahey in Canada (2012). In the case of Fernando Lugo, the Church at first refused to laicize him to allow him to run for President of Paraguay, even going so far as to suspend him as Bishop of San Pedro when he ran for office anyway, but eventually granted lay status once Lugo was elected.
In a February 2001 letter written by Cardinal Ivan Dias, the Vatican has appealed to diocesan bishops to encourage priests who have left the ministry in order to get married 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 (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 will now be allowed.
Eastern Orthodox doctrine does not state that the priesthood confers an indelible character on the person's soul. Laicization removes the ordained status completely. All sacred actions of a former cleric are normally considered invalid (beginning from the time of laicization).
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 or being blessed by a priest.
In Anglicanism, defrocking is extremely rare. More common is the simple removal of licence. Anglican clergy are licensed to preach and perform sacraments by the bishop of the diocese in which they reside. In the event that the bishop suspends this licence, the priest would no longer be allowed to exercise these priestly functions.
In the Anglican Church of Canada "deposition from the exercise of ministry if the person is ordained" is 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 his or her 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.