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If a Catholic priest leaves his priesthood and marries a woman, he is automatically excommunicated. Does the Catholic Church recognize his marriage? He marries outside of the Chuch so his marriage is not sacramental but it might still be recognized as it is for atheists or other Christians.

What can the priest do if he realizes his wrong decision and wants to go back to the priesthood or at least start leaving a sacramental life? Let's say he has children and is validly married according to the secular law.

I know deacons must stay away from a marital act with their wives and live in celibacy. So I'm expecting similar requirements for an excommunicated priest who at least wants back because of sacraments. Can he even live with his wife as it might be considered cohabitation or would he be allowed to remarry in the Catholic Church so he can live with his wife?

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    Where'd you hear that about deacons (that they must be celibate)? – Peter Turner May 10 '17 at 15:27
  • @PeterTurner, not celibate but abstain from sex with their wife. usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/vocations/diaconate/faqs.cfm – Grasper May 10 '17 at 15:47
  • Nothing there states that they must abstain during their marriage, only that they may not remarry after their wife dies. – Matt Gutting May 10 '17 at 15:49
  • @MattGutting, someone mentioned it in one of my questions but now I can see it's not true. – Grasper May 10 '17 at 15:52
  • I've known two situations in my life like this: in the first case, a priest and nun, they were excommunicated and haven't returned, but their daughter was my beat friend for a year--otherwise healthy family who called themselves "Christians"; second, my wife's uncle married a parishioner, but he had self reported and after a brief hearing (with the bishop?) was released from his duties as a priest and was able to marry and take Communion--they had four boys, good Christians all – Stu W May 11 '17 at 13:47
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If a man is ordained, he is unable to validly marry in the Church:

Those in sacred orders invalidly attempt marriage.

(Code of Canon Law, canon 1087)

But he is not (as AthanasiusOfAlex points out) excommunicated by that fact. He is suspended from carrying out his priestly office:

A cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly, incurs a latae sententiae suspension. If he does not repent after being warned and continues to give scandal, he can be punished gradually by privations or even by dismissal from the clerical state.

(Canon 1394)

Thus it is expected that the man will separate from his putative wife and presumably get a civil divorce. In some ways he is in a similar situation to one who has civilly divorced and "remarried" (i.e., one who who lives in concubinage). (I've answered a question about that very possibility.)

There is no way to validate the putative marriage by convalidation or radical sanation while still being a priest. He can request an indult (formal permission) from the Holy See to become laicized, and then another to marry after that.

He cannot go on living "as brother and sister" with his putative spouse. This is an option for lay people. But if a priest were to do so, he'd invite scandal, the possibility of leading people into evil (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2284.) In this case, the scandal would be the potential belief that the Catholic Church was actually OK with the man's sin, and therefore that this wasn't a big deal, and maybe that it was not really a sin in the Church's eyes. Thus he will need to leave, and make it clear that he is not married to this woman.

If he is laicized, he can (with permission) validly marry. Even if he remains a priest, though, the man is still responsible for his minor children, and will have to make some sort of arrangement for their welfare. Since the bishop is in turn responsible for him, he will probably suggest that the priest request to be laicized, allowing him to raise a family as if he were a married layman.

Either way, once the man's spiritual situation is regularized (i.e. once he becomes again either an active priest in good standing or a laicized priest validly married), he should confess the sin (of fornication) which he has committed, and return to full spiritual health.

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There are a number of issues discussed in this post.

Excommunication is not incurred for attempted but invalid marriage

First of all, a priest who attempts to marry does not incur a latae sententiae (automatic) excommunication. Canon Law gives a very precise list of which crimes incur this penalty, and attempted marriage is not one of them.

On the other hand, as Canon 1087 says, those who have received the sacrament of Holy Orders are impeded from contracting marriage (unless, of course, they are given an indult after laicization).

Moreover, a priest in that situation can (and eventually should) be formally warned and punished, if necessary, with gradually increasing censures, up to laicization (Can. 1394). However, generally excommunication is not one of that censures contemplated, unless there are aggravating circumstances (e.g., abortion, attempted absolution of the priest’s accomplice).

Hence, bishops, priests, and deacons who attempt a marriage after their ordinations, and persist in it, would be barred from receiving Communion, based on Canon 915:

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty* and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin** are not to be admitted to holy communion.

So, to answer the O.P.’s questions:

  • There is no excommunication to lift.
  • The marriage is not recognized (unless we are talking about clergy who have already been laicized and received an indult to marry). In order for that person’s situation to become regular, he must either leave the invalid union or obtain an indult for laicization and marriage.
  • Once he has done that, he may simply go to confession and return to full Communion.
  • Returning to active ministry is a delicate issue that the priest will discuss with his bishop. In the case of a priest who has attempted marriage, although he is not excommunicated, he is automatically barred from exercising ministry (i.e., suspended; see Can. 1394). His bishop, or the Holy See, would have to lift the suspension before he could return to active ministry. A priest who has, for instance, fathered children will probably be counselled to seek laicization and help raise the children. On the other hand, a priest who repents and is otherwise free of obligations may very will be admitted back into active ministry. Although it incurs a suspension, a civil marriage is not completely determining, because in this case the civil marriage, although binding in the civil law, is, in fact, only an invalid attempted marriage.

Deacons and celibacy

First, some definitions: celibacy means not contracting marriage. Continence means not engaging in sexual intercourse.

All clergy without exception, as the O.P. points out, are called to celibacy. That means that, once they are ordained, they are never to contract marriage in the future. (In particular crisis cases, the Holy See can give an indult dispensing with this prohibition; however, the interested party must first seek laicization—that is, cease exercising his ministry.)

Nevertheless, deacons (and priests in the Eastern churches—as well as in some rare cases in the Western church), but not bishops, may be chosen from among married men. Like all married men, married deacons and priests are not required to live in continence.

However, unmarried clergy (like all unmarried men) must live in continence. The difference, of course, is that unmarried clergy must remain continent for life, whereas unmarried laymen may, of course, marry.

Again, to answer the O.P.’s questions: married priests and deacons do not have to abstain from the sexual act with their wives.

What to do in case of a latae sententiae excommunication

Someone who finds that he has incurred a latae sententiae excommunication (or interdict, which is a lesser censure) should simply go to confession and ask for advice from the priest.

Generally, absolution from a latae sententiae excommunication is reserved either to the bishop or, in more serious cases, to the Holy See. In some cases, the bishop (or the Holy See) delegates the faculty to absolve certain censures to his priests.

If he has the faculties, the confessor will absolve the penitent directly. Otherwise, he will probably instruct the penitent to come back, or otherwise get it touch with him, after a certain amount of time (a couple of weeks or so), so that the priest has time to make recourse (as the case may be) to the bishop or to the Holy See. If the penitent prefers, he can make that recourse himself, although it is preferable to go through the confessor in order to protect the penitent’s identity.

A “shortcut” is to go a so-called “minor penitentiary”—a priest designated by the bishop, or by the Holy See, who can absolve from censures. Every diocese should have them at the cathedral, and there are some at all of the four major Papal basilicas in Rome (St. Peters, St. John Lateran, St. Paul Outside the Walls, and St. Mary Major).


*Again, for clergy to attempt marriage does not incur an excommunication. In any case, Canon 915 does not apply to latae sententiae excommunications that have not been publicly declared.
**Nevertheless, persisting in an invalid marriage without regularizing it is a case of so-called manifest grave sin.

  • Ok, they are not excommunicated but they are in mortal sin and can't receive absolution. – Grasper May 10 '17 at 21:43
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    Correct. Until they repent, of course. – AthanasiusOfAlex May 11 '17 at 4:04

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