The Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue

A character in a forthcoming novel is forcibly laicized – defrocked for those of us not brought up in R.C. Faith.  There are a few ways this can be done; for my purposes, I chose for him to be expelled from the priesthood for an act of conscience – or lack of discipline, depending on your perspective.

Priests can be laicized for sinning against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue (“Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery”).  The implied prohibition in the language ic clear:  priests may not have sex with married women.  But the Church (read St. Augustine and St. Ambrose) also holds that there’s an implied duty of modesty and purity in the Sixth Commandment: thus, priests are not only prohibited from being impure, they’re enjoined to be pure.

As interesting as all of these legal backflips are – and to me and many lawyers they actually are – they weren’t where I wanted my character to find conflict.  Too easy that.  No, I wanted him to reside in the grey area of Canon Law created by Pope Benedict’s January 2009 decision to delegate to the Congregation for the Clergy the authority to laicize priests WITHOUT judicial trial (although such ecclesiastical due process is observed even with suspected child abusers brought before the CDF – the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, the body charged with their oversight).  The Pope included three categories of priests in this 2009 “executive order”:  those living with women, those who’ve abandoned their ministries for more than 5 years; and, those guilty of grave sins against the Sixth Commandment.   The last bit is what interested me.

Given Pope John Paul II’s February, 2003 modification of the Code of Canon Law 1388,  § 1, in which he extends the Code’s language to include indirect violation of the sacramental seal as a sin against the Sixth Commandment, I don’t see why the scenario that plays out in the novel couldn’t take place.   And the fact that Pope John Paul made this change moto proprio means that it reflects his personal feelings,  was not legitimized by the Papal Seal and did not result from consultation with the cardinals.  Thus, the change creates a sort of grey legal area – just the kind of place writers, and lawyers, like to explore.

Although priests dismissed from the priesthood pursuant to Pope Benedict’s 2009 order  are entitled to an ‘investigation’ by their supervising bishop, they have no right to a judicial trial as such.  Do they get access to a Canon lawyer; how much opportunity do they have to defend themselves?  Good questions all.

A penultimate note:  as the Chicago Archdiocese can attest to, laicizing priests who no longer perform (either up to expectation or without scandal)  saves the Church lots of money in health benefits, room and board (although said priests do retain their pensions).  A final note:  regarding the Church’s  non-compete requirements, laicized priests are prohibited from ever teaching theology – even in a secular educational setting.


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