Explainer: Former Cardinal McCarrick faces laicization. What does that mean?

Former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, pictured in 2017. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) Former Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, pictured in 2017. (CNS photo/Bob Roller) 

Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington who last summer was removed from public ministry and who then resigned from the College of Cardinals, could also be dismissed from the clerical state, one of the highest forms of punishment issued to priests. Also known as laicization and sometimes referred to colloquially as defrocking, a sentence of laicization would complete a stunning fall from grace for the former cardinal, who at one time wielded immense influence in both Rome and the United States. Last year, then-Cardinal McCarrick was reported to the Archdiocese of New York, accused of abusing a 16-year-old boy in the 1970s. Two more allegations of the abuse of minors also surfaced, as did claims that Archbishop McCarrick sexually harassed and assaulted priests and seminarians.

If the Vatican decides to expel Archbishop McCarrick from the priesthood, it would close one chapter of the abuse crisis, but many questions will remain.
 

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What is laicization?
The term “laicization” refers to scenarios in which a member of the clergy, through the use of the church’s legal apparatus, is no longer permitted to act as a priest. Sometimes a priest may petition Rome for laicization, often in order to marry. (A priest who wishes to marry needs, in addition to laicization, to request being released from his vow of celibacy, which is a separate process.)

In other cases, laicization is a form of punishment, commonly described as being “dismissed from the clerical state,” often because of violations of the commandment barring adultery. (Before the 1983 revision to the code of canon law, priests who were laicized were often referred to as being “reduced” to the lay state.)

A sentence of laicization would complete a stunning fall from grace for the former cardinal, who at one time wielded immense influence in both Rome and the United States.

This is the portion of canon law used by the church to prosecute priests and bishops accused of sexual abuse of a minor. Between 2004 and 2014, the Vatican laicized 848 priests because of sexual abuse. Only the Vatican can laicize priests so accused, which critics say makes the process too cumbersome.
 

What does laicization entail? Is it the same as defrocking?
When a priest is laicized, he is no longer permitted to celebrate the sacraments. He cannot preach a homily or hold a post at a seminary..

Nor is he allowed to present himself as a priest, meaning he cannot wear clerical garb. This is where the slang term “defrocked” originates, referring to the taking away of a priest’s attire, though “defrocking” is not a technical term. (It is possible, however, that a priest could be ordered to refrain from wearing clericals in public without being dismissed from the clerical state.)
 

What does this mean for Archbishop McCarrick?
For starters, it means a change in prefix. He lost the honorific “Cardinal” last summer when he resigned from the College of Cardinals, but he kept the title of archbishop and the honorific “Most Reverend.” If he is laicized, he will simply be “Mr. McCarrick.”

A laicization also raises a number of practical questions about the 88-year-old’s future.

Last September, church authorities announced that the former cardinal was living at a friary in rural Kansas. While laicization would not prohibit the former archbishop from continuing to reside in a church-owned facility, the church would no longer be required to provide for his material needs.
 

Can a laicized priest receive the sacraments?
Yes. While a laicized priest is no longer permitted to celebrate the sacraments, he is still able to partake in the sacramental life of the church.

Though in Archbishop McCarrick’s case, there are two unique issues to consider.

First, laicized bishops are rarely freed from their vows of celibacy, which means they cannot marry in the church.

A laicization raises a number of practical questions about the 88-year-old’s future.

Second, while Archbishop McCarrick is still able to receive a Catholic burial, if laicized, he would no longer be entitled to a funeral Mass at the cathedral where he was last bishop, in his case, the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., nor could Archbishop McCarrick request to be buried in the cathedral’s crypt, an honor generally reserved for bishops.
 

What oversight does the church hold over a laicized priest?
Not much.

In fact, some Catholics have argued that it is better for the church not to laicize credibly accused abusers who, for various reasons, are not held responsible for their alleged crimes by civil authorities. They argue that the church has more control over these men when they are still priests.

In Archbishop McCarrick’s case, Pope Francis ordered him to a life of prayer and penance last summer, and he has since stayed out of the public eye. If he is laicized, the church has less control over his actions and he is free to do as he wishes.

Though unlikely, there is also the possibility that the former cardinal could cause further trouble for the church.

Even if he were dismissed from the clerical state, Archbishop McCarrick would technically remain a priest and a bishop. According to Catholic teaching, ordination, like baptism, is indelible and cannot be reversed. That means even if he is laicized, the former archbishop would be sacramentally capable of celebrating Mass and even of ordaining men as priests and bishops, though forbidden to do so. Though he would be creating schism, the ordinations would nevertheless be considered valid.

Would the dismissal of Archbishop McCarrick, a former cardinal and archbishop, be unprecedented?
Yes and no.

There have certainly been other bishops dismissed from the clerical state by the Vatican.

Most recently, Pope Francis last October dismissed from the clerical state two retired Chilean bishops for crimes related to the sexual abuse of minors. Josef Wesolowski, a former archbishop who once served as the papal nuncio to the Dominican Republic, was dismissed from the clerical state in 2014 after facing allegations of sexual abuse against a minor. And in 2012, Raymond Lahey, a retired Canadian bishop, was laicized after being charged with possession of child pornography.

But Archbishop McCarrick’s former status as a cardinal makes his case relatively unique.

Perhaps the most similar case involves Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the former archbishop of St. Andrews and Edinburgh who died in 2018. Cardinal O’Brien resigned his post in 2013 after allegations surfaced that he sexually assaulted priests and seminarians. Two years later, Cardinal O’Brien effectively resigned from the College of Cardinals, giving up the ability to vote in a papal conclave. But unlike Archbishop McCarrick, the former de facto leader of the church in Scotland retained the title of cardinal and he was not dismissed from the clerical state.

Another similar case is Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, an Austrian archbishop who in the 1990s was accused of sexually abusing minors. In 1998, Pope John Paul II asked the ailing cardinal to step down from his official duties, but the cardinal never admitted any guilt and unlike in Archbishop McCarrick’s situation, he was not punished by church authorities. He died in 2003.

Does this mean the McCarrick saga has come to an end?
Doubtful.

While the Vatican is certainly eager to bring this sad chapter to a close, there are still many unanswered questions about how a priest accused of sexual misconduct was able to ascend to the highest levels of power in the Catholic Church.

Controversial allegations levied by former the papal nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, suggesting that many current cardinals and archbishops, as well as Pope Francis, knew about Archbishop McCarrick’s past behavior but did nothing to punish him, have gone mostly unanswered. (While some of Archbishop Viganò’s claims have been shown to be correct, others related to Archbishop McCarrick, including alleged sanctions placed on him by Pope Benedict XVI and allegedly removed by Pope Francis, appear dubious.)

A book due to be published later this month claims to reveal the double lives of cardinals, especially those who engage in homosexual activity. In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy could raise additional questions about Archbishop McCarrick’s past and the church leaders who allegedly protected him.

[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the sex abuse crisis.]

Feb. 12, 2019: Updated to explain more clearly how laicization affects ability to celebrate the sacraments.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Crystal Watson
9 months 4 weeks ago

So ex-Cardinal O'brien now lives in an expensive home in Northumberland bought for him by the church, and the late Cardinal Law got the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and then a state funeral at St. Peter's with Pope Francis presiding. Don't any of these guys just get fired?

arthur mccaffrey
9 months 4 weeks ago

O'Brien died a year ago

Crystal Watson
9 months 4 weeks ago

Right - meant *was* living ...

Bonnie Weissman
9 months 4 weeks ago

I have thought about this MANY times! I wonder which cushy place on which McCarrick will land?

Nora Bolcon
9 months 3 weeks ago

I love how we excommunicate women merely for claiming they are called to priesthood and for seeking to realize their vocation. However, these abusive bishops are punished by merely Reducing them to become one of us lay people. So folks if you didn't feel like sacramental trash before, how about now?

For anyone remotely interested in justice on this blog, sexism, or discrimination against women in our church's case, has been proven to directly support pedophilia and the sexual abuse of different ages of children and even adults.

Neither Jesus or any of the original twelve apostles forbid women from being priests, or presbyters, as there were female presbyters in the early church, or bishops, cardinals or Popes, or any kind of church leader that exists now or in the past.

Are we done closing our eyes to the truth at the expense of our children?

Are we ready to demand an end to patriarchy and sexism in all its forms yet?

It is up to us to make real change so when are we going to do that?

Married men have a higher rate of abusing children so the answer is clear.

Ordain women Priests and bishops now! Put an end to the sex party in our church hosted by gay bishops and allowed by straight bishops who look the other way.

Edward Gallagher
9 months 4 weeks ago

The fact that this man has reached the age of 88 and is only now being exposed for his abuses says more about the Church and more specifically his fellow bishops than it does about this one, sad old man. It is startling that so many Catholics accept all this episcopal and clerical deception as simply human weakness, rather than seeing a church rife with corruption. Rome and the bishops are the last people who should be handling the sexual abuse crisis. The Catholic Church is not “too big to fail.” It has failed and is slowly dying.

Mike Macrie
9 months 4 weeks ago

I disagree that it has completely failed or is dying. The Catholic Church has always had scandals in its long history and has survived them. Shall we review this one:
The Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition (Spanish: Tribunal del Santo Oficio de la Inquisición), commonly known as the Spanish Inquisition (Inquisición española), was established in 1478 by Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile. It was intended to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in their kingdoms and to replace the Medieval Inquisition, which was under Papal control. It became the most substantive of the three different manifestations of the wider Catholic Inquisition along with the Roman Inquisition and Portuguese Inquisition. The "Spanish Inquisition" may be defined broadly, operating in Spain and in all Spanish colonies and
territories, which included the Canary Islands, the Spanish Netherlands, the Kingdom of Naples, and all Spanish possessions in North, Central, and South America. According to modern estimates, around 150,000 were prosecuted for various offenses during the three centuries of duration of the Spanish Inquisition, out of which between 3,000 and 5,000 were executed.
What is happening today in the Catholic Church is God cleansing his Temple:
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money changers, and the seats of them that sold doves, And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 3 weeks ago

And yet.. It is human weakness and illness. The abuse of children is a psychological condition, often brought on by abuse experienced in childhood from a trusted person. And the cycle of abuse continues. The only aspect of "corruption" is that these abusive Priests were shuffled around by the Church to places they could have abused again.

Maria Alderson
9 months 4 weeks ago

You say: "When a priest is laicized, he is no longer permitted to celebrate the sacraments." And later: : "According to Catholic teaching, ordination, like baptism, is indelible and cannot be reversed. That means even if he is laicized, the former archbishop could celebrate Mass and he could even ordain men as priests and bishops." So which is it? Thanks.

Sam Sawyer, S.J.
9 months 4 weeks ago

We've updated the article above to clarify. "That means even if he is laicized, the former archbishop would be sacramentally capable of celebrating Mass and even of ordaining men as priests and bishops, though forbidden to do so."

Crystal Watson
9 months 4 weeks ago

Thus SSPX.

Ron Martel
9 months 4 weeks ago

No longer permitted but still can

Ron Martel
9 months 4 weeks ago

No longer permitted but still can

Gwynith Young
9 months 4 weeks ago

Behind this article is the belief that to no longer be clerical is to be reduced in status and punished. Those of us who are lay and believe that the Holy Spirit is given to us all think that to become lay may be to join the pilgrim people of God who follow that homeless humble Man home. I, for one, suspect that many people wielding power in the church may have left the Church altogether. Perhaps in his fall from power McCarrick may fall towards grace, rather than from it.

Lisa M
9 months 4 weeks ago

So true Gwynith, it does appear that many in power left the Church long ago. Maybe, just maybe if power within meant stepping back, and living simpler, much simpler, the good ones would shine through. The resistance to Pope Francis by so many undoubtedly has something to do with this as well.

arthur mccaffrey
9 months 4 weeks ago

I love it when O'Loughlin writes (with a straight face): " Between 2004 and 2014, the Vatican laicized 848 priests because of sexual abuse"--this is the same reporter who blithely reports in other articles claims by Jesuit Thomas Reese that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report overstates the seriousness of the current abuse problem because since the Dallas charter of 2002, there are hardly any new cases of abusive priests---and we worry about fake news!

Ron Martel
9 months 4 weeks ago

Can you substantiate your comment Authur ?

Michael Bindner
9 months 4 weeks ago

Had then Father McCarrick been allowed to be out, he could never groom his teen lover. The problem is not with his homosexuality but the homophobia of its asexual leadership who have no concept of healthy sexuality. As for the age of consent, millions of years of evolution are being ignored by keeping the age of maturity at 18. To treat such people as children gives them a perverse lack of sexual responsibility. His Grace is being made of an example of because of his adult homosexuality, which should not be considered adultery unless he was with a married man on the down low. He should have had every right to a husband. He would have stopped playing the field and settled down as an example of monogamy for gays. He was born gay and wonderfully made. God does not require him to hide his sexuality so neither should the Church.

Lisa M
9 months 4 weeks ago

No one forced him to take a vow of celibacy. No one forced him to accept the teachings of the Church. No one forced him to become a priest! He chose to represent himself as a believer of the Catholic faith, and promised to be celibate. Those who choose to enter the priesthood and live a life of deception have no integrity. Lying, cheating and deceiving others are not characteristics we aim for, and certainly not in our priests and bishops. That is the root of the problem.

Crystal Watson
9 months 4 weeks ago

Whether a priest is gay or straight, he takes a vow to be celibate. Apparently about half of all priests are sexually active. Either enforce celibacy or let priests date/marry, but have the integrity to be honest about the issue. Presently the policy seems to be to make the most of the mystique of celibacy with the public, while privately letting priests do whatever they want as long as they're discrete.

Lisa M
9 months 4 weeks ago

Every single priest or bishop that lives a life totally contrary to the teaching of the Church lacks integrity. If they don't believe in the teachings, no problem, just have the decency to say so, and not live a deceitful life. Find another profession. There are plenty of religions that do not require their pastors to live a life of celibacy. This is what has hurt the church so much, leaders who lack integrity, and are willing to lie, cheat and steal to coverup their behaviour or that of others. It continues to shock me how such basic principles are lacking. How hard is it to be honest?
Where else can anyone work, or what other profession is there that it is ok to not follow the practices you have agreed to follow, and not be held accountable? It would be considered stealing to take from your employer a salary when you are not committing to doing what you said you would do. It is one thing to have a lapse in judgment and fall short. It is another to live a life of deceit and continue to take a salary while ignoring the conditions of employment. Enough is enough. It's time to review the basic teachings of right and wrong. It's time to develop strength of character. It's time to be accountable for our actions. If you do not believe in the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church, have the strength and decency to do the right thing. That applies to everything we do in life.

Robert Lewis
9 months 4 weeks ago

I would strongly suggest that everyone commenting on this particular thread take a long look at this article: http://jamesalison.co.uk/texts/were-in-for-a-rough-ride/?fbclid=IwAR3H29gfsZdB6eZ8ixrnh-qs3-G79HDerchibMkXM2w5zB8fXtBt9ZbZ9tY

Lisa M
9 months 3 weeks ago

Robert- and why exactly did any of them choose to become priests? It astonishes me that Fr Alison glosses over the lies and secrecy as if it is okay because of Church teaching. If, in the case of an active homosexual priest, he is ignoring celibacy, disagreeing with Church teaching on homosexuality and by default, disagreeing with teaching that the Church will not error in faith and morals, why in the world has he chosen the priesthood? It is not ethical, no matter which way you spin it, to lie and deceive. It begins the unravelling of us all. We all face challenges and painful personal dilemmas that force us to make difficult decisions, but if we accept the end justifies the means, we are done for. The battle for acceptance does not come from secretly fighting from within, but from honestly fighting in the open, and remaining humble enough to be open to the truth, whatever that may be. The problem isn't homosexuality, the problem is lack of integrity.

Dionys Murphy
9 months 3 weeks ago

"Had then Father McCarrick been allowed to be out, he could" -- You're assuming he's homosexual. Which is unlikely. The majority of pedophiles who commit same-sex abuse are sexually heterosexual. The abuse is not an act of love or sexuality, it is an act of violent abuse in a power differential.

Robert Lewis
9 months 3 weeks ago

I agree with both of the comments above--with two caveats: If Father Alison's statistics are anywhere near accurate, it would appear that MOST "same-sex-attracted" priests actually ARE true to their vows of chastity/celibacy (indicating that it absolutely is NOT an issue relating to homosexuality); and, secondly, that the Church actively encouraged her "same-sex-attracted" clerics to live a lie, and to fail to record their orientation, so as to be in a position to enlist support for "bearing that cross" and remaining true to those vows.

Stephanie Barrett
9 months 4 weeks ago

I am totally confused. It was my understanding that whenever a priest
of any kind up to archbishop or Cardinal is lacized, that all powers of Holy Orders
are removed. With the exception of announcing a dying person, or baptizing a baby that is born sick and dying.
Since when does a priest who is laicizef have the right to say mass, or ordain
priests.
Unfortunately as far as Cardinal McCarrick was concerned, his behavior
in the Newark Diocese was an open secret many many years ago.
Sad that an 85 year old man must find himself in such a disgraced position.
My only wish would be to remove all powers when lacized. It is what is done with ordinary priest, with few life or death situations.

Crystal Watson
9 months 4 weeks ago

'You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek' Hebrews 7:17 :(

Dionys Murphy
9 months 3 weeks ago

"NO MAN is a Priest, that title belongs to Christ alone. " - You Protestants are hilarious.

Crystal Watson
9 months 3 weeks ago

What's hilarious is the idea that Jesus created the Catholic priesthood.

Tim Donovan
9 months 4 weeks ago

I believe that any member of the clergy who has been credibly accused of violating his vow of celibacy by having sex with a minor or raping an adult should first be turned over to civil authorities for prosecution. When (and if) found guilty of the crime of rape, the member of the clergy like any other rapist should be imprisoned for the amount of time deemed appropriate by his jury. Then, the rapist should be laicized. This "arrangenent" would prevent such a former member of the clergy from receiving any material assistance from the Church (a home,etc.).

Angela H
9 months 4 weeks ago

A strong message must be sent. Although the church feels like he's under their control if he's still a priest, he still did those things while as a clergy. So it's delusional to think that there's any control over him.

It's time to defrock him and others who are an embarrassment to the church because of their awful behaviour. He made a choice to deceive and take advantage of his position. They are just predators.

Mary Therese LEMANEK
9 months 4 weeks ago

McCarrick has been stripped of all titles, status and power in the Church. It seems unnecessary and suspect to punitively laicize at this point. The "indelible mark" of the priesthood is never gone ~ this would be the ecclesial dismissal that would show the institution's disavowal of the man and all of his actions. This would be self-serving more than anything else. McCarrick is symptomatic of a deeper and wider problem that will in no way be addressed by laicization.

Isabel Sinton
9 months 4 weeks ago

What does laicization mean? Permit me to answer: Absolutely Nothing. Well maybe a tap in the wrist.

Ilse Wefers
9 months 4 weeks ago

Wake up! A felon is a felon, belongs in jail. Send in the Chaplain. Pray for all.

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