For a while I’ve been meaning to do a post on what former priests who have been laicized are and are not allowed to do, since questions come up about this periodically.
The place where the rules are spelled out, somewhat surprisingly, is not in the Code of Canon Law or any other universally-binding piece of law but in a document that is issued to each priest as he is laicized.
That document is known as a rescript of laicization, and one is issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for each priest who is laicized. What it says on that rescript is what that priest is allowed to do or not do.
This does not mean that they cut different deals with different priests. Instead, it seems that they base the rescripts on the same template (kind of like a form letter) and basically lay down the same rules for each priest who is laicized.
In the below-the-fold part of this post, I’ve reproduced what I’m given to understand is the standard rescript of laicization that was implemented in 1980 and that, with minor modifications, has been in use ever since.
(The minor modifications would concern things like the name of the current pontiff, the fact that the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is now called just the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and updating the numbers of a couple of canons that allow laicized priests to hear deathbed confessions, since the numbers are different in the 1983 Code than they were in the 1917 Code).
The main do’s and don’ts that pertain to how the priest is to conduct himself on an ongoing basis are found in sections 4 and 5 of the rescript and can be summarized as follows:
1) He can’t celebrate any of the sacraments except for hearing deathbed confessions. It is especially noted that he can’t give homilies.
2) He can’t serve as an extraordinary minister of holy Communion.
3) He can’t serve any "directive office in the pastoral field" (e.g., serving as a parish administrator).
4) He can’t do anything at all in a seminary.
5) He can’t serve as a director or teacher in a Catholic university.
6) He can’t teach theology or any closely related discipline (e.g., religious studies, history of theology) in a non-Catholic university.
7) He can’t serve a director (e.g., school principal) in a parochial school.
8) He can’t serve as a teacher in a parochial school unless he gets the bishop’s permission.
9) He shouldn’t live in or frequent places where his status as an ex-priest is generally known, unless he gets the bishop’s permission.
By extension (though there are some doubtful cases), anything a laicized priest is not forbidden to do in his rescript is something he is permitted to do.
In doubtful cases the text of the rescript that was given to an individual priest should be consulted, and the interpretation of the local bishop followed regarding whether a particular action or office violates the instructions the rescript contains.
Rescript of Laicization
Prot. N. ___________________
Father __________________, a priest of the (Arch) Diocese of _____________________, has petitioned a dispensation from priestly celibacy.
His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, after having received a report on the case from the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on (date, month, year), has granted the request but with the following provisions:
1. The rescript has its effect from the moment of notification made to the petitioner by the competent ecclesiastical authority, and inseparably includes a dispensation from priestly celibacy and, at the same time, loss of the clerical state. The petitioner never has the right to separate those two elements, that is, to accept the first and refuse the second. If the petitioner is a religious, the rescript also contains a dispensation from the vows. Further, the said rescript carries with it, insofar as it is necessary, absolution from censures, not excepting the excommunication which may have been incurred because of a marriage attempted by the parties; it also includes legitimation of offspring.
2. Let notice of the grant of dispensation be recorded in the baptismal register of the petitioner’s parish.
3. With regard to the celebration of a canonical marriage, the norms set down in the Code of Canon Law must be applied. The Ordinary, however, should take care that the matter be discreetly handled without pomp or external display.
4. The ecclesiastical authority to whom it belongs to communicate the rescript to the petitioner should earnestly exhort him to take part in the life of the People of God in a manner consonant with his new mode of living, to give edification, and thus to show himself a most loving son of the Church. However, at the same time, he should be informed of the following points:
a) the dispensed priest automatically loses the rights proper to the clerical state as well as ecclesiastical dignities and offices; he is no longer bound by the other obligations connected with the clerical state;
b) he remains excluded from the exercise of the sacred ministry, with the exception of those functions mentioned in canons 882 and 892, §2, and, as a result, he may not give a homily. Moreover, he may not function as extraordinary minister in the distribution of Holy Communion nor may he discharge any directive office in the pastoral field;
c) similarly, he may not discharge any function in seminaries or equivalent institutions. In other institutions of higher studies which are in any way whatever dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, he may not exercise the functions of director, or office of teaching;
d) however, in those institutions of higher studies which are not dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, he may not teach any discipline which is properly theological or closely connected with the same;
e) on the other hand, in institutions of lower studies, which are dependent upon ecclesiastical authority, he may not exercise the function of director or the office of teaching unless the Ordinary, in keeping with his prudent judgment and provided that there is no scandal, shall have decided to decree otherwise as far as the office of teaching is concerned.
5. As a rule, the priest who has been dispensed from priestly celibacy, and, all the more so, a priest who has married, ought to stay away from places where his previous status is known. Nevertheless, the Ordinary of the place where the petitioner is staying, after he has listened, insofar as it may be necessary, to the Ordinary of incardination or the major religious superior, will be able to dispense from that clause attached to the rescript, if it is foreseen that the presence of the petitioner will not beget scandal.
6. Lastly, some work of piety or charity should be imposed on him. At an opportune time, however, a brief report should be made to the sacred Congregation on his performance, and, finally, if there should be any wonderment on the part of the faithful, let a prudent explanation be provided.
All things to the contrary notwithstanding.
From the offices of the S. C. for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the (date, month, year).
[Published in Canon Law Digest, vol. 9, pp. 99-101.]