From the Tragedy of the Past, Some Want to Make a Comedy of Errors

From the Tragedy of the Past, Some Want to Make a Comedy of Errors January 20, 2011

One of the greatest farces being explored on the internet right now is the claim that married deacons and married clergy should be told that they cannot have sexual relations with their spouses. The justification for this is from canon law. Despite the universalistic tones expressed about this, when pressed, those pushing for this admit this is only for the Latin Rite, but they do suggest, the East should consider following the example of the West: “I don’t know why so many people assume that, where East and West disagree, the East must have it right.“*** For this, they say, is important. How important? It is a “Josiah Moment” in Canon Law.

Say what? A Josiah Moment? This “discovery” in canon law is something so fundamental that it equals the finding of Deuteronomy?  It is expected to produce a reform within the Church, all because deacons and married clergy won’t be able to have sex if the law is pushed? What?

How can anyone take this seriously? On the one hand, it is true that disciplines about sexual relations between married clergy and their wives exist (such as various times in the year they were to abstain from sex), on the other hand, discipline serves a purpose, and when that purpose is no longer applicable, the discipline itself can be called into question and abandoned. What is the purpose of this demand? What lies behind all of this? I do not know, but I suspect a few things. I suspect a poor theological anthropology combined with a demand for legalism to try to create the human person in the form of a false ideology. This anthropology includes a rather dismal view of sexuality, an Augustinian kind which one can find in the history of the Church, but it is not the only view of sexuality found in the Church (for a different view, look at what St John Chrysostom says on marriage).

What we see here is an attempt to gain control. What is the purpose? Is it this farce? Probably not; it seems that the desire is to get other “reforms” passed, but to do so, this is the starting point.

This rigorist, legalistic understanding of canon law ignores what canon law is for – it is for us, to help us – we don’t need to wrestle with it the same way the Pharisees did with the Law of Moses. Certainly it can place demands on us, but the demands must be for our good. Canon law changes and develops; it is bad to reify it, to demand people to follow the letter of the law over the spirit of the law.

As an Eastern Catholic, I cannot but laugh and cry at the same time. When someone like myself confronts this new ideology, we are basically thrown to the side, shown once again how little the Eastern input is accepted in the West. Pope John Paul II pointed out that the Church needs both the West and the East. The input of the East with its historical experience is really necessary at this point. We have experienced many “canon lawyers” in the past reify odd things they find in canon law, turning them into huge theological issues that leave the Church wounded, such as the question over leavened bread, or whether or not priests should have beards,  and whether or not the filioque should be recited. Again, the spirit of the law, the point of the law, becomes ignored, when one tries to find a pedantic point they can use as their way to gain control over the lives of the people of the Church.

Why has this been brought up in the blogosphere, rather than in the courts of canon law? It seems the reason is two-fold. One, the blogosphere is about control, about control of the hearts of the people, the desire to convince people that a rather limited vision of the Church is all the Church is about. This limiting vision of the Church is slowly coming to roost with this kind of farcical discussion. The second is easy to see. No official would take this seriously if it was given to them as a question to examine. Many people have already discerned the problems of this analysis: interpretation of words, ignoring of other canons, and the overall failure to realize the Church can and has answered this question by her practice.

Sadly, by responding to this proposition, I am giving it a hearing. But I have found many people speaking of it, and I have already spoken of it in comments. It is already getting a hearing on the internet. It needs to be rejected in no uncertain terms. We do not need this failed ideology gaining control of the Church of the future. In the past, we have seen the tragedy which has resulted from it. Now, we don’t need to make the Church a laughing stock, by going to farcical lengths by trying to recreate the past. What we will get is not the past, but a comedy of errors.


*** I think the answer to this is two-fold: when it is an issue the East has a greater amount of tradition in dealing with a specific question, their tradition is more likely to have something to offer in a given question than a tradition struggling to even understand what the question is all about. The second is that what is often seen as a problem in the West is something the East has dealt with, and to get out of the problems the West now face, it needs to get out of the systems of thought which have led it to a dead end. The same, however, is true, for the East: it needs the West to help it get through some of its difficult issues. When it comes to the issue of married clergy, however, the East has this issue as one they have more to offer than the West. So, when people begin by making universal claims about “the Church” (ignoring the East), the East feels the snub. The second, when we see the East “isn’t always right” as a reason to excuse the snub, this recalls all the way we have been mistreated by the West in the past and told how our tradition doesn’t really matter. Yes, our tradition matters. Learn it. If our tradition counters your theological anthropology, then perhaps this is time for you to open up and listen!

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  • In my recent blog post , I offer eleven arguments, some canonical and some theological, as to why married deacons and priests may have marital relations. Several of my arguments are canonical, and these alone are sufficient to refute Peters’ position. But the more important arguments are theological, based on the teachings of the Magisterium on procreation as the highest good of marital relations. I’ll make just one point here:

    No Sacrament can ever nullify or work to the detriment of any other Sacrament, since all Sacraments are of God and God cannot contradict Himself. But if married ordained deacons and priests cannot exercise the right and highest good of marriage (procreation), then a good of one Sacrament, Holy Orders, would be nullifying a good of another Sacrament, Marriage. Such a position is untenable under Sacramental theology.

    • Yes, we both agree, what we see is the legalism which the Church has to constantly confront, the kind which the Pharisees represented in the time of Christ, and the kind which “reform” movements have often become (with one of the most famous example in the early Church being the Novatians, and one of the more famous examples in modernity being Jansenism, the second which still influences many in the Church).

      • Melody

        The reference to the “Josiah Moment” disturbed me also. Because in 2 Kings 23, which that refers to, the sins which King Josiah calls the Israelites to turn away from are idolatry and apostasy. It is not even close to being a parellel situation, and the comparison is insulting to the sacrament of marriage.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Thank you for bringing this issue to our attention. I had missed it completely (perhaps thankfully). There is an excellent article on the America Blog by John Martens that addresses this issue from the perspective of the New Testament. One passage from the post by Peters gives me some insight into the concerns driving this issue:

    Following the law removes the ambiguity and double-standard that we currently witness in the Church, an ambiguity that those who argue for a married priesthood capitalize on whenever they try to make the case that permanent deacons and married priests being able to have sexual relations means that all priests and deacons should. Rather, the solution is for all priests and deacons to observe the same perfect continence, as has been the long-standing tradition in Canon Law and the Western Catholic tradition.

    On another front, I am by chance considering entering the permanent deaconate myself, and today my wife and I were talking about the fact she is required to attend two lengthy introductory sessions with me in March. She was sharing with me comments she had gotten from the wife of the former deacon at our parish. She (the wife) had complained bitterly about such required events. She fully supported her husband’s ministry (which included having to leave her home parish to follow him) but she deeply resented the way she and other wives were treated. As she put it “I felt the bishop was telling me my husband would have been a priest if it wasn’t for me.” I cannot help but wonder if this move for “perfect continence” by buried deacons arises from a similar resentment of or disdain for deacon’ wives.

    • You are welcome. I first came across it with an email Thomas sent to me quoting his post. And then I started seeing people talk about it. My focus has been elsewhere, but I kept watching the conversation and posted comments in a few other blogs on it. I decided it was worth collecting my thoughts on it for Vox Nova – and like Arturo Vasquez, I see this in the line of tragedy of the past leading to a farce in the recreation of that past.

    • Melody

      David, I am sorry to hear that your wife’s acquaintance had such a negative experience at the inquiry sessions. That would definitely give one a sour taste for beginning formation. I hope that was an isolated instance (maybe there is a different bishop now?). My husband was ordained a deacon in 2000, and I have to say that our archbishop was very supportive of the wives and families. He told us that our support and encouragement were very important to our husbands’ vocation as a deacon.
      It can’t hurt anything to go to the intro sessions and find out about the formation process; one thing they told us was that one is free to leave the program any time up to ordination. I wish you both well in your discernment process.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Thank you Melody. No, it was not just the inquiry sessions: this is what she felt years after her husband was ordained. But yes, it is a new bishop, so we are going into this with our eyes and hearts open.

  • brettsalkeld

    My guess is that the junior Peters thinks this is a much bigger deal than it is because the bizarre opinion invoked is from the senior Peters.

    This probably becomes a tiny piece of trivia within a couple weeks.

    I hope.

    • From what I can tell, his father thinks this is a big issue. America has a good post on this, and notes: “There is no discussion anywhere in this article on biblical teachings regarding sex and marriage. Although Jesus’ teachings on sex and marriage might be alluded to in this article, they are not cited once in the body of the paper or in the footnotes. I could not locate allusions to Paul’s writings at all in the body of the paper or in the footnotes. Apparently, they are irrelevant. The only biblical passage cited by book and chapter, and that in the last sentence of the entire article, is 2 Kings 22-23.” Notice what is being referenced? It is not just Thomas Peters doing this, but his father as well. And I fear that this is the start of a new round of debates on sexuality, and a push to a failed vision of it. It might seem like something minor, but the idea is getting spread among the vocal minority which has been controlling theological conversations on the internet — leading, of course, to a growing concern as people become more convinced by what they read on the net than anywhere else.

      • brettsalkeld

        Having read up some more, I think it is more likely this falls by the wayside. Peters’ arguments strike me as nothing short of bizarre. If he got no play from serious canon lawyers in 2005 when this was published in a reputable journal, I can’t see that the blogosphere is going to be able to pressure the Church on it now. I think young Thomas has an exaggerated view of his father’s arguments and of the blogosphere in general.

        On the other hand, if the blogosphere is as powerful as he seems to think, I need to find some backers to pay me to write for it full-time. This doctorate in theology is cramping my blogging style. Not to mention my child-rearing responsibilities. Maybe bloggers should be celibate too!

        (And yes, I chose the word “celibate” rather than “continent.” I am already continent. Peters is calling for celibacy, no matter what he is calling it.)

        • IF you find the backers, send them my direction as well!

  • What a nicely written, but ultimately empty, critique of my position.

    If you had said “I think married clerics should be able to have sex with their wives whenever they want, and I’m terrified that Peters’ observations about what canon law says against that practice seem so convincing that we better change the law promptly lest people start applying that law”, I would have respected that. Really, I would have. Indeed, it is one of the resolutions I propose in my article (assuming you read it), which I think you should have in basic fairness acknowledged. Instead, you choose to impugn my person, my motives, my anything, without engaging my argument.

    Your appeals to Martens are especially risible, for the reasons I set out here: In replying to Martens, at least I did not fabricate a lengthy, and ridiculous, quotation, attribute it to Martens, and then blame him for disregarding what he allegedly said in the fake quote. Which is exactly what he did to me. The rest of Martens’ article either blames me for not writing a Biblical/theological defense of the blessings of marriage, when my whole point was to offer a canonical analysis of some obligations of holy orders, or he engages in rude ad hominen attacks against my person, my motives, my anything. It’s been a common tact.

    I cannot respond to all of the observations being made in blogs around the world on this matter, and cannot promise to return here; if people want to construe my ‘silence’ as some sort of admission of their point, well, that’s their problem. But you can get a taste of what I am facing by looking just at brettsalked’s accusation above that, no matter what I say about continence, it’s really celibacy I am calling for. Thus, I am convicted of duplicity, and no matter how many times I deny such characterizations, it can be written off as “Ah ha! Just the sort of thing a guilty man would say!” Sigh.

    If, btw, you or others care to see a summary of the four ways I think this debate can end, see this: If folks don’t really care what I might say about it, they should feel free to go on to others topics.

    • It depends upon what you mean to be empty. If you are wanting to have an engagement over the details of the canons, and thinking that the current canon law as it is, is the end of all arguments, you will not get more from me than saying the obvious: canon law itself finds itself often in paradoxes, and how people resolve the paradox says something about their theological positions. My issue was not exactly how you argued your interpretation of the canons (though I think there is a problem because it does not engage interpretive questions properly); it is what you do beyond it – your negative responses to people pointing out the implications of your view, saying you don’t care about what those implications mean, but what the law says and demand that the law, as you interpret it, must be what we should see. The thing is, and you know this, the law changes, and implications which come out of said laws often require such change. To ignore the implications, and the theological anthropology which develops, is dangerous. Remember the kinds of debates which happened around 1054 — for example, how the Orthodox point out the canons of Nicea would demand one cannot include the filioque in the creed. Their reasoning is, in its limited scope, sound, but also, legalistic — and ignores the greater tradition, which also shows adaptation, even before 1054.

      So, let us get to something fundamental: do you really think emphasis on this point of law, if it is the valid conclusion (one can debate arguments of definition), is that this conclusion is the best and needed for the Church. If so, why? What is it that you really are trying to say and what is the reason you think it must be said? As you know, canons do not come out of nowhere. They are disciplines which come and go — sometimes fast, sometimes slow. To just argue the canon without engaging why the canon should be kept is legalism to the extreme– empty and shallow. Moreover, you will need to better explain why the Church has not interpreted the canons in the way you have, why its practice is different. This is an important element in any analysis, any critical exposition when one thinks there is need for reform. I do not feel you have done this sufficiently. This is what is needed when one engages the church, to demonstrate one understands why the practice is as it is, even if one finds fault with it. Otherwise, there is a sense of legalism + cherry picking (ignoring what one can argue from canons about the expectations of sacramental marriage) + almost protestant style interpretation scheme, similar to how people interpret the Bible without really engaging the full spectrum of possible interpretation. Reductionism in interpretation is dangerous.

    • brettsalkeld

      I may very well have missed something, and do correct my error if I have made one, but I cannot see how this is not a call for celibacy. I am sorry this is understood as an accusation. What is the practical difference between “perfect continence” and celibacy?

      Perhaps there was a bit of a joking tone in my comments, for which I apologize. (I honestly didn’t expect you to stop by and see us. Thanks for taking the time.) But I don’t see that they were evidence of ad hominems and motive questioning, let alone set-ups for accusations of duplicity.

      I genuinely don’t see how this is not a call for celibacy. Can you clarify?

      The rest of my comment was not intended as an attack on you or your arguments, but rather an expression of my bewilderment at the expectation that the blogosphere is able to do things re: canon Law that reputable journals of canon law cannot. I wasn’t interested in engaging you as a canon lawyer per se. I was making an ecclesiological point about how things do and don’t get resolved in the Church. Sorry if that was unclear.

      Now maybe I’m wrong and Rome has been working assiduously on this issue since the publication of your article in 2005. Somehow, I think we would have heard about this before though. It seems to me, however, that Thomas’ notoriety is the only reason this is getting any play at all. That strikes me as bizarre.

      • Liam

        Well, maybe it means priests and bishops should marry wives with children, take on the responsibility for providing for them. As well as perfect continence.

        Right? Fair’s fair.

        • brettsalkeld

          Yes, the thing I found “bizarre” about Peters’ arguments are not that they are illogical. They are quite logical in their way. I just find them implausible.

      • brettstalked, I overlooked this comment but it deserves reply, at least in part. Some of my thoughts are apparent below or elsewhere, but specifically your suggestion that mine amounts to a call FOR celibacy is simply incorrect. Whether the Church expands, maintains, or reduces the role of celibacy among the clergy is not my call to make, and I offer no opinion on it. It is, more importantly, irrelevant to my discussion of continence among Western clerics, for all the reasons set forth in the Studia article.

        Now that said, the topic of celibacy, properly so-called, is of some professional interest to me, and elsewhere I do outline some implications for Western celibacy that I see arising from the great growth of the married (permanent) diaconate and the influx of married priests. It is cited on my web discussion page, i.e., Edward Peters, “Diaconal categories and clerical celibacy”, Chicago Studies 49 (2010) 110-116. You might check it out. But, while these two topics obviously overlap, they are theologically, pastorally, and (my concern) canonically distinct.

        Regards, edp.

        ps: we use the word “bizarre” differently.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Dear Henry,

    I am a married candidate permanent deacon, in the final year of my preparation for ordination as a permanent deacon in the Latin Rite.

    Thank you for your contribution to this discussion, and for your many detailed and helpful theological posts on this blog, from an Eastern Catholic perspective.

    Pope John Paul II was absolutely right that the Church needs to breath with both Eastern and Western lungs.

    The authoritative interpretation of Can 277 is that followed by the Vatican congregation for the clergy and the bishops who have never interpreted it as requiring perpetual continence of married permanent deacons.

    Divine Law on marriage, of course, trumps man made Canon Law (a point our Lord emphasises in this weeks readings from Mark) and Canon Law also recognises and grants the normal sexual rights and obligations of marriage. Can 277 needs to be read in this light and does not override those.

    God Bless you and all your good work for the faith.

    • Chris

      Thank you. Yes, as I have said, if there is a desire to say the canons should be interpreted differently, and one can make such arguments, one should do far more work than what we have seen. One must first show understanding of how things are, and why one’s interpretation is not being used, then explain why one’s is better. Then see the response from proper authorities. As you can tell, the fact that this isn’t being done is disturbing for me.

      I hope your last year of preparation for the diaconate goes well, and your service in the future is a blessing to you as much as to those you will serve.

  • I admit the following is pretty simple minded, but . . . .

    Don’t both canon law and the expectations regarding how deacons should behave both come from the same source — the Church? Consequently, if a practice is widespread in the Church, shouldn’t we be suspicious of an interpretation of canon law that contradicts what the Church is actually doing?

    It’s been about 15 or 20 years now, but I remember my mother telling me of a priest assigned to her parish who had been a Lutheran priest with a wife and children and had converted to Catholicism. My mother was very impressed with him, but she said some people in the parish made a point of not attending any masses that he said.

    I think the proper view is that no one at all should be allowed to have sex. Then there would be nothing to argue about. I remember when I was a junior in high school and Brother Edward, our religion teacher, one day announced at the beginning of class that he was throwing open the class to any topic we wanted to discuss. Several of my classmates immediately said, “Sex!” Brother Edward replied, “It’s a sin. Next topic.” (He was joking.)

    • brettsalkeld

      Yes, I think the issue is one of forgetting what canon law is actually for. The fact that Dr. Peters can make a decent case for his position indicates that the law is poorly written and not indicative of the mind of the Church, or at least can be read in such a way that is not indicative of the mind of the Church. It does not indicate that a group of very faithful men and women have been contravening divine law for decades while the hierarchy turned a blind eye.

  • Henry:

    It seems to me that your bigger issue with Dr. Peters is that you distrust Canon law (and thus Canon laywers); that is, you see them bogging the faith down in rules rather than a more flexible approach.

    • Michael,

      I don’t distrust canon law or canon lawyers. One of my favorite theologians was a canon lawyer (Nicholas of Cusa). However, what happens is that many in the West look at canon law in the wrong way, ignoring the function of canons. I have already said there is the need for discipline — however, when dealing with said discipline, if one is trying to say “there is a hidden discipline we have all ignored” there really seems to be more going on, and it is not an issue of discipline but trying to create a discipline which the Church does not recognize. This kind of argumentation is exactly the same kind which led to all the Sabbath debates, and the kind which Jesus pointed out is erroneous. Canon law is not to be some sort of closed system where one goes deeper and deeper the water hole, finding more laws to impose on people — it is rather discipline to help the needs of the time and place, and to be followed by the spirit of the law (intention) not some imposed letter of the law.

      Again, I will point out — this is a peculiar interpretation of canons, not recognized/used by the Vatican, and being suggested as some sort of great “reform.” It is like someone saying “I found another thing we can’t do on the Sabbath.” This is not how discipline works. Nonetheless, if one wants to make the debate that it is necessary (despite other canons suggesting otherwise), one needs to do more work — one who plans to reform the Church and its practices must show proper knowledge of the Church’s own interpretation, able to show how it gets it, and then to show why something is left out. We really are not getting a proper engagement with the Church here.

  • Chris Sullivan

    A Canaon lawyer friend, who is also a married Permanent Deacon, sent me this interpretation of Canon Law:-

    As I understand the principles of the law – the prior claim of the rights of spouses arising from the sacrament of matrimony negates the requirement to continence if one of the partners of a marriage is an ordained deacon. Otherwise among other things, the conjugal rights of the wife are being denied when she has the prior claim. It is useful to note that a married deacon promises obedience to his ordinary not celibacy, whereas an unmarried deacon and a priest promise celibacy.

    In other words if a right or responsibility is declared to exist by virtue of the law it cannot be summarily removed without the agreement of the individual to whom that right or responsibility rightfully belongs. In canonical circles this is called the law of priviledge. A privilege is a concession given by the law or by other competent authority to a person or group of persons enabling the privileged person to do or not to do some thing. Canon 1135 states that “Each spouse has an equal duty and right to those things which belong to the partnership of conjugal life. ” Candidates for diaconal ordination who are married therefore already have the right to “things which belong to the partnership of conjugal life”.

    Privileges are divided into three types, personal, real and mixed. A privilege is personal if given to a person or group of persons. And while an individual who has been given a privilege individually is free to renounce it and the renunciation is effective when accepted by the competent authority. But if given by virtue of a dignity to a group of persons, individual members of the group are not free as individuals to renounce the privilege. Neither is anyone entitled to remove that priviledge. Canon 1336 tells us that to deprive one of his right, privilege or title is to inflict a penalty. At the same time canon 1342(2) forbids an ordinary perpetually to impose a penalty merely by administrative decree in a penal case. It follows that an ordinary cannot perpetually deprive a deacon who is married of the privilege of “things which belong to the partnership of conjugal life” by administrative process and he cannot be perpetually deprived of it by judicial process either. As I said before his wife has rights too and neither can she be deprived of them by the same token.

    God Bless

    • Naturally, I would disagree with much of the above. But I really can’t start repsonding to “I have a friend who told me this” kind of posts. May I suggest that you and your friend read the original article? It’s all in there.

  • Liam

    Perhaps there was a deliberate decision in 1982 NOT to resolve the tension. I suggest Romans have a great deal more comfort with a discrepancy between legal ideal and reality than Americans and Northern Europeans do. (I can imagine the canonical advisors at the time seeing that resolving the tension too clearly might lead to unforseen undesirable consequences, so they may have done that classic Roman thing of leaving things in tension. Americans are horrified. Romans shrug and smile; what can you do?)

    As a practical matter of canon law, that puts the law under the shadow of doubt.

    * * *

    Canon law does not operate in a reality vacuum. It’s a means to an end, not the end.

  • This is ridiculous, as you say.

    I mean, I could see some argument that the tradition should be restored whereby deacons and priests with wives should abstain the night before celebrating Sunday Mass or whatever.

    But the argument does seem to be, as you say, a Josiah moment. As if it’s in canon law and therefore must be followed or enforced.

    Even though the Vatican and bishops haven’t been pushing this line. It is, at worst, sloppy wording (I’m pretty sure, by context, it was only meant to refer to celibate clerics). But the fact is, the Vatican clearly hasn’t been interpreting it the way Mr Peters is arguing it “should be interpreted…and it is the Supreme Legislator who gets to determine interpretation, not Ed Peters.

    He acts like he’s found some “lost precept” of canon law that is obligatory to follow or for the Vatican to enforce…except, no one else in the world understands it that way, and they have been allowing the other to work in practice.

    At most, this will simply lead to a clarification or rewording of the canon to conform better to the (now) customary practice regarding married clerics. Not actually trying to enforce his bizarre interpretation (which, as you say, does seem to have a weird agenda behind it).

    • brettsalkeld

      Quick, someone note the date. On this day, David Nickol, A Sinner and me seem to be in complete agreement! I don’t know that this will happen again this side of the eschaton!

      • Kyle R. Cupp


      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Oh yea of little faith! Having read your skirmishes, I am sure all three of you agree much more than you disagree: you all just have too much fun arguing! 🙂

    • Kurt

      Siiner, you have hit the nail on the head.

      This is as if some canonist discovered that an M.Div. degree did not canonically satisfy teh educational requirements for priestly ministry. So every priest without further education is suddenly to return to school?

      The biggest revelation here is that certain elements of the Latin Church have not accepted married deacons and are seeking to revert to the previous practice, if not end the idea of a stable diaconal ministry all together.

      Also, if I were an Eastern Catholic, I would be very nervous about this element.

      • Kurt,

        It does concern me as a Byzantine, because, on the one hand, the discussion begins with a universal declaration, then say “well, of course not the East” then ends with some “but who says the East is right?” comment. It is the kind of thing which the East has experienced many times before. As I said, it sort of reminds me of the debates around 1054 — “a priest can’t have a beard!”

        Of course, I think there is more going on here. I find this to be another example of the inordinate interest in all things sexual.

        • Kurt


          Yes, when you start asking the question about the East or West being “right,” the discussion is already wrong.

          I do my best to avoid saying ‘Eastern rites’ as if there is nothing notable to the Eastern churches other than their ritual patrimony. You have your distinct canons, governance, disciplines, theology and pastoral discernments.

          I am quite comfortable with the Latin discipline of a celibate priesthood and the Eastern churches with their own discipline. There is no “right” and “wrong” other than each particular church trying to do what is best for the pastoral care of souls based on their own patrimony, community and pastoral discernments.

          Unfortunately, I fear some feel they have found the opportunity to reimpose diaconal celibacy with the hope of ending the experiment of deacons with a stable ministry.

          • Kurt,

            Well, I do think there are elements the East have learned which the West needs to learn, and her history with married clergy is one, especially in this instance. It has been able to get to a better understanding of sexuality, a healthier one, imo, and this is what is lacking and causes problems in the West.

            I really have no problem with the Latin discipline, in and of itself, for priests (though when there are married converts who become priests, I think we must understand dispensations go a long way). I do think, however, we are seeing something odd with the issue of deacons. It is also I think, coming from a view of the deacon which runs counter to the Eastern intuition of the diaconate ministry. I think a real solid look at deacons, in the universal sense, will help.

  • Thales

    I’m not a canon lawyer, and I haven’t really looked into the merits of this debate, but here a few thoughts off the top of my head.

    First, this debate is not about whether theologically, men in holy orders can marry and have marital relations or not. Obviously they can: see priests in the Eastern Church. The debate is whether current Western canon law suggests abstaining from marital relations for married deacons. It’s not a strange suggestion, considering that in the Western Church, other men with holy orders are celibate.

    Henry, I understand that as a Eastern Catholic, you feel strongly about the traditions of the Eastern Church and probably resent marginalization of the Eastern Church. But I don’t understand why you seem to be so vehement in this particular debate. The Western Church has a tradition of celibacy for priests. There are good arguments for why that Western tradition is a good one, without denigrating the different tradition in the East. So, in the Western Church, if there is good reason to have celibate priests, it doesn’t seem to me to be too strange to suggest that those taking on the sacrament of holy orders in other situations (ie, the diaconate) should also abstain from marital relations. After all, there is also a tradition permitting Josephite marriages in the Western Church (not sure about the Eastern Church).

    Having said that, I’m okay with the notion of married deacons having marital relations (as I said above, there is nothing wrong theologically with that, or with married priests). But I don’t know why it’s outrageous to contemplate the notion of married men (who, by canon law, can only become deacons later in their life than unmarried men) abstaining from marital relations if they receive the sacrament of holy orders, when other men receiving the sacrament of holy orders have to take vows of celibacy.

    The bottom line, however, is that if canon law is unclear on this topic, it benefits everyone for it to be clarified.

    • Of course the Church has the authority to say whether or not deacons should be celibate. What is outrageous is the suggestion that all married deacons and priests should stop having sex with their wives because one guy has an interpretation of canon law that nobody else agrees with. It doesn’t fit with the claims the Catholic Church makes about its authority to imagine that the pope and all the bishops have overlooked a provision in canon law that would require “continence” of all married deacons and priests. I am not a canon lawyer, but I know silliness when I see it.

      • Thales

        Yes, that’s silly and outrageous. Fortunately, no one that I know has advocated that.

  • brettsalkeld

    Does anyone know if any canon lawyers responded to the original piece back in ’05? Is this blogosphere bomb an attempt to get some play for an idea that no qualified professional reading Studia Canonica considered worth his or her time?

  • Kimberley


    You know it is possible to engage another Christian’s idea via your blog post without using the word farce about six times. Mocking tones, attributing sinister motives and personal attack make for a poor argument and a poor post. Attack the arguemnt or idea, not the person. Why not take the high road even if you think your opponent has ulterior motives.

    For the record I don’t believe the argument. Cardinal Burke the chief canonist in the Church ordained about a hundred Permanent Deacons. I doubt he would have done so if there were issue. But I do respect the person making the argument for what he believes is an issue with Canon Law.

    • Kimberley,

      Looking at many of the comments you leave on VN, I just want to ask — say what? Seriously.

      However, to explain the reason why I call this a farce, I am not saying it is an intended farce, but rather, the farce is what happens with this kind of methodology. So much has been lacking in the canonical discussion, and the fact that Peters does not want to engage the overarching issues is itself indicative of the problem. The Church, in the production of her canons, is interested in Scripture, tradition, and reason and how they apply to a given canonical discussion.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Rather than prepare for class, I have taken a (perhaps unhealthy) interest in this question and have been scouring the internet for more information and perspective. Here are a few thoughts and bits of information in no particular order:

    1) Dr. Peters has been very busy responding to various posts about his article, and he is more than a bit touchy to criticism. Now part of this may be that a lot of the “shoot from the hip” responses really do miss (or ignore) some of the subtleties of his very long and scholarly article. In particular, he has never asserted (and indeed makes clear in a later post that he is not asserting) that married deacon must immediately abstain from sex with their wives. On the other hand, he seems to me to be a bit too quick to take offense. For example, regarding Martens, whom he excoriates above: on the America blog Martens has acknowledged that he misquoted Peters, apologized and revised his original post.

    2) For Peters, this is all about Canon law. He acknowledges that in the end this is a matter of theology, and the law can and should reflect theological understanding, but the tenor of his comments strongly implies (to me) that he believes the canons reflect a correct theological understanding of scripture and tradition and should be observed.

    3) For him and for others, this seems to be closely tied to married priests, particularly those arriving from the Anglican church. See the quote I made above.

    4) A semi-close reading of Dr. Peter’s original article suggests that he underplays the role of actual practice in interpreting the law. He does address this (whence the “30 year time limit” which got mentioned somewhere) but as a canonist he seems to want to favor the written law over the practice, primarily discussing canonical impediments to accepting practice over the text. (See Section 4 of his article.

    5) Current practice is acknowledged in the Catechism:

    1579 All the ordained ministers of the Latin Church, with the exception of permanent deacons, are normally chosen from among men of faith who live a celibate life and who intend to remain celibate “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.”

    While not part of canon law, this would seem to be an authoritative theological statement. Dr. Peters responds to this here but his argument seems to reduce to “why should, in any given instance, the Catechism trump Canon Law?” Note that this blog post is a couple years old, so this is not a new debate. Note also that he elsewhere makes the same argument vis-a-vis the differences between Eastern and Western practice.) If he discusses this more carefully elsewhere, I would be interested in seeing his argument.

    6) The USCCB has made it clear that it does not believe married deacons are supposed to be continent. There is a long passage from National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons quoted here comment #34.

    7) If various blogs are to be believed, both the USCCB and the Vatican have been contacted with requests for authoritative statements.

    8) I have not been able to find a scholarly response to the original 2005 article. There can be lots of reasons for this, so I am not going to read into the silence. I am handicapped in my search because I am at a secular institution, and our library does not have subscriptions to Studia Canonica and the like. If anyone else can bring forward some recent articles on this subject, I would be grateful.

    • brettsalkeld

      He does seem a bit touchy. My initial comments were a little sarcastic, so I am not totally innocent, but I thought the accusations against me were stronger than warranted.

      On the other hand, he is probably stressed right out. I know that when I’ve got an active controversial thread going here at VN, I’m on edge. He’s got an active controversial thread all over the whole internet. I got the vibe, in his response to me, that he was exasperated, and not just with me.

      That said, it is hard to imagine just what was expected when Thomas dropped this on us. Nodding acquiescence? I thought the weirdest thing in Thomas’s original post was the “Fair warning: the argument is air-tight.” Isn’t that for others to decide? I think there was some naivety going on here.

  • I think it’s nice to see someone taking Church teaching seriously. We should avoid legalism but take serious the law the Church sets out for us – it is, after all, intended to help us towards Heaven.

  • The Congregation for the Clergy document, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons, speaks of integrating the various elements of marriage into the life of a married deacon, including marriage as “a source of new life”. The same document describes a married deacon as called to “the practice of a certain continence,” whereas, by comparison, the widowed deacon is called to live “perfect and perpetual continence.”

    Peters interpretation of Canon 1031 n. 2, such that the wife’s consent is to perfect and perpetual continence, is contradicted by that same document, as well as by an address of Pope John Paul II: The Heart of the Diaconate (1987).

    More on these points.

    • Ronconte, check your sources. You are confusing two documents. Others might like to know that I discussed the phrase “a certain contience” and the document whence it actually sprang, at pp. 172-174 of my Studia article.

      Second, ronconte, where in JP2’s address does he mention clerical continence, or conjugal relations, or sex, anything else having remotely to do with our question? If he never even mentions the topic, how can you, with any fairness, claim that it contradicts me?

      • Allow me to correct myself! Ronconte can find the passages he cites in Cong Clergy DMLPN. I apologize for implying otherwise. That key identical phrase, though, is found in the canonically more significant 1998 document that I discussed in the Studia article, and my observations there apply with even more force to the document Ronconte cites.

        • On the second point, JP2’s address states: “So intimate is their partnership and unity in the sacrament of marriage, that the Church fittingly requires the wife’s consent before her husband can be ordained a permanent deacon (Can. 1031 §2).” He views her consent as pertaining to ordination, not to continence.

          The USCCB National Directory has a similar view: “The Church has determined that a married man cannot
          be considered for the diaconate without the consent of his wife.[49]” (Footnote 49 chapter 3 references Can. 1031, n. 2) The consent of the wife again pertains to his consideration for ordination, not to continence.

          Therefore, those sources contradict you on the particular point of the meaning of the wife’s consent in Can. 1031 n. 2 [Studia article 1.5 – Spousal Consent).

          Furthermore, your interpretation of that Canon implies a restriction to marital rights. But Can. 18 requires any Canon restricting a right be interpreted strictly. We cannot infer that a right has been restricted by a Canon, when such restriction is not stated explicitly.

          • ronconte. What can I sat? I expressly dealt with the proper object of the wive’s consent in the Studia article. You either haven’t read it, or refuse to discuss it. I also expressly dealt with your canon 18 argument over at Deacons Today. Again, you either haven’t read it, or you choose to ignore my reply. Either way, this ‘exchange’ is pointless. Best, edp.

  • Thoughtful remarks, David Cruz-Uribe, SFO. Let me make few comments in the order you do.

    1. Except, let me deal with neuralgic no. 1 (Martens) lastly.

    2. My argument is about canon law. I do believe, having read the theologians listed in fn. 1 of the Studia article, and those listed on the webpage wherein Introduced the Studia article,, that there is a substantial theological foundation for the canons,–no secret there– but I do not make that theological case for the simple reason that it is beyond my area of expertise.

    3. I do believe that the case for presbyteral continence is even stronger than it already is for deacons, but I have said nothing about the Anglicans as they fall under their own apostolic constitution, itself probably the result of lengthy discussions to which I am not privy. I might comment on Anglicanorum coetibus later, but, for now, besides stating that the canonical continence arguments I made for deacons are at least as relevant to priests, I’ve not addressed the particular situation of Anglicans.

    4. For many reasons, canon law strongly favors written rules over custom. Like it or not (and as a common lawyer, I think there are draw-backs to the civilian methodology), that is the system the Church uses. I do mention the custom rule of 30 years, but only briefly, because I do not think that the facts of this case will satisfy the other requirements for custom, but that’s yet another article, I suppose.

    5. Your appeal to the CCC is interesting (but typical of many of the objections raised to my thesis) in that you imply that I do not recognize it’s authority. Of course I do, it is a part of the universal magisterium of the Church and should inform our reading of law. But, you do not see that CCC 1579 only addresses celibacy, not continence. I’ve read cc. 1031 and 1042 so I know that celibacy is not a universal expectation of clerics. Thus far, the CCC goes too. But where does the CCC lift the expectation of continence? Nowhere, of course, and those who claim it does must read that exemption into the text. Which methodology I challenge, whether the text is theological, or canonical. Pure and simple.

    6. The USCCB has much fine material available on the diaconate, but it has no authority to modify universal legislation in this area (i.e., c. 277) nor, for that matter, does it enjoy immunity from falling into the same (mistaken, I have argued) assumptions regarding clerical continence that almost everyone else has fallen into since the early 1970s.

    7. Maybe so. I wouldn’t know.

    8. Though this point has nothing to do with my thesis, it’s personally interesting to me, and I have a few words to say as you seem to be an academic. In the blogosphere, where news goes global in minutes, and five days is a lifetime, five YEARS of (alleged) silence to an academic article must seem an eternity. Not so, people, not so. But, you have to be here to see that.

    You correctly note that there might be several reasons for ‘silence’ (assuming it is remarkable at all). Here’s one, the simple fact that in the very small world of canonistics (as compared to other scholarly disciplines) other people have their own interests and projects to work on! May I humbly suggest another reason: that, as a canonical matter, there simply are no holes in the argument, and that few profs bother to write an article that says ‘that other article is right’. Time will tell.

    But I question whether the claim that my work has ‘met with silence’ is even true in the first place. If you go to the webpage where this all introduced, you will see listed there a doctoral dissertation on this exact topic, published at CUA in 2010, in which my thesis is heavily cited and examined. Hmmm, a dissertation written, defended, and published within five years of the provoking article appearing? That, folks, is near the speed of light in ecclesiastical academe.

    Now, about no. 1.

    I have been busy responding to posts, but only insofar as my position is being distorted or, in few cases, where the common good of understanding is especially harmed by a plausible but wrong assertion about orders or canon law. I largely ignore folks who think I don’t understand marriage. Even in these bounds, I cannot get to all of them. I have not needed to, however, respond to any substantial canonical critiques of my argument, because there have been none. None.

    Martens’ essay is special case.

    First, he did not simply “misquote” me. He did not accidently leave out a “not”, or drop a qualifying parenthetical from one of my remarks. He fabricated a lengthy, and in fact quite erroneous, quotation, expressly attributed it to me, and then used his fake quote to accuse me of academic dishonesty or slovenly arguments before the readership of America magazine on-line. I read Martens’ stunt with genuine disbelief, and I responded on my blog.

    When Martens did remove the fraudulent quotation from his essay, he did so, he says, because he couldn’t “verify” that I made the claim, and, we may assume, his scruples for academic integrity don’t permit him to use against opponents quotations that he can’t “verify”. What can I say? I posted a searchable PDF of the article, and Martens can’t “verify” that I said XYZ? How about verifying that I NEVER said anything remotely like XYZ, and I consequently innocent of all the accusations made in its wake? I think he can verify that. And should, expressly.

    Around this fraud, moreover, Martens spends most of time criticizing me for NOT writing a Biblical essay on marriage (though my whole point was to write a canonical article on holy orders), and engaging in ad hominen attacks on my motives, my fears, my troubles, my desire to be an Old Testament high priest, etc, etc.. All of which canards remain posted. And not on some com-box where many such posts have been made, but at the America magazine website.

    And I’m the bad guy for complaining vigorously about this treatment?

    Well, anyway, DC-U, thank you for providing a thoughtful post. I hope I’ve responded in kind.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Dr. Peters,

    some comments on your comments, though I will dispense with the enumeration system.

    Yes, I am an academic, though in a very different field. As I noted, I don’t have access to the specialized scholarly resources that a seminary would have, so I could not do anything as simple as check the TOC of Studia Canonica for follow up articles. (I missed the reference to the thesis on your page.) In the fields I am familiar with five years is a fairly long time, but I also know how much fields vary, so that is why I explicitly did not make any claims from silence: claiming your argument is irrefutable is one possibility, but there are others and I don’t want to guess what is in the minds of canonists. (I can barely guess what is in the minds of colleagues in my own field!) For what it is worth, I ran across one claim by a deacon that canonists had told him they discounted your argument, but there were no details so this does not constitute much of an argument.

    As for the Catechism, I never implied that you do not recognize its authority. I merely noted that in my reading of the CCC it appeared that current practice is reflected there. The text of the CCC does distinguish between celibacy and continence in other locations, but not here, even when talking about the Eastern rite in the next paragraph. I draw no substantial conclusions from this except that the text is consonant with practice.

    The same is true for the USCCB document: whether or not they can authoritatively abrogate canon 277, they act, in what for them is an authoritative document, as though it did not apply.

    Overall, I personally find this argument from practice to be convincing: you argue X, but if every bishop and Vatican congregation either says “not X” or says nothing but acts as though “not X” were true, then I think I have reasons to doubt X. Granted, this is not an argument from canon law (which you are making) but given the wider context in which this otherwise theoretical debate is occurring, this seems to be a reasonable frame for viewing this question.

    • Fair enough. There is, strictly speaking, little in this reply with which I would disgaree. For the rest, well, we’ll see. Kind regards, edp.

  • wj

    I think that we should all just take a deep breath and relax. Ed Peters is a professional canonist making a controversial argument that first appeared in a professional journal. There is nothing the matter with this, and there is no need to question the motivations of the Elder Peters in writing his article. Indeed, questioning those motives is beside the point, as, whatever his motivations, his argument is persuasive or it is not, regardless of *why* he chose to write it.

    I think that it is likely that Peters has hit upon a slight contradiction between text and practice, one that will eventually be addressed in such a way as to retain the practice that has developed over the past two decades by making a small alteration in the language of the canon in question. In academia this is a big deal, and he is clever to have seen it, but I doubt that his pointing out this discrepancy with have the effect of changing the current practice.

    But there’s really no need to get so upset about this issue. And it’s wrong to conflate Ed Peter’s professional article with his son’s drawing attention to that article on a blog, for all the reasons that Peters himself suggests.

    • WJ

      Ed Peters also brought attention to the article, it was not just Thomas. It would be fine if, as you said, he was merely making an academic point which will allow for a correction in how the canons are written to reflect the intent as shown by the practice already being followed. This is not what we get. And, I think some of the questions I ask are very relevant, when it becomes more than a mere academic interest. There has to be a reason why his interpretation is not what the Vatican sees from it, and I think, it is quite important for one not to place too much importance in one’s own reading when it counters the way the Vatican puts the canon in practice. It can be done in an academic point, but as I said, even then more work needs to be done: one must do what one can to understand the Vatican’s interpretation, show one has such an understanding, and then explain why it is insufficient. Without doing that I find my other concerns valid.

    • wj,

      If controversial arguments didn’t cause controversy, they wouldn’t be controversial!

    • Thanks WJ. I appreciate your points. I would say, though, that it is not a “slight contradiction”, (except perhaps in that the contradiction could be remedied in the law with a few words, but that is not really the measure of “slight”, is it?). It is a major discrepancy betwen history and law on one side, and very recent assumptions and praxis on the other. There are, as far as I can, only four ways it can play out:

      • Melody

        Dr. Peters; I am getting that you felt that bringing this issue into the limelight was your duty as a canon lawyer, and I respect that. And you are perhaps a bit surprised at the level of negative reaction you have received. However please understand it from our point of view (I am speaking here of deacon couples). It has thrust the intimate details of our lives into the arena of public discussion in a way that most of us would not have preferred. Given that the average age of deacons in the US is in the upper 50’s, we are not talking about the most sexually active segment of the population in the first place. It’s the principal of the thing. We are sacramentally married. In a way it seems like we are being put on the same level as a couple of dumb college kids who don’t see anything wrong with shacking up. It will now be up to the pope to resolve this situation, because he is the only person who can.

        • Hi Melody. I am not surprised at all. As a lawyer and a blogger, I am aware of how much confusion there is about many things that require sustained thought. Your other points are either addressed in the article, or are correct, in my view. Regards, edp.

  • I was not aware that HK was Eastern Rite. He, well everyone, might appreciate Roman Cholij’s essay “Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church”, at It actually has quite a bit to say about continence.

  • jh

    I have to say I think Dr Peters has sort of got pummeled a little all over the place. However Lawyers are used to that and I suspect he can take it.

    There is a tad of a little anti Lawyer feeling that is amusing to watch that has entered all these debates here and there.

    Dr Peters seems to be the bearer of bad news and is pointing out something that needs to be corrected.

    I was educated in Code Civil Law System. Some things are similar and different between lets say the Canon Code of Louisiana (which really has more Spanish influence than French which is important as to Canon Law) and the Canon Law we have in the Catholic Church.

    However and I think this is missed is that Canon Law is not some dry legalism (as I see that term thrown about). It has within it the experience the Church, tradition, custom, and of course is based on scripture.

    Also to some degree like a well done Civil Code it has a flow and a coherence. I think Dr Peters recognized we have a problem.

    I think Dr Peters set out his case and then offered his 4 alternatives. I think it is clear there needs to be clarification to the Law. Lets recall the Law is a teacher and it does represent our values, and our teaching.

    I don’t think Dr Peters has alternative motives. From what I can tell from the various discussions people realize there is a problem with how the Law reads. I suspect but I don’t know that perhaps Dr Peters felt after discussing this for years in the academy it was time to open this up.

    I think we have been better for it

    • JH.

      A few things. On the one hand, you are saying we shouldn’t think people have motives which influence them when dealing with the law, but on the other hand, you are saying people who find this whole presentation problematic have an anti-lawyer feeling. Now, let’s start with that.

      I have no anti-lawyer feeling. My father was a law professor, my sister is a lawyer. I respect lawyers. I have friends who are lawyers.

      As for the sense that something is not right, I’ve indicated several of the problems, but the #1 that needs to be dealt with, and is always side-lined, is : why doesn’t the Church in her practice read the canons the same way? This really is important, especially in regards to canon law. The context is the spirit of the law, what did the Church intend the law to mean? As some have pointed out, it could be that the law was poorly put down, which leads to the confusion. That is fine. However, when someone begins to suggest that there is something purposefully ignored, and hints this connects to “Josiah,” then I think someone is taking the law for more than its purpose. This again leads to prior considerations, which will also leads to why someone will interpret the law differently from the way the Church does. Legalism seeks the word of the law, and makes all kinds of restrictions due to the word of the law (what is “work”, and what can we do on the Sabbath is a classical example of this). This is the real issue. It reminds me of the Jansenists insisting their interpretation of Augustine is rock solid, and so their views must be true. The problem was, however, they were going at Augustine wrong from the get go! The interpretive scheme is often ignored by people who have not been trained in hermeneutics.

  • HK. Can you not see that your approach is to talk about nearly everything except the one question that is relevant, namely, Does c. 277 call for continence among married clerics, or not? Is my argument correct or not?

    The closest you come is to voice the common pitfall of debate, the petitio principiis, whereby you assume what you set out to prove. Example from above, you write “This again leads to prior considerations, which will also leads to why someone will interpret the law differently from the way the Church does.”

    You have ASSUMED that I interpret the law differently than the Church does. I have argued that is NOT what I am doing, and you simply don’t engage that argument. Even now.

    I readily grant that how the law is applied (or here, not applied) might differ from how it is interpreted, but you have made no response other than “how the law is applied is how it should be interpreted.”

    I disagree, and gave reasons.

    • You are often assuming your interpretative scheme is the only one, and you fail to do what I have told you that you would need to do: explain why the Church’s position differs from you. If you want to prove you have a superior interpretation than the Church, and if you want an honest discussion of the canon, you would explain different interpretations and show how and why people get to them. This is a basic aspect of scholarly work, and what you still fail to do. The Church does not interpret the canon as you do — why not? What is the hermeneutical difference between your interpretation and the Church’s in its praxis, and why is yours better here? Until then, all you are doing is similar to someone who take a text of Scripture, and demand one interpretation from it and say “this is what it says, so it’s rock solid.” You have yet to give the full argument, which is what I have told you that you need to do, for someone to be able to see if your argument is correct or not. And this includes questions of interpretation of key words, and how others interpret them. Since you still have not done this, the question remains, why? And you have pointed out in your other texts, it is not just “this is what I think the canons means,” but also, “this is also the best and what we should strive for.” The second I find more interesting, especially in light of your lack of examining other interpretations. The fact that the Church in her praxis does not demand what you demand, you can say all you want that your way is the Church’s way, but you have not demonstrated it by merely saying it. The praxis of the Church says otherwise. People have shown documents which accept marital relations for married deacons, and your response is “well, they are ignoring the canon.” Sorry, that isn’t a proper response — you are assuming authorities are ignoring if they don’t come to your conclusion, but that, again, is not a good argument. You have yet to display the full argument, and your position being more than “this is the canon” but “this is what is best” serves to explain the hermeneutical lens you use to interpret the text. As I said, the fact that you fail to address a wider context, and other interpretations, and showing any understanding of them, shows the problem is of hermeneutics, and this is not how one goes forward with scholarly arguments; it is how one goes forward with ideology. You assume what you set out what you believe is best, and you are unwilling to look deeper than the forced interpretation that you give.

      • Okay, HK, well, you keep doing what I say you shouldn’t, and I apparently keeping avoiding what you say I shouldn’t, so, we’re just talking past each other here. Best, edp.

  • Thales

    Here’s something to keep in mind, regardless of the Peters debate over married deacons: In the Western Church, the norm for a man in the permanent diaconate is celibacy. Celibacy is the norm when it comes to a man ordained to any level of holy orders. And the Western Church sees celibacy to be a good thing.

    Now, this is not to say that men in holy orders can’t be also married and have marital relations: consider the exception for Latin Rite priests who were married Anglican priests before they converted and were ordained to the Catholic priesthood.

    Now consider the vocation for the permanent diaconate. In the Western Church, normally celibacy is required for ordination to the permanent diaconate. There is, however, an exception: for men who were married before they were ordained to the diaconate.

    So the notion of celibacy and the vocation of permanent deacon shouldn’t be a shock to our sensibilities.

    Now back to the Peters debate.

    • Thales

      The reason why this developed in the West is that the diaconate itself was slowly misunderstood and turned into a stage for priesthood. If one is going to be a celibate deacon, why not be a priest?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thales, I am not sure what you mean when you say “the norm for a man in the permanent deaconate is celibacy.” There was a historical phase in which deacons were celibate or continent, but the very ministry of permanent deaconate faded during the late patristic period and disappeared some time during the middle ages.

      The current history of the permanent deacon began only after Vatican II, and the norm (in the sense of near universal practice) is that permanent deacons are married men (and so not celibate) who continue to have sexual relations with their wives (and so are not continent).

      Now it is fair to argue that this is a departure from past practice, but given the historical gap between the two phases one has to make an argument for imposing previous norms on current praxis.

      • Thales


        Because I think most of us here recognize, regardless of what side the debate we’re on, that the permanent diaconate without becoming a priest can be a vocation for a man. Just as there exists the vocations of professed brother, or monk, or lay person with a vow of celibacy… there are plenty of vocations where one takes the vow of celibacy, but one doesn’t become a priest.


        I said “the norm for a man in the permanent deaconate is celibacy” because, assuming that the permanent diaconate is a vocation distinct from the priesthood:
        -if a man is not married, and he wishes to become a permanent deacon, he has to take a vow of celibacy; and
        -if a man is married, and becomes a permanent deacon, and then his wife dies, he can’t marry again but must resign himself to a life of celibacy.

        Of course, by numbers, I would guess that most permanent deacons are also married, and so in a sense, married permanent deacons are “normal.” I’m not disputing that. I was just making the point that it appears to me that the norm for a man who wants to be a permanent deacon is to be celibate, just as it is for a man who wants to be a priest, with the exception being for a man who is first married and then later discerns a vocation of being a permanent deacon.

        I don’t have any knowledge of the history of the diaconate, so I can’t comment on that.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Ed Peters IS interpreting Can 277 outside the mind of the Church, which is expressed by Vatican II, the official Vatican diaconate documents, the guidance of the Congregation for Clergy and the practice of all the bishops NOT to require perfect continence from married deacons.

    Vatican II taught:-

    Indeed, it (perfect and perpetual continence) is not demanded by the very nature of the priesthood, as is apparent from the practice of the early Church and from the traditions of the Eastern Churches. where, besides those who with all the bishops, by a gift of grace, choose to observe celibacy, there are also married priests of highest merit.


    God Bless

    • Chris

      I think one of the chief problems is he has not learned too well to think hermeneutically and so he, like so many, assumes the way he reads words is the way the words are meant to be read. So, when you define words, you can come to conclusions based upon your definitions, though they could be the wrong conclusion if one is ignoring the possible semantic range included in a given word.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    There is a bit more scholarship which needs to be considered. It is the thesis of Anthony McLaughlin (2010) that Dr. Peters referred to above. It is exhaustive in its references and analysis not just of church documents, but it manages to duck making any conclusions. However, for our purposes (and to get back to what Henry has said) it does try to lay out the arguments for and against interpreting Canon 277 to impose continence on married deacons. (See the final chapter and the discussion of the “celibate” and “continent” schools.

  • I’m inclined to give Dr Peter’s claim or claims a warm welcome but am interested by the entire comment thread (and, frankly, am commenting so that I can be e.mail-notified of new comments).

    • (And, for those who use Twitter, I am trying to keep up with links to articles, posts etc touching this subject at the perhaps inaptly styled #deaconscontroversy, and would encourage others to add items, particularly those that are critical of the Peters claims. In the freedom of my old age, I tend to read what agrees with me and avoid what doesn’t.)

  • Jimmy Mac

    The more time I spend in Catholicism (70 years now) the more I find that way too many would have it become more of a bizarre cult than it already is!