Sunday, January 16, 2011

Canonist: Permanent Deacons must be celibate too

Prepare to hear a public hue and cry about this.

I remember hearing from a Supernumerary in Opus Dei years ago that they don't use permanent deacons, because the position, as it is widely understood and practiced today, may have elements of irregularity about it. One thing I remember reading, when I got a copy of the original article by Ed Peters, a leading canon lawyer who works for the Vatican as well as Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, is that the term "permanent," which seems intended to qualify the deaconate in some way in the case of later vocations among often married men, is itself problematic. Deacons who are called "permanent," says Peters, are simply deacons.

I have had it in my mind to post an article on Peters' thesis for some time, but he and the ever productive members of his dynasty have saved me the trouble by putting the original article and a couple of other resources online. Here they are:In his summary of his article, Dr. Ed Peters writes
I first posted reference to my Studia Canonica (2005) article on Canon 277 and clerical continence after it was brought up in a debate in Homiletic and Pastoral Review. Since that time I have received many requests for copies of the Studia article, to which requests I replied as best I could. Now, with the kind permission of the editors at Studia, I can make a searchable PDF version of the article available, above.
The most substantive paragraph in Peters' summary is the following
The thesis of my Studia article (namely, that all clerics in the West, even those married, are canonically obligated to observe perfect and perpetual continence) has, for obvious reasons, provoked commentary, some of it public, some of it private, some of it by professionals, some of it by amateurs. I cannot monitor, let alone respond to, all discussions of this topic, and must therefore let the arguments made in Studia stand or fall on their own merits. But I will say this much: I believe that my interpretation of the clerical obligation of continence as set out chiefly in Canon 277 § 1 is persuasive; nothing I have seen over the last five years has caused me to think otherwise.
As Thomas (not Dr. Ed) Peter's states: "fair warning: the argument is air tight."

Update[Hat tip to Catherine Peters]


Anonymous said...

Well, thankfully this is only a canonical issue, which means that it can be changed. Frankly, the admittance of married persons to orders is a tacit acceptance of sex in marriage. However, for the life of me, I don't get the point of following such a line of thought. The Orthodox ordain married men as young as 21, so I mean, "What's the point?!"

papabear said...

Hrm! Thanks for posting this!

Pertinacious Papist said...


The point is a very important one, and it can't be understood, if you're out of the loop on this one (any more Catholic teaching against contraception) in one simple, 25-word answer.

Some random questions to ask yourself. Even among the Orthodox married men who are ordained priests as early as 21, as you reference, are not permitted to re-marry if their wives die, and Orthodox priests are not typically elevated to the episcopate if they are married. Why do you think this is?

Our contemporary Catholic culture, just like our overly-sexually-indulgent contemporary social milieu, has largely lost its patrimony of a theology of asceticism and its vital relationship to spiritual purgation and growth in sanctity. Even among married laity, there has been in Catholic tradition, just as in Jewish tradition, periods of sexual abstinence for the sake of spiritual sanctity. I know this sounds insane in today's world. So much the worse for today's world. I wonder if we would not have had such priestly sexual scandal in the Catholic Church if laity were also "fasting" sexually periodically for the sake of their spiritual growth.

A good place to start on celibacy is Christian Cochini's Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy(Ignatius, 1990), which is probably unsurpassed. Ignace de la Potterie, "The biblical foundation of priestly celibacy" (Vatican website), is also a start.

Pertinacious Papist said...

I'm glad to see this issue raised by Dr. Peters, since it's one of those many issues in the last 40 years of which a key attribute seems to be ineluctable ambiguity -- "Permanent deacons," along with "Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion," and a host of other questions on which there are conflicting signals.

JM said...

"ineluctable ambiguity." Amen and amen. It is all of the same ilk as Karl Rahner's opaque prose, and the qualifications ad infinitum which are part and parcel of the negative side of the Vatican II inheritance. Deacons are a much a part of the problem as the solution. Why be a priest if you can be a married deacon? Based on the numbers, it is quite obv. which one is more atractive, right? Reminds me of short-term missionaries, which have helped snuff out the idea of lifetime missionaries.

Mercury said...

I understand the idea of "fasting" from sexual relations, as in giving up something good for a time as an exercise of self-control.

But didn't a lot of the literature of the Early Church all but say that married people should "grow out of" sexual relations if they aspired to holiness at all? Wasn't it indicated that the married should "aim for" total continence? Yet almost no spiritual director alive today would push for that (quit the contrary, even).

I somehow see a disconnect between the modern theology of sex and marriage and the ancient theology and practice. We tend to see the marital act as an unequivocally good and virtuous thing, whereas many of the Fathers seemed to see it as something tolerable due to moral weakness.

As someone who suffers from scruples, the whole issue makes me nervous - can sexuality be concurrent with sanctity? Recent popes, Fr. John Hardon & other holy priest/theologians, and any orthodox moral theologian would say 'yes', but it seems that historical church practice says 'no'. Any thoughts? Sometimes I feel like a man does something wrong by enjoying sexual relations with his wife into old age.

Mercury said...

I guess what I mean is, there's been a lot of development on the meaning of the marital act. "The less frequently, the better" is nothing I've seen in any marriage manual, pre- or post-Council.

I try to understand the idea, but I can't help but coming to the conclusion that the marital embrace is somehow "impure".

Anonymous said...

It's a canonical issue, not a theological one; the law can be changed, while doctrine cannot. To get into a tizzie about the possible implications of this canon is simply preposterous and silly.

Jordanes551 said...

Frankly, the admittance of married persons to orders is a tacit acceptance of sex in marriage.

Rubbish. In the past, it was required that married bishops abstain from conjugal relations. Just because a clergyman is married, that doesn't mean the Church is tacitly accepting "sexually active' married clergy.

Pertinacious Papist said...

The experts to consult here would be a canon lawyer like Dr. Peters, as well as an ethicist like Dr. Janet Smith. From my admittedly limited reading on these subjects, however (and others more knowledgeable should freely correct me where I misstep), a more careful reading of at least parts of John Paul II's writings on the subject will show that he reflects the theological tradition of St. Thomas on such vices as lust within the marriage bed. Some of you may recall that "wife-rape" is for St. Thomas a sin that ranks up there somewhere with adultery. JPII is more subtle (less explicit), but he stresses that even within the marriage bed, spouses are not to regard one another as means to the satisfaction of their own sexual desires. Human beings are to be treated as ends-in-themselves, he says, echoing Kant (who is clearly as right on this issue as he is wrong in his other statements about marriage). I think most people today, following Martin Luther, would have a hard time distinguishing between sexual desire ordered to its proper end (subordinated to treating the other as an end) and mere "lust." Luther's writings are full of conflations of the two. Here I think that at least the common inferences drawn from Christopher West's interpretations of JPII's "theology of the body" feed this sort of confusion (but Dr. Smith may correct me if she believes I'm wrong). Ever since Griswold vs. Connecticut (1965) legalized widespread contraception, it seems to me that the subsequent culture of recreational sex has created a consummately distorted understanding of the parental act.

Anonymous said...

The issue is still just a canonical one at heart; it has no bearing on doctrine. If it is canonical, it can be changed, simple as that. My frustration with arguments such as Dr. Peters' is that it 1) comes across as legalistic, 2) ignores any "real life" possibilities, and most importantly, 3) treats the Western canonical tradition as supreme for all Churches of the Catholic Church. If the Eastern Rite and Orthodox ordain married people (of childbearing age) to the diaconate and presbyterate, knowing full well that they will produce children and have children who grow up to be priests and deacons (as happens a lot in certain Orthodox/Eastern families), and have been doing this for a very long time, why the hell are people obsessing with this issue as if it matters?!

Pertinacious Papist said...

The issue seems to have touched a nerve, as is not surprising. At the risk of entering where angels might fear to tread, I would hazard that even if canon law, like matters of discipline, is a product of human creation and reflects judgments of human prudence regarding the exigencies of a given historico-cultural milieu, and is revisable in a way that doctrine or dogma is not, canon law is firmly founded upon Church teaching and intended to reflect and facilitate the faithful observation of Catholic faith and morals. As such it is not a Catholic sentiment to want, like Luther, to cast upon the Wittenberg bonfire the Church's books of canon law as though they were an impediment to faith and morals.

Mercury said...

Perhaps Rome really needs to comment on this issue - I just can't believe that they haven't said ANYTHING in 40 years or so, when they know full well at all levels that most married deacons do not practice continence.

Another issue is that I think the rationale for priestly celibacy and continence for the sake of the Kingdom has developed to exclude the idea that sex and women are somehow "impure". For example, St. Peter Damian wrote that the hands of a priest should never touch a woman's private parts. How does that NOT impute some sort of uncleanliness? (and the sores of lepers or the body parts of farm animals are okay to touch)

Now, if it is seen that service at the altar requires a unitive relation to God alone which marital relations (as a true union of the spouses) would preclude, then that makes sense. This is the rationale I find the most convincing for consecrated virginity as well - the forgoing of personal union with another in order to experience that union with no one but God.

But can we really deny that certain voices in the Early Church saw a degree of ritual impurity in sex itself - a view which is explicitly denied by the Magisterium today?

Sheldon said...

The issue of ritual purity and impurity doesn't originate in medieval Catholicism, but in ancient Judaism. The ceremonial (Levitical) laws of the Old Testament are stacked high with purity rules and rituals. (see the book of Leviticus, for ex.)

Some of these seem to have a natural rationale, such as laws prohibiting the touching of corpses of animals without undergoing a cleansing ritual, kosher laws, abstaining from blood, or laws pertaining to the menstrual cycle of women, etc.

Others seem more arbitrary from our vantage point in the 21st century, although it's hard to say whether this is because we know more than they did, or whether we're more ignorant than they were. Sometimes I'm not sure we have the means today to really understand the reasons for their laws.

In any case, I don't think the fact that something (like sex or women) may be surrounded with taboos should be seen as rendering it "evil" in some way.

In the rubrics of the traditional liturgy of the Roman rite, the priest holds his thumb and index finger together from the Consecration to the ablutions, to avoid touching any other object or surface and dislodging minute particles of the Blessed Sacrament that might adhere to those fingers. This clearly demarcates a distinction between the that which is sacred and holy, on the one hand, and that which is not, on the other; but I don't see how that is to declare the other "evil" in any way.

Likewise, the 1917 Code of Canon Law (Canon 813, #2) prohibited women from serving in the sanctuary in any capacity until the Vatican approved the qualified use of female altar servers in 1994. While this sort of thing is popularly interpreted as blatant male chauvinism, this is not the case, any more than Jesus' choice of all male apostles means that he spurned the Samaritan woman (John 4:3-42) or Mary & Martha of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). Equality of worth never meant necessary identity of role. My two cents.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Peters' argument is neither airtight nor particularly difficult to refute. He has proof-texted only the first part of canon 277, §1, ignoring the conclusion which is celebacy. Since canon 1037 and Church discipline only require celebacy of unmarried deacons, the precedent argument in c. 277, §1 is negated.

Despite what Dr. Peters or his son may say, the Church obviously has no intention of requiring continence of married deacons or their wives. If she did, she would require married deacons to so vow at ordination, and she would require married deacons' wives to similarly vow (which once she did require); alas, there are no such requirements.