Richard Rohr is a popular author and retreat leader. His philosophy combines Christianity, Jungian psychology, and a variety of insights gained from eastern religions. He quotes often from the early church fathers and Thomas Merton, but also the Dalai Lama, Islamic Sufi writers, and Hindus. His books are often blurbed by popular TV personalities like Dr. Oz.

Now I don't have a problem with any of this. If Rohr wants to make his way as a spiritual self-help writer and speaker, that's fine. What bothers me is that he frequently touts his credentials as an legitimate Roman Catholic priest and member of the Society of St. Francis. It's always the first thing listed in biographical paragraphs and on the dust jackets of his books.

This question is not to discuss whether Rohr is sufficiently orthodox or not. I realize he has many fans. However, in most of the protestant denominations I am familiar with, he would have been formally defrocked ages ago for his public teaching. Why does nobody in authority in the RC seem to care? Does he slip through the cracks due to his status as a Franciscan friar rather than a parish priest? Does he perhaps have powerful friends or defenders among the leaders of the order? Is there some other kind of internal organizational dysfunction to explain this?

Any light that could be shed on this (or similar situations) from someone familiar with RC procedure would be helpful.

  • 1
    For what might he have been defrocked, if he were a Protestant minister? Aug 24, 2015 at 10:49
  • Matt Gutting - For a variety of things depending on the denom, but mostly public teachings directly contrary to the denoms confession of faith, or recognized historic creeds.
    – Matt J.
    Sep 5, 2015 at 5:26

1 Answer 1


In the Catholic Church, laicization (sometimes called “defrocking”) of a priest is much more complicated and is imposed as a penalty much less frequently than, say, the removal of a minister in other denominations. That is because the Catholic Church has a properly sacramental understanding of the priesthood. According to Catholic teaching, once a man is ordained—whether as deacon, priest, or bishop—he retains that degree of Holy Orders for life. It is an indellible mark or character that no human power can remove, under any circumstances. See Catechism of the Catholic Church 1581-1589.

In the case of a cleric engaged in grossly immoral behavior, the best that the Church can do is to prohibit him from exercising his ministry. That can be done with differing degrees of severity, ranging from simple prohibition, to suspension, to reduction to the lay sate (laicization or “defrocking”). If the delict in question is grave enough, the priest could also have an interdict or excommunication imposed (excommunication being the severest penalty that can be applied).

(Simple prohibition occurs when the competent authority—generally the local bishop—forbids a priest from exercising a given kind of ministry. For example, although a priest with faculties from his diocese of residence can, in general, hear confessions in any part of the world, a local bishop could, for a just cause, forbid him from hearing confessions in his diocese. Similarly, a priest’s own bishop could simply refuse to grant him the faculties to preach or hear confessions. On the other hand, suspension is a censure that entails a cessation of public ministry—either all ministry or only part of it, depending on the severity—without loss of the clerical state. Laicization—which can be voluntarily requested or imposed as a penalty—is the most severe restriction on sacramental ministry, which means that from now on the given deacon, priest, or bishop is to be considered a layperson, as far as the law is concerned, without, however, ceasing to be a deacon, priest or bishop ontologically. See the Code of Canon Law 1331-1335 and 290-293.)

Although laicization can be imposed as a punishment for extremely flagrant crimes, in practice such flagrant crimes are rare, and so “defrocking” is uncommon in the Catholic Church. (For example, nowadays laicization is imposed when there are confirmed and verified cases of child abuse by priests.) However, for less grave offenses, lesser penalties are generally given.

Regarding the case of Richard Rohr, his actions are simply not grave enough to merit a laicization. Fr. Rohr’s mixing of New Age and Christian mysticism is certainly questionable, and one can legitimetely discuss why other forms of disciplinary actions have not taken place, but the proper penalty for a case like his would be administrative (e.g., a revocation of his license to teach or preach), or, at most, a suspension, but certainly not an imposed laicization.

  • Thanks for the explanation! I had a feeling the question might get closed regardless, but I couldn't come up with a more generic way to phrase it at the time. The fact that full blown "defrocking" is very rare in the RC explains a lot. I would have loved it if someone especially familiar with the Franciscans could have chimed in too.
    – Matt J.
    Sep 5, 2015 at 5:18

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