The Vatican moved Thursday to thwart renegade African Archbishop Emmanuel Milingo from ordaining more bishops in defiance of the pope, stripping him of his priestly functions so any future ordinations by him would be invalid.
The Zambian monsignor has long been a problem for Rome. He angered the Vatican when he was married in 2001 to a South Korean woman by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church.
He was excommunicated in 2006 after installing four married men as bishops in defiance of the Roman Catholic Church requirement that its clergy be celibate.
Despite that harsh punishment by the Vatican, Milingo, now 79, kept ordaining new bishops. Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi told reporters Thursday he was unsure just how many bishops, although it appeared about three men were elevated to bishop's rank recently by the African churchman.
Another Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Ciro Benedettini, said although Milingo was excommunicated, any ordinations he performed were "illicit but valid" because he hadn't lost his priestly functions.
That meant if the ordinations continued, and the illicitly ordained bishops in turn began ordaining more bishops, the Vatican would run the risk of seeing Milingo's followers, who advocate abolishing clergy celibacy, set up a church outside the Roman Catholic church.
The African had a strong following in a church near Rome because of his reputation as an exorcist and healer. Catholic officials accused him of promoting African indigenous beliefs by performing mass exorcisms and healing ceremonies.
"Sadly, Archbishop Milingo has shown no signs of the desired repentance with a view to returning to full communion with the Supreme Pontiff and other members of the College of Bishops," the Vatican said in a statement.
Both the late Pope John Paul II, and his successor, Benedict XVI "personally followed the case of Archbishop Milingo in a spirit of paternal solicitude" to no avail, but the churchman's "regrettable conduct" persisted despite the pontiffs' efforts, the Vatican said.
"The Holy See has therefore been obliged to impose upon him the further penalty of dismissal from the clerical state," the statement said, calling that step "most extraordinary."
In an apparent acknowledgment that thee Vatican was worried about a schism of sorts if the illicit consecration of bishops without papal approval continued, the statement said the Holy See felt "obliged" to take the dramatic step because of concern for "serious consequences for ecclesial communion," a formal phrase meaning church unity.
Benedettini said the defrocking meant Milingo could not wear priest's vestments or celebrate Mass, even in private. More notably, in the church's eyes, any ordination that Milingo might carry out would be invalid, the spokesman said.
The Vatican added that any participation by faithful in "any future celebrations organized" by Milingo would be considered "unlawful."
Benedict, who for two decades was the Vatican's guardian of doctrinal orthodoxy before becoming pontiff in 2005, has urged faithful to adhere closely to church strictures. But he has also made a priority of his papacy efforts to bring back straying sheep to his spiritual flock.
Prominent in that campaign was Benedict's move to reconcile with an ultraconservative group, the Society of St. Pius X. During John Paul's papacy, four of its bishops were excommunicated when they were consecrated without papal consent by the late renegade Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, himself excommunicated.
Regarding Milingo, the Vatican said the church was entrusting to "the power of prayer, the repentance of the guilty party and of all those who _ be they priests or faithful _ have in any way cooperated with him by acting against the unity of Christ's church." The Vatican said it hopes Milingo "will see the error of his ways."