The Vatican has released the ‘secret’ guidelines by which it deals with clerics who father children, and in which the expulsion from the priesthood is not automatic.

Driving the news

Irish psychotherapist Vincent Doyle – himself the son of a priestpublished the Vatican guidelines Janary 23 on the website of his organisation for children of clerics, Coping International, as the Irish Examiner reports.

The guidelines – along with an addendum and confirmation of their authenticity provided by Monsignor Andrea Ripa, Undersecretary of the Congregation for the Clergy – take as their point of departure a February 2019 Vatican interview with Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of that same Congregation.

Go deeper

The Vatican protocol suggests, in the first place, that priests under 40 years of age with children solicit a dispensation from the clerical state, with the purpose of “the safeguarding of the good of the child”.

That good of the child involves not only economic support on the part of his or her priest father, but also “the affection of parents, an adequate education […] all that pertains to an effective and responsible exercise of paternity”, the Vatican instruction explains.

In most cases, the Vatican guidance stipulates that clerics who father children be stripped of the priesthood “because paternal responsibility creates permanent obligations that in the legislation of the Latin church does not provide for the exercise of priestly ministry”.

However, the Vatican does recognise “exceptions” to the rule, including in cases where another adult assumes the role of the priest’s child’s father, or when priests only become aware of having had children when their offspring “are already grown up, 20- 30 years old”.

“In these situations, the Dicastery does not oblige the Bishop to invite the priests to request the dispensation from priesthood owing to paternity”, the Vatican guidelines state.

“The Dicastery counsels a more flexible discernment within the rigorous practise and guidelines of the Congregation”.

Why it matters

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Doyle said he now had confirmation that the Vatican guidelines he published on his organisation’s website are the same guidelines used by bishops’ conferences around the world, the contents of which have been kept secret even after the New York Times revealed their existence last year.

“What is perhaps most significant about the confirmation of the contents of the Vatican Guidelines concerning children of Roman Catholic Priests is the noted exceptions that allow priests to remain in ministry and openly acknowledge their biological children”, Doyle explained.

“The ad hoc nature of responding to these situations avoids automatic expulsion – a position which has led to unemployment in some cases. This was in part the driving force behind the secrecy surrounding this issue”, the Irish psychotherapist continued.

Doyle celebrated that at a recent meeting with Vatican officials on the subject of the children of priests he noted a change on the part of Rome to a more “compassionate and emotionally sensitive” tone on the issue.

“Cardinal [Claudio] Hummes, the Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy in 2009 when the Vatican Guidelines were created, commented to me, ‘[the priest’s child has] the right not to be discriminated against or to be the object of prejudice'”, Doyle also recalled.

“He [Cardinal Hummes] added ‘to be a priest’s [child] in no way can mean a weight or demerit for the [child]. I defended this clearly when (2006-2010) I was Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy at the Roman Curia and Benedict XVI was the Pope. He agreed with me'”.

For the record

Doyle’s organisation – Coping International – has now been active for over six years.

Endorsed by both the Irish Bishops’ Conference and by the Vatican, Coping International estimates that there are at least 10,000 children of priests around the world.

That’s despite the fact that more than ten times that number – some 100,000 people from 175 countries – have availed themselves to date of Coping International’s free mental health and advocacy service.

Next on Novena:

Vatican investigates Italian missionary for allegedly fathering child in Kenya

Irish priest’s son calls on Pope to let religious who father children remain in ministry

“Children of Satan” no more: French Church promises justice for priests’ offspring

Novena exclusive: Danail Hristov, author and researcher: “Celibacy: a godsend or a life-undermining practice?”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.