In the Roman Catholic Church, priests are sometimes laicized, either at their own request or as a punishment. It's unclear to me who exactly in the Roman Catholic has the power to laicize a priest, but in practise this seems to be done exclusively through the Vatican. Although this is rarer, Catholic bishops have been laicized as well; indeed, Fernando Lugo, Bishop of San Pedro, was laicized voluntarily in order to run for President of Paraguay, serving in this office from 2008 to 2012. Again, it seems that a bishop can't be laicised without the approval of the Pope. In either case, it is believed that ordination makes a permanent indentation on the priest's or bishop's soul; the laicisation does not annul the ordination, rather it makes it illicit for the priest or bishop in question to administer the sacraments. But that's the Roman Catholic Church. What about the Eastern Orthodox Church, about which I know much less?

I've read that, in the case of an Eastern Orthodox priest but not a bishop, his diocesan bishop has the power to laicise him. Although Eastern Orthodoxy has its own convoluted structure of archbishops, metropolitans, patriarchs, etc, the difference with Roman Catholicisim is that all Eastern Orthodox bishops are equal, at least in principle. Thus there isn't really any higher (earthly) authority to which to refer the matter, and so the diocesan bishop has the final say. Morevover, the ordination of a priest is not understood to make a permanent indentation on his soul, and therefore laicization returns him to the lay state in the fullest sense. Have I got that right?

Now what about the case of an Eastern Orthodox bishop? My ignorance here touches on two things:

  1. Who, if anyone, has the authority to laicize an Eastern Orthodox bishop?
  2. What would such a laicization be understood to accomplish?

If all bishops are essentially equal, who has the authority to laicize one? I suppose several bishops might have such authority, but how many exactly are required, and why that many and no fewer? The only potential example I can think of is the Great Moscow Synod, where Patriarch Nikon was deposed by several other patriarchs. But it's not totally clear to me whether he was returned to the state of being a simple monk in the Roman Catholic sense - i.e. he was forbidden from carrying out the duties of a priest or bishop - or whether it was understood that his status as a bishop was completely annulled.

  • 2
    In the Catholic Church, the pope has the unique power to laize a priest or bishop. Bishops can laicize non-ordained Religious, such as a religious brother. However the other problem, in the Orthodox traditions is that they all autonomous, some have Patriarchs, while others do not!
    – Ken Graham
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:28
  • 1
    Good question! Have you some sources for the case of Orthodox priests?
    – K-HB
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 16:53
  • My understanding of the Eastern Orthodox view of the sacrament of ordination is drawn from the Wikipedia page on defrocking. I would understand if you're not willing to Wikipedia as authoritative, but that page does refer to some authoritative-sounding sources.
    – Tom Hosker
    Commented Jan 7, 2021 at 17:32

1 Answer 1


It appears that for autocephalous Orthodox Churches, their Holy Synod has the authority to laicize them.

Although the person in question was "demoted" to monk and not fully laicized, I believe I have found an illustrative and extremely recent example (Wikipedia, which I quote below [editing out the references]; news source). The person in question, Monk Seraphim (Storheim), was convicted of sexually assaulting a young boy.

Following his release from prison, members of the Holy Synod of Bishops of the Orthodox Church in America on October 19–23, 2015 canonically deposed the retired Archbishop Seraphim from the status and all sacred functions of the episcopacy, removed him from the ranks of the clergy, and returned him to the status of a lay monk.

The Holy Synod made this decision with much sorrow, but with the conviction that it was a necessary action both for the salvation of the now Monk Seraphim and for the preservation of the good order and stability of the flock of Christ. At the same time, we offer our prayers for the victims, their families and all those who have been affected by the events surrounding this case.

Edited to add: With respect to your second question, I found this article on Professor Contantine Scouteris at the University of Athens on Christian Priesthood and Ecclesial Unity: Some Theological and Canonical Considerations. I have edited out the references again, but the original website has them. It appears that there is some debate on the matter, but at least some thinkers (such as Scouteris, with canonical basis) reject the idea of an indelible mark.

[...]the priest does not possess in himself an indelible mark as if it were a magical seal which grant him a private efficacy to perform the Eucharist or any other liturgical action, apart from the ecclesial body. The priestly ministry is rather a charismatic gift to serve and edify the body of the Church. It is a permanent rank of service only in union and by the discerning authority of the Church.

The doctrine of the "indelible mark" attained at ordination to the priesthood seems to have originated in the Scholastic period of the Western Church. This same conception was at times borrowed by Eastern theologians thereafter. [...] It is interesting to mention here that the sixth Ecumenical Council in its 33rd canon condemns the practice of Armenian Christians who had embraced the Old Testament custom concerning the Levitic rank and did not accept for the priesthood anyone who was not of this so called "priestly lineage". The reasoning for the adoption of the Old Testament typology in both cases seems to be that an identification mark is a constitutive element of priesthood. In the later case it is conceived as an inherited trait, while in the former which concerns us here, it is viewed as irrevocably and individually attained at the ordination rite.

The logical conclusion of the "indelible mark" is that the ordained individual possesses forever this peculiar mark of priesthood which can never be removed by anyone nor can it be surrendered in any circumstance. [...] Thus the ordained person possess a self sufficient power which is higher than the Church itself And the Church is not able to take back the indelible mark from an individual even if he is defrocked and excommunicated.

Interpreting the 68th Apostolic Cannon which refers to the impossibility of repeating the sacrament of ordination, St. Nicodimos the Agiorite explains that ordination cannot be repeated because it is done according to the Type of the First and Great Priest who entered once and for all into the holy of holies and there granted eternal salvation. Yet, he unswervingly rejects the doctrine of the "indelible mark" of priesthood and attests that it is the "invention of scholastics." Nevertheless, according to St. Nicodimos, the doctrine is borrowed by Nicholas Bulgaris, Koresios and many other theologians of the past century and some still somehow adhere to it today.

  • ad "indelible mark": Does someone say the same explicitly for bishops and not only for priests in general? I remember the doctrine in the west made a fundamental difference between the priestly and the episcopal ordination at some time.
    – K-HB
    Commented Jan 8, 2021 at 8:42
  • @K-HB I'm not finding a formal source right now: fatherjohn.blogspot.com/2013/08/stump-priest-priesthood.html
    – Alex
    Commented Jan 10, 2021 at 19:11

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .