Finally, a word from the deacon's wife — UPDATED

In the keruffle over continence, we’ve heard from canon lawyers and theologians.  But one person who hasn’t had too much to say is the deacon’s wife.

Until now.

Blogger (and deacon wife) Kathy Schiffer adds her two cents:

Let me tell you what it’s like to live, day in and day out, with a guy whose faith has led him through five years of graduate study and four years of formation, who was buried in books and saddled with term papers for so long that it was sometimes hard to remember what “free time” felt like, and who then walked the aisle, knelt before the archbishop and heard this clarion call to mission:

“Receive the Gospel of Christ whose herald you have become.
Believe what you read,
teach what you believe,
and practice what you teach.”

First, he’s away from home—a lot!  My husband, unlike some of the deacons in his ordination class, actually holds a fulltime job in the Church as pastoral associate.  His diaconal service overlaps, of course, but adds yet another level of responsibility.

Weekends revolve around Mass, RCIA classes, baptisms, special prayer services.   On weeknights, there are often meetings:  parish council, counseling sessions, baptism or marriage prep.  Sometimes, after all that glorious service, it’s hard for him to muster the energy for mowing the lawn, or puttering around the house, or going out to dinner.

When we were twenty-somethings, I think I’d have been jealous of his time away.  At this point in life, though, I accept our separations and revel in the hours we spend together.  When we finally sit down for dinner, we’ve both filled our days with meaningful activity, and our “couple” time—albeit limited—is enriched by the experiences and joys we each bring to the table.

Each Sunday, I attend Mass as Jerry serves at the altar.  In the minor elevation, the priest uplifts the host, and the deacon holds the chalice for all to see.  It is one of many proud moments for me, as I watch those arms—which rested casually on my shoulder in the morning—now hold the Blood of Christ.

You’ll want to read it all, including her thoughts on the whole continence controversy.

UPDATE: A reader points me to this fine piece by the wife of a Catholic priest.

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13 responses to “Finally, a word from the deacon's wife — UPDATED”

  1. “Each Sunday, I attend Mass as Jerry serves at the altar. In the minor elevation, the priest uplifts the host, and the deacon holds the chalice for all to see. It is one of many proud moments for me, as I watch those arms—which rested casually on my shoulder in the morning—now hold the Blood of Christ”

    ‘NUF SAID!

  2. My wife and I were discussing her perspective on this debate yesterday as we drove to pick up our 17 year old from a friend’s house. It amazes her as it does me that this is even a point for debate.

    The “union with confusion” that often defines and pervades much of the Western tradition of and attitude towards Holy Orders and the ascetical discipline of celibacy and perpetual continence, is simply not known in the East except insofar as the West has attempted at various times to impose its particular views (which it often assumes have a presumptive universally binding character despite all conciliar and magisterial affirmations to the contrary) on the rest of the 21 sui juris Churches that make up the Catholic communion. Priest’s Wife also alludes to this issue. Our Churches are not hermetically sealed realities, despite the differing Codes of Canon Law. Often what happens in our larger sister church of Rome (aka, the Latin Church) has effects unintended or otherwise on our own life as part of the communion of Churches. This is the cross of our catholicity, I suppose.

    But we Eastern Catholics grow tired of Latin canonists and theologians (or blogosphere wannabe’s) who pat us patronizingly on the head acknowledging our different disciplines while simultaneously undermining or railing against the supposed “threat” to the integrity of (or even “sacrilege” against) Holy Orders that our own practice of married, non-continent clergy represents. These kinds of controversies and those who act as schills for the Cochini-Stickler-Cholij agenda actually DO wound our communion, as well as any possible future union with our Orthodox brethren.

    If anything it creates a climate where two classes of clergy exist: those who can handle celibacy (or perpetual continence) and those who can’t. It was this type of climate of hostility and condescending “second-class citizenship” that brought about a rupture and the loss of many thousands of Greek Catholics to Orthodoxy.

    I’d like to think that there is some intrinsic value that a married vocation to Holy Orders brings to the Church that quite honestly a celibate vocation does not. (And the opposite is also equally true.) One would think that the sacramental covenant of Marriage, conjugally realized and renewed, does not in any way interfere with the worthy and even heroic service of married clergy and their families to the Church, but rather serves to make it even more efficacious in the lives of the faithful.

    The relevant passage that Dr. Peters for whatever reason fails to reference from the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, as Brian Gadbois very astutely points out, makes this potential connection quite clear:

    “61. The Sacrament of Matrimony sanctifies conjugal love and constitutes it a sign of the love with which Christ gives himself to the Church (cf. Eph. 5:25). It is a gift from God and should be a source of nourishment for the spiritual life of those deacons who are married. Since family life and professional responsibilities must necessarily reduce the amount of time which married deacons can dedicate to the ministry, it will be necessary to integrate these various elements in a unitary fashion, especially by means of shared prayer. In marriage, love becomes an interpersonal giving of self, a mutual fidelity, a source of new life, a support in times of joy and sorrow: in short, love becomes service. When lived in faith, this family service is for the rest of the faithful an example of the love of Christ. The married deacon must use it as a stimulus of his diaconia in the Church.”

    If Dr. Peters wonders why his writing (and the further unhelpful commentary by his son, Thomas) have evoked such a strong reaction by married deacons and priests of West and East, he needs to understand that for those of us who live this dual-faceted vocation, we do not appreciate even the inference that somehow our marriage beds are canonically or intrinsically defiled.

  3. I think Deacon Greg named this discussion rightly, a “keruffle”. But I do think it brings to light an attitude that exists in the Church that marriage is at best second rate and should be avoided by those seeking holiness. And then they complain that people are no longer getting married in the Catholic Church and wonder why Catholic marriages are way down.

    Perhaps when this underlying, and probably unrecognized attitude toward marriage changes we will also see a change in marriage and perhaps the Church will begin to grow again.

    Go Deacons!


    Mike L

  4. Mike,

    In all fairness to Dr. Peters I do not think that this is his attitude or that of his son towards marriage, its intrinsic value to the Christian life and the opportunities to grow in holiness it generally affords those who enter that state. The Catholic Church in recent decades and under the pontificate of the soon to be Blessed Pope John Paul II has made tremendous strides in demonstrating a very positive, affirming view of the vocation to marriage and family life.

    If anything those who advocate for perpetual continence or the canonical mandate of celibacy generally believe that the married state (well, at least where conjugal love is permitted) and the clerical state are incongruous.The most that can be said is that it reflects a form of clericalist rigorism, but without descending into Gnostic dualism. He argues forcefully that such rigorism (not his word, though) reflects the current state of Canon Law in the West.

    I will also point out that the Eastern Churches hold a very high view of those called to the “angelic state” of celibacy, despite our different practice with married parish clergy. Generally speaking, the practice is that celibates live a common life in their monastic homes. It is traditional that it is from these monastic communities that our bishops are chosen.

    God bless and thanks for the encouragement of deacons!

  5. Right on the nose MikeL. I had the same reaction. And I am in full agreement with Fr. Deacon Daniel. This was my reaction to the canon itself, and not to anything I have read from Dr. Peters. It’s part of why I feel so strongly about getting this fixed. I agree that John Paul the Great did much to emphasize the beauty and holiness of both matrimony and of sexuality. Perhaps it says more about ME than about the canon or its authors, but it reminds me too of the very common perception when I was growing up that sex is tolerated in marriage, but to be truly holy you needed to be a priest or religious.

  6. Another voice you haven’t heard from: a continent deacon-to-be. I am a married and continent candidate for Holy Orders in the diaconate so this whole issue is of interest to me on various levels. I will simply say that continence was required due to medical reasons. It has been 4 year and I am a young (middle aged) man with kids.

    1. There seems to be a LOT of confusion between continent and celibate. I guess this is understandable in a culture and time where sexual activity (or lack thereof) is the defining factor. People can quote the Pope or Church or documents on the gift and value of matrimony all they want and it doesn’t directly affect this topic. This canon is NOT saying married men cannot be ordained.

    2. I see the value of continent celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom, mostly as St. Paul says for the sake of being free to serve the Church. I think using Jesus as a argumentative model for celibacy instead of marriage in ordained men is weak because really…could Jesus truly marry and have children? Can you imagine Church history in THAT case? “I don’t need to listen to the pope or any bishop. I am a descendant of Jesus!” Would his children, grandchildren etc be considered divine or semi-divine? Etc. Etc. Etc. Obviously from a biological viewpoint he could have done so but being God he knew what the results would be.

    3. Continence among married clergy in the early Church was fueled by a spiritual outlook long before it was regulated by anything canonical. I would imagine it was also seen as a way of freeing the husband for his duties. But I think over the ages, as it became less spiritually chosen as a charism and more legislative as an obligation, it has spawned a kind of caste system, a “boy’s club”, an elite corps of leadership. Call it whatever you will. And I think that the concept and practice of married non-continent clergy is perceived as a threat to many celibates in Orders. I think it plays upon the sexual insecurity of some, and it possibly threatens the fiercely hidden homosexuality of others. “If married men can be ordained then why in the world are you celibate, Father?” For many that can be a teaching moment on the beauty of consecrated celibacy; for others it’s a threat and an attack.

    4. The East has a marvelous idea in venerating celibacy as a charism and showing preference for this by choosing bishops only from among the celibates. Yet they do not disregard marriage and treat it as some kind of obstacle to priestly and diaconal ministry. The only time I have ever heard of continence required or at least recommended in the East is the night before Divine Liturgy as a kind of ascetical preparation. But I do not know if this is widespread among all the Eastern churches or even done today.

    With all this said I would have to declare that if the Church decided to enforce the canon on continence then I would not seek ordination, although I am continent and getting close to that ordination day. I would not do so because it would be sending such a mixed message to the people I have been called to serve. My ministries include catechesis and sacramental prep of all kinds. How could I teach on one hand that marriage is a gifted vocation, a sacramental way of life, that mirrors the love of Christ for the Church as well as reflects the community of the Trinity. That the Church teaches it is a great way to holiness and the perfection of love. And then by the witness of my married diaconal continence be saying that the active conjugal participation in this “holy life-giving marriage” is at the same time a hindrance and impediment to my minstryof the Word, of Sacrament and of Charity? That it is an obstacle to my dedication to Christ and to his Church?

  7. Fr. Deacon Daniel,

    I think what you are saying is pretty much in agreement with what I think :). I believe that celibacy can bring great grace if one is called to it, but I also believe that the sacrament of marriage can bring as much grace if one is called to that state. I also note that celibacy is not a sacrament, but marriage is.

    How one avoids growing up in the Catholic Church without developing an unconscious attitude that celibacy is better than marriage is hard to conceive in this world. What I hear is a constant prayer for more vocations to the clergy, but I don’t remember ever hearing a prayer of the faithful for vocations to marriage, and I have lived in many parts of the US. I think it is so pervasive that it is like the old saying that fish, surrounded by water, never notice it.

    And while much has been said to promote marriage, I seldom hear anything about marriage promoting spirituality, mostly just that it is necessary for producing children and vocations. The attitude remains.


    Mike L

  8. In the mass reading of last Tuesday we hear how the Pharisees criticized Jesus and his disciples for picking heads of grain on the Sabbath. They ask Jesus why his followers are doing what is “unlawful” on the Sabbath. Jesus answers in short “The Sabbath is made for man and not man for the Sabbath”. Actually a great part of the Gospels narrative is the constant conflict between Jesus and the rigid legalism of the Pharisees.

    Celibacy and the issue of continence are matters of Church discipline and not matters of doctrine. The Church has adapted throughout the centuries by modifying those thing not central to dogma (for example the form of the sacrament of confession while not the substance).

    If the matter of perpetual continence for deacons or married priests is going to trow a proverbial monkey wrench on a development that is positive to the Church and if it acts against the spirit of Christ in favor of the letter of the law, then Cannon Law should change to accommodate the new situation.

    I am sure that the pope and the bishops will act according to the charity and in the Holy Spirit to solve this.

  9. I pray that the Holy Father and the Bishops DO get actively involved and settle this debate. However, a good and honest reading of Church history will inform us that not every decision made by the Pope and bishops is a good one. For example, a very different reaction to Luther on the part of the Pope Leo X just might (might) have helped produce a very different outcome. And there are many other example in history for which Blessed John Paul II offered an apology on behalf of the Church.

    This isn’t “pop-bashing” it;s simply a reminder that the promise of the Holy Spirit’s sure and certain guidance is only guaranteed to the teaching office of the Church for faith and morals. An issue like this is judicial and I would add prudential, so its up to the good will and intentions of those concerned.

  10. Speaking of Church history and the present debate that clerical marital incontinence is a novelty in the Roman Church. It reminds me of the years immediately following the Reformation when many in leadership of the Church was scared stiff of novelties, even those from the Holy Spirit.

    At that time women religious, according to the applicable canon laws, had to be enclosed in cloisters with solemn vows. Yet the Holy Spirit had raised up the Ursulines through St. Angela Merici, who wore lay clothing and live din their homes or sometimes in small groups. They ministered in girl’s secular and religious education. Reacting to the novelties of the Reformation era the Church authorities obliged the Ursulines to put on religious dress and live in cloistered monasteries.

    Then there were the Visitation Sisters founded by Sts. Francis de Sales and Jane de Chantal. Originally to be a community living in a convent but going out to minister directly to the sick and poor (thus named after Mary’s Visitation) they too were obliged to don monastic robes and live in cloistered convents.

    The rallying cry for all this was what we are hearing today in this continence issue: Canon Law…Canon Law…Canon Law. Now there is indeed obviously an important role for church law but it must always be in service to the Church, that is, to us and all who are part of the Body of Christ.

    However, as Dominick pointed out, Church law and leadership does not always reflect the Holy Spirit’s plan. It is a human endeavor that can count on God;s guidance as much as any of us can count of God’s guidance when making a decisio in our lives.

    There were Ursulines who refused to abandon the charism given them by the Holy Spirit through St. Angela. They did not go on to become nuns but instead remained laywomen, privately dedicated to God, and continuing their ministries to girls. Today, called the Angelines, they are centered in Italy and number almost 5,000.

    Let’s pray for the right decisions to be made by Church leadership. Or else we might find a significantly diminished diaconate (and priesthood among the Ordinariate and Protestant converts) but at least we might be able to count upon an increased and active lay ministry by those who would have otherwise followed the Holy Spirit’s call to Orders.

  11. Re: Canon 277

    When I attended Diocesan seminary 30 years ago, the running joke was that at the end of it all we would get a law degree: a canon law degree.

    The gossip-like suggestion that there is a continence requirement for married deacons would have a simple fate in a court of law (canonical or otherwise).

    If indeed, as claimed by Dr. Ed Peters, Pope JPII removed a distinction “exempting” married deacons from the continence language in canon 277, with the unambiguous intention to require married men entering the clerical state, as married deacons, to practice continence, then the Pope made a legal mistake. I doubt that was his direct intention; nevertheless, applying the canon, in the manner suggested by Dr Peters, wouldn’t stand a chance in court.

    Canon 1055.1 states that the marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life, and which of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children, has, between the baptised, been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.

    Canon 1061.2 goes further…”If the spouses have lived together after the celebration of their marriage, consummation is presumed until the contrary is proven.”

    By ordaining married men with a pre-existing sacramental covenant and obligation to procreation, the church has obligated herself to the preeminence of that covenant and the necessity of the “incontinence” required to fulfill that obligation to consumate the marriage for the purpose of procreation.

    Case dismissed.

    But that said, let me as succinctly as possible, posit what the ultimate judge I think would say on this topic: the suggestion that there is some God inspired reason, fallible and flawed canon law notwithstanding, that a married Roman Catholic Deacon, or any human being for that matter, should be required to practice “continence” with a spouse – abstaining from even licit sexual relations – is unabashed blasphemy.

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