Is a priest permitted to resign from his position? By this I mean, can he voluntarily choose to stop serving as a priest, and no longer be under the restrictions of a priest (e.g. that they cannot marry)?
The answer is both 'yes' and 'no'. A priest can resign from the priesthood and seek dispensation from his clerical obligations, yet the Church will always regard him as a 'laicised' priest, since ordination is regarded as irrevocable.
Canon 1583: It is true that someone validly ordained can, for a just reason, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is for ever. the vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.
Canon 291: Apart from the case mentioned in can. 290, n. 1, loss of the clerical state does not entail a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, which only the Roman Pontiff grants.
Canon 292: A cleric who loses the clerical state according to the norm of law loses with it the rights proper to the clerical state and is no longer bound by any obligations of the clerical state, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 291. He is prohibited from exercising the power of orders, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 976. By the loss of the clerical state, he is deprived of all offices, functions, and any delegated power.
Canon 293: A cleric who loses the clerical state cannot be enrolled among clerics again except through a rescript of the Apostolic See.
GianPaolo Salvini, S.J. says, in 'Priests Who "Desert," Priests Who "Come Back" ', Of the 1,076 priests who leave the ministry each year, 554 ask for a dispensation from the obligations imposed by the priestly state: celibacy, and the recitation of the breviary. Salvini estimates the number of former priests who became married as in the thousands, but concedes that no statistic is available.
This Press Statement was issued online by John Wijngaards in 1998, giving his reasons for resignation from ministry as "Catholic Priest Resigns Due To Conflict Of Conscience".
This Letter of Resignation by Athanasio Dzadagu, giving his reason as the wish to marry, was reproduced by Zim Catholic news in its blog. The letter received both favourable and unfavourable comments.
Can a priest resign?
Simply desiring to add a few points of interest on this question, not mentioned in Dick Harfield's excellent answer.
The body of this question leaves me with a little confusion as to what is meant by the resignation of a priest!
First of all, according to the Code of Canon Law (Can. 332 §2) a pope may resign his office.
If it happens that the Roman Pontiff resigns his office, it is required for validity that the resignation is made freely and properly manifested but not that it is accepted by anyone.
When a pope resigns his office as Supreme Pontiff of the Church, he no longer remains pope, but by virtue of his consecration as a bishop, remains a bishop forever.
Secondly bishops must resign their posts at the age of 75. However the pope may or may not accept the resignation in question.
Can. 401 §1 A diocesan Bishop who has completed his seventy-fifth year of age is requested to offer his resignation from office to the Supreme Pontiff, who, taking all the circumstances into account, will make provision accordingly.
§2 A diocesan Bishop who, because of illness or some other grave reason, has become unsuited for the fulfillment of his office, is earnestly requested to offer his resignation from office.
Can. 402 §1 A Bishop whose resignation from office has been accepted, acquires the title 'emeritus' of his diocese. If he so wishes, he may have a residence in the diocese unless, because of special circumstances in certain cases, the Apostolic See provides otherwise.
As for priests most dioceses have rules set up for the resignation for diocesan priests. here is an example taken from the Diocese of San Diego.
The Code of Canon Law (Canon 538 §3) sets the age for retirement of pastors at seventyfive (75). When a pastor reaches seventy-five (75) years of age he is asked to submit his resignation to the bishop who, after considering all the circumstances of person and place, will decide whether to accept or defer the resignation.
All priests who are able to do so are expected to continue in a diocesan assignment until age seventy-five (75).
For good reason and with permission of the bishop, a priest may retire earlier.
Pastor Emeritus: An honorary title awarded at the discretion of the bishop to a priest upon his resignation as pastor (cf. Canon 185). A Pastor Emeritus need not reside in the parish from which he retires.
By virtue of the sacrament of ordination, once ordained a priest one is always a priest! He may resign as a Pastor of a parish, but remains a priest forever. He must continue to say Mass in private and may not get married. If a priest desires to leave the priesthood altogether, please see Dick Harfield's answer to this question.
I, Athanasio Dzadagu, whose decision and action likely provoked this topic, just recently came upon this Q&A.
Indeed once a priest, forever a priest, even if one no longer carries out the ministry. Nevertheless, denying the fact that priests can resign from priesthood, i.e. from the ministry, seems to come out of the notion that only somebody in higher office can render one to be no longer a priest, that is, to be no longer in active ministry.
Yet there is a difference between being expelled –or defrocked as they say in the Church of England– and leaving of one's own accord. From this perspective it would mean the priest can never take the initiative, and act proactively, always being at the mercy of a higher authority, almost like a slave. Indeed, it is no wonder that Gian Paolo Salvini refers to such priests as "Deserters".
One can leave and later be officially laicized, but that does not mean they cannot make a free decision to pursue a different life before that. It is as if to say a priest has resigned suggests leaving those "higher" authorities with no power, and hence the seeming insistence that a priest cannot resign.
Because to resign would mean he has freedom and power, to offer his services or not, which those who regard him as merely a possession of Church authorities cannot contemplate. If a priest cannot resign, then why does he not undertake priestly ministry while awaiting laicization?
Incidentally some might be interested to know that I went on to write a book covering this episode of my life, entitled "Recollections and Reflections: The British Journey of One Former African Priest"