Former Albany bishop Howard Hubbard announced Tuesday that he has attempted marriage with a woman, after the Holy See rejected his request last year to be laicized.
The attempted marriage — contracted according to the laws of New York state — could lead the Vatican to declare the bishop dismissed from the clerical state.
Bishop Hubbard, 84, announced the Vatican decision — and his subsequent attempt to marry — in an open letter to the Albany Times Union newspaper. The bishop explained in that letter that he had “fallen in love with a wonderful woman who has helped and cared for me and who believes in me.”
Hubbard served as bishop of New York’s capital diocese until 2014. Since his retirement, he has faced allegations of sexually abusing minors, and has admitted to knowingly reassigning abuser priests and failing to report instances of abuse to law enforcement.
In November 2022, Hubbard announced he had petitioned Pope Francis to be dispensed from the rights and obligations of the clerical state, claiming that his former diocese had placed restrictions on his ministry as a priest – a claim the Albany diocese rejected as untrue.
Citing sources in the Albany diocese, The Pillar reported last November that the bishop had expressed plans to marry, if the pope approved his petition for laicization.
Under canon law, clerics of any rank may petition the pope for a dispensation from the rights and obligations of the clerical state.
Although they remain sacramentally ordained when dispensations are granted, they cannot licitly exercise any ministry except in certain carefully defined circumstances usually involving immediate danger of death, and they no longer enjoy the rights of clerics, including financial support from their former dioceses or religious institutes.
While deacons, priests, and bishops can be stripped of the clerical state following a canonical trial, a dispensation from the clerical state can also be granted after a petition to the pope. Such a laicization is canonically considered a “favor” and is not a punishment, and can be denied.
A laicized deacon, priest, or bishop must receive a dispensation from the clerical obligation of celibacy in order to marry validly — without that, he is canonically unable to contract a valid marriage.
According to Hubbard’s Aug. 1 letter to the Times Union, “In March, [he] received notice from the Vatican that my request had been denied. [He] was encouraged to wait patiently and prayerfully and to continue to abstain from public ministry until seven civil lawsuits against me alleging sexual misconduct had been adjudicated.”
Instead of “waiting patiently,” however, Hubbard said he had undergone a civil marriage ceremony last month, and asked that the press and public “respect our privacy as a couple.”
Hubbard’s successor as Bishop of Albany, Edward Scharfenberger, told the Times Union that Hubbard’s announcement was “unexpected,” and “ like many of you, I am just now beginning to process it.”
Bishop Scharfenberger did, however, make clear that whatever the civil effects of Hubbard’s attempt at marriage, the union is not a valid marriage, and that although he is prohibited from public ministry, Hubbard remains sacramentally a bishop, and canonically a cleric.
While the wedding is presumably civilly recognized, the Church holds that it does not validly establish marriage.
According to canon law, Hubbard’s attempt at marriage is invalid for several reasons, the first of which is that he is bound by the legal impediment of orders — canon law prevents individuals from marrying if they are already married, have professed religious vows, or are clerics.
Additionally, Catholics who wish to marry are obliged to exchange matrimonial consent according to specific norms, called canonical form. These require Catholics to marry with a priest or deacon receiving the consent of the parties before at least two witnesses, and that the ordinary place for the celebration of marriage be a church.
Catholics can receive dispensations from canonical form, but these permissions must be granted by their local diocesan bishop — in this case Bishop Scharfenberger, who has made it clear no such dispensation was sought or granted.
As it happens, Hubbard’s attempt at marriage could lead to the laicization he previously sought.
Clerics who attempt to marry commit a specific canonical crime, with the Code of Canon Law providing that “a cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly, incurs a latae sententiae suspension” from ministry and “if, after warning, he has not reformed or continues to give scandal, he must be progressively punished by deprivations, or even by dismissal from the clerical state.”
As a former diocesan bishop, Hubbard will have been well aware of these legal provisions — as well as the canonical penalty for his actions. Indeed, incurring the legal penalties may have been a motivating factor in the bishop’s decision to attempt civil marriage.
In many cases in American dioceses, priests who have left ministry and sought laicization have opted to attempt civil marriage in the expectation that the Vatican would move faster to laicize them as a punishment, in order to address public scandal, than as a favor.