Fr. Bob Scanlan, a married priest in Illinois writes the following to clarify the status of married priests in the Catholic tradition:
HOW CHURCH LAW WORKS
Church policy and beliefs are determined when all the bishops and cardinals meet with the Pope in a Council. We all know of the Nicene Creed. This came from the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. In the City of Trent in northern Italy between 1545 and 1563 there was held a council which set policy and teaching once again and is referred to the Council of Trent. The most recent Council is the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council held from 1961 to 1965 in Rome. The policy from that council is referred to simply as Vatican II. This council changed the way we celebrate Liturgy; the role of all the baptized in the church; the role of the Catholic Church in relation to all other churches and many other issues.
From the time of Jesus to 1916 there was no Code of Canon Law. In 1917 the first Code of Canon Law was written. Canon Law spells out how the church functions in the day to day operations. Laws are written from the decrees of the Councils of the Church. At times as customs change as people and cultures move through society laws need to be changed to keep up with the people and the customs. In 1983 the Code of Canon Law was revised and is the current code in place. It is assumed that in the future as the need arises this Code of Canon Law will be revised to keep current with the needs of the church.
In between councils church authorities from time to time write a Catechism or a day to day operation manual listing in simple terms what the church councils have decreed. Many of us grew up with the Baltimore Catechism which was written in a question and answer format. On October 11, 1992 Pope John Paul II issued the current Catechism of the Catholic Church which is the most current "operation manual" for the church.
So this brings us to the question of the married priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church. What is their status in the church? When they marry do they become laymen? Are they still priests? What does the church through the Councils say about married priests? What does the Catechism say about married priests?
The Council of Trent says "If anyone says a priest can ever become a layman again, LET HIM BE ANATHEMA." (Condemned) Denziger-Schonmetzer 964 & 1767. This book is a compilation of the teachings of the Council of Trent. So we simply say for our purposes "Once a priest; always a priest".
The 1983 Code of Canon Law sections 290 to 293 reaffirm this teaching of the Council of Trent
The current Catechism of the Catholic Church sections 1582 and 1583 once again reaffirm the consistent teaching of the Council of Trent.
Section 1582 states, "As in the case of Baptism and Confirmation this share in Christ's office is granted once for all. The sacrament of Holy Orders, like the other two, confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily." 74 Footnote 74 refers back to the teaching of the Council of Trent 1767.
Section 1583 states: "It is true that someone validly ordained can, for a just reason, be discharged from the obligations and functions linked to ordination, or can be forbidden to exercise them; but he cannot become a layman again in the strict sense, because the character imprinted by ordination is forever. The vocation and mission received on the day of ordination mark him permanently." 75 Footnote 75 refers back again to the Council of Trent 1774 and the Code of Canon Law sections 290 to 293.
When some people refer to a priest who has married as a "former priest or ex-priest" they are outside the consistent teaching of the Catholic Church and are simply wrong.
Rev. Bob Scanlan