Catholic Culture Podcasts
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Priests Who "Desert," Priests Who "Come Back"

by GianPaolo Salvini, S.J.


This extract is taken from an article commissioned by Cardinal Bertone and published in the April 21, 2007 issue of La Civiltà Cattolica. The priests who "desert" are those who have left the priestly ministry over the last few decades. Here the novelty is not in the phenomenon itself but in the precise numbers provided by the Vatican, and made public for the first time ever. The priests who "come back" are instead those who, after having left the ministry, have returned to practicing it, in compliance with the Church's hierarchy. Little or nothing was known of this phenomenon, before this article built upon previously unreleased data provided for "La Civiltà Cattolica" by the Secretariat of State. The English translation excerpt was published on www.chiesa on September 24, 2007 as part of an article, "La Civiltà Cattolica" Now Has an Extra Director – In the Vatican".

Larger Work

La Civiltà Cattolica

Publisher & Date

Jesuits, April 21 2007

The media talk about priests very often, but unfortunately they do so above all in order to divulge instances of scandal or to condemn the Church's attitudes, judged as being too harsh toward them. There is a good deal less talk about the personal care that the Church constantly exercises toward priests. [...]

What is the situation today of those who, after having abandoned the priesthood – something that usually happens amid great suffering – ask to be readmitted to the priestly ministry? Who are they, and how many? Because the figures that are circulated in this arena are sometimes farfetched, we would like to present accurate information about both the abandonment of the priestly ministry, and about the rather less well-known phenomenon of the readmittance to it of those who had left it behind. This is, in fact, in our view, an area that demonstrates in ways that are more easily understood today the care of persons on the part of the Church, or more precisely the "maternity" of the Church, something that is rarely emphasized.

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There are no exact figures on the numbers of priests who, having left the ministry, are now married. On the basis of indications sent to the Vatican from the dioceses, from 1964 to 2004, 69,063 priests left the ministry. From 1970 to 2004, 11,213 priests have returned to the ministry. This means that there cannot be more than 57,000 married priests. Probably there are many fewer, because over forty years a number of them have died. So the figures cited by the press and by the associations of married priests, speaking of 80,000-100,000 ex-priests, are unfounded.

Today the proportion of defections is rising slightly, but it cannot be compared to the proportion during the 1970’s. Each years from 2000 to 2004, an average of .26% of priests have left the priesthood, or 5,383 in five years. At the same time, there has also been a rise in the number of those asking to be readmitted to the priestly ministry. Of the 1,076 priests who leave the ministry each year, 554 ask for a dispensation from the obligations imposed by the priestly state: celibacy, and the recitation of the breviary (1). Of the remaining 552, 74 return to the ministry each year. It may be noted that 40% of the requests for dispensation come from priests belonging to a religious order or congregation. Since August 1, 2005, 16 percent of the requests for dispensation have come from deacons. For the period from 2000 to 204, there are 2,240 priests whose situation cannot be determined.

More precise data for the individual years reveal that, in 2000, 930 priests left the ministry, while 89 were readmitted. 571 dispensations were granted, of which 68 were extended to men under the age of 40, and 39 to men at the point of death. 112 dispensations were granted to deacons. In the five years after this, the figures rose, but not by much. In 2002, there were 1,219 defections, and 71 re-entries; 550 dispensations were granted, 19 of which were for men under the age of 40 and 31 for men at the point of death; 98 dispensations were granted to deacons. In 2004, there were 1,081 defections and 56 re-entries; 476 dispensations were granted to priests, 27 of which were for men under the age of 40 and 6 for men at the point of death. From August 1, 2005 to October 20, 2006, the congregation for the clergy received 804 requests for dispensations, including those for deacons. Including the 100 applications received by the congregation for the sacraments, the requests come: 185 from the United States, 119 from Italy, 60 from Spain, 59 from Brazil, 52 from Poland, 48 from Mexico, 32 from Germany, 31 from the Philippines, 29 from Argentina, 27 from India, 26 from France, 23 from Ireland, 22 from Canada, etc. Different Vatican congregations are mentioned because until 1988 responsibility for dispensations belonged to the congregation for the doctrine of the faith; it then passed to the congregation for divine worship and the discipline of the sacraments; in 2005, at the Holy Father’s decision, it was transferred to the congregation for the clergy.

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The reasons for abandoning the priestly ministry, or at least the ones that are given, are highly varied. Most requests for dispensation are due to situations of emotional instability, together with other factors that ultimately make the situation of many priests almost irreversible, but there are also cases of crises of faith, conflicts with superiors or difficulties with the magisterium, depression, and serious limitations of character. On average, with all the variations that go into making an average, desertion takes place after thirteen years of ministry. These men are ordained at the age of 28, and are in their 50's at the time when they ask for a dispensation, because in general they wait for about ten years before asking for one. 50.2% of those who ask for a dispensation are already in a civil marriage, 14.5% percent are in a situation of cohabitation, and 35.2% live alone.

Generally, observing the cases of requests for dispensations sent in since the year 2000, it can be said that most of the priests who have left the ministry have found respectable employment in the most varied sectors. Almost all have a job or a professional career, and are not in need of assistance. Quite a few of them have been taken in by bishops to fulfill ecclesiastical roles, and, once a dispensation has been received, to teach religion classes, or in any case to work in institutions under ecclesiastical authority. There are also cases of ex-priests who carry out delicate tasks in the education of young people or in the formation of the clergy. Associations and organizations have also been created – obviously without any relationship with the hierarchy or any form of approval – that bring married priests together to offer their priestly services to those who request them, like members of the faithful who because of an irregular situation or for the sake of convenience do not want to use the services of a regular priest (2).

There exists, finally, a distinct group of priests who, some time after leaving the ministry, demonstrate a clear nostalgia for it and a strong desire to resume the priestly ministry to which they were called and for which they prepared. Many of them apply pressure to be readmitted to the priesthood, but without abandoning their life as married priests, which the Church cannot grant without changing its law on celibacy. Not a few of them seek to exercise some form of priestly ministry in the Protestant confessions or in the sects.

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There have always been in the Catholic Church licitly ordained married men who exercise the priestly ministry: these are priests of the Eastern Catholic rite. This is a traditional practice for both the Orthodox and Catholic Eastern Churches, and it was fully confirmed by Vatican Council II. But in the Latin rite Church as well there are married priests who fully and legitimately exercise their priestly functions. These are ministers who have come into the Catholic Church from Anglicanism or from other Churches and Christian groups. But there is also the presence of married Eastern rite Catholic priests who, as we have said, have always existed, but until now they were present only in areas that were predominantly Eastern rite, where they exercised their ministry beside Orthodox or other non-Catholic clergy, without causing problems in the communities. But today, a certain number of married Eastern rite Catholic priests are emigrating to cities in the West, where they are welcomed by some bishops who, in difficulty because of a shortage of clergy, entrust parishes to them. Members of the faithful and priests look with some perplexity upon this new phenomenon to which they are not accustomed. [...]

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When one speaks of the "restoration" of married priests, using a term that is perhaps not entirely appropriate, one must distinguish among the various types of cases and clarify what it is that is being discussed. There is, above all, the case of the married Anglican or Lutheran ex-ministers who, having converted to Catholicism, ask to become priests, and who since the time of Pius XII have been allowed to continue their conjugal life within their families. After these individual cases, there arose that of several hundreds of Anglican pastors, most of them married, who asked to be admitted into the ranks of the Catholic clergy because they did not agree with some of the decisions made by their Church, especially in the matter of the admission of women to holy orders. Requests along these lines continue even today, and in general they are well received. On average there are seven or eight of these each year. There were 12 in 2004, 9 in 2005, and 13 in 2006.

Then there are the priests who have left the priestly ministry and married, but, once free from the marriage bonds, ask to be readmitted to the exercise of the ministry. Once there were only a few cases like this, but today they have multiplied, and the Church has modified its legislation in order to accompany better those who had consecrated their lives to its service and later made other choices. New procedures have been established that offer a guide for "benevolent" bishops (as they are called in canonical language), and the majority of the cases are concluded with the granting of pontifical clemency.

From 1967-2006 there were 438 requests for readmission, which were at that time still being handled by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. 220 of these were approved, 104 were rejected, while 114 others were postponed pending further documentation. In order to ask for readmission to the exercise of the ministry, apart from the request of the interested party, a declaration is required from a "benevolent" bishop, or from the major superior of a religious congregation, expressing his willingness to incardinate the person into his diocese (or into his religious institute, with the profession of temporary vows), and offering assurances that there is no danger of scandal if the request is granted. The petitioner must be free from the sacramental marital bond, and he must not have civil obligations toward a wife or minor children. This normally supposes that the children are adults, financially self-sufficient, and not living with their father. If he has married, he needs to present either a certificate of his wife's death or a decree of annulment. It is also asked that he not be "too advanced [in age], within reason" and that testimony be presented from laity and clergy on his fitness to resume ministry. It is also asked that he take at least six months of refresher courses on theology. Finally, if it is a former member of a religious order who now wants to be incardinated within a diocese, it is also asked that the religious superior of his original order provide a "nihil obstat."

As can be seen, while the legislation in force in the matter of celibacy has not been modified, the Church's praxis has been significantly changed, in the sense of going to meet the desire of men who have abandoned the ministry for the most varied reasons and now desire to resume the mission for which they have prepared for years and which still holds value and significance for them. The rigidity of a former time, which harshly judged and condemned any abandoning of the priesthood, has been tempered by a pastoral praxis that is certainly more understanding and "maternal." [...]

In this sense, it is rather significant that over about thirty years, 11,213 priests have been readmitted to the priestly ministry who had abandoned it for the most varied reasons. [...] While fully respecting those who decide to serve the Lord better in a different state of life that they have embraced after realizing that they were not suited for the priestly life, the Church cannot help but rejoice at every return to the priestly ministry, finding once again a person willing to serve with all of his being the ecclesial community and the cause of the Gospel.


(1) In the past, the situation was rather different, in part because of the very rigid norms in place until 1964, which later became more relaxed, and then, after October 14, 1980, somewhat more rigid again. The norms are clearly reflected in the number of dispensations requested and granted in the various periods. Before 1980, 95% of dispensations requested were granted; after that they fell to one third of the requests. From 1914 to 1962, 810 requests for dispensations were submitted, of which 315 were approved and 495 rejected. From 1964 to 1988, the requests received totaled 44,890, of which 39,149 were granted and 5,741 denied, for a total of 39,464 dispensations granted and 6,236 rejected out of 45,700 requests received by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith.

(2) Among these rather paradoxical associations, we may cite "Rent a priest," which is fairly active in the United States. It is comprised of 167 priests organized into "deaneries" that cover the entire territory of the United States. It also numbers around fifteen members in Germany, five in Canada, and a few others scattered around the world.

English translation by Matthew Sherry, Saint Louis, Missouri, U.S.A.


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