When the Vatican announced that Theodore McCarrick had been found guilty of several serious crimes, including the abuse of children and adults and solicitation in the confessional, it also announced that he was to be punished by what is technically termed “loss of the clerical state”, or as it is known colloquially, “laicization”. A number of commentators, while happy to see McCarrick face justice, have objected to the idea that the worst possible punishment the Church could impose upon the former Cardinal was to have him be a layman.
Is this not, some asked, something of an insult? Is this not just one more example of the very sort of clericalism that Pope Francis has decried as a root cause of the abuse crisis? Isn’t it contradictory to say, “An overemphasis on the privileges of the ordained has led to this scandal; therefore, let us punish them by taking those privileges away from them?”
By no means. Understanding this penalty, what it means and what it does not mean, tells us much about the Church’s understanding of the lay state, the realities created by ordination, and the relationship between laity and the clergy within the Body of Christ.
The Psalm used for ordination Masses is typically Psalm 110, which includes the following: “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek” (Psa 110:4). Though this line was written under the old dispensation, it is all the more true for the priesthood of the New Testament. The Church teaches clearly that the Sacrament of Holy Orders configures the man being ordained to the character of Christ the Priest. While all Christians are baptized into the priesthood of Christ, ordination enables the cleric to act in persona Christi capitis—“in the person of Christ the head”. Thus, as Pope St. John Paul II taught in his document on the laity, Christifideles Laici, “The ordained ministries… express and realize a participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ that is different, not simply in degree but in essence, from the participation given to all the lay faithful through Baptism and Confirmation” (CL 22).
Ordination therefore grants to the cleric a unique privilege in the Christian life: to act in Jesus’ name for the sanctification of His Church.
Thus, there is a certain objective superiority of the priesthood to the laity. While all Christians share in the incredible dignity granted by baptism, that of being an adopted child of God and a co-heir of Christ called to partake in the divine nature (see CCC, 1265), the ordained, in addition to all of that, also participate in the life of Christ in a profound and unique way.
It is simply a matter of comparatives: it is a tremendous gift to be a lay Christian, but an even more tremendous gift to be called to ordination. Seen in this light, we understand that to be a lay person is not at all a bad thing—and certainly not in itself a “punishment”.
Likewise, current events have made it abundantly clear that ordination does not make one morally superior to the laity. A priest is not a better person than a layman merely for being a priest. This could only be the case if ordination were something one earned, some achievement, rather than a call and a gift, unmerited.
Another important factor is the fact that this configuration of the ordained to Christ is irreversible. In classic terms, the ordained man receives an “indelible mark,” so that this configuring can never be taken away. (It is the same with baptism and confirmation.) No sin or crime, and no power of the Church, can remove a man’s ordination.
Thus, when a bishop, priest, or deacon is judged to be no longer worthy of exercising ecclesial ministry, the Church removes the clerics authorization to celebrate the sacraments—but it cannot remove his ability. As the Catechism says:
It is true that someone validly ordained can, for grave reasons, 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. (CCC 1583)
To be returned to the lay state (which is a better translation of the word reductio) is not to make a man no longer a priest, but to take away from that man the privilege of fulfilling the priestly duties, and the obligation of the Church toward him as a priest.
Indeed, a laicized priest, far from being a “regular layperson” again, often cannot participate in many things lay people usually can. According to a report from CNA, “ordinarily, the Church does not permit a person who has been dismissed from the clerical state to teach, as a layman, in a Catholic college or school, to be a lector or extraordinary ministry of Holy Communion, or to exercise other functions in the name of the Church. This is determined on an individual basis, and exceptions and dispensations can be made.”
To be laicized, then, is not to be “punished with being a layperson.” Rather, it is to be punished by no longer being allowed to function as a priest. Put another way, it is not that being a layperson is bad, but that being a priest is great.
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