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.


7 thoughts on “Canonical Ordination and Deposition

    1. Fr. Ted

      The OCA’s direction is not yet certain – it is a work in progress. The issues raised by Fr. Rentel’s article are simply realities that the church has to deal with. Obviously the existence of the Canons on these issues tells us that from the very beginning of the church’s history, these were the problems she faced. Nothing is new under the sun.

  1. Deacon Marty

    What I get from what you have written is that the Church need not fear deposition for either the Church or the individual deposed? However I like most are interested also in the specifics.
    Did Fr. Rentel happen to address:
    Ancyra 12
    About those who sacrificed while in the catechumenate
    Bas. 20
    It is decreed that they who have offered sacrifice before their baptism, and were afterwards baptized, may be promoted to orders, inasmuch as they have been cleansed. NPNF XIV, 68.

    This would seem to imply that even the most serious impediment is overcome in baptism.

    1. Fr. Ted

      He did not address those issues in his article. The difference that I see is that the issues you raise are people who offered pagan sacrifice before their baptisms which is different than the issues raised in the article and in the quote from St. Basil which I posted. Fr. Rentel’s article and the St. Basil’s quote are both dealing with the issue of sin committed by a Christian even as a teenager, not any kind of pre-Christian religious practice. I am not sure that we would count a person’s pre-baptismal religious practices as sins – animal sacrifice was after all the main part of Jewish temple cult, commanded by God. The issue in question in the blog is sexual sin committed prior to one’s ordination. The canons seems to specify that if a sin would result in canonical deposition after ordination, then having committed that sin prior to ordination would be an impediment to ordination. Additionally if the sin committed prior to ordination was only discovered after ordination then the canons seem to imply deposition is still the correct action within the church.

  2. Deacon Marty

    Thanks for the clarity. I hope to get the SVTQ when it arrives at the library here and read the entire article. The idea I struggle with is the application of canonical impediments prior to one becoming Orthodox (which is not explicitly dealt with). I do understand Fr. Rentel’s conclusion that ordination will not necessarily “blot-out” sins – but baptism will.

    1. Fr. Ted

      This article appeared in Vol 1 of this year’s SVTQ,which came out in January or February, so I would guess should already be at the seminary’s library.

  3. Pingback: Blogs on Sexual Misconduct in the Church | Fr. Ted's Blog

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