Can a Catholic faithful receive Communion from a Catholic Priest who has lost the clerical state and now an Anglican Priest?

Question by Joseph Aduedem (Sandema, UE/R):

My Lord Bishop, I would like you to clarify an issue for me.  It has to do with a Catholic priest who has lost the clerical state and is now with the Anglican Church.  Can a Catholic faithful receive Communion from such a former Catholic priest, bearing in mind that he lost only the juridical character and not the sacramental character?  This question arose because a friend of mine attended a funeral Mass in an Anglican Church and the Mass was presided over by a former Catholic priest who is now with the Anglican Church and though my friend did not receive Communion, he wants to know whether his decision was right.

Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:

Most Rev. Joseph Osei Bonsu ( Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Konongo Mampong)

In answering this question, we need to deal with two issues: (1) Is the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist celebrated by the ex-Catholic priest (now an Anglican priest) valid? To put it differently, do the consecrated elements of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ? (2) Is it lawful or licit for a Catholic to receive Holy Communion in an Anglican Church, even if the Holy Communion is consecrated by a former Catholic priest, now an Anglican priest?

(1) Let us begin by noting that the Catholic Church teaches that ordination – like the sacraments of Baptism and Confirmation – “confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1582). In like manner, Can. 845 §1 says, “Since the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and orders imprint a character, they cannot be repeated”.  In this connection, Canon 290 states bluntly that once a man validly receives sacred ordination, the sacrament never becomes invalid.  This is because once a priest, always a priest.  It logically follows that once a man is validly ordained a priest, he will always be a priest, and (as per canon 1338.2) no one can take that away from him!  In other words, a cleric can never become a layman again. 

At the same time, however, it is possible for a priest to be released from the duties and responsibilities that are connected to the clerical state (CCC 1583).  Why would a priest lose the clerical state? In the Catholic Church, a bishop, priest, or deacon may be dismissed from the clerical state as a penalty for certain grave offences, or by a papal decree granted for grave reasons. Dismissal from the clerical state can be imposed upon the cleric as the most serious penalty for a cleric who has committed an ecclesiastical crime, but that does not take place very often.  Ordinarily, clerics suffer the loss of the clerical state because a priest voluntarily requests it. But regardless of who initiates it, the end-results are canonically the same.

Practically speaking, what this means is that such a priest will no longer function outwardly as a priest.  It means that he must not administer the sacraments, is not permitted to preach, and may not bless anyone or anything. There is only one exception to this rule: in accord with canon 976, a priest who has lost the clerical state is able – and in fact is obliged – to hear the confession of a person in danger of death who requests it. This is because the spiritual well-being of a dying person takes precedence over the obligation of this priest who has lost the clerical state to refrain from priestly ministry.  But apart from this uncommon situation, a priest who has returned to the lay state is not permitted to celebrate the sacraments.  Once he has lost the clerical state, he is supposed to be living his life as any other member of the laity.  He will no longer be called “Father” or wear clerical clothing, and will no longer be supported financially by the Church.  To the world he would appear to be a layman, working at an ordinary job and living the normal life of the laity.  Canon law refers to this change as the “loss of the clerical state” (cf. cc. 290-293).  Common parlance calls it “laicization”. 

What has been said above is true of any Catholic priest who has lawfully returned to the lay state by following the proper procedures. But what happens if a priest without requesting dismissal from the clerical state decides to celebrate Mass?  If a priest simply walks away from the Church, his bishop or religious superior is obliged to suspend him – in which case he is certainly under orders not to celebrate the sacraments. But what happens if such a priest does celebrate Mass?  If he does, he is clearly defying the ecclesiastical superiors who have forbidden him to exercise his ministry.  But does he validly consecrate the elements of bread and wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ? The answer is yes. A priest – even one who has lost the clerical state – always retains the power to celebrate the Eucharist validly, even if he has been ordered by his superior not to do so.  This is also the case with the Catholic priest who leaves and becomes and an Anglican priest.

Here we come across the issues of validity and liceity.  On the assumption that the priest was validly ordained, the Eucharist that he celebrates is valid if he consecrates wheat bread and grape wine, and pronounces the words of institution which include: “This is my body,” and “This is the cup of my blood”, or or whatever the equivalent is in any other language.  Provided that he says the proper words of consecration, with the right intention, over the correct matter (i.e., unleavened bread and wine, cc. 924 and 926), the consecration really does take place.

(2) Does the validity of the Holy Communion consecrated by this priest necessarily imply that a Catholic can receive such Communion in the Anglican Church? While the Communion has been validly consecrated, it is illicit for a Catholic to receive it.  This is because the priest who has lost the clerical state is not supposed to celebrate the Eucharist at all, and Catholics are not allowed to receive Communion from an Anglican Church.  Something can be valid without being licit! Liceity refers to the “legal” provisions which should be followed.  Because Catholics believe that the celebration of the Eucharist is a sign of the reality of the oneness of faith, life, and worship, members of those churches with whom we are not yet fully united are ordinarily not admitted to Holy Communion. Neither can we receive their Communion in their churches.  Can. 844 §1 states:

Catholic ministers administer the sacraments licitly to Catholic members of the Christian faithful alone, who likewise receive them licitly from Catholic ministers alone, without prejudice to the prescripts of §§2, 3, and 4 of this canon, and can. 861, §2.

Can. 844 §2 states:

Whenever necessity requires it or true spiritual advantage suggests it, and provided that danger of error or of indifferentism is avoided, the Christian faithful for whom it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister are permitted to receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, and anointing of the sick from non-Catholic ministers in whose Churches these sacraments are valid.

This canon thus sets the following strict conditions:

a. necessity or genuine spiritual advantage
b. when the danger of error or indifferentism is avoided
c. it is physically or morally impossible to approach a Catholic minister
d. a church which has valid sacraments

This last condition is the key one, since it eliminates ALL the Reformation churches (Anglican, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, etc.), none of whom, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, have valid sacred orders, and therefore, a valid Eucharist. The possibility of a Catholic receiving from the minister of another church, when the first three conditions are fulfilled, is limited to the Orthodox Churches, other Oriental Churches, Polish National and others whose sacraments are recognized by the Holy See. 

In conclusion, even if it is maintained that the Anglican priest in this case was a validly ordained Catholic priest so that the Holy Communion is valid from a Catholic perspective, the celebration is illicit since he has lost the clerical state as far as the Catholic Church is concerned.  Moreover, a Catholic cannot receive Holy Communion from him because the first three conditions (a, b, c) cannot be said to be fulfilled, especially (b) and (c) at the funeral Mass in the Anglican Church.  With regard to (d) which speaks of a church with valid sacraments, we note that the Anglican Church is not listed among those churches from which a Catholic can receive Holy Communion when the first three conditions are fulfilled. 

For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number). 

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