Can a man born out of wedlock become a priest?

Q: Is it true that men born out of wedlock cannot enter the priesthood? (Philadelphia)

 

A: No, that is not true. But your question does reflect a lengthy period in the church's history when illegitimacy was ruled a barrier.

 

The Council of Poitiers, under Pope Paschal II, determined in the late 11th century that being born out of wedlock constituted an impediment to the priesthood. That stipulation continued in force for many years and was, in fact, written into the church's Code of Canon Law published in 1917 (Canon 984). The current code as revised in 1983, eliminates that impediment entirely.

 

As I understand the historical background, the chief reason for the rule was this: During the Middle Ages, a wealthy man embarrassed by the existence of an illegitimate son would sometimes try to "hide" the boy in a monastery where he would later be ordained to sacred orders. To preclude this, the impediment of illegitimacy was put in place.

 

Even in the years, when the canonical prohibition was in force, a bishop who wanted to accept for ordination a man born out of wedlock could apply to the Vatican for a dispensation to do so.

 

Certainly, the fact of illegitimacy was not the fault of the aspiring seminarian; yet, because a priest is the visible representative of Christ and should illustrate all that is best about the church, some bishops were not keen on ordaining men known in the community to be illegitimate or to have been born in other than a Catholic-recognized marriage.

 

In the case of a couple of friends of mine who fit that description and who wanted to enter the seminary in the 1950s and ‘60s, these men were accepted for theological studies but were ordained to minister in a diocese different than their native ones.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2017

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