During an interview today with Vatican Radio, the Secretary of the Vatican’s Congregation for Clergy, Archbishop Mauro Piacenza, clarified that bishops around the world have not been granted "automatic" powers to defrock priests, but only the capacity to proceed more speedily in cases that were not considered by the current Code of Canon Law.
The new powers granted to bishops were announced by a letter sent to all episcopates from Cardinal Claudio Hummes on April 18 and are aimed at filling some legal voids present in the current Canon law. The archbishop explained that they are not a "blank check" to automatically defrock priests, as some members of the Italian press have recently claimed.
The changes authorized by Pope Benedict XVI allow bishops to proceed with the laicization of priests only in some cases, such as when a priest leaves the ministry by his own will; when he asks the bishop to be dispensed from the commitment of celibacy; or when a priest leaves the priesthood without telling the bishop and enters into a civil marriage, has kids and "is not interested in solving his canonical situation."
"In those cases, for the good of the Church and his own good," Archbishop Piacenza explained, "the power to give a dispensation to the priest is requested as an act of charity, especially if he has children, since the children have the right to a father in good standing with the Church."
"In these cases, it is the bishop who has to take the initiative," the archbishop added.
Nevertheless, he clarified that "there is nothing 'automatic,' there is no 'automatism' in the timing of the cases, each case has to be carefully and rigorously examined."
"All the other rights and duties of the bishops in exercising their juridical authority remain unchanged," Piacenza continued.
"On a daily basis, the vast majority of priests live according to their own identity and carry on their own ministerial duties faithfully. But in few cases, the Holy See has to intervene in a subsidiary manner, to repair the scandal, reestablish justice and help the sinner amend his course." the archbishop explained.
According to the new regulations, the bishops can begin the procedure to declare the loss of the clerical state for those priests who "have attempted marriage, even if only civil," and "after the proper warning have not made changes." Also the bishop can proceed in cases where the priest is "guilty of grave external sins against the sixth commandment," which is: "You shall not commit adultery."
"Priestly celibacy," Archbishop Piacenza concluded, "is a gift that the Church has received and wants to preserve, convinced more than ever that it is good for herself and the world."