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Mr. McCarrick & ‘Laicization’

Mr. McCarrick, back in his cardinal days (US Institute of Peace/Flickr)

Father Rob Johansen writes to clear up what it means that the former Cardinal — now Mister — Theodore McCarrick was formally laicized by the Catholic Church:

1. Firstly, a matter of terminology. When I or other informed Catholic writers use the term “laicization,” we are referring to a process known canonically as “reduction to the lay state.” Colloquially, it is often referred to as “defrocking.” Laicization is a permanent removal from the clerical state, unlike suspension, which is a temporary removal from active ministry. Laicization cannot be undone.

2. Also, many non-Catholics may not understand just what a big deal laicization is. It is much more than being fired from a job, or being forced out of a career, or even being disgraced or imprisoned. For Catholics (and, as I’m sure you know, for the Orthodox) priesthood is a vocation, a way of life, an all-encompassing identity. For the priest whose priesthood is taken away from him against his will, it is having his whole life, meaning, and identity stripped from him. It is to become no one and nothing. The overwhelming majority of priests have spent years (at least six, and in many cases eight or nine) in discernment, education, and formation for the priesthood. And usually they go through this during the most formative years of their lives. The man’s identity becomes “priest of Jesus Christ.” So when that is gone, he literally must try to build his life again from scratch. Even for the priest who seeks laicization voluntarily, it is still traumatic and painful. It is akin to a difficult and messy divorce.

3. Once a priest is laicized, he may no longer exercise any priestly ministry. He cannot celebrate Mass or any other sacrament – not even privately. He cannot engage in any public ministry – not even a ministry that is ordinarily open to other lay people. That is, he cannot serve as a reader of the Scriptures at Mass, bring communion to the sick, or even teach catechism, except to his own children (if he has any). He cannot refer to himself as “father,” or “bishop,” and the faithful are not to refer to him with those titles either. These restrictions, and a number of others, are all spelled out in his “Decree of Reduction to the Lay State.”

3. Once a cleric is laicized, he is no longer entitled to, and may not receive, any material support whatsoever from the church. He may not live in a parish rectory or residence, or any other official church residential facility, such as a seminary or novitiate. He is ordinarily barred from living in a monastic or religious house. I say “ordinarily” because it might be possible for a religious community to permit him to live there as a guest. But I can’t imagine any religious superior in his right mind allowing McCarrick to do so. He is just too radioactive.

4. Along the lines of the above point, he would no longer be able to receive any kind of salary, pension, stipend, or honorarium from any church institution. He is on his own to support himself, just like any other lay person. He would, of course, be able to continue to receive Social Security, commensurate to whatever extent he contributed to it. And any retirement accounts (401(k), 403(b), IRA) that he contributed to himself would also be his own. And if friends and relations chose to support him, that would be their business. But he could not receive a pension provided by a diocese, parish, or other church institution.

5. A couple of commenters attempted to compare Mr. McCarrick to Cardinal Law, and the “cushy” retirement deal he received in Rome. The comparison is inapt. Cardinal Law was never laicized, and therefore was never stripped of his capacity to hold ecclesiastical office or receive remuneration from the church. Mr. McCarrick has been stripped of these, and everyone knows it. He will not receive any retirement deal, cushy or otherwise, from the church.

6. One potential downside of Mr. McCarrick’s laicization is that he is now no longer under obedience to any person or agency of the church. (In reality, as a cardinal he was really only under obedience to the pope.) Some commenters asked, “who will monitor him now?” The answer is, “no one in any official capacity in the church.” He is now a lay person, and just as priests and bishops don’t monitor you in your private lives, so they will not and cannot do so with Mr. McCarrick. The church has no police forces or the equivalent of the FBI. It will be up to the vigilance of the laypeople and the State to keep watch on him.

Mr. McCarrick is 88 years old, without many more years in this world. Yet he has lived long enough to see his life’s work nullified. The thing that meant more to him than anything else — his priesthood, and having risen to become an influential cardinal — has been obliterated. He will be buried as Mr. McCarrick.

Mr. McCarrick deserves more punishment than this for what he’s done, but the statute of limitations has run out on those crimes. Still, short of being imprisoned, it’s hard to imagine a fate that will inflict greater pain on a man as vain as Ted McCarrick. In fact, it’s probably more painful than prison.

Here’s a link to a Washington Post story in which people debate the meaning of laicization for McCarrick. Excerpt:

“The reality is that, leaving aside the issue of embarrassment, and I’d be cautious on that, what difference does it make to McCarrick?” said Jennifer Haselberger, a canon lawyer who represented the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis until 2013, when she quit over what she described as the office’s mishandling of abusive priests. “Realistically, when we think of justice, what will he experience? And he will know in his heart of hearts that he’s still a priest.”

However, on Saturday, Francis’ decision felt like swift vindication to Robert Ciolek, a former priest to whom the church paid a settlement, in part based upon his accusations that McCarrick pressured him into back rubs and into sleeping in the same bed with him when Ciolek was a seminarian and young priest in McCarrick’s diocese. Ciolek said he was “ecstatic” about the decision, in particular its precedent-setting punishment of abuse of adults.

“There is, in my view, very little worse that could have happened to him from his own lens than this, given the power to which he had risen in the church, his standing, his influence,”Ciolek said. “You know, to be called Mr. McCarrick the rest of his life and be barred from celebrating any of the sacraments is personally devastating — but more important, deserved, given his conduct.”

What do you think? Is laicization justice? My view is that it is the most justice we can expect for McCarrick in this world.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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