ALLENTOWN, PA: Laicization of Episcopal Priests by Rome Angers Clerics
Three Diocese of Bethlehem priests originally ordained as Roman Catholic clerics will strongly oppose it if contacted by Rome
By Mary Ann Mueller
VOL Special Correspondent
May 24, 2012
Three former Roman Catholic priests from the Catholic Diocese of Allentown, PA who left the Catholic Church to become Episcopalians, are now married, and are serving as Episcopal priests in the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem, have received notice from their former Catholic diocese that their status as Roman Catholic priests is about to change.
The Episcopal Church does not re-ordain converting Catholic priests. The Episcopal Church readily recognizes the validity of Catholic clerical orders and receives the converting Catholic cleric into The Episcopal Church with a specialized service entitled “The Reception of Priestly Orders.”
The Rev. Canon Bill Lewellis, the Rev. Canon Michael Piovane, and the Rev. Donald Schaible II all received notice from the Rev. Monsignor Gerald Gobitas, the Diocese of Allentown’s Secretary for Clergy, that the eastern Pennsylvania Catholic diocese will be appealing to the Vatican for laicization on their behalf. This basically means that within the Roman Catholic Church, they will be reduced to the rank of laity and no longer recognized as priests by the Church of Rome.
All three priests are protesting the Diocese of Allentown’s proposed action which comes on the heels of a 2009 directive by Pope Benedict XVI. The recently enacted new norms allow for a more streamlined process by which Catholic priests, who have left the Catholic fold and become married, can be released from their Catholic priesthood as well as the obligations and disciplines surrounding their Catholic clerical status.
Canon Lewellis became an Episcopalian in 1982. He was originally ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1963. As a Catholic priest, Canon Lewellis became a monsignor and served in the Diocese of Allentown’s chancery as the diocesan director of communications. The former monsignor’s Catholic priesthood was not received into The Episcopal Church until 1999. Now retired, Canon Lewellis continues to use his communication skills for the Diocese of Bethlehem. He has worked with the Episcopal diocese since 1986. He first served as the communication minister, then as the diocesan canon theologian, and now as the continuing editor of the New Spin newsletter and blog.
“Your letter about the Diocese of Allentown’s decision to employ the 2009 Congregation of the Clergy procedure for involuntary laicization came as a surprise. Please know that I do not support the application Bishop (John) Barres has sent or will send to Rome. I will, in fact, strongly oppose it if contacted by Rome,” Canon Lewellis replied to Monsignor Gobitas. “However it may be cast, the end of this involuntary laicization procedure, so long as I do not consent to it, would be a gratuitous penalty, a defrocking of clothes I haven’t worn for 31 years.”
Canon Piovane was also originally ordained as Catholic priest. He became an Episcopalian in 1987 and was received as a priest by Bishop Dyer in 1993. He is currently rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Trexlertown. This is a position the Canon has held since 1998.
“I received your letter of March 22, 2012 regarding the decision by the Diocese of Allentown to employ the 2009 Congregation of the Clergy procedures for involuntary laicization. I appreciate your respectful tone in advising about this situation. You have always shown me respect as a priest and as an individual,” Canon Piovane replied to Monsignor Gobitas. “I regret that you are the bearer of this news and as the Secretary for Clergy the person directing the involuntary laicization process within the Diocese of Allentown. From your letter it appears that the Diocese of Allentown intends to proceed with my laicization whether I consent or not. For the record, I have not been advised about the procedural or administrative norms being exercised by the Diocese of Allentown in regard to the involuntary laicization process.”
Fr. Schaible has also been received as a priest in the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem in 2007. Since 2008 he has been the rector of yoked Episcopal congregations nestled in the northeast corner of Pennsylvania: Trinity Church in Carbondale and Christ Church in Forest City.
“Regarding my priestly ministry within The Episcopal Church there is an important clarification. The Episcopal Church recognizes ordination by the Roman Catholic Church and simply ‘receives’ former Roman Catholic priests in a ceremony far removed from ordination. I was not ‘ordained’ into the priesthood of The Episcopal Church,” Fr. Schaible clarified to Monsignor Gobitas. “My only ordination is that as a Roman Catholic priest on June 3, 1989. I became a member of The Episcopal Church in 2004. I was received as a priest of The Episcopal Church on June 29, 2007.”
The three Episcopal priests are not the only ones concerned about the impact of the Diocese of Allentown’s canonical move. Bethlehem Bishop Marshall wrote his reaction to the impending laicization process of three of his priests on his diocesan website.
“I want to note here that the ordination of these three men was recognized by this church some years ago and their orders were received here. They are priests under the jurisdiction and protection of The Episcopal Church. Please be assured that nothing that might occur in the Roman church effects their identity, status, or work among us. I value each of them highly, as I am sure you know.”
In a joint letter posted on the Diocese of Bethlehem’s website the three priests explained things from their viewpoint. They noted that they all are currently priests in good standing in The Episcopal Church.
In late March each received a similar letter from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown regarding the involuntary laicization action being taken against them. The priests also reiterated that none of them had applied for laicization and that they have their own personal reasons for not pursuing that course of action.
“On occasion, the local bishop could take the initiative to have someone laicized because that person was causing ‘public scandal’ of one kind or another. Often enough, what was named public scandal by the RC hierarchy was not so considered by the public,” the Bethlehem priests explain. “In 2009, a Vatican decree made it possible for – in fact, seemed to encourage – local RC bishops to apply for involuntary laicization for former RC priests without having to jump through hoops.”
The three Episcopal priests feel that involuntary laicization would in effect be a penalty and a defrocking.
“Reading between the lines of the piously worded decree, one recognizes that this gave local bishops a way to efficiently laicize priests accused of sexual abuse,” the three Episcopal priests jointly write. “That seems to have been its primary purpose. Beyond the letters we received from the Diocese of Allentown, we have been hard pressed to discover instances where such applications for involuntary laicization have been applied by other RC dioceses to priests who have not been accused of sexual abuse.”
However the Catholic diocese is quick to point out that it hopes that the Episcopal priests’ continued ministry in The Episcopal Church is fruitful. The diocese maintains that their action has no direct impact on the three priests’ ministry in The Episcopal Church, but that it is rather a matter of resolving the former Catholic priests’ conflict with Catholic Canon Law. This action is being taken on their behalf for their soul’s sake.
When a Catholic priest is ordained he is required by canon law to fulfill the priestly obligations of the daily recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours, the pursuit of holiness and to seek perfection, obedience to the Pope and local Catholic bishop, and to remain celibate. These are lifelong commitments that the Catholic priest seals with a solemn promise at his ordination. Once ordained, the Catholic priest is considered to commit sin if he does not fulfill these priestly obligations.
Civilly, when a marriage goes bad, the couple has to be legally divorced before either can remarry someone else. One spouse just cannot walk out of a marriage and get remarried to another person without first legally ending the current marital union. Similarly, monks and nuns, who seek to leave the vowed religious life, must first seek formal release from their solemn religious vows before they can re-enter the world and start a new secular lifestyle. The same holds true for the Catholic priesthood. The Catholic Church has a process by which the priest is temporally released from the spiritual commitment he made to the priesthood.
For whatever reason, when a priest leaves the Catholic Church and walks out of his Catholic priesthood without being formally released from his solemn obligations, commitments and disciplines of his priesthood, he is considered to be in a state of sin. He incurs self-excommunication.
The three Episcopal priests chose not to formally end their priestly commitment to the Catholic Church through the process of laicization. They merely walked away from the Catholic priesthood. However, canonically, in the eyes of the Catholic Church they are still bound to the Catholic priesthood and its multilayered demands. The Diocese of Allentown is pastorally seeking to rectify this and release the Episcopal priests from the obligations of the Catholic priesthood, including the celibacy rule.
The new 2009 laicization procedure allows for the Congregation for Clergy to use expanded powers to dismiss men from the priesthood and release them from the obligation of celibacy. This includes Catholic priests who are living with women, priests who have abandoned their Catholic priestly ministry for more than five years, or priests who have engaged in seriously scandalous behavior.
Canon Lewellis, Canon Piovane, and Fr. Schaible have not been practicing Catholic priests for more than five years. The Catholic Church believes that they have abandoned their Catholic priestly ministry. Each priest is now married and living with his wife thus he is no longer fulfilling his commitment to priestly celibacy. However, the Episcopal priests are not guilty of serious criminal and scandalous behavior. This clause does not apply to them.
By being laicized in the Catholic Church, the Episcopal priests would be relieved of the canonical and spiritual responsibilities of the Catholic priesthood. They would have the rights of any baptized layman to live out their faith without the binding obligations of the Catholic priesthood. However, they cannot ever again celebrate a Catholic Mass or any other Catholic Sacraments, wear Catholic clerical garb, or be recognized as a Catholic priest. If they ever returned to the Catholic Church, even through the Anglican Ordinariate, they would not be able to recoup the sacerdotal ministry of their Catholic priesthood.
The Catholic Church is not denying the validity of its priesthood. It recognizes that a priest is a priest forever and the mark of the priesthood is imprinted on the priest’s soul for all eternity. What the Diocese of Allentown is trying to do is release their former Catholic priests from continued Catholic spiritual obligations thus allowing them to continue their priestly ministry in The Episcopal Church unabated.
“The three individuals are former Catholic priests, who years ago voluntarily ended their ministry and service to the Catholic Church. They have since become members and ministers of The Episcopal Church,” explained Matt Kerr the Diocese of Allentown’s director of communications, a post once held by Canon Lewellis. “The three were ordained Catholic priests by a Bishop of Allentown, for the Diocese of Allentown, in the Diocese of Allentown and that’s where they served.”
“Since they no longer serve as Catholic priests, the Diocese of Allentown has requested of the Holy See that they no longer be considered Catholic priests,” Kerr e-mailed VOL. “This will have no impact on their continuing service and ministry in The Episcopal Church.”
Mary Ann Mueller is a journalist living in Texas. She is a regular contributor to VirtueOnline.
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