More on clerical continence

I know this has been touched on a few times at CAF before, but I wanted to bring it up again for some clarification.

A canonist of some note, Ed Peters, made the argument a few years ago that longstanding Church tradition and canon law both require absolute clerical continence, i.e., total abstention from sexual intercourse. You can see the outline of his argument here, as well as responses to a few objections. He also addresses it on his blog, which can be Googled (too many posts on the topic to link to all of them). The relevant citation under canon law is:

Can. 277 §1 Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.

§2 Clerics are to behave with due prudence in relation to persons whose company can be a danger to their obligation of preserving continence or can lead to scandal of the faithful.

§3 The diocesan Bishop has authority to establish more detailed rules concerning this matter, and to pass judgement on the observance of the obligation in particular cases.

As Peters points out, the requirement for clerical celibacy is a relatively recent innovation. Prior to that time, married men could be ordained, but the expectation was that they would be continent; the celibacy requirement was intended (so Peters argues) to help facilitate adherence to the law of continence. This is where the requirement for candidates for ordination to obtain their wife’s permission comes from – because their ordination would impact wife’s conjugal rights.

He goes on to point out that there are a few other strange issues at work here. One, there are several canons that deal with exemptions for permanent deacons, yet the requirement for clerical continence is never listed among them. Two, the original draft of the 1983 CIC evidently included a provision explicitly exempting permanent deacons from canon 277, but this was deliberately removed before the promulgation of the CIC. Three, there don’t appear to be any relevant documents lifting the requirement (including the one in which the permanent diaconate was established, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem).

So, in other words, the longstanding tradition of the Church has demanded clerical continence, and canon law itself still demands it, and this policy does not appear ever to have been formally repudiated. Yet obviously, in practice, this isn’t expected or demanded and the vast majority of deacons don’t even seem to be aware of it (note that, for this reason, Peters argues it isn’t actually binding on them, and that any solution would have to involve accommodations for all the married deacons ordained without knowledge of this requirement – i.e., the question is about objective requirement, not whether or not any individual deacon is so required).

Now I’m not interested in whether or not diaconal continence is in principle a good or defensible policy, whether or not the policy ought to be more rigorously enforced, etc. Nor am I interested in hearing reaffirmations that the Church’s policy is to allow married and sexually active permanent deacons (I’m already aware of this) or armchair psychological speculations about Peters’ motives (plenty of that out there already).

Rather I’m interested in knowing if there’s a way to reconcile what the Church legally requires (in canon 277) and what the Church actually practices. In my searching I haven’t come across anything to that effect, since many of the responses to Peters’ arguments seem to involve mere ad hominem or the aforementioned sort of speculation. Is there some information missing in Peters’ analysis and, if so, what is it?

You thinking of becoming a deacon?:confused:

Yes: it’s called a dispensation.

See this letter to all the US Bishops from Most Reverend Robert J. Carlson Chairman, Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations and Most Reverend Timothy P. Broglio Chairman, Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance

Your Eminence/Excellency,

In recent months, published opinions have appeared in scholarly journals and on Internet blogs that have raised questions about the observance of diaconal continence by married permanent deacons in the Latin Catholic Church. The opinions have suggested that the clerical obligation to observe “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven” (c. 277, §1 CIC) remains binding upon married permanent deacons, despite the dispensation provided to them in canon law from the obligation to observe celibacy (c. 1042, 1° CIC).

In response to repeated requests for an authoritative clarification on this matter, the
Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations and the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance requested the assistance of the USCCB President in seeking a clarification from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

Earlier this week, we were informed that Cardinal-designate Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, with Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Secretary, has forwarded to Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan the Pontifical Council’s observations on the matter (Prot. N. 13095/2011). The observations, which were formulated in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarify that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriage

No. I’m just curious, and dissatisfied and alarmed by what I see as the very, very low quality of responses to Peters’ points.

Peters addressed this at the site I linked above (and also links to the original texts of Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letters). As he writes below:

Abp. Coccopalmerio’s second letter (even less so, his first) is not, and does not claim to be, an “authentic interpretation” of Canon 277. The authority of the PCLT over universal law in the Church is set out in ap. con. Pastor bonus (1988) n. 155: “With regard to the universal laws of the Church, the Council is competent to publish authentic interpretations confirmed by pontifical authority, after consulting the dicasteries concerned in questions of major importance.” See also EXEG COMM I: 322-323 and CLSA NEW COMM 71-73. Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter was not confirmed—neither ‘generically’ nor ‘specifically’—by pontifical authority, and it was sent only to the US bishops. It does not satisfy, therefore, some key requirements of an authentic interpretation of universal law.

I apologize for the low quality of my response :o (not really), but his points are moot.

He’s merely musing, and has no status to make, change or roll back Church law.

There has been a dispensation. Period.

That may be so, but again, I’m not interested in the prudential calculus of whether or not things will change. I’m interested in the principled question of whether or not Peters’ argument is right.

This seems like begging the question, since the plain letter of Church law demands absolute clerical continence, makes no exceptions for permanent deacons, and the one time such an exception was countenanced, it was deliberately rejected.

And this is exactly what’s not clear to me and what I’m trying to find out. Where is this dispensation, and who issued it? Surely you don’t mean the Abp.'s letter you cited earlier? He has no authority to dispense from the obligations of canon law, nor did he claim that’s what his letter was doing. He didn’t even claim it was an authoritative interpretation of canon law. But what else, then, could you be talking about?

I can’t tell you if there is anything missing in Dr. Peter’s analysis, because I have not read the whole thing. However, I have read different statements scattered here and there by the Holy See that the married deacon is set aside from the rest of the clergy. These statements do not speak directly to the issue of continence. But they give you enough of an insight to help us see that the Church treats them as clergy, but at the same time as clergy in a different situation.

Let me give some examples. Transitional deacons (which is a goofy term) are allowed to wear Roman collars everywhere. Married deacons are not. They must wear “civilian clothing”.

Transitional deacons must go on to become priests. It’s just assumed. To remain a deacon requires permission from the proper authority. There again, we’re seeing a difference in how the two deacons are treated.

Permanent deacons serve at the bishop’s leisure. However, they are not paid. They are treated as lay volunteers, who must comply with the bishop’s assignment. That gets a little confusing. Are they lay volunteers or are they clergy? Why do other clergy get paid for their services to the parish and the deacons are not eligible for a stipend. I must clarify here. There are permanent deacons who are employed by a parish, diocese or other Catholic institution. They do get paid a salary. I’m speaking of the deacon who cares for the sick, preaches at Sunday mass, baptizes, witnesses weddings, leads other ministries in the parish, visits the hospital, etc. He does not get paid. However, he is expected to do these things. The pastors are usually very accommodating to their schedules and family demands. This is also true. But it is the bishop who does the assigning. Normally, a bishop does not assign a layman to a ministry, because he’s a volunteer.

In this case, the deacon is assigned, but treated as a volunteer. The message is clear that they are seen in a different category. I don’t think that this is clear yet. My take is that the Church is still trying to figure out how this works. When I say the Church, I mean the Latin Church. Many of the Eastern Churches have always had married deacons and they have very clear what the deacon’s place is among the clergy. We in the Latin Church are still ironing out the wrinkles.

All of this and more, begs the question, how much and what part of the canons regarding the clergy apply to the married deacon? As I said, there are comments made here and there that suggest that they are in a separate group. They are definitely clerics. But what laws apply to them has to be clarified.

I wish I had an answer for you. The best that I can do is look at how the Church deals with them in other areas and compare how she deals with transitional deacons and priests. There is definitely a difference in practice, which leads one to assume that there is a difference in the mind of the Church.

For other readers: Francesco Cardinal Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, which is a Pontifical Council and therefore part of the roman Curia, and is charged with the role of interpreting the laws of the Church. (Pastor Bonus, 154) sent his interpretation of the canon to the US Bishops.

the letter also states that:

The observations, which were formulated in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarify that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriage lasts.

I’m not sure why there needs to be any more hand wringing?

Is Dr. Peters a bishop, Cardinal, head of a pontifical council, member of the CDF, and/or does he have an axe to grind?

Thanks for your input, Brother Jay. I too get the impression that the permanent diaconate remains something of an anomaly in terms of the custom and convention surrounding it. Often the application of canon law is conditioned by that sort of history/tradition/custom and, as the restored permanent diaconate is a relatively recent innovation, we don’t have much to draw on.

That said, from a canonical standpoint (as Peters points out), distinctions of the sort you mention (between married permanent deacons and other clerics) are in fact made, but not with respect to clerical continence. Specifically, canon 288 tells us that “the prescripts of cann. 284, 285, §§3 and 4, 286, and 287, §2 do not bind permanent deacons unless particular law establishes otherwise.” These relate, respectively, to the obligation to wear ecclesiastical garb, the obligation to avoid holding public office and taking on debt, the obligation to avoid conducting business or trade personally or through others (presumably, running a business), and the obligation to avoid partisan or union activism.

Canon 277, the clerical continence obligation, is not included in this list, and JPII evidently struck a proposed exemption from it before promulgating the 1983 CIC.

Since the law itself is pretty clear on this and the longstanding tradition of the Roman rite has always favored absolute clerical continence, even for married clerics (this is why spousal consent is required for ordination, no?), I’m left to wonder how this situation even came to be. If there isn’t in fact a definite dispensation out there, is this a case of widespread disobedience to Church law, possibly an attempt to coerce the establishment of a contra legem custom? Is it possible Rome has refrained from intervening for the same reason it’s often refrained in the face of other instances of disobedience, i.e., for fear of provoking a schism and burning bridges across the Tiber?

Pastor Bonus requires that any “authentic interpretation” (i.e., canonically-binding interpretation) of canon law must be “confirmed by pontifical authority,” which Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter lacked. As such it’s difficult to see it as anything more than a reaffirmation of the current practice that does not address the substantive canonical issue underlying it.

Since my question is about the substantive canonical issue, reaffirmation of the practice isn’t of particular interest to me.

He’s a canonist. It’s his job to advise on canon law and the customs and conventions surrounding it. Not generally what we consider “axe-grinding.”

It’s nothing that dramatic. It’s a matter of the Sacred Congregation for the Clergy to getting around to defining what’s what for whom. In the meantime, you simply ask questions of the people in authority and act on their response.

This question is not high on the list of priorities for the Vatican. The highest issue right now are the sex abuse scandals and the incoming Anglicans.

We have to remember that like any other institution, the Vatican prioritizes. It will set goals of things to do in one year. What we may think needs to be addressed quickly they think it can wait. While something is on hold, the people who are affected by it will ask their superiors what to do and those superiors will respond with the best answer that they can give.

We have to be very flexible and not fall into the temptation to see disobedience where non is intended or witches where they’re really just cleaning women carrying a broom. I think that today, we have too strong a temptation to go looking for things that are not there or are someone else’s issue to deal with.

In this case, I don’t believe that there is a widespread disobedience. I have never heard the issue brought up until today. I don’t go asking the question, because it has nothing to do with me. I wouldn’t have any reason to know. I just know what I have learned working alongside deacons for many years.

The best piece of advice that I can give anyone is the one that I follow. If it has nothing to do with me, I leave it alone, unless I’m doing academic research. I guess in the case of academic research it has something to do with me. I don’t know. I just wonder if we’re not too busy with with other things, like Martha.

Prudent answer, brother. I wonder, with the influx of new priests coming in from the Anglican Ordinariate, have there been dispensations for the married ones to observe continence, or just celibacy? I read recently of a married Episcopalian convert who announced his intention to observe the lex continentiae upon his ordination (which was what drew to my attention to Peters’ earlier article).

In any event, I suspect the Ordinate will give some impetus for Rome to issue firmer guidelines/clarifications on this, since, obviously, whatever applies to deacons applies at least as much to priests.

With so many things happening, we have to wait until they get around to giving guidelines for everyone. In the meantime, we continue to do what we’ve been doing. When in doubt, ask your superior.

Oh boy, we get to talk about my wife and I haveing sex again…I’m so excited.:cool:

What an orriginal discussion topic. Unfortunately for you and Dr. Peter’s objections, it is what it is and the Vatican has spoken in support of exactly the current practice of the married clergy, priest or deacon.

I have a law degree (LL.B) from London University, England. I studied thousands of cases (30,000 to be exact). While we did read books by “jurists” on the law and its development they were only (merely) opinions, the Law on the other hand was made by the legislature and interpreted for practical purposes by judges.

In the same way: The Canon Law is laid down by the Vatican and interpreted by those with the power to do so - eg., pontifical councils and Bishops. All else is opinion.

Canon Law in this case says X
The Vatican and the Bishops say don’t worry about it.
In fact my Bishop had a good laugh about it!

So I won’t worry.

The axe-grinding may be (reading between the lines) that Peters either thinks that deacons should not be clerics, but if they are going to be treated as clerics they need to abide by every stricture that priests do.

I don’t know about anyone else, but thinking about these things gives me a headache. In my mind, other than for academic purposes, this discussion has nothing to do with 99% of the people in the pews. What percentage of the Catholic population does this affect?

The other similar question is a practical one. Who is going to enforce the law? You can’t have bedroom police.

I suggest that just as in the past, when this subject has been brought up and abandoned, we do the same again.

The phrase I put in bold text seems to come up every time anyone refutes an argument by Dr. Peters or you or anyone who defends his opinion. Is it an attempt to quiet the opposition? I think it very well may be, but that is just my opinion.

And, what I am not interested in is your or Dr. Peter’s opinions of the canons which have been interpreted by the authoritative body, which has made a final statement of the law and the practical implementation of the law which you continue to obstinately oppose.

I don’t care what you want to hear or discuss when it comes to a matter which affects me directly, as this does, you have no right nor do you have an obligation to “teach” me anything. You cannot teach me what you do not know. You cannot give me anything you do not have.

Now, please refer to authority on this subject. As much as I do respect Dr. Peters he is not authority he is an advisory to the hierarchy not the hierarchy.

This is a dead topic; why must you continuously bring it up. As in past discussions, the reason is probably with you not the law or the Church’s actions. The last person who came here to “discuss” this had a purpose; he wrote a thesis on his opinions. But after an extended PM and email conversation I figured out why it was so important to him, he wanted to be a priest and a husband even though he was neither at the time. He struggled with his own sexuality and vocational calling and he mocked me because I am secure in my sexuality and my vocationS. Yes I meant to capitalize the “S”.

I am first a husband with all duties and privileges matrimony includes. I am next a deacon of Jesus Christ with all the privileges and duties that vocation includes.

For whatever reason you have decided to continue to bring this dead topic up; please know, every time you do I will be there to correct you and hold you to task. Why, because you are going against the hierarchy of the Church and trying to bring others with you. There is but one truth and that is Jesus; who is the Head of the Church you are working against.

Now, as Jesus told Peter, “get behind Me………”


In my opinion, there is no way to reconcile it other than to say that the law is not followed. Such a lack of observance is not unique. It happens.

I find Dr. Peters’ analysis to be pretty solid.


I’ll take this guy’s word over Dr. Peters…

Letter of Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio to Cardinal Timothy Dolan on the subject of Canon 277 § 1

Posted on September 18, 2012 | Leave a comment

December 17,2011


Proto 13095 / 2011

Your Excellency:

I refer to your letter of April 8, 2011 in which Your Excellency has requested this Pontifical Council to clarify whether married permanent deacons, so long as their marriage lasts, are bound to observe the perfect and perpetual continence indicated by can. 277 § 1 CIC. The question was raised because some have expressed the opinion that permanent deacons are also bound to the obligation which the said canon imposes on clerics in general.

It should be noted that often the canonical discipline on a given topic is not inferred from the wording of a single legal precept, but rather from the whole set of existing regulation on the matter in the law of the Church, always in harmony with what has been stated by the Church’s Magisterium. This is what can. 17 CIC prescribes.

With regard specifically to the question above, after consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and having made the necessary studies, this Pontifical Council offers the following observations.

  1. In can. 277, § 1 CIC, the requirement of perfect and perpetual continence is inseparably linked to the obligation of celibacy to which all clerics, in principle, are bound.

Also, can. 1037 CIC requires that unmarried candidates for the permanent diaconate must assume the obligation of celibacy prior to ordination. Furthermore, can. 1087 CIC establishes an impediment to marriage for those in sacred orders. For this reason, permanent deacons who are widowers cannot marry, unless being dispensed, and therefore are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence.

The particular discipline of these two last canons, 1037 and 1087 CIC, applicable to certain situations of permanent deacons, explains on the one hand why can. 288 CIC did not exempt in a general way “all” permanent deacons from the obligation of continence established by the can. 277 § 1 CIC; and on the other hand how it is evident from all these norms that the canon wanted to exempt married permanent deacons from such obligation of continence so long as their marriage lasts.

  1. Indeed, can. 1031 § 2 CIC admits married men to the clerical state in the particular case of permanent deacons, but states nothing about a hypothetical obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as the Legislator would indicate if such an obligation were to be established.

Ultimately, the fact that in order for a married man to be admitted to the Order of the diaconate, the consent of his wife is required (cfr. can. 1031, § 2 CIC) implies that an explicit consent would have been required for reasons of justice if the condition of permanent deacon had entailed the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence (cfr. Can. 1055 CIC).

  1. Naturally, this canonical discipline does not state anything apart from what the Church’s Magisterium has already affirmed in this regard. In fact, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 29 (§ 2), and other successive normative documents of the Holy See, appear to take for granted that married permanent deacons live their marriage in the ordinary way (cfr., above all, CONGREGATIO DE INSTITUTIONE CATHOLICA Ratio fundamentalis institutionis diaconorum permanentium, Institutio diaconorum of February 22, 1998 (nn. 36-38, 62-63, 68); CONGREGATIO PRO CLERICIS, Directorium pro ministerio et vita diaconorum permanentium, Diaconatus originem of February 22, 1998 (nn. 7, 27, 33, 45, 50, 59-62, and particularly n. 61).

In conclusion, the current canonical discipline does not require married permanent deacons, as long as their marriage lasts, to observe the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence established by can. 277, § 1 CIC for clerics in general.

I hope that these clarifications, briefly presented in this letter, may be helpful to Your Excellency in indicating what the content of the canonical discipline is at this point.

While remaining at your disposal for any further clarifications, I take this opportunity to extend to you and the members of your Conference my sentiments of personal esteem and prayerful best wishes for a Blessed Christmas and a fruitful New Year.

Sincerely yours in Christ,

  • Francesco Coccopalmerio

  • Juan Ignacio Arrieta

Most Reverend TIMOTHY M.DOLAN, D.D.

Archbishop of New York

President, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

3211 Fourth Street NE Washington, DC 20017-1194


Thanks Deacon Gary.

I’m one of the 1% Brother JR alludes to, since I am in formation right now.

It’s irritating to see this topic brought up again and again, since it is not a canonical requirement of the diaconate. If it was I would leave formation. My vocation is to my wife first. I made vows to love, honour and obey her 'til death us do part, not until I had a brain storm about another vocation.

It’s for this reason why 99.999% of the time you cannot enter religious life while still married.

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