Sins that lead to laicization/release from the clerical state of a priest

I was wondering if there were certain sins that will cause a priest to be defrocked (without room for debate), if he is found to have committed any of them?

To be clear, I’m not referring to excommunication, because from what I understand, this allows the priest to return to the Church if he ‘gets back on the right path’. I am specifically asking about defrocking.

Or is it simply down to the Catholic hierarchy to decide in each specific case?

It is called release from the clerical state, see CIC canon 290

Possible causes:

  • a cleric who attempts to marry
  • a cleric living in concubinage
  • a cleric engaging in some other external sin against the Sixth Commandment

Thanks for the reply Vico.

I must say though, that Code of Canon law page is a little bit confusing. It states for instance in Canon 291 that the loss of the clerical state doesn’t entail a dispensation from obligation of celibacy, that only the Pope can grant.

So even if you are defrocked and become a lay person, unless the Pope dispenses you from it, you still have an obligation to remain celibate, even if you marry? Unless it is generally fairly standard for the Pope to offer a dispensation.

Also, where did you get those possible causes? I don’t see them on the page you linked to.

The more correct term is “laicization” or “release from the clerical state”, not “defrocked”.

Most of us have heard or read about priests who get involuntarily laicized. In USA it typically happens when priests have been convicted of sexual abuse, or have engaged in some kind of ongoing scandalous sexual activity with consenting adults (men or women).

Obviously the web page with the canon law is not going to make an exhaustive list of eveything a priest could do that might get him laicized. There are a lot of ecclesiasical crimes.


The priest is still a priest. He no longer has permission to use his priestly faculties except in emergency cases.

Celibacy refers to marriage, not sex. So there would be no marriage until the obligation was dispensed.


Really? So a laicised priest cannot marry without a further dispensation? Or am I reading you wrong?

@Tis_Bearself but why not? Why not make it clear exactly what sins cause you to be ‘released from the clerical state’?

I am curious to know for instance if a priest engages in sexual activities with a woman once, if he can continue on as a priest after going through the proper channels of penance etc. While if he is found to be in a long term sexual relationship with her, he would be kicked out.

How does that work? Is it like a former president being called Mr President, even once they are not the president anymore? So he can still be referred to as a priest but has no real ‘priestly powers’.

I don’t know, I just wanted to clarify the celibacy bit.

His “priestly powers” are 100% real. Ordination confers an indelible mark on the soul like baptism and confirmation. A priest cannot stop being a priest anymore then I can stop being baptized. He has no permission to act as a priest (celebrating Mass, hearing confessions, baptizing, conferring blessings, etc.).

That’s an interesting one. So he has no permission from the Church to celebrate a mass, hear a confession, baptise etc. but if he does any of those they are valid?

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With the exception of confession (outside of emergencies), correct.

Why not baptism I wonder? That could be an emergency.

I made a general answer since I said earlier:

Yes, a baptism done in an emergency would be both valid and licit.

Confession done outside of an emergency without faculties is invalid and illicit.

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Absolving an accomplice.

This sort of thread raises the hair on the back of my neck. What is the point of it? Has some priest done something that you are concerned about? If so, that is not a discussion for the Internet.

It can incite others to start scrutinizing their priests, searching for problems where they don’t exist, and so forth.

Deacon Christopher


What he does is still valid even if he has no permission from a church to perform those duties? Or am I misunderstanding, he can only perform those duties in an emergency?

He can still validity administer the Sacraments, he just doesn’t have the permission to do so outside of emergencies. He’s supposed to be living in a lay state of life, not a clerical one.

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Got you. I misunderstood your answer the first time. He can do any of those things (including baptism) at any time and they are valid, but confession only in emergencies or it isn’t valid.

No, no priest has done anything I am concerned about. I am simply interested in understanding how the Church law works in this situation. I would like to know if there are set things that a priest does that would cause him to be ‘released from the clerical state’ every time, or if it’s done on a case by case basis.

Like a doctor, even if you lose your license to practice medicine you never forget what you learned so in an emergency, you’d still try to save a person’s life if you can…

"I am curious to know for instance if a priest engages in sexual activities with a woman once, if he can continue on as a priest after going through the proper channels of penance etc. "

I believe it is a case by case basis depending on the actual circumstances. It is up to the Bishop. Not all cases are all the same.

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Which is why they’re allowed to administer the Sacraments in case of an emergency.

In cases of life and death/extreme emergencies.

Example: laicized Priest comes upon a terrible traffic accident. He goes to see if he can help. He is no longer associated with a Parish, he no longer wears his clerical clothes (which I believe they are told NOT to do). The accident victim is near death and asks for a Priest. This laicized Priest can declare that he is able to hear the person’s Confession and is allowed to do so. I don’t know if he’d have his “anointing kit with him” but he can give the final blessing and anointing if he does as well as hear the person’s Confession. Once a Priest always a Priest. This actually happens.

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