AN UNCOMMON GRACE: The Privilege of Being a Deacon’s Wife

The internet has been buzzing this week, with rumors and reports about canon lawyer Ed Peters’ incendiary analysis of Canon 227 § 3, suggesting that permanent deacons (as well as Anglican priests who are being received into the Church and who embrace the Catholic priesthood) must abstain from sexual relations with their wives. 

The vitriol to which Dr. Peters’ assertion has been subjected is evidence that people feel deeply about this issue—“people” being, I think, not only the 15,000 permanent deacons in the U.S. and their wives, but also thoughtful Catholics who balk at the apparent injustice of this cruel surprise.

This seems a good time, then, to talk just a little bit about my life as wife of a deacon. 

First, regardless of the high esteem in which I hold both Dr. Peters and his son Tom, the “American Papist,” I’m confident that American deacons won’t be forced to choose between the diaconate and their marriages.   I say that because:

  1. Celibacy is an imposed discipline, not a theological requirement as is the male priesthood; and as such, it is subject to change.  If canon law must be adjusted to right this error, then so be it.
  2. Even before the Anglican Ordinariate or the special arrangements which have been made with a few priests (i.e., Fr. Dwight Longenecker and Fr. Ray Ryland), priests in Eastern Rite churches have been permitted to marry.
  3. Deacons would do well to review St. Paul’s First Letter to Timothy 3:12-13, which states:  Deacons should be the husband of one wife; who rule well their children, and their own houses.  For they who have ministered well, shall purchase to themselves a good degree, and much confidence in the faith, which is in Christ Jesus.
  4. Lastly, Dr. Peters may feel that canon law supersedes all things—but the Church is the repository of justice, and there really is an injustice in hitting all of these well-intentioned and godly servants with a big “OOPS!” and asking them to forfeit their marriage vows or leave their ministries.

 Deacon Greg Kandra blogs about the issue at his website, The Deacon’s Bench: 

 Well, now.  Does anyone seriously think that tens of thousands of married deacons — not to mention the hundreds of married priests — are now suddenly going to commit to stop having sex with their wives?  Does anyone think the vocation could even survive such a 180 degree turnaround?  The restoration of the diaconate is one of the great success stories of the Church in the last half century.  Do they really want to screw that up?

‘Nuf said.  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.

  • Ann Lewis

    Hi, Kathy,
    This is not to discount anything you’ve written here at all. I wanted to just point out that deacons would be “continent” not “celibate” – as celibacy is a state of being unmarried.

    But to the point here – I don’t think anyone, including Ed Peters, would discount the dedication or service that permanent deacons provide to the Church. Sadly, it’s become a “shoot the messenger” situation in that he discovered this problem that has not been taught, or communicated, or even considered to be taught or communicated with men in formation for the diaconate. This is a problem that needs to be addressed. Since it is, as you point out, a discipline, canon law can be changed. Perhaps it needs to be changed or clarified. Since canon law is Ed Peter’s job, he stumbled on this and put it out there. Not to condemn those in the role – but to point out that there is a discrepancy.

    Personally – I think deacons should be concerned about this, and bring this concern to their ordinaries so it can be resolved.

  • Ann Lewis

    btw – it’s should be its. I’m very conscious about typos now…lol.

  • Stephen Sparrow

    Thanks for that piece Kathy. Anyone who has read Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset will know the situation with regard to married clergy up until medieval times & Undset was both a devout Catholic (convert) & an accurate protrayer of medieval Christendom. I know of Medieval Studies University lecturers who advised their students wanting to get to grips with Medieval Europe to read Undset’s sagas but with the caution that because they were fiction they could not be used as references.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      I have loved “Kristin Lavransdatter,” Stephen– and if memory serves me, it was Deal Hudson who introduced me to her work. Although the subject matter was harsh (a rape?), the book was like a cool, clean shower because of the sheer goodness of the characters.

      Thanks for your contribution to the discussion.

  • Pingback: Finally, a word from the deacon’s wife | The Deacon's Bench

  • Marie

    I certainly appreciate your post and your devotion as a loving wife of a deacon. I don’t think anyone, including Edward Peters, is questioning a deacon’s dedication.

    But points need to be made here b/c this is not a matter of “feelings” alone – it is a matter of theology, church history and tradition and Canon Law:

    1. It does not seem that Mr. Peters is expecting those deacons who were already ordained to be continent – they did not have FULL KNOWLEDGE, which is required when someone is making a vow or promise. It is moreso looking to the future – what will the permanent deaconate be? As for deacons who’ve already been ordained, perhaps they will be granted a dispensation. However, Canon Law should NOT be called “ERROR” simply b/c someone disagrees with it. It must be implemented in the future if that is what the Church is intending. That is true justice.

    2. Is this really such a “crazy” claim? Deacons are receiving Holy Orders, although it is a different “level” than the priesthood. And even in the time of the apostles, where there was a married priesthood, the priests were expected to be continent, believe it or not. People keep saying that it was from a “fear of sex” that celibacy was put in place, but Our Lord did not fear sex, yet He has called people to be “eunuchs for the sake of the Kingdom.” Continence is just as important as the married state, especially today when our culture believes we can’t possibly LIVE without sex. Celibacy/continence points to heaven in a specific way, just as marriage does, and should not be made fun of or dismissed as “error” simply b/c people can’t understand it.

    3. No doubt the marital act is a very important part of married life, but it is not all that married life is. For example, If your husband/wife were paralyzed or too ill to engage in marital relations, would you demand the Church change canon law so you could get an annulment or have sexual relations that are against the moral order? Is it not just as noble to give up this GIFT (and the marital act is a gift from GOD) if God calls a husband to the deaconate?

    4. If it is too much of a strain on a couple’s marriage, perhaps this means the deaconate may not be a vocation for most married men – perhaps the mistake was the Church allowing this for so long. Some may say that the deaconate will “die out” – but if cannot call for change simply b/c something is hard, and for that reason alone. Remember when most of Jesus’ disciples left Him after the “Bread of Life Discourse”? They said, “This is a hard saying, who can hear it?” Well, are we not doing the same thing here. Now I recognize that celibacy/continence, unlike the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, CAN change, but that doesn’t mean it should. Why is everyone so against Mr. Peters’ discovery? B/C it’s “hard to accept” – well, isn’t the Gospel just that? Hasn’t Jesus always called us to the “narrow road.” If He wanted things to be easy, He why would He call us to be Holy as He is Holy? That’s the hardest thing of all – to become saints, which is what everyone is called to. It’s HARD, but I think we’re just not trusting God’s grace, and that nothing is impossible for God.

    5. To clarify – I am NOT anti-sex (though I likely will get labeled as such) – I am rather someone who chooses to hear what the Church has to say before attacking Her for Her teachings. While this law may be able to be changed, doesn’t mean that it should. In this day and age we need men saying that it’s possible to live without sex especially – now is not the time to say no to celibacy/continence – it’s just the opposite. I wouldn’t be surprised if God is calling us to MORE continence w/all the hedonism going on in our culture. This raises the dignity of sex as well – sex is SACRED, not a recreational sport, and it’s so sacred that we can only renounce it for God – either living continent in the single state, vowed or clerical state or living chastely in our marriages.

    6. Look to the Holy Family – Mary & Joseph lived as a true family, yet did not have marital relations b/c God called them to continence. Is it too incredible to believe God calls other married couples to this state today?

    7. Deacons, brothers, religious sisters and nuns are all important signs of the Kingdom of God – they are all set apart. Just b/c they’re not priests, doesn’t mean it’s a waste when a man gives up marriage to be a brother. In the same way, it is not a “waste” if a man who did not feel called to the priesthood became a permanent deacon.

    8. It’s very easy to attack authority – very popular today. It’s very easy to call something we find hard or that evokes major emotional responses ERROR, but that is simply emotional reaction, not rational, loving thought. We are not loving the Church by attacking Canon Law and saying it MUST be wrong – instead, we are show the world how little we are willing to give up for love of God.

  • Ken Ramsey

    Kathy,

    What a wonderful posting! I read your posting to my wife and we both choked up some at your final paragraph. Yours is a voice that needs to be heard from more.

    Ken Ramsey

  • Marie

    *To clarify point 8 – I have no doubt that both the deacons and their wives give up a tremendous amount, especially judging by this article – what I’m saying is that when we immediately cry “ERROR” on something we don’t like – and demand it be changed just b/c it can – we show the world that there may be limits on our love of God. No doubt this would be a very difficult decision for a husband and wife, and I envy no woman who would be placed in that position, nor am I claiming I would be noble enough to say “OK, honey, go ahead and become a deacon and forget our marital intimacy.” I am, however, trying to think with the mind of a daughter of the Church – and to be open to whatever She says, as well as open to the fact that there may be another “error” in all this – ignoring this Canon for so long simply for convenience.

  • Jim

    Well done Kathy.

    I must say that, in the end, I think this will all be much ado about nothing.

    Blessings upon you and Jerry.

    Totus Tuus

    Peace…

    • Kathy Schiffer

      And with your spirit, Jim! :-)

  • http://remnantofremnant.blogspot.com priest’s wife

    Thanks for this post!

    Marie- can you account for the differences at the ordination of a deacon if the man is married or unmarried- if he is unmarried, he promises the bishop to remain celibate. If he is married no such promise is made and nothing is said about continence

  • RP Burke

    Kathy,

    Just a quick note to make clear to everyone about who among the clergy may be married.

    Married men may be validly ordained, but an ordained man may not validly marry (with a very limited exception for married deacons with minor children).

    So the issue, properly put, isn’t whether priests may marry, but whether married men may become priests. In the Roman rite, the answer is no, unless of course you’re a desirable convert.

    • Belen

      “In the Roman rite, the answer is no, unless of course you’re a desirable convert”

      Correction, in the Anglican Ordinariate of the Roman Rite, the answer is yes, if you’re a male and married member of the ordinariate and called to the priesthood, as article 6.1 of the complementary norms for the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus states:
      “In consideration of Anglican ecclesial tradition and practice, the Ordinary may present to the Holy Father a request for the admission of married men to the presbyterate in the Ordinariate, after a process of discernment based on objective criteria and the needs of the Ordinariate. These objective criteria are determined by the Ordinary in consultation with the local Episcopal Conference and must be approved by the Holy See. “

  • http://www.bailbondspicorivera.org Bail Bonds Pico Rivera

    AN UNCOMMON GRACE: The Privilege of Being a Deacon’s Wife » SEASONS OF GRACE FYI I tried your rss button and it did not. I will try again in a few hours.

    • Kathy Schiffer

      Click on the Jerusalem cross at the upper right of the website. It should work.

  • Kathy Schiffer

    UPDATE: This thoughtful blog post by Deacon William Ditewig is well worth reading! Analyzes canon law, Dr. Peters’ academic paper, and other sources on the issue. http://pilgrimsfootsteps.blogspot.com/2011/01/so-i-leave-town-for-few-days-and-look.html


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