An outdoor wedding in Colorado’s Rocky Mountains seemed far more important to a certain young couple than waiting for the groom to file for an annulment of his previous marriage done outside of the Catholic Church. The bride, having been raised Catholic, also knows that outdoor weddings are not allowed.

Canon 1118.1 states that a wedding is a sacrament so it should be celebrated in a church. Canon 1118.2 states that a bishop can allow for it to be performed in another suitable place, but in practice, it’s unlikely. Sacraments are expected to be in a church, and a view of the mountains is not a good enough reason to do otherwise.

The plans made the bride’s mother nervous, however. What would the Catholic relatives think? Then she found what seemed to be a perfect solution: a priest willing to preside over the wedding ceremony as is. CITI Ministries, Inc., formerly known as Rent-a-Priest, has a directory of more than 150 priests willing to minister at events outside of the Church. Some of the priests are officially laicized while others simply call themselves “retired” but are outside of the authority of a bishop.

“Problem solved!” the bride’s mother thought. Or so it seemed.


Not a Valid Wedding

The bride’s godmother, Linda (not her real name), knew that the pieces did not fit together for an authentic Catholic wedding. She looked up the priest and found his website offering funerals, baptisms, weddings and other celebrations. He says that he is retired and independent, no longer associated with a particular Catholic diocese.

“He advertised progressive weddings and was very upfront that it won’t be a valid Catholic marriage,” Linda explained. “I was surprised that a Catholic priest would be allowed to do that. I thought that anyone on the fence of the Catholic faith would be led astray.”

Linda called the priest and expressed concern that he was giving a false impression by acting as a Catholic priest while performing an invalid ceremony. “That hit a nerve with him, and he got very angry,” she said. “I apologized because I did not want to upset him, but then I got a barrage of his feelings against the Church.”

The priest called the bride to complain about the phone call. Linda was uninvited to the wedding.

“I love my niece,” Linda said. “I’m trying to protect her generation from being led astray. Family and friends are going to see this guy with a Roman collar and think, ‘Oh, I guess you can have Catholic weddings outside.’” She said that his disobedience and attitude against the Catholic Church plants bad seeds in people that are not well-grounded in the faith.


Wishful Thinking

CITI Ministries is an acronym for “Celibacy Is the Issue,” but since its founding in 1992, the organization has taken on other issues. The website states: “We reach out to Catholics who do not feel welcomed in the institutional church or who cannot seek pastoral help within the institution for reasons such as: clergy sexual abuse, the lack of pastoral concern for divorced Catholics, the LGBT community, women and the list goes on.”

Priests need to prove they were validly ordained to get on the directory. CITI claims that, according to Canon 290: “After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid. Therefore, married priests are not ‘ex’ or ‘former’ priests; they are still priests.”

That explanation is “total wishful thinking,” according to Colin Donovan, vice president for theology at the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), the parent organization of the Register. “A laicized priest accepts as a condition of being released from his obligations to not continue to minister.”

And without a superior, Donovan explained that a priest has no faculties for absolving, marrying, confirming or anointing — all of which is duly set out in canon law and, in particular, liturgical law. “The single exception is in danger of someone’s death,” he said.

“It’s fluffy-headed and legalistic to the extreme to think they’ve found some wonderful quirk in canon law that gives permission to do what has been explicitly forbidden, and the very hierarchical nature of the Church under the successors of the apostles makes absolutely patent what you can’t do: operate as a free agent.”


Laicized, Dismissed and AWOL

“‘Laicization’ is the word commonly used to describe the loss of the clerical state by a validly ordained priest,” Bishop David O’Connell of the Diocese of Trenton, New Jersey, explained to the Register. “A priest who loses the clerical state, according to canon law, loses all the rights and privileges attached to his ordination. He may not exercise any priestly power derived from holy orders and is deprived of all priestly offices, functions and delegated power.” He also noted that the only exception would be the power to hear an emergency confession of a person in danger of death.
Bishop O’Connell pointed out that once a priest has lost his clerical state, he may not dress or present himself as a priest and may not function as a priest by officiating at religious ceremonies or administering the sacraments. “Such a person acts invalidly, and his invalid actions have no effect,” he said.

Is it okay for Catholics to attend such services? “No,” the bishop stated. “For a Catholic to ‘simply attend’ such services would imply supporting or, at least, acknowledging the validity of acts the Church considers invalid and inauthentic.”

Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, explained that when Christ set up his Church, he entrusted certain powers and functions to those men who followed him most closely as his priests. “Ordination is forever, but some deacons and priests (and in the last few years, even a few bishops) are no longer regarded as members of the clerical state available for normal ordained ministry.”

According to him, “There are basically three kinds of priests no longer regarded as clerics: those who left ordained ministry voluntarily but with the permission of the Apostolic See (laicized); those who were dismissed from the clerical state by the Church, usually in punishment for some serious canonical crimes (dismissed priests); and, finally, those who just walked away from ministry and never bothered to regularize their canonical status (I call them ‘AWOL’).” None of the three groups are allowed to function as priests except in emergency situations, Peters said, because they are not working in conjunction with ecclesiastical leadership. 

Peters also said that, as a general rule, participation in such celebrations is not a good way to maintain an active communion with the Church, as outlined in Canon 209, or, as St. Ignatius of Loyola might put it, “to think with the Church.” 

Every diocese maintains a current record of priests with valid faculties to minister in the diocese. Catholics who have questions about the credentials of a priest, or would like to report violations of the Church’s law, may consult the chancery or diocesan offices.

Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.