Can priests leave if they fall in love? What about Sisters?

What happens if a priest or a sister falls in love? Can they leave the priesthood or stop being religious sisters if they fall in love? The answer is no, but also yes. Let us explain… (If you would rather watch our Youtube video on this topic, click the link.)

Caption: Men lay down their entire lives and give them completely to God by being ordained. Their very souls are changed and they profess obedience to the Bishop and to God.

Can a Priest or a Nun leave for love?

We need to back up a bit in order to answer the question, can a priest or a nun leave if they fall in love? No one becomes a nun or a priest over night. Everyone starts at the beginning. So, if a girl decides that she wants to become a religious sister or a nun, she goes around and she looks at different groups, which are called orders. These orders all have different charisms. Now, a girl might be drawn to a few different orders, but eventually she will settles on one.

Once she gets accepted into what’s known as the first stage, postulancy or candidacy, she starts living with that group of religious nuns and discerning with them virtually exclusively. Postulancy usually lasts about a year. Making an analogy to dating can be helpful. It’s similar to seeing a bunch of guys (or girls) that you are attracted to. Over time, you find someone that you really enjoy and you eventually start dating them exclusively.  That is like postulancy.

The second stage: if a woman feels called to continue on, she enters the novitiate, which is the second step, where she discerns much more deeply, and prays for a really long time. She tries to discern and decide where God really wants her to be. It is like discerning marriage more seriously with your significant other, in which you are praying while you are dating to see if this is the person that God wants you to be dating or even married to. Most communities have a two year novitiate.

If a woman discerns that God is calling her to continue, she makes still a more serious commitment: she professes her first, or temporary, vows which is kind of like getting engaged. First vows is when a woman takes on the habit and becomes a sister. First vows are a temporary promise made for one to three years. If she decides that this is the group, or order, that she wants to definitively join, then she takes what’s known as her final vows.

Caption: A woman professing vows as a nun. Many orders wear wedding dresses when they take vows to make it clear that they are becoming brides of Christ and are living for Him.

Analogously, in order to become priests, men also have a lengthy period of discernment during their time in seminary. The process of discernment takes about eight years (or more). That is a lot of time to make sure this is really where God is calling you. Up until final vows and ordination for priests, seminarians and religious sisters have the freedom to leave at any time if they believe God is calling them elsewhere, or they don’t think it’s for them.

What God has joined let no man separate

Final vows for religious sisters, and ordination for priests, are the equivalent of marriage. They are meant to be a life-long commitment. When a man or a woman finds that person that they love and want to spend the rest of their life with, they get married. And when a young woman decides and finds an order that she loves and wants to spend the rest of her with, she makes her final vows, and it’s like getting married.

Once you’re married, you cannot leave. It’s a covenant. It’s permanent. It’s for life. Jesus Himself said that it’s for life. The two become one flesh in the eyes of God and Jesus said what God has joined together, no man can separate or tear apart. So once you get married, it’s until death do you part with extreme exceptions, like if you’re being abused. And it’s the same thing being a priest or a nun. Once you make your final vows, or once you become ordained as a priest, you enter into what’s known as a spiritual marriage in a sense. You are committing your whole life to God, or the Church… both.. In other words, it’s an exclusive, permanent vow, a covenant that you’re entering into with God.

What God has joined together, no human being must separate. Mt. 19:6

So, can a religious sister or a priest leave if they fall in love? The answer is no. Why? Because they’ve already made their final vows and they’ve given their lives exclusively to God. Let’s make an analogy regarding objections we might here.

Let’s just say a man finds a woman who understands him better than his wife. She is prettier, sexier, and she just “gets him.” They connect on a level that is deep and seems destined. Can that man leave his wife to go off with another woman? The obvious answer is no. Of course not. The reason is that he has given his whole life to his wife, and he made life-long promises to her until death do them part.

So, it doesn’t matter how many beautiful women man may see, and it doesn’t matter how much he connects with any of them. Even if he might “fall in love” with someone, which should never happen in that way (because a good man would avoid situations leading to this), but it’s impossible because he has made a covenant to her and to God which Jesus said cannot be broken.

It’s the same with priests and nuns. Before they become priests and nuns they go through these different steps of prayer and discernment. So, they should be certain by the time they make their life-long commitment.

A Serious Commitment

Just to repeat: any time before final vows or ordination, they can leave. Similar to if you decide that while you’re engaged to someone, you don’t want to date them anymore. You realize that it will not work. You can leave because you’re not married yet. This is fine as long as you are dating or engaged. As long as you are in your postulancy or novitiate, or if you are in your first vows, (check out Victoria’s story for an example of this), you can leave. If you decide that you don’t want to be a nun or a priest, you can leave. But once you take your final vows, it’s permanent, just like marriage in the eyes of God is permanent. So, some priests and nuns who claim to fall in love, and they leave for the sake of love, they are actually in a sense cheating on God, the same way a husband or wife would be cheating on their spouse if they went off with someone else. They would commit adultery, one of the most serious sins.

Just as there are rare exceptions to this rule, like sever abuse in marriage, so there are very few exceptions and legitimate reasons which allow priests to be laicized or for nuns to be dispensed from their vows. Falling in love is not one of those legitimate reasons, just as “falling in love” with another man/woman, doesn’t allow you to leave your spouse and family in the eyes of God. That’s what you choose when you become a nun, and that’s what you choose when you become a priest. You give your life to the Church and you give your life to God.

That is the answer. Thank you to the person who asked this question. If anyone has any follow up thoughts or questions, please put them in the comments section below.

“You hall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (Jn. 8:32)

About Bryan Mercier

Bryan Mercier is a professional Catholic speaker, retreat leader, author, YouTuber, and a Catholic apologist who has been teaching and preaching for almost two decades. He has also been aired on TV and radio in different states, including Relevant Radio, Ave Maria Radio, Sirius XM Satellite, and EWTN. He is the founder of "Catholic Truth," a non-profit dedicated to the New Evangelization and helping Catholics to know, love, and live their faith with purpose and passion each day!
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