Questions and Answers: On being dismissed from the clerical state

1. Does dismissal from the clerical state have the same meaning as “laicization”?

Yes. Laicization means that the cleric is “returning to the lay state.” The priest or deacon is no longer bound to the duties and obligations he incurred upon ordination. He no longer has the rights of a cleric in canon (Church) law either. Furthermore, the diocesan bishop and the diocese no longer have the same duties to support the dismissed cleric (provide housing, salary, benefits, health insurance, etc). The term “defrocked,” which is often used by the lay media to indicate dismissal from the clerical state, has no meaning in the Catholic Church or in canon law.

Story: Vatican dismisses Fushek from clerical state following investigation

2. Is dismissal from the clerical state always considered a penalty?

Some clerics request to be returned to the lay state and dispensed from all their rights and obligations as a priest or deacon. This process is termed “voluntary laicization.” In other instances, a cleric can be penalized by being dismissed from the clerical state for serious violations of canon law, usually by committing a delict or crime. Canon law determines what these punishable crimes are, leaving open the possibility that the cleric who is found guilty of such violations can be dismissed. Finally, in other instances, the cleric might be judged unfit for public ministry because of some other circumstance or act.

3. Who decides whether or not a cleric is laicized?

This determination is made by the Holy Father with the help of his congregations, what would be known in the lay world as advisory councils. Depending upon the offense, different congregations handle specific crimes or violations committed by clerics. Ultimately, it is the pope, and him alone, who through an official decree declares a priest to be dismissed from the clerical state or in more commonly used terms, “laicized.” Of course, this is accomplished with the recommendation and participation of the local diocesan bishop.

4. What procedures actually occur once the pope dismisses a priest or deacon from the clerical state?

Ordinarily, there is a meeting with the cleric who is given a copy of the decree from the Holy See, informing him of his dismissal. The decree explains what parish activities or ministries the dismissed cleric is forbidden to participate in. Usually, there is provision in the decree that dispenses the man from the vow of celibacy. This means that the man would be free to enter into marriage validly. Upon acknowledgment of the decree from the Holy Father, the dismissed cleric is asked to sign the document so as to verify his reception of the decree and a copy is mailed to the Vatican to be filed at the Congregation for the Clergy or the appropriate congregation.

5. What effect(s) is there for sacramental celebrations of a dismissed cleric? In other words, is the Mass they celebrate valid? And what about the rest of the sacraments?

A dismissed cleric may legitimately anoint someone or hear the confessions of those who are in danger of death. Not only would these sacraments be valid, but they would be legal as well. Just as a Christian cannot be “re-baptized,” so too is the indelible character upon a priest’s soul permanent and immovable. As the saying goes, “once a priest, always a priest.” However, a priest or deacon can lose the freedom to function and the rights associated with Sacred Orders. Aside from the danger of death scenarios, all priestly functions and ministries are prohibited and a dismissed cleric is absolutely forbidden to function publicly as a minister of the Church. Generally speaking, as far as the other sacraments are concerned, marriages witnessed by a laicized priest or deacon would be “invalid” and not binding, as well as confirmation, confession, and anointing of the sick, outside of a danger of death. Therefore, for all practical purposes, if the person is not in danger of dying, the laicized priest or deacon celebrates nearly all of the sacraments illegally as well as invalidly.

6. Are the Catholic faithful permitted to support dismissed clerics or to attend their services? If not, why not? And what are the ramifications if I do attend prayer services led by dismissed clerics?

The consequences of supporting a dismissed priest or deacon by attending his services or financially funding his ministry are very serious. Catholics must not attend or support in any way services or ministries of laicized priests and deacons. To be authentically Catholic, we cannot support clerics who are not in communion with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. A person who supports a dismissed cleric by attending his religious services is tantamount to placing oneself in opposition to the legitimate authority of the Catholic Church and the local bishop. In fact, we are obligated to always maintain communion with the Catholic Church. But, communion and unity are impeded when an individual chooses to follow a dismissed cleric against the local bishop’s urging. In effect, one’s communion with the Church is severely compromised such that you could not claim to be in a Catholic in good standing and in full communion with the Catholic Church. By setting aside the warning and recommendation of the bishop, you imply that the bishop’s authority is not binding or does not apply to you. This is not the interior disposition of one who claims to be “in communion” with the Catholic Church.

7. Am I going to “excommunicate” myself by attending services of a laicized priest? Or am I sinning by worshiping at a place led by a laicized priest?

In determining whether people are excommunicated by their involvement in such groups, it can be said that one “may” have excommunicated themselves and be in schism with the Catholic Church if he or she chooses to accept sacraments of a schismatic group. For example, if a Catholic decides to be married by a laicized priest or deacon, take Holy Communion at a Mass celebrated by a dismissed priest, have his or her confession heard by a laicized priest, etc., then by receiving sacraments from such a cleric it would be safe to presume that one has incurred excommunication. One is no longer in communion if a Catholic decided to receive sacraments from a cleric whose ability to minister publicly and whose rights to do so had been removed. Regarding the topic of “sin,” there are other factors that would require attention and consultation with moral theologians as to the person’s culpability and degree of responsibility. Nonetheless, it would be a very serious matter to publicly support and endorse the ministerial activities of a priest or deacon who has been dismissed from the clerical state and who has incurred excommunication.

8. Is the decision to laicize a priest or deacon a permanent act? Is there recourse or room for an appeal of this decision?

Some processes for dismissal from the clerical state, such as the voluntary laicization process, are set out in the Code of Canon Law. Other processes are more “penal” in nature, such as the dismissal from the clerical state of a priest who is found guilty of sexual misconduct with a minor. This latter process is handled exclusively by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and is a decision by the Holy Father that is not open to appeal. Whether it’s voluntary or not, once the decision is made to dismiss a man from the clerical state, that decision is final and not open to appeal.

9. Do clerics have a right to a canonical advocate or legal representation in Church Law as they go through these processes?

Yes. All clerics are notified of their right to have a canon lawyer represent their concerns and to defend their rights in these proceedings.

10. How do the bishop and diocesan officials collect all the evidence to prove their case and how does the bishop know that he has enough evidence to send to the Vatican for a decision?

The Church has its own procedures, within its own system of canon law. As in any legal system, the Church seeks to render justice by taking action against criminal activity in the Church through specific procedures, evidence gathering, interviewing witnesses, and fact finding. There are experts in canon law who are asked to write their opinion of a case, as to whether the cleric has been found guilty of what he is being accused of, both in light of the law and the facts. The local bishop is also asked to submit his own opinion of the matter. If the bishop believes that the evidence has proven with moral certitude that the cleric is guilty of the crime he is accused of, then the bishop’s votum is prepared and sent along with the entire acts of the case to the Holy See for the pope’s decision.

11. What are some other consequences of being laicized?

Normally, logic would dictate that if a man asked to be dispensed from his obligations to the clerical state, or if a cleric was penalized by dismissal for crimes or negligent behavior, then it would be scandalous and irresponsible for the man to be permitted to teach religion or engage in ministerial functions in the parish or in the diocese.

12. Does the Church no longer care about dismissed clerics? Is there any follow up with these men?

The Church certainly continues to care for the man’s well being and eternal destiny. There can be efforts to assist him with a transition into a new way of life. While the Church would like to assist all such dismissed clerics, it also depends upon their willingness to accept such support.

Q&A: Specifics regarding Fushek’s laicization

A. How does one refer to or address Msgr. Dale Fushek now that he has been dismissed from the clerical state?

He is now addressed as Mr. Fushek because he no longer enjoys the title or rights, duties, and obligations of the clerical state. While always a priest sacramentally as in baptism, he can no longer refer to himself as “Reverend,” “Father,” or “Monsignor.”

B. What impact will this have on his activities and leadership at the Praise and Worship Center?

The hope is that Fushek will cease all public ministries and seek to transition into a new mode of life and work. The Diocese of Phoenix does not hold any ill will toward Fushek. Rather, the Diocese of Phoenix prays for his conversion and personal happiness. It is hoped that the dismissal from the clerical state, while painful and difficult, will play a key role in prompting Fushek to continue his journey with God without being a public minister of the Gospel and the sacraments.

C. What message would the Diocese of Phoenix have for the people who attend and support the Praise and Worship Center?

Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted has a duty to ensure that the Faithful are not misled by false teaching and disobedient or duplicitous clerics. Bishop Olmsted, diocesan officials, and Catholics throughout the diocese would encourage anyone who presently supports Fushek in the Praise and Worship Center to appreciate the great damage such activities can create to the Catholic communion.

D. If the sacraments are offered at the Praise and Worship Center, are they valid Catholic sacraments? And could I receive them?

Every sacramental celebration Fushek attempts is highly illegal in the eyes of the Church. Most of the sacraments would not be valid either, with the exception of anointing someone or hearing the confession of someone in danger of death.