Impediments to Ordination

ROME, FEB. 7, 2012 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: Could you explain and discuss the impediments to ordination to the priesthood? Thanks. — L.B., Madison, Wisconsin

A: This is a very complex theme and falls more within the province of canon law than liturgy. However, we can outline at least the principal concepts found in Canons 1040-1049. These canons deal with the impediments and irregularities for reception and exercise of orders.

They are not all the prerequisites for reception of orders; there are many others such as completion of the necessary studies, admissions as a candidate, reception of the ministries of lector and acolyte, a free handwritten request, and a retreat before receiving orders (see Canons 1033-1039).

These are the canons concerned:


«Canon 1040. Those affected by any impediment, whether perpetual, which is called an irregularity, or simple, are prevented from receiving orders. The only impediments incurred, however, are those contained in the following canons.»

An irregularity is a perpetual impediment even though a dispensation may be granted in some cases. A simple impediment can cease by other means. For example, someone who in his youth committed an act of schism and was later reconciled with the Church will always require a dispensation before ordination. A married man has a simple impediment that disappears if he is widowed or, in rare cases, dispensed.

This latter dispensation is mostly granted to former Protestant married clergy who are admitted to the priesthood. It is sometimes granted when both spouses in a valid marriage decide to pursue a religious vocation, but such cases are not common.

Therefore, the irregularities and impediments are:

«Canon 1041. The following are irregular for receiving orders:

«1/ a person who labors under some form of amentia or other psychic illness due to which, after experts have been consulted, he is judged unqualified to fulfill the ministry properly;

«2/ a person who has committed the delict of apostasy, heresy, or schism;

«3/ a person who has attempted marriage, even only civilly, while either impeded personally from entering marriage by a matrimonial bond, sacred orders, or a public perpetual vow of chastity, or with a woman bound by a valid marriage or restricted by the same type of vow;

«4/ a person who has committed voluntary homicide or procured a completed abortion and all those who positively cooperated in either;

«5/ a person who has mutilated himself or another gravely and maliciously or who has attempted suicide;

«6/ a person who has placed an act of orders reserved to those in the order of episcopate or presbyterate while either lacking that order or prohibited from its exercise by some declared or imposed canonical penalty.

«Canon 1042. The following are simply impeded from receiving orders:

«1/ a man who has a wife, unless he is legitimately destined to the permanent diaconate;

«2/ a person who exercises an office or administration forbidden to clerics according to the norm of cann. 285 and 286 for which he must render an account, until he becomes free by having relinquished the office or administration and rendered the account;

«3/ a neophyte unless he has been proven sufficiently in the judgment of the ordinary.

«Canon 1043. If the Christian faithful are aware of impediments to sacred orders, they are obliged to reveal them to the ordinary or pastor before the ordination.»

The canons distinguish between the reception of orders and the exercise of orders. In other words, the above impediments do not necessarily make the ordination invalid. Should a man be ordained with an impediment, the question remains if he is then able to exercise the ministry he has received. This is specified in the following canons. They are very clear that those who receive ordination while affected by an undispensed irregularity or impediment are also impeded from exercising the ministry. The exception is the prior delict of apostasy, heresy, or schism unless it was publically known. If hidden, the impediment impedes reception of orders but not the exercise of the orders once received. 

«Canon 1044 §1. The following are irregular for the exercise of orders received:

«1/ a person who has received orders illegitimately while affected by an irregularity to receive them;

«2/ a person who has committed a delict mentioned in can. 1041, n. 2, if the delict is public;

«3/ a person who has committed a delict mentioned in can. 1041, nn. 3, 4, 5, 6.

Ǥ2. The following are impeded from the exercise of orders:

«1/ a person who has received orders illegitimately while prevented by an impediment from receiving them;

«2/ a person who is affected by amentia or some other psychic illness mentioned in can. 1041, n. 1 until the ordinary, after consulting an expert, permits the exercise of the order.

«Canon 1045. Ignorance of the irregularities and impediments does not exempt from them.

«Canon 1046. Irregularities and impediments are multiplied if they arise from different causes. They are not multiplied, however, if they arise from the repetition of the same cause unless it is a question of the irregularity for voluntary homicide or for having procured a completed abortion. 

«Canon 1047 §1. Dispensation from all irregularities is reserved to the Apostolic See alone if the fact on which they are based has been brought to the judicial forum.

Ǥ2. Dispensation from the following irregularities and impediments to receive orders is also reserved to the Apostolic See:

«1/ irregularities from the public delicts mentioned in can. 1041, nn. 2 and 3;

«2/ the irregularity from the delict mentioned in can. 1041, n. 4, whether public or occult;

«3/ the impediment mentioned in can. 1042, n. 1.

Ǥ3. Dispensation in public cases from the irregularities from exercising an order received mentioned in can. 1041, n. 3, and even in occult cases from the irregularities mentioned in can. 1041, n. 4 is also reserved to the Apostolic See.

Ǥ4. An ordinary is able to dispense from irregularities and impediments not reserved to the Holy See.

«Canon 1048. In more urgent occult cases, if the ordinary or, when it concerns the irregularities mentioned in can. 1041, nn. 3 and 4, the Penitentiary cannot be approached and if there is imminent danger of grave harm or infamy, a person impeded by an irregularity from exercising an order can exercise it, but without prejudice to the obligation which remains of making recourse as soon as possible to the ordinary or the Penitentiary, omitting the name and through a confessor.

«Canon 1049 §1. Petitions to obtain a dispensation from irregularities or impediments must indicate all the irregularities and impediments. Nevertheless, a general dispensation is valid even for those omitted in good faith, except for the irregularities mentioned in can. 1041, n. 4, and for others brought to the judicial forum, but not for those omitted in bad faith.

Ǥ2. If it is a question of the irregularity from voluntary homicide or a procured abortion, the number of the delicts also must be mentioned for the validity of the dispensation.

«§3. A general dispensation from irregularities and impediments to receive orders is valid for all the orders.»

There are many questions to be resolved regarding the concrete application of these irregularities and impediments, and each case must be resolved on its merits. Canon lawyers debate the fine points of the law as to when certain impediments are applicable or not. For example, what should be done when a mental condition might not be permanent? Is a man who caused a death by imprudent driving subject to the impediment of homicide? Does a doubtfully genuine suicide attempt invoke the irregularity? These are just some of the questions that have to be resolved. 

Finally, most canonists would appear to agree that most irregularities and impedimen
ts would not apply to someone who was not Catholic at the time of the delict, although they would still have to be carefully weighed in judging a man’s suitability for ordination.

* * * 

Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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