Independent Priests

Among traditional Catholics there are some priests who have rejected the authority of their bishops in order to celebrate the traditional Latin Mass. (I suspect this is quite rare since the promulgation of Summorum Pontificum.) In Canon Law these priests are called “acephalous” and it is forbidden. The term I have most often heard for these priests is “independent priests”.

When they were mentioned in another thread, someone put forward the opinion that this term implies a legitimacy that they do not have. I never got that impression, so I am wondering how many others see that implication.

Another claim that seemed to be being made (if I understood correctly) was that this rejection of their bishops put these priests outside the Catholic Church. I find this unlikely but I did not want to pursue it in a thread in which it was off topic. Could people present arguments on the question of whether or not “independent” priests are intrinsically outside the Church.

I believe that it does put them outside of the Church because their act of separating themselves from their lawful ordinary (bishop or religious superior) is a schismatic act and separates them from the Church which is based within that ordinary.

Are priests who celebrate mass without the permission of the bishops doing so outside the Church?

Well I would say, No they are inside the church. Then I would say that they are in sin.

Because they were ordained properly they have the power to say mass. That can never be taken away. Their right to say mass publicly is however given to them by their bishop. The fact that they are saying a valid mass though means that they are inside of the Church because the mass can NEVER be separated from the Church. However, these priests are in open rebellion against the bishops! Their saying of the mass is in direct opposition of the authority of the bishops and therefor in direct opposition of the authority of Christ. Therefore, going to such a mass, supporting and encouraging schism from Rome and from the Church is a certainly harmful and may even be sinful.

Anytime someone is in sin, they are placing themselves outside of the Church. Therefore, all of the schismatics in some way place themselves outside of the Church. The mass itself (assuming it is valid) is still within the Church. That does not however mean that you should go! Attending such a mass would be to encourage further schism in the Church! Don’t receive at such a mass. I don’t think it would fulfill your Sunday obligation anyway.

I wouldn’t call them schismatics if they report to a bishop who’s in communion with Rome, though this bishop may probably be from another diocese outside the country. The priests probably don’t have the faculties to hear confessions from their local bishops, but I wouldn’t call them in suspension necessarily. Their own bishops may suspend them, however, and even if the local bishop had granted the faculties, they would not be able to hear confessions. On top of that there may be contractural arrangements with a Board of Directors which rule over a chapel. It can get messy. Hopefully the 2007 SP removed the barriers which “forced” certain priests to go this route to say the EF.

This sounds like you are talking about automatic excommunication. If this were so, it would say so in Canon Law. Here are some canons that seem to apply:
**Can. 290 Once validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid. A cleric, nevertheless, loses the clerical state:

1/ by a judicial sentence or administrative decree, which declares the invalidity of sacred ordination;

2/ by a judicial sentence or administrative decree, which declares the invalidity of sacred ordination;

3/ by rescript of the Apostolic See which grants it to deacons only for grave causes and to presbyters only for most grave causes.**


Can. 1384 In addition to the cases mentioned in ⇒ cann. 1378-1383, a person who illegitimately performs a priestly function or another sacred ministry can be punished with a just penalty.

There is nothing about automatic excommunication for acephalous priests.

Here is a link to a blog article on the subject for those who are interested:

I’ve never gotten that impression from the term “independent” either. We know that priests do not hold a truly independent authority, and their attempt to do so puts them at odds with a legitimate Church authority above them. Even so, they carry on as though they were independent (which isn’t a happy place to be, to quote Br. JR), hence the term. To me this seems to be similar to “acephalous” - the priests haven’t actually cut off the authority that their heads, the bishops, hold over them. They just aren’t cooperating with it.

And the term “wandering” can still be used since it’s the same in the Latin of the 1917 and 1983 Codes. That one initially gives me a sense of some quaint country priest, wandering from town to town - but my impression of the word has nothing to do with what it actually means.

Still seems to be a needlessly tedious debate over semantics to me.

It bears pointing that a great many “independent priests” were never cephalous in the first place. They were ordained by some fourth-generation Thuc-line bishop, or dropped out of the SSPX seminary and got ordained in CMRI and then just meandered off, or things like that. The priests who get silently booted from traditionalist groups for creepy conduct, financial mismanagement, doctrinal weirdness, and so on fall into this category as well. Maybe 40 years ago there were a greater number of actual diocesan priests who decided to go rogue so that they could say the Latin Mass, but there can’t be very many nowadays who go through seminary, get ordained, etc., only to suddenly realize that they need to give up their parish, their eventual pension, and everything else to found a little chapel for the Latin Mass in their basement.

I think its also interesting to note that several “independent priests” continued to say the Tridentine mass when the Mass of Paul VI was introduce. The priest that married my parents, baptized me, gave me my first penance and first Holy Communion was one of these priests.

In the early 70s he opened his own chapel and continued to say the Mass. He passed away in the 90s (I received the sacraments from him in like 1998 or so) so sometimes there is no question of the validity of their ordination.

The only ones I know of are retired diocesan priests :shrug:

I think nobody is questioning the validity of their priesthood or the Mass they offer. I think it’s more of the legality. A suspended or “independent” priest can offer a valid but ILLICIT Mass. I’m not a canon lawyer but my understanding is that when a priest offers illicit sacraments, he automatically excommunicates himself.

No priest or religious is ever an independent agent. Those lay people who like to use that term usually want to make themselves feel better for having received the sacraments illegally. It sounds nicer to say “an independent priest” than “a rogue priest, renegade priest, headless priest, runaway priest, suspended priest.”

The law requires the every clergyman and religious have an Ordinary. This can be the bishop of the diocese or the religious superior. No one may act independently of his Ordinary. Hence,you can’t be an independent priest, because you’re not an independent agent. You depend on the Ordinary to grant you faculties.

A priest who strikes out on his own is automatically suspended. He is not excommunicated unless he does something stupid like attempt marriage. But he is suspended. His absolution is invalid. His marriages are invalid.

The other way to get suspended is to violate a law. Your superior or your bishop can suspend you. Some laws carry an automatic suspension. Abandoning your post is one of them. You can’t just walk.

This insistance on calling these men “independent” priests when the Church clearly states that they cannot self govern, is unreasonable. A truly independent priest should be able to perform all of his priestly functions without needing a head. That’s why the Latin uses acephalus (without a head).

This does not apply to extern priests. An extern priest is one who does not live in his diocese or with his religious community. He lives in someone else’s jurisdiction because he’s going to school or he retired in Florida after serving in NYC for 50 years. He remains a priest of the Archdiocese of NY. He does not lose his faculties. When he arrives at Disney for his retirement, he applies to Bishop Noonan, the Bishop of Orlando, for faculties. He is granted faculties until such time as he leaves. If he goes back to NY for more than a month and returns to his retirement home in Orlando, he must request faculties again from the host bishop. He is called an extern priest, because he doesn’t belong to this diocese. He is not independent. He has a bishop in his home diocese. If he’s a religious, he has a superior.

If you were the bishop and i were your priest and I walked, I would lose my faculties. But I continue to depend on you. Only you can give me faculties. If I lose my faculties by breaking the law, not bishop and no religious superior can grant me faculties except my own. There is the relationship of dependence.

You can call him an isolated priest, a suspended priest, a headless priest,a renegade, etc, but not independent as long as he depends on you for faculties.

By the way, those priest who went rogue to celebrate the Tridentine Mass did not have to go that route. There is not such thing as having to commit a sin in order to do a good thing. If the rule at the time was not to celebrate it, then you obey. You don’t justify yourself by saying, I have to disobey in order to do something good.

The fact that Pope Benedict came out and said that the Tridentine Mass was never abrogated does not absolve those who went rogue. At the time that they made the choice, they believed that they were breaking a rule and they did it with full knowledge and full consent. They did commit a grave act of disobedience and their suspension was valid, even though there was a misunderstanding about the status of the Tridentine Mass.

You always go with the rules until they are proven no longer necessary. You can only disobey a rule that commands you to sin.


Br. JR, FFV :slight_smile:

Question answered.


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