RC diocese seeks to turn three Episcopal priests into lay persons

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The Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown wants to declare that three Episcopal priests, who were received from the Catholic Church, are lay people.


The Diocese of Allentown seeks to laicize the Rev. Canon Bill Lewellis, the Rev. Canon Michael Piovane, and the Rev. Donald Schaible. They were notified by letter in March that the Catholic diocese intends to use newer, simplified procedures that were designed in 2009 to remove sex offenders and child abusers from the clergy roles without an ecclesiastical trial.

Among other things, the move also seeks to undercut the validity of the ministry of ex-RCC priests in the Episcopal Church because in theory The Episcopal Church (which recognizes the validity of Catholic orders) can’t receive what’s been taken away. In the Episcopal view, these men did not stop being priests, they only changed the church (jurisdiction) in which they practice their ministry.

So instead of using this on Roman clergy who have sexually abused their parishioners, they use it clergy who committed the “grave scandal” of being married–even though the Roman Catholic church will re-ordain married former Episcopal clergy who join their church.

This action is taking (or has already taken) place–it’s involuntary and essentially done in secret–many years after the three became Episcopalians and were received as priests. Piovane was received in 1993, Lewellis in 1999 and Schaible in 2007.

Before becoming an Episcopalian, Lewellis was a Monsignor and served in Allentown’s chancery office as Director of Communications. Until his retirement he served as Communications Missioner for the Diocese of Bethlehem.

Piovane is Rector of St. Anne’s Church in Trexlertown, PA,

Schiabble is Rector of Trinity Church, Carbondale, PA and Christ Church, Forest City, PA.

Responding to his former colleague in Allentown, Lewellis wrote:

Please know that I do not support the application Bishop Barres has sent or will send to Rome. I will, in fact, strongly oppose it if contacted by Rome.

Cardinal Hummes said about the involuntary laicization allowed by the decree that if the one who left is not interested in regularizing his situation, the good of the church and the good of the priest who left is that he be dispensed so that he would be in a correct situation, especially if he has children. If he has children, the cardinal went on, his children have a right to have a father who is in a correct situation in the eyes of God and with his own conscience, so helping these people is one of the reasons there are new procedures.

That strikes me as so self-serving. Think about it.

My life with my wife and children as well as my life and ministry within the Episcopal Church, before and after my reception here as a priest, suggest that I am “in a correct situation in the eyes of God.” Among the sayings and teachings of Jesus that Matthew collected in what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount is: By their fruits you will know them. Didn’t Jesus say that so much clearer than any Roman decree? My conscience is clear. My wife and children love me. We have had a good and holy life together. I need no paperwork from Rome to make that so. Actually, this would not be a matter of the church helping me in any way. In a way stranger than I can fathom, it is rather a matter of the bureaucracy of the church simply

reorganizing its files, balancing its own books, making things neater for itself.

A story is told locally about a priest of the Diocese of Allentown interviewing an Eastern Rite priest long ago to make the case for an annulment of a parishioner’s marriage. Having been quite cooperative during the interview, the interviewee is said to have remarked at

the end: When are you guys going to stop playing cops and robbers, and start preaching the word?

All three clarified the letter sent to them from Catholic diocese about the status of Roman Catholic priests who are received into the Episcopal Church. Lewellis said:

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.

In a letter posted on the Diocese of Bethlehem blog, Lewellis, Piovane and Schaible said:

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Donald Schaible, Michael Piovane and Bill Lewellis, all priests in good standing in the Episcopal Church, received from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown during late March letters similar to the attached regarding involuntary laicization.

Laicization, in the RC church, is literally the reduction of a cleric to the lay state. A priest who is laicized is technically still a priest, but may no longer act as one or put himself forward as one. Most frequently, over the past 50 years or so, priests who left the RC church applied to Rome to be laicized so they could get married and remain in good standing within the RC church. In order to receive this dispensation, however, the applicant had to make a reasonable case that, for one reason or another, he should not have been ordained to begin with.

Over the past 50 years, again, the dispensation was given relatively freely by one pope, but not by another.

Neither Donald nor Michael nor Bill applied for laicization, for our own reasons.

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. But even for the bishop, the process was not so straightforward, until 2009; and Rome gave the priest an opportunity to oppose involuntary laicization because the “involuntary” turned laicization into a penalty, i.e., defrocking.

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. 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. 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.

In a message to the Diocese, Bishop Paul V. Marshall wrote:

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.

The Diocese of Bethlehem posted PDF files of the letter from the Allentown diocese and the replies of each of the priests protesting the move.

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Bill Dilworth
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Bill Dilworth

It's important not to overstate what laicization is, though, in RC understanding. A laicized priest may not (usually) celebrate Mass, absolve sinners, anoint the sick and so on. If he does, however, the Sacramental acts he performs are valid, but illicit. In other words, he can, but may not, do those things.

I included "usually" in the above paragraph because IIRC laicized priests are required to offer the Sacraments to those in danger of death, if there is no licitly functioning priest available. Under that circumstance the Sacramental acts he performs would be both valid and licit.

Given the fact that these men will continue to act as priests regardless of their laicization, the only reason for the RCC to follow through is to denigrate the ministry of Episcopal priests, and maybe to (in the RCC's view of things) put the priests in a situation where exercising that ministry will be technically sinful.

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Thomas Williams
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Thomas Williams

A laicized priest is still a priest. This is not a de-ordaining. It's not even a declaration that there was no valid ordination to begin with (as an annulment is a declaration that there was no valid sacramental marriage to begin with). In fact, laicized priests can licitly perform certain sacerdotal functions, under very narrow circumstances, according to RC canon law. This is basically the equivalent of deposition in our canons. And I'm pretty sure that Episcopal authorities have imposed deposition on clergy who departed for other Christian bodies.

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Bill Dilworth
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Bill Dilworth

Well, so much for ecumenicism. Of course, we could do the same with priests who swim the Tiber in the opposite direction, but the RCC wouldn't care - they're not really priests, and we're not really a Church. (Except, of course, that the Vatican got terribly exercised when we started extending our "invalid" Anglican Orders to women and gay people - it was regarded as a very grave blow to our relations; go figure.)

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Bill Moorhead
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Evidently the Roman church has decided to abandon the principle of the indelibility of Holy Orders. But then, it doesn't come as a big surprise that the Romanists don't really understand Catholic sacramental theology.

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tcfitz3
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tcfitz3

What a waste of energy and paper! The Eastern Rite priest was so right - we are all sinners. But those who strive to life the Word and administer the sacraments faithfully deserve support. Kudos to Bishop Marshall and these brave priests.

Please sign your name when you comment tcfitz3. Thanks ~ed.

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