Wayne Laugesen at the National Catholic Register has some of the canonical detailsof the case of the priest in my diocese, Father Rouville Fisher, who joined Rent-a-Priest and is planning to get married.
Father Jason Gray, a canon lawyer and adjutant judicial vicar for the Diocese of Peoria, Ill., told the National Catholic Register that any Latin-rite priest is automatically suspended under Canon Law 1394 the moment he gets “married.” He said the more severe punishment of excommunication “is a very rare and remarkable event.”
Canon Law 1394 states: “A cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly, incurs a latae sententiae (automatic) suspension. If, after warning, he has not reformed and continues to give scandal, he can be progressively punished by deprivations, or even by dismissal from the clerical state.”
“In the Latin Rite, one can become a priest only if he promises celibacy, with very few exceptions,” Father Gray said, explaining that rare exceptions have been made for married Anglican priests who convert to Catholicism. “Breaking that promise results in automatic suspension. Excommunication is an even more serious consequence than suspension.”
Father Gray said a married priest, and even an excommunicated married priest, remains a priest. However, some sacraments administered by a married priest, whether excommunicated or merely suspended, are invalid. Others are valid but illicit, under canon law.
“When a sacrament is invalid, it means nothing happened,” Father Gray said. “A sacrament that’s valid but illicit means the sacrament occurred, but it was against canon law. In general, baptism by a suspended or excommunicated priest would be valid, but illicit. Marriage would be invalid. Last rites would be valid, but illicit. Confession would be invalid. Mass would be valid, but totally, completely illicit and absolutely should not take place.”
Unlike a priest who’s merely suspended automatically by canon law, Father Gray said, an excommunicated priest cannot receive any church sacraments – up to and including Communion.
“Though he’s suspended and excommunicated, he’s still a priest,” Father Gray said. “Dismissal from the clerical state would be an even more serious penalty. Unlike dismissal from the clerical state, excommunication can be lifted if he were to repent and turn things around to the satisfaction of his bishop.”
There are of course others reasons why someone using one of the rent-a-priests would result in an invalid marriage. More than likely those seeking their services couldn’t get married in a Catholic church in the first place because of some other impediment such as a previous marriage. Another would be a lack of canonical form and Catholics in seeking to use Rent-a-Priests are not exactly likely to get a dispensation from canonical form from their bishops.