Can a Catholic priest retire?

What breaking celibacy means for a Catholic priest

A rare and moving event: the Sunday service in the St. Gebhard Church in Constance is over. Before the magnificent organ begins an appropriate postlude, an explanation is read out. The previous pastor Andreas Rudiger declares that he will be a father and will therefore no longer continue his office as priest and head of the pastoral care unit in Konstanz-Petershausen. Applause breaks out, which signals: The congregation in the wide nave understands the step. Your priest led a "double life", as he calls it, for a while. Now he's clearing the table by going public.

It is a long way to laicize a priest

What the breadth of the Catholic people now accept or even approve of has caused all alarm bells to ring in Freiburg. The well-meaning understanding of the church public is one thing - complicated canon law is another. The paragraphs of the Corpus Iuris Canonici (CIC) do not so quickly release the priest from the prominent position of the cleric. Rather, such a step sets off a lengthy and painful process. There is a long way to go before a priest is laicized. The fact that this route leads via Rome and from there back to Freiburg doesn't make things any easier. The process is time consuming and, as past cases have shown, it can also be humiliating.

The final decision rests with the bishop, in this case Stephan Burger in Freiburg. The pastor concerned can set the course, says Michael Hertl, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Freiburg. If he marries his partner or continues to live with her, he can no longer serve as a priest. He is suspended and immediately withdrawn from his job. "Only if he remains a priest can he continue to celebrate services," says Hertl. But for that he would have to end the relationship.

Consequential vow

The core of the regulation is celibacy. At his ordination, the prospective priest promises his bishop that he will live celibacy. This is a momentous vow that is required of mostly young candidates. Anyone who breaks this promise and the process becomes known sets an automatic mechanism in motion that leads to suspension. "Marriage and priesthood are mutually exclusive," reports Michael Hertl, and: "Individuals have to decide how they want to live in the future." Again and again men fail at this high hurdle. "In the seventies the Catholic priests got married in rows," reports the Konstanz priest Mathias Trennert-Helwig, 66. Many of them were able pastors and social talents. "We would have enormous potential today if these men were still there," sighs the dean in conversation.

The statement by Andreas Rudiger is the second case this year for southern Baden. Jens Fehrenbacher was also relieved of his duties two months ago. Until then, the 47-year-old headed the pastoral care unit in the central Elz Valley with five parishes. "In order to be able to live honestly and truthfully," he writes, he asked the archbishop to take this step. On the financial side, it was said at the time: "The Archdiocese does not let anyone down and checks where and what kind of support is needed in each individual case," said Lisa Maria Pleske from the Ordinariate to the "Black Forest Messenger".

"Each of these cases is a blow to the diocese leadership"

Fehrenbacher comes from Pfohren near Donaueschingen. He first learned to be a photographer and initially practiced this profession. Later he came to study theology. His hometown had celebrated his ordination 12 years ago, the whole village was on its feet. People were proud of the priest from their own locality and their own ranks. He spent his years as a Catholic vicar in Markdorf in the Lake Constance district, among other places, before taking over the spatially extensive district in the Elztal in the Black Forest. For him and for his colleague Rudiger: They were popular pastors with a lot of drive and good ideas. Personal details of this kind are bitter for the Catholic Church and the Diocese of Baden. "Each of these cases is a blow to the diocese leadership", knows Dean Trennert-Helwig.

What happens to a suspended pastor? Financially and legally, it does not fall into the abyss, it says in the ordinariate. Because while he was serving in a parish, he was already paying into the church pension fund - a fund that every German diocese sets up for its own priests. According to reports, the pot is well filled. During his work, every pastor acquires rights to this fund, which he does not lose even as a layperson. He takes these demands with him wherever he goes. What he loses, however, is the civil servant-like status that he was able to enjoy in the shortage of pastor. This job guarantee is forfeited.

The archdiocese does not close all doors to the pastor, who has failed due to celibacy. Archdiocese spokesman Hertl points out that some jobs are open to the laity in the church, especially since more and more open church positions have to be filled with non-priests. A second start as a religion teacher, pastoral consultant or pastor in hospital is conceivable. Or in the well-stocked church administration. This route has already been taken several times. In this case, the Church remains the employer if both sides so wish. The affected person loses his status as a priest, his academic studies and his accumulated experience remain with him, as does his impressive network.

Andreas Rudiger could not be reached on Monday to comment. His office is empty. "He has withdrawn and is taking a break," says the parish council.


A Catholic priest is ordained. This fundamentally distinguishes them from laypeople. As a priest he belongs to a different class - the class of clergy. The bishop can restore him to the laity, i.e. the church people. With that he is free again for a marriage ("liber"), which a cleric is not. In return, the laicized theologian is no longer allowed to perceive priestly acts, that is, to give sacraments. (uli)

Published in the department of BaW├╝