Deacons and sex: the four options

In his latest posting, Dr. Peters sums up the current situation and offers four possible options:

1. Deacons and priests, even if married, must observe perfect and perpetual continence.

2. Canon law requires priests, but not deacons, to observe perfect and perpetual continence.

3. Canon law requires priests (and perhaps deacons, mutatis mutandis) to observe only periodic or temporary continence in regard to the celebration of the Eucharist.

4. Neither deacons nor priests, if married, need observe any sort of continence.

He concludes with this observation:

Western married deacons and priests, despite belonging to the Church that has unquestionably held with nearly absolute consistency for a celibate (and, even if married, a completely continent) clergy, have—doubtless for lack of direction—adopted an approach to continence that, not only has no support in Western law or tradition, but fails to satisfy even the mitigated continence expectations of various Eastern Churches.

Read the rest. There’s also a link at his site to a more detailed analysis.

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34 responses to “Deacons and sex: the four options”

  1. So much time and effort on this subject. Enough! It only goes on to perpetuate the insanity. There’s work to be done.. the Gospel message to be announced, the poor to be fed and the grieving to be comforted. Leave the deacons and wives alone and get busy!

  2. Two brief observations:

    Option 4: “Neither deacons nor priests, if married, need observe any sort of continence.

    This position is the de facto assumption of nearly all current married deacons and priests in the Roman Church, but it finds no support whatsoever in Western canonistics, and for that matter, it fails to match even mitigated Eastern practices in regard to continence for married clergy. . . . The formal acknowledgement of this position would represent a complete repudiation of the Western (and probably even of Eastern) tradition in regard to clerical continence, but it could be achieved as above (e.g., authentic interpretation, instruction in forma specifica).”

    The real shocker is that lay people are also traditionally called (whether as a matter of law I do not think so) to periodic continence, especially during fasting periods or specific days of fasting and abstinence and even prior to receiving the Eucharist. This option would be more of a repudiation of traditional Christian praxis!

    Option 3: “Canon law requires priests (and perhaps deacons, mutatis mutandis) to observe only periodic or temporary continence in regard to the celebration of the Eucharist.”

    This is an incomplete option since it should make mention of these fasting/abstinence periods and days in the Church as well.

  3. Fr. Dcn. Daniel. I am talking about a CANONICAL obligation on CLERGY, and that obligation, people find startling enough. Please do not confuse the issue.

    First, there is NO obligation, canonical or moral, on lay persons to observe continence in regard to feast or fast days, so please do not suggest that, if we follow the Code as I argue it should be followed in regard to Canon 277, that should imply some new obligations on lay persons. Second, the canons on fast and abstinence have NOTHING to do with sexual continence. Again, do not imply that there are. I am trying to write with great care for accuracy, and it does not help the discussion when others don’t.

    PGR: Yes, 26 years.

  4. Dr. Peters,

    I did not imply that it was a canonical obligation for the laity, only that periodic continence is a traditional ascetical practice for all Christians, whether married clerics or married laity, as St. Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians 7:1-5. Your fourth option (which I do not believe from your post you would support) would simply be a rejection of what is part of the universal ascetical patrimony of the Church.

    I realize that asceticism can mistakenly be reduced by some to a matter of the minimal observance of particular laws with all their accompanying penalties.

    But given the fact that your article has created quite a bit of turmoil among deacons, the wives of deacons and the laity, I can certainly appreciate your concern for reducing confusion.

  5. Note Bene: received communication this afternoon from our diocesean office for the diaconate that this matter has been brought to the attention of the office at the USCCB and (unspecified office) at the Vatican. Our canonists included a memo saying that this is being studied but not to expect any change in current accepted practice. Apparently (my take now, not the canonists) this is nothing new at all except for us in blogland past few days and as someone stated earlier somone in blogland, the pope, bishops and curial offices are not stupid nor blind. Carry on men…we have people to serve and the Gospel to spread…let’s keep our eyes on Jesus and St. Paul: both knew the proper place for law in human life and that there is a time for some laws to disappear or change, if needed, for the sake of God’s Kingdom.

  6. Dr. Peters claims that in deleting clauses from c. 277 of the CIC, JPII’s intention was that married deacons were bound to perpetual continence.

    However, did not that same Pope and supreme legislator grant numerous dispensations to widowed deacons to remarry in order that young children and elderly relatives could be cared for? Would he really have granted those dispensations if he believed that the very act of consummating those marriages was a sacrilegious act which was contrary to Canon Law? Would they have needed a special dispensation from c. 277 #1 to consummate their marriage which lapsed once the deed had been done, and then revert to their pre-dispensed state of perpetual continence?

    Don’t you think, Dr. Peters, that the Church only requires a dispensation from the impedimentum ordinis for a widowed deacon to remarry, and not a dispensation from c. 277 #1, because the mind of the Church is that he is not bound by c. 277 #1 in the first place?

  7. “Note Bene: received communication this afternoon from our diocesean office for the diaconate that this matter has been brought to the attention of the office at the USCCB and (unspecified office) at the Vatican.”

    This is very good news for all concerned parties.

  8. UGH- I know that ‘bad cases make bad laws’ or some such- but when the majority of Catholic Sunday church-goers are using artificial contraception, etc, etc- it is strange to go on about lawful practices (but I guess until it is clarified, it is unlawful practice?)

  9. Deacon Augustine,

    I was thinking about that same argument because, wouldn’t that marriage be null to begin with?

  10. Deacon,
    Yesterday I’ve read the apostolic constitution “Anglicanorum Coetibus”.
    At the topic VI,1.,the Pope clearly demonstrated that the canon 277 is a rule only for unmarried ministers.
    And he demonstrated too that there is a different way for married clerics.

  11. Prof. Peters in his above referenced conclusion continues to ignore the objective acts of the Supreme Law Giver. As pointed out now by Deacon Augustine, and by me with regard to the Pastoral Provision, the new Ordinarite and the preceding Apostolic Constitution, the law has been abrogated in those instances. Further Pope Paul VI in his Motu Proprio reestablishing the permanent diaconate abrogated the restrictions of the 1917 code. Neither John Paul I, John Paul II, nor Benedict have issued anything that changes that Motu Proprio of Paul VI Further, the commentary from the the then Prefect of Clergy, Pio Cardinal, Laghi, makes it clear Prof. Peters is wrong. In a typical lawyer fashion he continues to ride this argument down in a free fall similar to Slim Pickens in “Dr. Strangelove.”

    Deacon Augustine is at the end of the day right.

  12. I think that Dr. Peters may be right in that there is a discrepancy between the law as it is currently codified and the law as it is in practise – as evidenced by acts of the Holy Father himself. However, to jump to the assumption that he has correctly interpreted the mind of the lawgiver, I do not believe is justified by the evidence he presents.

    There are a number of holes in Peters’ logic. For instance he rests much on the case of spousal consent to ordination being proof of the “diaconissa” being required to forego her conjugal rights. But this is a non sequitur. If that were the reason for the Church seeking spousal consent, then why does she also seek spousal consent from ordinand’s wives in the Eastern Churches where clearly no obligation to perpetual continence exists?

    The most logical reason for seeking the consent, and the primary one that we were taught in seminary is as follows. In the case of young families there is the possibility that the deacon could be widowed and then (without special dispensation) be unable to remarry and provide a mother for his children. As a parent with rights and responsibilities for the fate of her children, it is only reasonable that the wife should be able to consent to her husband taking this risk before he is ordained.

    If she really loves him, she may even have objections to him being unable to remarry after her premature death for his own sake! (My better half was quite content to say that she loved me – but not that much.)

  13. It should be pointed out that Dr. Peters is the only layman appointed to serve as a Referendi to the Apostolic Signatura. Therefore, it seems reasonable to think that his canonical opinions and conclusions might just be given somewhat more consideration by those in the various Roman dicasteries, and certainly at the Apostolic Signatura itself, than the canonical opinions and conclusions of the myriad of others whose name is followed by J.C.D. It might be helpful to bear this in mind before dismissively commenting about Dr. Peters scholarship and canonical conclusions.

  14. I would be interested in hearing how Dr. Peters would respond to adriano’s observation above that Anglicanorum Coetibus appears to take 277.1 off the table for married Anglican deacons and priests.

    While, canonically speaking, that in and of itself does not have any applicability to married Catholic deacons, one of Dr. Peters’ arguments against simply changing 277 is longstanding tradition. Pope Benedict does not seem to have the same concern.

    I believe that this is a theological question, not a canonical one. Interestingly enough, if you recall, a little over a year ago Pope Benedict made a minor adjustment to Canon 1009. It now reads,

    “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and faculty to act in the person of Christ the head, while deacons are enabled to serve the people of God in the diaconate of the liturgy, the word and charity.”

    That change, although still defining deacons as clergy, differentiated between them and priests and bishops. That subtle change, when viewed in light of the above-mentioned section of AC, could have implications with regard to this issue. The Pope appears to be clarifying an area that is theologically cloudy, by means of canon law. (Not sure it is the best means, but that’s for wiser minds than me to discuss).

    Most of the difficulties and issues related to the restoration of a permanant diaconate arise from the fact that the theology is still being worked out. It takes a few generations for the teaching of a Church council to solidify and gain universal acceptance.

    May the Holy Spirit continue to nourish all those who labor to do the work of the Father, in the image of the Son, through which the Church will be sucessful in bringing about God’s dominion here on earth.

  15. tjv3

    Prof. Peters was appointed Referendi. To which I say so what? Hans Kung was appointed a Peritus to the Second Vatican Council. Many would still rush to his defense. At the end of the day the wisdom of such honors can only be judged by the work that was accomplished.

  16. tjv3, there has been 5 years for some kind of response to this paper since it was synopsized. And yet there has been nothing in Canonical Reviews, no reaction from Rome, nada, zip, zilch.

    Nothing has been offered in support of it and nothing has been offered against it. I don’t even dare to speculate why it has been ignored.

    But in the meantime it has been pushed out by Dr. Peters again with the repeated implication that poor, ignorant deacons are committing acts of sacrilege all over the world with the connivance of the Pope, bishops, seminary staff, fellow clergy – in short every part of the Magisterium which has taught them, nay misled them, into believing that they have no obligation to perpetual continence.

    If nobody else is interested in defending our integrity or the credibility of the Church , then perhaps it is incumbent upon us to do so.

    One might also wonder why the new putsch has occurred at exactly the time that the Holy Father’s initiative to launch the new Ordinariates has taken place. Is it cynical or simply opportunistic?

  17. Deacon Augustine writes: “there has been 5 years for some kind of response to this paper since it was synopsized. And yet there has been nothing in Canonical Reviews, no reaction from Rome, nada, zip, zilch.” To the contrary, see, e.g., Anthony McLaughlin, The Obligation of Perfect and Perpetual Continence and Married Deacons in the Latin Church, (Catholic University of America, 2010).

    Deacon Augustine writes: “Nothing has been offered in support of it and nothing has been offered against it. I don’t even dare to speculate why it has been ignored.” To the contrary, see, e.g., Brendan Daly, “Priestly Celibacy: the obligations of celibacy and continence for priests”, Compass 43/4 (2009) 20-33, on-line here.

    Deacon Augustine, I am sorry that you are so upset; you would not be (or at least, you would be less so) if you were actually to read the article. But I gather you have not even visited the webpage I set up for this topic,, else you have not made the factual errors above.

    Regards, edp.

    ps: Those of you who you are here looking for a “new putsch” against the Holy Father may go home now. You were misinformed.

  18. I don’t think we’ll be going home yet Prof. Peters, you and your son have invited us into this discourse and it continues. Today your son has again renewed the issue. There is an interesting timeline that appears on your son’s blog withregard to the developement of this issue in relation to diaconal ordinations in your own diocese and the Ordinarite. I think it appears under the name “BobA” on page four. It is very well stated and I would direct the reader here to it. Perhaps it would be a good first step to distance yourself from your son’s views on his blog – publicly.

    Two articles hardly constitutes a ground swell. Goodness Charles Curran certainly has more peer reviewed journal articles written in support of his moral theology, and it’s wrong. Two is not probative in the academy.

  19. Fr Dcn Daniel: Thanks. I think the sioux City response IS thebest I have read in this debate in this blog and elsewhere. As i was reading the whole section on Canon Law a thought came to me. If we are to take the canon as it is interpreted (it seems) by Dr Peters then we are in a new prdicament besides being continent…it reads:

    §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.

    I guess this s similar to the traditional avoiding near occassions of sin from which we are obligated to flee. Therefoe, I better get a second (actually third if you count ministry) job so that my wife canhave her own apartment in town. I mean we share a home and a bed…so an interpretation of canon law can see in ordinary married life an occassion of sin for some clerics.

  20. Dr. Peters,

    I apologize if I didn’t seem to think that those two references counted for much, but the fact remains there has been nothing from Rome.

    I can assure you that I have read your web page and I have read your article – hence my comments in the other posts above. I do not know why you would think I would be any less “upset” for having read your paper, though?

    If my concern was only for my personal situation, then I can see why you may think that, but I can assure you that I try to be a little less parochial than that.

    Please don’t think that my ire is directed against you personally – I will try harder not to shoot the messenger! You have written what you consider to be the meaning of the law as it stands and I would hope you had no intention of it being used to undermine initiatives of the Holy Father. However, there are people who are using your work to try to sow dissension and confusion among the Anglicans preparing for the Ordinariate.

    It might be sensible to disown any such activity.

  21. Okay, Dcn. A. Re your last suggestion about disowning others’ possible misuse of my work, well, that’s a never ending task. I did make a gesture in that regard over at the National Catholic Reporter when I posted:

    “In the Studia article, I discuss deacons only (which for various reasons, is a higher hill to climb than would be the case for just priests). In the recent on-line discussions, I do indeed extend my claim to priests (which is not hard to do). But, strictly speaking, I have not addressed in any systematic way ap. con. Anglicanorum coetibus because it (a) post-dates my article and (b) involves particular legisation questions that I want to study before weighing in on it.”

    I think I said something similar one other place, under scoring that Angl. Coet. is an apostolic constitution (signifcant for us canonistas) and it was doubtless the result of extensives discussions/negotiations, to which I was certainly not privy. Mama Peters didn’t raise no boys foolish enough to guess at what goes in such spots.

  22. Why Prof. Peters did you allow these issues to be raised before you had examined the Apostolic Constitution? I pointed out to the applicability of Ac to you when Deacon Greg first posted this story. Instead many men have been caused grief and worry because you and your son jumped the gun on a five year old article. Was that prudent?

  23. All kidding aside about bundling and the Amish bed barrier, should Rome decide in favor of perpetual continence for all future deacons, apart from effectively annihilating almost the entire candidate pool of deacons – especially younger deacons – exactly how would such heroic continence as described in Option # 1 above be lived in the home?

    I’m trying to envision what this would practically look like. This is always helpful when considering matters of the law I would think.

    Let’s just assume Deacon Juan is a 35 year old newly minted deacon married to his lovely wife, Suzie. They have three wonderful young children and live in a three bedroom house.

    In all respects, their Catholic family life is normal, except that Daddy now has more responsibilities at Church and Mommy and Daddy no longer exhibit the normal physical signs of marital affection for one another (would such a thing be advisable given their new implied commitment?), nor do they sleep in the same room, of if they do, Daddy now sleeps on the floor or on a cot or in a separate bed ala Rob and Laura Petrie.

    Is this vocation that reflects the ideals of Catholic family life which the deacon and his wife are called to exemplify?

    And were Deacon Juan and Suzie to fall back again to their previous state of non-continence as a married couple, would the same penalties apply to say a priest who breaks his promise of chastity as a celibate?

    And would the Catholic conscience be able to countenance the idea that normal sexual relations between a married man and his wife living in a sacramental marriage in the same household, raising the same children are now MORTALLY sinful, precluding them both from receiving the Holy Eucharist and until the matter was resolved in the Sacramental Mystery of Confession to their priest or bishop?

    This would differ from say a husband and wife who elect to join a religious community or a monastic foundation and take up new vows of chastity. Certainly one would recognize under those conditions that a new State of Life has been freely and publicly embraced which demands.

    Does ordination imply an intrinsic shift to virtually a new State of Life by the husband and by implication his wife? In the East, the answer is simply “no.” No such demands are made, except for the fact that upon the death of his wife, the clergyman is bound to celibacy since he is called by apostolic exhortation and longstanding tradition to be a “man of one wife.”

    But the West has long required of diocesan clergy what in the East are simply aspects of a religious or monastic State of Life, namely the promise of chastity, and in this case an implicit promise of perpetual continence. Now I believe that one can argue – even from the perspective of the universal Christian Tradition – that the celibate calling is best suited for Holy Orders. Such radical availability which mirrors Christ and St. Paul is one which can never be imitated completely by a married man with his family obligations. (And I say this as one who certainly favors allowing for both married, non-continent parochial clergy and celibate clergy.)

    But when a married man, covenanted to his wife and raising his family, receives Holy Orders, should he therefore be bound to what in practice as it pertains to matters of conjugal relations is virtually the same State of Life as his brother celibate clergyman?

    This is essentially what Option #1 appears to demand.

    On his otherwise excellent site, Thomas Peters said that we should pray for “mature men who are willing to practice (perpetual) continence as deacons.”

    My question is “Why?”

    Apart from the weight of Dr. Peters’ canonical arguments regarding matters of interpreting the law, which as I said before are considerable, what could perpetual continence possible bring to the ministry of the married deacon Juan and to his service as a father and husband to his family? As I mentioned above, periodic continence most certainly can and does cultivate virtue as a form of marital asceticism recommended by St. Paul. In many ways, this form of asceticism has been lost to Catholic married life, except perhaps being partially restored through the discipline of NFP.

    But to forgo the conjugal renewal of the marital covenant which most certainly has a sacramental character – not as a eunuch for the kingdom, but as a married man in a parish, in a home with his family – what is the good that can come from this towards which the implementation of such an interpretation of the law (Option #1) would tend?

    How would such a commitment be a great good for Deacon Juan, his wife Suzie and their three kids?

    And how would the inevitably resulting loss in permanent diaconal vocations be a good for the Church? Let me say that I think that neither Thomas Peters nor Dr. Edward Peters are enemies of the diaconal vocation or the married vocation, nor am I qualified nor would I wish to ascribe any psychological “hang-ups” to either of them. I believe as I did before that they are good, decent Catholic men and in their own way servants of the Church.

    But Option #1 would most certainly promote and further the conclusions of the Cochini-Stickler-Cholij (“former” in the case of Cholij) agenda, which Dr. Peters references for support on his site.

    Ultimately the canonical imposition of perpetual continence would result in the whole married permanent diaconate project being largely abandoned in the West in favor of an exclusively “celibate-only” presence in Major Orders, save for those who were providentially old enough to be ordained prior to any possible “reassertion” of the canonical mandate or for those who were ordained in the accommodation offered through the Anglican Ordinariate. If you think deacons are rare now, if Option #1 is selected, they will go the way of the dodo to be sure (or at least the Hairy Nosed Wombat).

    And there are certainly some Latin “uber-sacerdotalists” who lurk in the blogosphere who would welcome such a destructive development to the Churches, desiring the presence of deacons to be safe, legal and rare.

    Personally I do not place Dr. Peters in their camp, nor would I ever state that he denigrates the married state either.

    But I do believe that Option #1 reflects a more rigorist view of the demands that should be imposed upon clergy in the married State of Life.

  24. I wrote:

    “Does ordination imply an intrinsic shift to virtually a new State of Life by the husband and by implication his wife? In the East, the answer is simply ‘no.'”

    Just to clarify, I do fully acknowledge that there is the “clerical state” (of life) as the Church teaches. I just do not believe, however, that the new “clerical state” of the husband and his entry into the Ordo of Deacon necessitates an intrinsic change to the conjugal relations which are normative for the married state of life in the same way that entry into a religious order or monastic community would.

  25. Hi. Fr. Dcn D. In your post 27 you end with “But I do believe that Option #1 reflects a more rigorist view of the demands that should be imposed upon clergy in the married State of Life.”

    That’s defensible position, with some arguments in its favor (and som against), but it is not a matter I have weighed in on. It’s above my pay grade, to borrow an unfortunate expression. But I have weighed in on whether the law imposes that expectation, and I have said it does. Some people (not you) are comfortable with polar opposites existing between law and practice. I am not.

    Now, either my presentation of the law is correct or it is not. If it not, we can all go home. If it is correct, and practice is contrary to the law, then either the law must be changed, or practices must change.

    That has been a very hard distinction for people to understand. Of course, most of them know only what they’ve read about this matter on blogs. More’s the pity.

  26. Fr. Deacon Daniel, I think you make some interesting observations. What use would perpetual continence serve?

    It would have no witness value, as the vocation to celibacy does, unless we were to put our wives aside. The consequence of living under the same roof would only give rise to scandal and speculation that the law was being violated, so the time would come when the Church had to legislate again that married clergy had to separate from their wives.

    Perhaps the laity will be willing to fund a new appeal for housing and social support for deacons’ (ex)wives and their children?

    But at least they would have the confidence of knowing that the Jewish ritual purity laws for temple worship were being fully observed by their deacons. It might set back JP II’s theology of the body in favour of Pope St. Siricius’ view that intercourse is a pollution, but if that’s the way God is leading the Church then so be it:

    “Would an unclean person dare contaminate what is holy, when what is holy is such for holy persons? Thus those who offered sacrifices in the Temple, in order to be pure, quite properly remained in the Temple during the entire year of their service, having nothing to do with their own households. Even idolaters, in order to carry out their impious acts and offer sacrifice to demons, impose on themselves abstinence from women. If intercourse is a pollution, then the priest must stand ready for heavenly duties, as one who is to intercede for the sins of others; otherwise, he might himself be found unworthy.” Pope St. Siricius, Epist. 10 2:6

    If we are going to restore the concept of ritual purity for those who minister in the sanctuary or touch the sacred vessles, then perhaps the obligation of continence should also be extended to all altar servers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion as well.

  27. Dr. Peters, even if your presentation of the law is not correct, the law should still be changed in order to make it clear that your presentation is not correct.

    I would definitely agree with you that there is an apparent gross discrepancy between law and practice.

  28. Prof. Peters,

    Does the Apostolic Constitution render your argument incorrect? You are still dodging the issue. I say it does, you don’t say. If you are going to keep banding your five year old article about, let’s at least be current with the law.

  29. @Will Riley:

    Dr. Peters did not dodge the issue. He said that he didn’t know what the canonical situation was for the Anglican Ordinariate.

  30. Deacon Augustine

    You seem to have forgotten Our Lady and St Joseph, you know the “Josephite” marriage.

    You also seem to answer your own questions:

    “If we are going to restore the concept of ritual purity for those who minister in the sanctuary or touch the sacred vessles, then perhaps the obligation of continence should also be extended to all altar servers and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion as well.”

    Yes lets. Let the Church cease the practise of

    1 Ordaining married men to the Permanent Diaconate (do away with the Permanent Diaconate altogether, I meant to say)

    2 Stop the practise of Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion.

    3 Only unmarried altar servers. Definitely only boys, to encourage vocations to the priesthood.

    4 Instituted acoloytes for the Readers.

    Oh, erm, that sounds like the Mass of Ages. Latin Mass rocks!

    Deacon Augustine, I think you need to pray for chastity more. You know, the Three Hail Marys devotion, St Gerard Majella and St Aloysius Gonzaga, Ss Lucy, Agatha and Agnes, of course, there’s always St Joseph. St Peter Julian Eymard, the Holy Cure, Padre Pio and so on.

    Fr Deacon Daniel, why is the Orthodox view so important to Latin Rite praxis. Surely, it’s errnoneous, no?

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