Canonical Ordination and Deposition

I read with interest Fr. Alex Rentel’s “A Comparison of the Liturgical Rite of Ordination and the Canonical Act of Deposition” in the St.Vladimir’s Theological QUARTERLY , Vol 55, No 1, 2011.   It seems timely to me, which may reflect the unfortunate fact that in the Church we deal not only with birth but also death, not only with saints but also with sinners, not only with clergy ordinations but also with clergy depositions.

Having myself served for the last several years on the OCA’s Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisor Committee and also on the Metropolitan Council’s Ethics Committee, Fr. Rentel’s article spoke to issues which I have had to contemplate.  I don’t intend to write a review of his article but just note a few points that were pertinent to things I’ve thought about.

St. Basil the Great says:

“On the matter of priesthood, if you fell into a sin of the flesh – fornication, adultery, sodomy, bestiality – and were above 13 years old, even if you didn’t know that these sins are impediments to the priesthood, you are not allowed to become a priest … examine yourself well, and if you fell even once even out of ignorance you cannot become a priest. No matter how great a need the Church has. God will care for His Church. If there are no priests and lay people, then the Lord will destroy everyone. If you have an impediment to the priesthood, you are able by repentance and confession to perform miracles and to become a saint, but not a priest.”

That is a pretty high standard for ordination.   But note, he says such sexual sins are impediments to ordination but not to becoming canonized as a saint.  The criterion for becoming a saint are different than from becoming a priest.  Fr. Rentel notes from the canons:

“Nikodemos the Hagiorite (ca. AD 1749-1809) …. observes that ‘all sins’ that would depose a clergyman, whether committed before or discovered after ordination, also present ‘an impediment to someone becoming a priest.’   ….   1 Nicea Canon 9 says … when some sin committed prior to ordination is discovered, the canon refuses to admit such a man to the priesthood, because ‘the catholic church vindicates (ekdikei) only what is above reproach.'” (p 34) 

“A candidate cannot hope that ordination will simply blot out his pre-ordination sins.”  (p 36) 

The goal of canonical penalties Rentel notes is for the laity or clergy to “withdraw from sin.”  It is not punishment but a help towards salvation.  The same is true of deposition from the clergy which is viewed as part of the cure for the man who fell into sin after ordination or who committed a serious sin before being ordained.

“Apostolic Canon 25…. ‘If a bishop, presbyter, or deacon is caught in fornication, perjury, or theft, let him be deposed.'” (pp 40-41)

And if the clergyman  exercises “‘his own private judgment to the subversion of the people and to the disturbance of the churches’.  Such a cleric, the canon says, is ‘one who…heaps sins upon himself.'” (p 41)

Cyril of Alexandria around 442AD says “that a bishop cannot simply retire to avoid scandal and canonical punishment.  Rather, Cyril says… ‘if they are unworthy, do not let them leave by retiring, rather let them be judged for [their] actions.'” (p 44)

The practice of moving clergy to a new parish assignment after they have committed an action worthy of deposition is just plain wrong.    So too is the practice of allowing disgraced bishops to retire honorably.    There is a reason for these rules in preserving the high standards of the church for it preserves the integrity of the church and helps prevent the types of illicit behavior that were observed in recent scandals throughout the Christian world.