Italian media is reporting on the marriage of a Veronese priest, Don Giuliano Costalunga, who until two years ago was a priest in a small mountain parish in Selva di Prongo, in Northern Italy’s Verona province. Last April, the priest tied the knot in Gran Canaria, Spain, with his long-time partner Paolo, whom he knew when he was serving as a parish priest. “Finally, after 10 years my dream came true: I married Paolo, a friend and the love of my life,” L’Arena, the Verona daily, reports Costalunga as stating.
However, Costalunga is still considered a Roman Catholic priest, as he has never submitted an application for dispensation from his priestly ministry, according to his local bishop, Bishop Giuseppe Zenti. His status as “priest” in the Diocese of the Verona was confirmed by Bishop Zenti in a July 3 interview with L’Arena: “[Costalunga] is still a priest. It is a very sad story for our Church. One of my predecessors had prevented his ordination, perhaps because he had understood that it was not the right choice, but he went to be ordained a priest in Rieti. Certainly, this is a very difficult and a very sad personal matter. He did not ask to be dispensed of his ministry, so he is still a priest….”
According to Avvenire, the daily newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, Bishop Zenti also said: “I cannot hide all my bitterness, which I would have preferred to keep in the silence of a bleeding heart of a father. All I can do now is to entrust [Costalunga] to God’s mercy.”
Bishop Zenti visited Costalunga’s former parish on July 5 to speak to parishioners about the situation.
“An application for dispensation must be presented to the Holy See,” explained Bishop Zenti to the parishioners, “something that has never happened in this case: this is why I cannot but consider, even on a juridical level, Don Giuliano a priest incardinated [canonically assigned] into our diocese.”
Bishop Zenti’s statement that Costalunga is “still a priest” is making headlines all over Italy. Can a priest “dispense” himself from his priestly ministry without a formal application to the local bishop and the Holy See, or it is up to the Holy See and the Holy Father to grant a dispensation? And why have the diocese and the bishop waited so long to respond?
Theological reflection regarding the permanence of the sacrament of the Holy Orders is based on Holy Scripture. A seal of permanence is impressed by the Spirit on the believer who receives the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Orders, according to 2 Corinthians 1:21-22, Ephesians 4:30, and Psalm 110:4.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1582) defines the permanence of baptism, confirmation, and Holy Orders:
In the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ’s office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily.
One who is baptized, confirmed, and ordained a deacon, priest, or bishop remains forever bonded to these sacraments. A person cannot be re-baptized, re-confirmed, or re-ordained, if these sacraments were lawfully and regularly conferred. Another way of looking at the indelible mark on the soul is that if a priest has been excommunicated from the Church, and then re-received, he does not need to be re-ordained. The first ordination is valid and can never be undone. Canon 290 in the Code of Canon Law confirms: “Once validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid.” But how does indelibility work if one enters another status: marriage with a woman or, as in the case of Costalunga, a union with another man?
The Church can grant a suspension of priestly obligations or a dismissal from the clerical state. The Catechism (CCC 1583) states:
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 forever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination mark him permanently.
So, a priest may not be acting as a priest—i.e., celebrating the Eucharist, being involved in ministry, or conferring sacraments—and “is deprived of all offices, functions, and any delegated power,” (Canon 976), but the loss of the “outer” priestly responsibilities does not dilute the indelible mark in the soul that the sacrament of the Holy Orders has imprinted—a priest is always a priest. The “loss of the clerical state,” as Canons 290-293 explain, does not mean that one ceases to be a priest; the loss of the clerical state means that the priest no longer has the legal obligations that derived from his clerical state. Nothing, however, can ever cancel that priestly seal he has received at ordination. This is why the canonical legislation stipulates that, in extreme and needful cases, every priest (even those who have been laicized) can absolve from all sins those who are in danger of death (Canon 976). This helps clarify how the priestly character and the power of ordination accompany the priest throughout his life, whatever path he has taken. So, in the case of Costalunga—he is still a priest.
On October 24, 1967, upon the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council, Blessed Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Sacerdotalis Coelibatus, which specifically addresses the issue of granting dispensations from clerical obligations. In this encyclical, Paul VI stated:
…with fatherly love and affection, Our heart turns anxiously and with deep sorrow to those unfortunate priests who always remain Our dearly beloved brothers and whose absence We keenly regret. We speak of those who, retaining the sacred character conferred by their priestly ordination, have nonetheless been sadly unfaithful to the obligations they accepted when ordained.
In the same document, Paul VI explained the reasons for which the Church deems it worthy to laicize some priests, dispensing them from the obligation to observe celibacy:
…every persuasive means available [may] be used to lead our brothers from this wavering state and restore to them peace of soul, trust, penance, and their former zeal. It is only when no other solution can be found for a priest in this unhappy condition that he should be relieved of his office. There are some whose priesthood cannot be saved, but whose serious dispositions nevertheless give promise of their being able to live as good Christian lay people. To these the Holy See, having studied all the circumstances with their bishops or with their religious superiors, sometimes grants a dispensation…
Returning to the Costalunga case, according to reports published in the media, for two years Costalunga has not been in ministry. Has Costalunga lost his clerical state? None of the following conditions prescribed by Canon 290 have been imposed on Costalunga by his bishop, nor has Costalunga voluntarily requested laicization:
A cleric, nevertheless, loses the clerical state:
1/ by a judicial sentence or administrative decree, which declares the invalidity of sacred ordination … 3/ by rescript of the Apostolic See which grants it to deacons only for grave causes and to presbyters only for most grave causes.
This is the reason Bishop Zenti considers Costalunga still a priest. He did not lose his clerical state and has never been suspended by his bishop in writing. In his meeting with parishioners, Zenti argued that “to be dispensed from the clerical state a statement is not enough; a request must be made to the Holy See, which carefully assesses the case,” adding “you are still my priest, even if suspended a divinis.”
But there is another matter of importance to be considered in this case: even if Costalunga would have lost his clerical state, this does not mean that he has received “a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, which only the Roman Pontiff grants” (Canon 291). In other words, the loss of the clerical state does not carry dispensation from celibacy. Only the Pope has the faculty to grant this dispensation and only after this dispensation is received can a priest legitimately marry with a religious rite. Costalunga has not received such dispensation. Instead, he has simply walked away from his celibacy commitment, and has contracted a union without obtaining or seeking out permission from his superiors, from what has been reported. Thus, Costalunga’s case falls under the provisions of Canon 1394.1: “a cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly, incurs a latae sententiae [automatic] 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.” So, Costalunga is automatically suspended from the clerical state and cannot be called “Don” (title used for secular clergy) or “Father,” although the inner imprint of the ordination on his soul remains.
In sum, Catholic theology and canon law acknowledge that a priest cannot cease to be a priest, but there are cases in which it is possible for a rightly ordained man to live as a lay man and still be in good standing with the Church. But there are cases in which ordained men have turned their backs on the Church and the Church’s teaching. In Costalunga’s case, no procedure for dispensation seemed to have been followed at the diocesan and dicastery levels—no written and signed requests to the local bishop and the Congregation for the Clergy as prescribed in Normae de dispensatione a sacerdotali coelibatu ad instantiam partis, issued on October, 14, 1980, by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. Nonetheless, Costalunga still bears the seal of ordination on his soul, so he is still a priest. Is this ambiguous and confusing to the faithful who probably do not know the theological and ecclesial implications and steps to be taken for dispensation? Yes.
The July 5, 2018, encounter of Bishop Zenti with the parishioners of Selva di Prongo ended in a fraternal embrace between Zenti and Costalunga, which again is making headlines. But the bishop reiterated Catholic teaching on marriage to the faithful who were overflowing the Church; speaking of Costalunga, he stated: “I wish him well, but he has damaged the diocese…his ministry here in Selva was effective. But as a bishop I cannot be silent. Our faith transmits to us only one understanding of marriage, the one specified by Genesis: ‘Male and female I created them.’”