The "former priest with a dark secret" is a staple of Hollywood and novelistic storytelling, but priests in real life might choose to leave the Roman Catholic Church for less dramatic reasons. Yes, in recent years, many Catholic priests have been disgraced by scandals and inappropriate behavior with children - almost 1,700 credibly accused priests are currently free and unsupervised. But others simply lost their faith, or found love and left the church to marry.
Catholic priests who leave to marry often suffer profound culture shock, as they must acclimate not only to a new relationship, but also to a new way of living in the world. Other priests might leave due to a personal crisis, or a change in heart that leads them to become a clergy member of a different denomination.
Whatever the reason, ex-priests often face both newfound joy and profound difficulties in acclimating to life outside the priesthood. Stories from former priests illuminate what happens when they leave the church.
According to canon law as laid down in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, when a man takes holy orders, it "confers an indelible spiritual character and cannot be repeated or conferred temporarily." Therefore, priests technically cannot resign their priesthood.
In the real world, however, priests who leave the church generally don't continue their duties. The church draws a distinction between the inner status of a person and their outward function. A priest's inner "priestliness" can never change, but he can resign from the function of being a priest and be released from his duties.
This can be accomplished in a number of ways, one of which is to simply walk away. The Roman Catholic Church has no legal mechanism to force anyone to work as a priest (although authorities can wield significant social pressure). However, the technically correct way is to seek a dispensation from church authorities, releasing the priest from his duties.
A laicized priest might be forgiven for thinking that, because he has left the church, he is no longer bound by any of its rules, including the vow of celibacy. However, from the point of view of the Roman Catholic Church, once that vow is made, it is in effect forever. This means every priest who leaves the church to marry is breaking canon law and breaking his vows.
The only way to be released from the vow of celibacy is through a dispensation from the pope. While it is not known how many of these dispensations have been granted since the rule was first made under Pope John Paul II, it is unlikely that there have been more than a handful.
Dan Murtah, a former Catholic priest, wrote in The Guardian about breaking the vow of celibacy after he chose love over the church:
I was... told that I could not break my vow of celibacy - but it turns out that it was as easy as making it. Breaking the vow didn’t upset me or make me fearful, and ultimately it made me happy. Of course it did: being with a partner is a natural part of being human.
One of the most challenging aspects of leaving the priesthood is the loss of a strong social network. Priests often come Catholic families, and were once leaders in their church communities, so leaving the priesthood can mean the loss of friends and possibly family support.
However, it can also mean other inconveniences. For ex-priest Dan Murtah, that meant not being able to marry in a Roman Catholic Church.
There is, theoretically, a way for Murtah to marry in a Catholic church: He would need to be older than 40 and require a dispensation from the pope. Such dispensations, however, are rarely granted.
Murtah, who as of 2017 hasn't received that dispensation, wrote in The Guardian:
I’m told [the pope] won’t grant permission until after I’m 40 (that’s in a decade). So I can’t marry. Actually I can - in a registry office, on a beach, even in an Anglican church, thank you Henry VIII. Although we have yet to make a decision.
Although thoroughly researched data isn't available, anecdotal evidence suggests that some priests who leave the Roman Catholic Church join various Protestant denominations.
The surface reason for this is obvious: Most Protestant churches don't require celibacy of their clergy. That was the case for the Rev. Alberto Cutié of Miami, a radio and TV personality who resigned his Catholic post in 2009 after pictures surfaced of him with his girlfriend. He went on to become a practicing Anglican.
Cutié told CBS Miami:
There’s no difference in the job description in the Episcopal church. It’s just a different place and a different geography. Our congregations are smaller but I do the same work I always did. The governance is different. There’s a little more democracy in our church.
While some Catholics convert because of celibacy, others leave over doctrinal issues. Stephen Joseph Fichter, a priest, scholar, and author of From Celibate Catholic Priest to Protestant Minister, studied former Catholic priests who became Protestant. He wrote in America magazine that one study participant said:
Coupled with the struggle over celibacy, I seriously questioned the Roman Catholic Church’s treatment of women, laypeople, and homosexuals. The establishment in Rome was becoming more rigid and moving the church backwards. The reforms of Vatican II came under fire. It came to the point where I could not imagine being happy in 20 years if I remained in ministry in the Roman Catholic Church. I felt God was calling me to pursue something else. I dreamed of finding a denomination where I could continue to minister with my wife, a gifted youth and family minister.