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.
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?
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?
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.