When in Roma we had a wonderful tour guide. Her name is Liz Lev. She is the daughter of the former US Ambassador to the Vatican, Mary Ann McClendon. She is an excellent tour guide and knows her Catholic history in Roma.
After I returned to the USA I learned that she had married a well known former Legionary of Christ priest, Thomas Williams. Their marriage was in the Church and is recognized by the Church. However what led up to his laicization and marriage was another huge scandal for that scandal ridden conservative order, he had father a child with Liz and this child was born with downs syndrome.
Here is his story as connected to annulments and laicization. Often we call it being defrocked, although that term really is a protestant term for ending the ministry of a protestant minister who wears a frock.
The Macon area, beyond just my parish, but to include members of my parish, has about 8 laicized priests. The former pastor here who is now in a nursing home is one of three priests there, the two others are laicized.
As the Oct. 5-19 Synod of Bishops on the family approaches, one much-discussed issue is the process for annulments, a declaration from a church court that a marriage never existed because it didn’t meet one or more of the tests for validity. Many believe the process ought to be sped up, while others think it’s already too easy.
As a former Catholic priest who’s now married, it’s a topic I approach from a fairly unique angle.
I was granted a dispensation from my vow of celibacy in order to marry in record time, less than a year, which prompted a number of friends to compare my process to that of annulments. One such friend, who was going through a painful annulment just as I was in the process of what’s technically known as laicization, was especially vexed at what he considered the “preferential treatment” I received as a cleric.
More importantly, I was not seeking an annulment of my ordination — an extremely rare occurrence — but merely a dispensation, which is freedom from the discipline of celibacy so as to be able to marry in the Church. This is a much simpler process.
According to Catholic theology, the Church has no power to dissolve a sacramental marriage, or to dissolve the sacrament of holy orders. The annulment process does not break apart a marriage or unmake a priest. It is a formal investigation into the validity of the sacrament to see whether the sacrament actually took place or not.
In my case, my ordination to the priesthood was valid, and I will always be a priest in the eyes of the Church. But I will not be actively practicing my priestly ministry. The Church has dispensed me from my vow of celibacy and so I will no longer present myself as a priest or administer the sacraments, but I still am, in essence, a priest.
I am very sympathetic to the many Catholics who suffer with separation and broken marriages. I worked for several years with divorced and separated Catholics and saw up close the incredible suffering and often the sense of existential failure they face. This is undoubtedly one of the most painful pastoral issues that the Church has to deal with. Divorce is very common among Catholics, nearly as common as for the rest of society.
People can even feel that the Church is working against them, or at least not actively helping them to find the happiness they seek. Obviously, something needs to be done here.
Pope Francis has shown particular sensitivity toward those living in difficult situations, and those who feel marginalized from the life of the Church. The upcoming synod will furnish a good opportunity to study this question in the light of the pastoral experience of those who work with divorced and separated Catholics, and the Pope will surely be looking for creative solutions to streamline the annulment process and assist the faithful who live in “irregular” situations.
Moreover, the central thrust of the synod won’t be how to make it easier to get out of a bad marriage. The Church will want to send a message to young people that she still believes in marriage and that lifetime commitment — with God’s help — is still possible.
How to combine a robust affirmation of marriage with a renewed commitment to compassion is the Herculean task that awaits the bishops.
Thomas D. Williams, a former member of the Legionaries of Christ, is a Catholic theologian and author of “The World As It Could Be: Catholic Social Thought for a New Generation” (Crossroad: 2011).