National Catholic Register

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Florida Bishop Excommunicates ‘Rent-a-Priest’

BY WAYNE LAUGESEN

Register Correspondent

September 3-9, 2006 Issue | Posted 9/3/06 at 6:41 PM

 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — If you get “married” in front of a priest you found on rentapriest.com, you’re likely not getting your money’s worth.

So said a canon lawyer in the wake of a priest’s excommunication this summer.

Such a marriage would not be a marriage at all, Father Jason Gray explained.

St. Augustine Bishop Victor Galeone excommunicated a member of Rent A Priest, an organization of married priests who offer to administer sacraments for donations or fees.

There are some 300 members listed on the Rent A Priest website. The organization’s founder said there are about 2,500 other married priests she can enlist for service.

“Father Rouville Fisher was excommunicated because he affiliated with CITI Ministries, which operates Rent A Priest,” said Kathleen Bagg-Morgan, spokeswoman for the Diocese of St. Augustine, based in Jacksonville. CITI stands for Celibacy is the Issue.

“This is an organization of priests who’ve married, and are not practicing priests in their dioceses,” Bagg-Morgan said.

Louise Haggett, founder and director of CITI Ministries and Rent A Priest, said she’s saddened that Bishop Galeone excommunicated the priest.

“Father Fisher, like other members of Rent A Priest, is trying to be helpful by providing sacramental services to devout, practicing Catholics,” Haggett told the Register. “We’re a ministry, not a protest organization, and this is just an unfortunate decision.”

Bagg-Morgan said it was a painful decision that Bishop Galeone tried to avert.

Father Fisher did not return calls from the Register. But an Associated Press report Aug. 22 quoted the 57-year-old priest as saying he is “reaching out to those who have been disenfranchised.”

The report said he plans to remarry soon. He said the diocese learned of his plans last summer and removed him from a parish position where he was associate pastor.

According to a May 2002 article in the diocesan magazine The St. Augustine Catholic, which appeared as Father Fisher and two other seminarians were about to be ordained, he was previously married and had two adult children. That marriage, though, was annulled.

“The bishop worked with Father Fisher for over a year in trying to get him to come around, but in the end he felt that this action was needed,” Bagg-Morgan said. “It’s not something he wanted to do, and it’s certainly not something he does every day. Basically, Father Fisher’s excommunication was automatic because he was committing the canonical offense of schism by affiliating with an organization that’s not affiliated with the Catholic Church.”

Bagg-Morgan said Rent A Priest is popular among people who want Catholic weddings but don’t qualify for one. Haggett said Rent A Priest clergymen usually charge fees for weddings, but provide other sacraments — such as baptism and last rites — voluntarily or for donations.

“Someone who was in a previous marriage that hasn’t been annulled, for example, might call Rent A Priest in order to have a priest perform the ceremony,” Bagg-Morgan said.

Father Fisher’s excommunication, reported by the Associated Press Aug. 22, was the first in the St. Augustine diocese since Bishop Galeone was appointed in 2001. It caught the eye of canonist Edward Peters, who commented on his blog In The Light of the Law (www.canonlaw.info), “I sense today a rather different mood among American bishops facing outlandish behavior by their clergy; problem-priest cases seem much less likely now to drift along year after year in unresolved, canonically ambiguous states. Ecclesiastical justice is never swift, of course, but at last its wheels seem to be turning again.”

Following the excommunication, which became official July 26, Bishop Galeone issued an announcement for publication in Aug. 6 parish bulletins that warned Catholics not to hire Father Fisher to administer sacraments.

“The faithful have been advised that any knowing participation in the schismatic ministry of Father Fisher is gravely sinful,” Morgan said. “If he’s hired to perform a marriage ceremony, it’s not considered a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church.”

Invalid Sacraments

Father Jason Gray, a canon lawyer and adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., told the Register that any Latin Rite priest is automatically suspended under Canon Law 1394 the moment he gets “married.” He said the more severe punishment of excommunication “is a very rare and remarkable event.”

Canon Law 1394 states: “A cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly, incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) suspension. If, after warning, he has not reformed and continues to give scandal, he can be progressively punished by deprivations, or even by dismissal from the clerical state.”

“In the Latin Rite, one can become a priest only if he promises celibacy, with very few exceptions,” Father Gray said, explaining that rare exceptions have been made for married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism. “Breaking that promise results in automatic suspension. Excommunication is an even more serious consequence than suspension.”

Father Gray said a married priest, and even an excommunicated married priest, remains a priest. However, some sacraments administered by a married priest, whether excommunicated or merely suspended, are invalid. Others are valid but illicit, under canon law.

“When a sacrament is invalid, it means nothing happened,” Father Gray said. “A sacrament that’s valid but illicit means the sacrament occurred, but it was against canon law. In general, baptism by a suspended or excommunicated priest would be valid, but illicit. Marriage would be invalid. Last rites would be valid, but illicit. Confession would be invalid. Mass would be valid, but totally, completely illicit and absolutely should not take place.”

Unlike a priest who’s merely suspended automatically by canon law, Father Gray said, an excommunicated priest cannot receive any Church sacraments — up to and including Communion.

“Though he’s suspended and excommunicated, he’s still a priest,” Father Gray said. “Dismissal from the clerical state would be an even more serious penalty. Unlike dismissal from the clerical state, excommunication can be lifted if he were to repent and turn things around to the satisfaction of his bishop.”

Haggett said she founded the non-profit Rent A Priest in 1992, when her mother was dying in an assisted living facility in Maine. “I couldn’t find a priest to visit my dying mother,” Haggett said. “In my efforts to find a priest, I learned about the availability of married priests.”

Father Patrick Wenrick, a married Rent A Priest in Florida, said he and other married priests are “priests forever” under canon law, and their status as priests cannot be altered by suspension or excommunication.

“You can’t take priesthood away from a man,” Father Wenrick said. “Despite that, I feel very sorry for (Father Fisher). If this spreads, and more of us are excommunicated, then so be it. It won’t stop any of us from doing what we’re doing.”

Father Gray said it’s true that a priest is a priest forever, under canon law. However, he said once a priest gets married, the law is clear that some sacraments, including marriage, are invalid if administered by that priest.

“Celibacy is part of the discipline and legal tradition of the Latin Rite,” Father Gray said. “Though a pope could change this tradition, I don’t believe that’s likely to ever happen.”

Wayne Laugesen is based in Boulder, Colorado.