Sunday, November 14, 2010

Permanent Deacons are obliged by the law of continence [Updated]

When I visited Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit last week I met up with Doctor Edward Peters, the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair Professor of Canon Law at the Seminary and author of the blog In the Light of the Law (pictured above) and Mr Tim Ferguson, Administrative Director of the Detroit Metropolitan Tribunal and lecturer in Canon Law at the Seminary. Over dinner I discovered that Dr Peters and I had both been thinking about the same matter: whether deacons (permanent) should be living in continence.

It had become my firm conviction through reading such studies as The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Father Christian Cochini SJ that the apostolic tradition and that of the early Church was firmly in favour of this position. Indeed, Cochini's work shows that it was customary in some places that if a man in minor orders took a wife he was not promoted to higher orders. If a married man in major orders fathered children, he was either dismissed from the order received, or allowed to retain the order but not to exercise it. It was a cause of scandal in the early Church for it to become known that a man in major orders was enjoying conjugal rights with his wife. A more careful re-reading of Cochini's work would enable me to produce further examples of the upholding of this tradition.

Peters has published on this matter, and his research is described in an article entitled Canonical Considerations on Diaconal Continence in the Canadian Canon Law Journal Studia Canonica 39 (2005) pp. 147-180.

Peters begins his study considering the first paragraph of Canon 277 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law which states:
§1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.

This canon states the obligation to perfect and perpetual continence binding upon all clerics (bishops, priests, deacons). Peters comments:
Clerical celibacy is, however, presented in the law as a secondary good that, while valued in its own right as "a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity" is nevertheless ordered to the protection and support of a more fundamental good, namely, that of "perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven."
The second paragraph of the canon goes on to say:
§2. Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.

Note, again, the reference to continence rather than to celibacy. The reason why the canon does not say that clerics should avoid contact with persons whose company can endanger their obligation to celibacy is that, as we know and shall see, there are clerics who are not bound by the obligation to celibacy.

The third paragraph states:
§3. The diocesan bishop is competent to establish more specific norms concerning this matter and to pass judgment in particular cases concerning the observance of this obligation.

Clearly this paragraph does not grant to diocesan bishops the authority to dispense from the obligation to continence but rather to establish particular norms that might secure the observance of this obligation in the light of local circumstances and to judge whether or not the obligation to continence has been violated.

Exceptions to the Law for Permanent Deacons

The Code of Canon Law exempts permanent deacons from the observance of certain obligations binding upon all other clerics.
Can. 288 The prescripts of cann. 284, [the obligation to wear ecclesiastical garb], 285, §§3 [the prohibition from assuming public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power] and 4 [the prohibition from assuming and/or accepting certain financial obligations], 286 [the prohibition from conducting business or trade personally or through others], and 287, §2 [the prohibition from having an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless] do not bind permanent deacons unless particular law establishes otherwise.
Notable by its absence from the above list is any exemption from the norm binding all clerics to perfect and perpetual continence.

Those to be ordained as permanent deacons are also not bound by the impediment of marriage by virtue of Canon 1042 n.1:
The following are simply impeded from receiving orders:
1/ a man who has a wife, unless he is legitimately destined to the permanent diaconate.

The obligation to celibacy of unmarried candidates for the permanent diaconate is guaranteed in Canon 1037:
An unmarried candidate for the permanent diaconate and a candidate for the presbyterate are not to be admitted to the order of diaconate unless they have assumed the obligation of celibacy in the prescribed rite publicly before God and the Church or have made perpetual vows in a religious institute.

We recall, again, that the reason for assuming the obligation to celibacy is to ensure the observance of the higher good of perfect and perpetual continence.

Other requirements for the advancement of a man to the permanent diaconate

It is only in the context of an obligation to perfect and perpetual continence that the following Canon makes sense:

Can.  1031 §2. A candidate for the permanent diaconate who is not married is not to be admitted to the diaconate until after completing at least the twenty-fifth year of age; one who is married, not until after completing at least the thirty-fifth year of age and with the consent of his wife.
Why the difference in age for an unmarried candidate and a married candidate? In studying the previously cited work by Cochini and others, it become clear to the reader that while it was not uncommon for the apostolic and post-apostolic Church to admit married men to Holy Orders, the obligation to continence was placed upon them and considered reasonable since they were older men whose child-begetting days were over. This makes sense of the older age requirement for married candidates for the diaconate. The younger age for unmarried candidates ensures that the candidate is mature enough to make a decision that binds him to continence (and, therefore, celibacy) for the rest of his life

But why the requirement that the consent of the wife of the married candidate be secured? It could be argued that the wife would have a right to ensure that her husband's ordination to the diaconate and the ministry that would be entrusted to him would not have any negative impact on their family life. If the wife was opposed to her husband's ordination, it makes sense that he should not be ordained. Peters does not hold this and does not think a third-party ever has the right to withhold consent for another to receive a sacrament. So he would not even raise it as plausible option... There is there a more fundamental reason why her consent is required?

If the future deacon were to become bound by the obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence, this would involve the renunciation by the wife of her marital rights. It would be unjust for her to be deprived of these rights by her husband's ordination, but she could willingly renounce these rights for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

Again, Cochini and others state this as being the case in the apostolic and post-apostolic Church.

But is the age of thirty five still a rather young age? The Code of Canon Law gives episcopal conferences authority in this matter as follows:
§3. The conference of bishops is free to establish norms which require an older age for the presbyterate and the permanent diaconate.
And this is what Peters argues should be done, suggesting (in another article for Chicago Studies) a minimum age of fifty for married candidates for the permanent diaconate.

Peters concludes his overview of the 1983 Code on the matter of clerical continence and celibacy as follows:

In sum, the 1983 Code expressly imposes two obligations on Western clerics, one of continence, and one of celibacy, with continence being canonically regarded as more fundamental (c. 277, §1). Only in regard to the less fundamental of these two obligations, clerical celibacy, is there any relaxation in canonical discipline, though that only insofar as it affects married men seeking ordination to the permanent diaconate (cc. 1037 and 1042). At no point, though, despite expressely exempting permanent deacons from a variety of clerical obligations (c. 288) does the 1983 Code relax the expressly stated and more esteemed obligation of continence for all clerics.
Professor Peters also surveys Canonical Tradition concerning the obligation of clerical continence and observers that under the 1917 Code of Canon Law the violation of the obligation of observing chastity was a sin of sacrilege:
1917 Can. 132 §1. Clerics constituted in major orders are prohibited from marriage and are bound by the obligation of observing chastity, so that those sinning against this are sacrilegious...
To live chastely it is clear that an unmarried man must live in continence. There was therefore no need to be more specific under the 1917 Code. Peters also refers to authors who commented on the 1917 Code, all of whom supported the obligation to continence even for those married men who might have been admitted to Holy Orders. He writes:
Ayrinhac writes: "A married man may not lawfully receive major Orders as long as his wife lives. (Can. 987.) should he receive them with a dispensation from the Holy See he would contract the same obligation to chastity as other clerics..." No commentator on the 1917 Code holds licit the use of marriage by men in major orders.
The fact that the 1917 Code designated offenders against chastity/continence as sacrilegious indicates that this matter was considered to relate to divine law. Indeed, in the revision process leading up to the promulgation of the 1983 Code, this point was admitted but not included in the new Can. 277 §1 as it was deemed to pertain to moral theology rather than Canon Law.

When Pope Paul VI ordered the restoration of the diaconate, he expressly confirmed the law as contained in the 1917 Code:
We want to confirm all that is said in the [1917] Code of Canon Law about the rights and duties of deacons, either those rights and duties which they have in common with all clerics or those proper to themselves, except where We here state otherwise, and We decree that these rules are to apply to those who are to be permanent deacons as well. (Sacrum diaconatus ordinem, 1967)
Peters concludes that when Paul VI restored the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church, he did so retaining the 1917 Code's obligation of continence as binding even on married deacons.

Professor Peters gives many examples of where conciliar and post-conciliar documents hold in the highest esteem the observation of perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven (e.g. Decree on the Ministry and Life of Priests, no. 16, Lumen Gentium, no. 42). In no promulgated Council document was there any suggestion that the obligation of clerical continence, clearly required under the then-operative 1917 Code of Canon Law, was to be relaxed.

In the process of drafting the 1983 Code, says Peters,
... each of the first three drafts of the canonical articulations of the clerical obligations of continence and celibacy contained an express exemption for married deacons in regards to both obligations, but this exemption was completely dropped from the final promulgated version of the law.

What about those married deacons who have been ordained without being expressly asked to commit themselves to continence and whose wives had not consented to a life of continence? It would be unjust to require them, now, to take on an obligation they were not aware of at the time of their ordination. Future candidates, however, could be required to explicitly make this commitment, or at least be reminded of the obligation which is there in the law, and the consent of their wives should include a consent to a life of continence after the ordination of her husband.

Perhaps it is appropriate to finish this blog post with Professor Peters' Concluding Remarks from the cited article in Studia Canonica:
The conclusion suggested by this article is that a major, long-standing, and unquestioned canonical obligation of clerics in the Western Church - namely, complete sexual continence for married men in major orders - has, with almost no conscious advertence, been forgotten in the span of hardly a generation. A limited range of responses to such a dramatic event seems feasible.

If such a development truly reflects the mind of the Church, then it seems incumbent on the proper ecclesiastical authority to enunciate the reasons behind such a major change in discipline, lest the example of what otherwise might seem like an amnesic development of practice be established and accepted. In other words, there is need to demonstrate why the law must be accommodated to the practice, lest law fall into disrepute. As a variation of this, if a distinction in the clerical obligation of continence exists, however hidden, between deacons and priests, that distincition should be clearly articulated, lest a practice that might be tolerated for those in a lower level of Holy Orders be inappropriately applied to those in a higher. If, however, a change in the traditional Western discipline of clerical continence for those in major orders was not intended and therefore, at best, the current situation of non-continence among married permanent deacons is markedly anomalous, then that fact should be admitted and forthrightly addressed. In this last case, one wherein a practice must be brought into conformity with law, the example of King Josiah upon rediscovering the forgotten Law (2 Kings 22-23) might be instructive.

See also

Returning to my own personal reflections, I consider the observation of continence as an integral part of the life of the ordained. Their ministry within the sanctuary requires this, as Cochini and others amply demonstrate. The Church would be much strengthened and the diaconate greatly renewed if candidates were reminded of this obligation and required to observe it.

Anecdotally, I realised how deeply this is engrained upon my own appreciation of the tradition on this matter at a wedding reception I attended not so long ago. The bride and groom were given rather superfluous lessons in passionate kissing (as if they hadn't done so already). At intervals during the reception, different couples were invited to demonstrate the skill of passionate kissing and the bride and groom were then expected to imitate the experienced couples with even greater passion. Whilst I found the whole thing a little unnecessary to say the least, I found myself rather put off at seeing the permanent deacons (there were a number of them) and their wives joining in the 'lessons.' Something inside me was saying: "Guys, you are ordained ministers. Somehow this doesn't seem appropriate behaviour." I don't think I was being prudish.

Dr Peters' son Thomas (American Papist) has referred to this post in his article on
Dr Peters' Studia Canonica article can be downloaded as a pdf here.


  1. What are the rules with regard to married priests? Are they to be continent upon ordination as married men?

  2. By the same logic, they are dispensed from the obligation to celibacy, but absent any dispensation from the obligation to continence, they are bound.

  3. Father Anthony McLaughlin, JCD, priest of Tyler, Texas has written and defended a doctoral dissertation on 'the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence and married deacons in the Latin Church.' The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC... Very interesting!!!

    Father Morgan White

  4. Father Roman Cholij recived his doctorate "summa cum laude" for a thesis on celibacy in apostolic times. At the time I heard it caused some commotion in certain Roman ( no pun!)circles

  5. Interesting Father, and something I had not thought about. I suppose I had just assumed that married permanent deacons were not obliged to perpetual continence. I wonder what is taught in seminaries about this (I’m thinking of Sacred Heart in Milwaukee, in particular)…?

    I think Dr. Peters is correct - clarification is needed to reconcile law and practice.

    I also wonder how this would play out with the practice of the Orthodox churches…? Or with married Anglican clergy in regard to Anglicanorum Coetibus…?

  6. This is fascinating.

    Could you articulate for us exactly what is the distinction between continence and chastity?

  7. GOR: Note that Professor Peters limits his discussion to the "major, long-standing, and unquestioned canonical obligation of clerics in the Western Church - namely, complete sexual continence for married men in major orders." (emphasis added). He does not discuss the East, and the argument has been made that perpetual continence is a uniquely Western tradition.

  8. @EFpastor Emeritus: Father Cholij is a priest of the Ukrainian Rite, i.e. an Eastern priest. It is particularly interesting that his conclusion is that his own Eastern Church and others have departed from the apostolic tradition in permitting married and non-continent men to be ordained.

    @GOR: currently of course the law is not applied, i.e. married and non-continent men are admitted to the permanent diaconate, and this is what Professor Peters is getting at. The law needs to be clarified. As stated above, I am of the opinion that the Orthodox (and Catholic Eastern) Churches have departed from the apostolic tradition. As for the priests of the future ordinariate, the obligation to celibacy will be dispensed but not the obligation to continence, although the obligation to continence will not be enforced or even referred to. Again: confusion as to the law.

    @Paul: and the contrary argument has also been made that the East has departed from the apostolic tradition to which the West has remained faithful. Pope Paul VI's assertion that the East's acceptance of married clergy was a 'venerable tradition' was, in my opinion, unfortunate and unfounded.

  9. Father, you are absolutely right that both arguments have been made with respect to whether perpetual continence was an Apostolic tradition. I was only attempting to point out that, from my memory of the article (admittedly hazy as it's been a few years), Professor Peters was not making the argument from Apostolic tradition but rather making the argument from a plain reading of the relevant Western statutes coupled with their legislative history and Western tradition. If my memory is correct, then Professor Peters' position would not have necessarily supported or contradicted Eastern practice as GOR asked.

    Regarding your position that "Pope Paul VI's assertion that the East's acceptance of married clergy was a 'venerable tradition' was, in my opinion, unfortunate and unfounded," is it unfortunate because it does not discuss the flipside of the Eastern acceptance of married clergy, namely their regular but not perpetual continence? Or is it for some other reason?

  10. Father John,
    Yes, I know Fr Cholij is a priest of the Ukrainian Rite - I once called on him to baptise a baby in thst Rite, in hospital.
    Best wishes for your first Advent in USA

  11. @EFpastor emeritus: thanks Fr Eamon. All going well so far. Of course I knew you knew Fr Cholij's ritual adscription. His conclusion was all the more interesting for that. Hope retirement is treating you well.

    @Paul: absolutely - Peters was arguing from a strictly canonical point of view. But the drafting of the canons seems to indicate that no one wanted to overturn the tradition. And, as you say, he was not making any comment on the Eastern practice. These are simply my observations. And thank you for referring to the fact that the East do practise continence before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy - hence the fact that the Eucharist is not, as far as I am aware, celebrated daily in some ritual churches.

  12. H'mmmm....regards that wedding reception: was the wedding couple Eastern European, or from Eastern European backgrounds? It is quite common for the wedding guest to cry out 'gorka' or 'gorki' or the like, meaning 'hey, this wine is bitter, if you, in the wedding party, would kiss, this will make the wine sweeter.'

    Now, as far as I can recall and remember, this was NOT to be passionate kissing! It wasn't supposed to be the kind of 'would you two get a room, already' kiss.

  13. Father, it is interesting that the Missale Romanum, Editio Typica Tertia 2002 (We await its translation to English) includes in the Masses and Prayers for Various Needs and Occasions a Mass "Ad Postulandam Continentiam" - for the gift of purity.

  14. I believe that the big problem with this argument really does lie with section 3 of canon 277. Neither Dr. Peters' piece nor this one, in my opinion, deal with it sufficiently. Father, you say about it:

    "Clearly this paragraph does not grant to diocesan bishops the authority to dispense from the obligation to continence but rather to establish particular norms that might secure the observance of this obligation in the light of local circumstances and to judge whether or not the obligation to continence has been violated."

    This is not *remotely* clear in the text of the canon, and it really needs to be defended. Two items are addressed in section 3: first, that bishops have the competence to issue specific norms pertaining to clerical celibacy, and second that they are able to pass judgment on particular cases regarding the observance of the obligation.

    The claim being made here (and by Dr. Peters) is that the canon does not give a bishop the authority to dispense from canon 277's requirement of continence, an argument supported by pointing out that canon 288 does not list it amongst those to which permanent deacons are not bound.

    The problem here is that this competency to pass judgment about observance is not about only continence, but rather about the entirety of canon 277 - celibacy included. Now, clearly bishops *are* able to dispense clerics from the requirement of celibacy, as is sometimes done when Anglican priests convert and seek ordination. So really, there seems to me to be a very, very large hole in this argument.

  15. The dispensation from the obligation to celibacy, whether of a deacon or a presbyter, is reserved to the Roman Pontiff. Can. 291: "... loss of the clerical state does not entail a dispensation from the obligation of celibacy, which only the Roman Pontiff grants."

    The norms that a bishop could establish might concern things such as: can women (a housekeeper, or a woman dedicated to the apostolate or the contemplative life) live in the same house as priests; he could legislate to say, for example, that a priest and a woman should not travel alone (how many priests and nuns have fallen in love by spending too much time together in this or similar situations); he might establish norms to do with either the safeguarding of the observance of continence and/or the avoidance of scandal; etc.

    Bishops in the early Church established norms about precisely such matters. If you read Cochini's work, you will see how bishops in the early Church establihsed norms concerning the domestic arrangements of married clerics to ensure that the obligation to continence was more likely to be observed and to avoid scandal.

  16. What I can't understand is that Cardinal Laghi in the 1998 RATIO FUNDAMENTALIS INSTITUTIONIS
    DIACONORUM PERMANENTIUM speaks of married deacons 'welcoming' children....

  17. OTSOTA has a point.

  18. One can only say to those who like this kind of arcane unreal theorising, Get a life! Married deacons and priests will I imagine exercise commonsense and think if they are allowed to be married in the Catholic Church it is ludicrous to think this could mean not having normal married relations with their wives.

  19. I am glad I am Eastern orthodox.. I may have missed it, but the argument could be made (from our point of view)that Rome has departed from apostolic tradition on the issue of married clergy and the issue of CONTINENCE.

  20. Yes, indeed, the argument can indeed be made. Why not make it? It's all about finding the truth. The studies I have read argue in favour of the Latin Church's position. But this implies no lack of esteem whatever for the East (Catholic or Orthodox). Neither should it be an obstacle to unity. The argument put forward by Peters affects only the Latin Catholic Church.

  21. Hi,

    It's a very curious reading of the Canon 277 which applies obviously to the celibates. As some of permanent deacons are married, and not celibates, canon 277 does not apply to them !

    Jean-Pierre, permanent deacon, and graduate in canon law.

  22. This is a very serious issue. I am scandalized along with my husband by this proliferation of uninstructed non continent men who are to be accepted as clergy. We as a family flee as far from them as we possibly can. Doesn't anyone understand that their presence scandalizes many of the doctrines concerning the sacrament of marriage and holy orders? To name a few, vigvinity for the sake of heaven, the perfect and perpetual continence of our Lord and Mother Mary,the exclusivity of Christ, whom the clergy configure, to His ONE (not two) bride the Church, the doctrine on polygamy, the doctrine on the definition of marriage and it's primary purpose, Scripture interpretations-no one can be my disciple unless he leave his WIFE, children, mother and father, a married man is concerned for his wife and an unmarried man is free to give himself completly to the Lord etc. Has no one conected the dots to the absolute attack on Tradition, Scripture and the magisterium( when it actually speaks in continuity and without ambiguity on Church doctrine.) I can't express enough the absolute final nail in the coffin that this horrible neglect of our Church's doctrines and Traditions on the part of our Church leaders on the issue of continence poses. Isn't it enough that many of our Church leaders and so many modern liberal theologians have outright tried to suppress the primary purpose of marriage and thus it's meaning. Even the USCCB executive director for the committee on Laity, Marriage, Family LIfe and Youth outrageously gets it wrong when he is quoted as saying in the Knights of Columbus review the Columbian that "The two purposes of marriage, called unitive and procreative, are equal, inseparable and orderd to each other." Although he is correct when he says they are inseperable they are most certainly not equal. In 1944 Pope Pius XII's Holy Office forbade Catholics to subscribe to anything but the traditional doctrine on the begetting and education of children as the primary purpose of marriage. A response of the Holy Office: "May one subsribe to the opinion of certain modern authors who deny that the primary purpose of marriage is the begetting and education of children, or who teach that the secondary ends are not essentially subordinated to the primary ends but are equally primary and independent?" The reply was "No." Pope John Paul II said in his book Love and Responsibility "For the Church,in arranging the objective purposes of love in a particular order,seeks to emphasize that procreation is objectively, ontologically, a more important purpose than that man and woman should live together, complement each other and support each other (mutuum adiutorium)..." With this new craze to invert the order of purposes we have come to a new false teachig and meaning of marriage and thus the contraceptive craze. The CCC no longer teaches what the primary purpose of marriage is but uses a new word "goods" of marriage to be able to always place unity before procreation. Most people don't seem to pick this up like they don't pick up the suppressing of the teachings on prefect and perpetual continence for all clergy. Both these suppressions are the smoke of Satan for the destruction of the sacrament of marriage and holy orders. From the neglect of Thine inspirations, Jesus deliver us.

    1. I have allowed this anonymous comment to be published. I would have prefered the writer to have used some kind of name. Still, it manifests the thoughts of this particular lay person.

      There are many fine and well instructed Deacons, and as long as the Church allows non-continent men to be elevated to the diaconate, I shall not shy from promoting good men in my parish for this Sacred Order. It is for the Church's Supreme Legislator to determine the matter. But I do believe, as stated in my post, with Dr Edward Peters.

  23. Father- it has been 4 years since you commented on this post- do you still agree with your words?


Please avoid being 'anonymous' if at all possible.


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