Category Archives: Canon 277

The latest on clerical continence: Casa Santa Lidia

On clerical continence

I had not planned on posting anything on this subject, since this is not a good forum to tackle canonical issues, or any other serious issues, frankly, being a blog more of a personal not professional nature. But the exchanges on the topic of clerical continence in the blogopshere among Catholics in the last few days prompt me to offer my own remarks, all the more so since mine is the “other related thesis” mentioned in comment #9 here.


I am a canon lawyer who works in an archdiocese in the United States. I will not say more than that, as I do not want what I say to be seen as being part of my archdiocese’s official position on this issue, since it would be for our Archbishop to offer any kind of statement or catechesis to the faithful of this archdiocese on the Church’s celibacy discipline. My remarks are merely the product of my own years of research while a graduate student at one of Rome’s pontifical universities, and then over the course of the last year or so as I have been assembling my doctoral dissertation.
On average about once a week or every other week I wind up having to explain clerical celibacy and the ancient continence discipline to one or more persons or a group of people. I began my research even before I went to Rome to study canon law, but during my five years there I realized that most of my classmates (young priests, deacons and seminarians from all over the world) had no idea why they were celibate or about to promise celibacy for life, and could not explain celibacy when challenged on it (“There were married priests in the early Church, so why can’t priests get married now?” or similar questions for which they had no convincing answer).
The answer is one I’ve given many times: it was never the case that deacons or priests could get married, but that married men could become deacons or priests. Yes, there used to be married priests in the early Church, indeed there were married deacons, priests, bishops (such as St. Paulinus of Nola and his wife Therasia who together chose a life of abstinence after their only child died) and even popes (like Pope St. Felix III, by tradition the great-great grandfather of Pope St. Gregory the Great, and Pope Hadrian II, whose wife and daughter were abducted and murdered). However, what seems to have been lost along the way is that it never mattered whether these clerics were married or single at the time they were ordained to major orders (beginning with the diaconate, and for many centuries the subdiaconate) — since married or single, those who were ordained to major orders had to take upon themselves sexual continence for the rest of their lives. Hence the necessity of the wife’s consent. It was more than just the fact that her husband was embarking upon a new and demanding ministry that might make inroads on her time as well, but rather that it meant total continence for her too.
In the early Church it was not uncommon, in cities, for the deacon or priest to move into the bishop’s house, with his wife remaining at home or, from the 4th century onward, joining a group of devout women (or a community of nuns in later centuries). In rural areas a priest would often still live with his wife under the same roof, but it was usually considered a bit of a scandal if they continued to have children (cf. Pope St. Leo the Great). In 325 A.D., the First Council of Nicaea, canon 3, gives a list of women who could live clerics: “This great Synod has stringently forbidden any bishop, presbyter, deacon, or any one of the clergy whatever, to have a subintroducta dwelling with him, except only a mother, or sister, or aunt, or such persons only as are beyond all suspicion.” His wife was not on the list as the couple had already committed to continence. Other councils permitted an unmarried daughter to live with the cleric (if he had a daughter, then he may have had a wife still living — but she was not to live with him).
This followed the first legislation that we know of which addressed this issue, around the year 305, at the Council of Elvira (a town whose ruins lie outside of Granada in Spain). Canon 33 states: “Bishops, presbyters, deacons, and others with a position in the ministry are to abstain completely from sexual relations with their wives.”
It is a basic principle of canon law (as with most legal systems) that laws are not arbitrarily invented out of thin air, but rather enshrine or emphasize existing praxis, customs, or rules. Subsequent synods and councils, whether Ecumenical or regional or local, confirm this law from then on, until the 12th century, at the First and Second Lateran Councils, when the Church began to ordain only single men (later reinforced at Lateran IV in 1215 and then at Trent).
The New Testament origins of this discipline can be found in the Gospels (the “eunuch logion” and the list of things renounced in Matthew 19:29, Mark 10:29, and Luke 18:29 which specifically mentions giving up one’s wife), and in St. Paul (the once-married man as being suitable to become overseer {1 Tim. 3:2 and 3:12, Titus 1:6}, i.e., capable of assuming continence, as opposed to the man who remarried after being widowed being less likely to make the renunciation — St. Paul uses the same criterion for those to be enrolled as widows {1 Tim. 5:9} — and couples who are to leave themselves “free for prayer” {1 Cor. 7:5} which has great implications for those who would “pray always,” etc.).
There are sparse hints in texts of the second century of the existence of continence observances (“ἐγκρατεῖς περὶ πάντα” in St. Polycarp to the Philippians, or references in the Shepherd of Hermas and the Acts of Paul and Thecla, not by any means strictly Gnostic, though with some texts belonging to the Encratite movement), and clearer indications after 200 A.D. (Tertullian, Origen, the Hippolytus who railed against Pope Callixtus for ordaining men who had been married more than once, and other sources). Even in such early times the Church had a balanced view of conjugal life: the heretic Marcion was excommunicated in 144 A.D. for insisting that married catechumens who would not renounce marital relations should not be baptized. There are other examples from the third century as well which deserve attention from those just hearing about this topic for the first time (see reading list below).
Clerics in minor orders (porter, lector, cantor in the East, exorcist, acolyte) could marry, and in the Eastern Catholic Churches they still do (at least the non-monastics may, except in the Syro-Malabar and -Malankara Churches, which have celibate clergy). The formalization of the Eastern discipline of temporary continence for married higher clerics dates from the second “Trullan” council in 691-692. This temporary observance of continence, similar to that of the Levitical priesthood, is still the opening rubric of the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom: “…he [the priest] is to abstain from the evening before.”* As much as people want to believe that the Eastern Churches always have the older observance, it is simply not the case.
Reading the comments posted on this issue, on The Deacon’s Bench blog or theAnchoress or any of the other blogs, it is evident that there is still an immense amount of confusion about this issue, as well as a truly breathtaking lack of knowledge not so much of canon law or theology or Scripture but basic Church history. The highly educated laity desired by Vatican II is still not yet realized, even 45 years after its closure. Most distressing of all is the apparent lack of interest in doing even a minimal amount of reading or research on the topic BEFORE commenting.
So here is a very minimal reading list, in addition to the article by Dr. Peters (I suspect the folks who are up in arms about this have not read the following):
The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini SJ (the book that changed my life)

Celibacy in the Early Church by Stefan Heid
Clerical Celibacy in East and West by Roman Cholij (and this fine article)
Priestly Celibacy Today by Thomas McGovern
The Case for Clerical Celibacy by Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler
The Theology of Priestly Celibacy by Stanley L. Jaki
These works will answer all the questions and confused statements I have read so far in the blog comments. There are a few books out there which deny there was an early continence discipline (such as the one by Heinz-Jürgen Vogels, Zölibat: eine Gabe, kein Gesetz) but I do not find them convincing next to the incomparable and unchallenged scholarship of the great Father Cochini or the meticulous work of Father Heid or Roman Cholij. I want to emphasize the “unchallenged” aspect of these works: no one has offered a meaningful and thorough scholarly rebuttal to these authors (and no, Roman Cholij has not “renounced” his position or repudiated his own book).
The issue of whether or not celibacy or continence is “unnatural” is ridiculous: human beings, alone among all living species, are the only ones who can choose to not reproduce (or rather, procreate) — to abstain from sexual relations for one reason or another — and so, far from being “unnatural,” continence is instead uniquely human. The issue of loneliness among celibate clergy is, on the other hand, quite serious. But as for marriage being a supposed “cure” for this, I myself as a single person have observed that some of the loneliest people I’ve ever known are married or in long-term relationships. I would like to see all the people who fret about the loneliness of celibate clergy in their empty rectories routinely invite their parish priests over for Sunday lunch after Mass, or for one or two evenings a week for supper with the family, or to get together with other parishioners to inquire and make sure that their pastor, their Father, does not find that he is alone at a time when he does not want to be.
No one is suggesting that in the Latin Church married clergy and their wives suddenly “take the pledge.” I think all that Dr. Peters is asking for is a clarification (for which I would be grateful as well) as to why this immemorial discipline vanished without comment at the time the permanent diaconate was “restored” (there was no “permanent diaconate” in the early Church: “permanent” and “transitional” as terms applied to the diaconate are of recent origin — there was only “the diaconate” which some men stayed in for life, while others went on to become priests — one cannot “restore” something which did not exist, in the strict sense). One might have hoped for some such comment inSacrum Diaconatus Ordinem or Ad Pascendum. Something to the effect of “and now, for the first time in the history of the Church, married men may be ordained to major orders without any change or modifcation of their married life,” or some such statement. But nothing was said.
Here’s someone who thinks Dr. Peters is pursuing this topic almost out of a kind of prurience, a judgment which I find to be quite rash:
I am amazed at this statement, but not surprised. Here is a Biblical scholar seemingly caught off guard, to the point of making him sound defensive. Perhaps (and I know I’m really reaching here, but it’s the only thing I can come up with) because he is a a Mennonite, he may have difficulty understanding that it is not the Catholic Church or Dr. Peters who have “trouble with sex,” but rather humanity, marked by original sin, which most certainly does (which includes clergy, married or not). This debate seems to have struck a nerve with those who are married. I know several married people who were convinced that Vatican II leveled the playing field and declared virginity and marriage to be equal. Imagine their surprise when they actually read Optatam Totius, one of the last documents of the Council, the fruit of its mature reflection, which states that while those in training for the priesthood should appreciate the dignity of Christian marriage, “they should recognize the greater excellence of virginity consecrated to Christ.” (10.) As Father Jaki pointed out in his book on celibacy, the “new theologians” who describe marital love as “the rose-strewn high-road to the highest virtue” are being very modern indeed. (p. 166)
I am no theologian or Biblical scholar, but to me it seems to be a difference not between “good” and “better,” but between “good” and “very good,” words which are not used lightly in the Scriptures. Marriage has always been highly valued by the Church (and is a Sacrament), and virginity and continence even more highly. Is that not enough? To be highly valued? Yes, there have been times when marriage was not as highly valued in the Church in one part of the world or another (I am thinking of my mother’s Catholic ancestors in Ireland, where cultural factors led some people to think of conjugal relations with a more than a hint of shame).
I have never met a married permanent deacon I did not think was a splendid asset and a blessing to the Church (actually, I can think of two who may not have been completely splendid, but that’s only two in 30 years. UPDATE: I’ve met a third…). As the USCCB website says:
I know many parishes which, if they were to lose their deacons, would be all but shuttered within weeks. Likewise, some of the finest and holiest priests I have ever met are married converts from Anglicanism who have been ordained Catholic priests.
So, if everyone could just take a deep breath and sit down to read just the first few chapters of Fr. Cochini’s book (or even Fr. McGovern’s book as a primer, which is available online here), I think they would be more at peace and less upset or anxious about the ancient observance of married continence. After all, part of the efforts of the Church before, during, and after Vatican II was to try to recover some of the beauty of the early Church and its practices. Most notable among these were things like removing some of the “medieval accretions” from the liturgy and restoring the chalice to the laity at Mass, though I bet that many people today would balk at other beautiful practices of the early Church, such as rising before dawn to sing a hymn to Christ, lengthy fasts, public penances which lasted for years, men and women on separate sides of the assembly, and women having to cover their heads — this last one also seems to have slipped though the cracks after Vatican II.
There is a great deal more, but it is not possible to do full justice to so complex a subject as this in, of all things, blog format. There are a number of principles at work here, teased out from the writing of the Fathers, or from the development of the liturgy, such as qui sacramenta contrectant, and other keys to understanding clerical continence which are more difficult for non-specialists to understand (avoiding digamy propter continentiam futuram, the early concept of the clerus, etc.). This issue, which embraces Scripture, history, theology, canon law, anthropology, sociology, and other areas, cannot be fully understood in the equivalent of an electronic sound-bite. Like most things of importance, it requires effort — putting in the time to make up for never having seriously studied Greek or Latin or Syriac, or patristics or ecclesiology, or dogmatic theology or sacramental theology or moral theology, or years of canon law (which is more than the 1917 and 1983 Codes, but rather stretches back to the earliest days of the Church), or the history of the Roman Empire, the history of the Councils, the history of the papacy, etc. Once again, these things take time, and a fair amount of effort. I know we Americans have a strange aversion to reading history, but for those who want to participate in a serious way in this conversation, there’s no time like the present to hit the books.
A final word about the “gift” of celibacy. I would assume that many, though not all, of those who enter religious life (a monastic community, or a community with an “active” apostolate, such as the Dominicans or Jesuits), as well as a fair number who go into the diocesan priesthood, have some sort of special “gift” from God, something which lets them live with great ease and serenity a life of continence as unmarried persons in the chastity appropriate to their vocation. There are also vast numbers of single people who do not belong, or feel called to belong, to a religious community, and who may not even be single entirely by choice. Most of them live as single people “in the world” and have jobs and friends and hobbies, but perhaps not a special “gift” of celibacy. Gift or no gift, however, they too are called to live a life of chastity in total continence as a simple duty of their state in life, as are the married persons who are suddenly widowed** or who because of unavoidable separation or illness must also switch to living lives of total continence even without a special “gift.” It used to be taught in catechism classes that if we are faithful, if we pray, then God will surely not fail to give us all the graces necessary for our state in life. I personally believe it is still true.
Just a personal note in closing: if people are going to engage in discussion of canon law, they should at least spell it correctly. It’s canon law, not cannon law, no matter how much I wish at times it could be.
* From The Sacred and Divine Liturgy of our Holy Father John Chrysostom. Synod of the Hierarchy of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, Basilian Press, Toronto, 1988, p. 9. I don’t know if it is observed, nor do I necessarily care. But it is still “on the books,” literally.
** And this applies in a special way to married permanent deacons and married priests who become widowers and who are forbidden to marry again, the current canon prohibiting marriage to major clerics being the only vestige of the ancient continence discipline, since why would such a married cleric who loses his wife not be able to marry again if no restrictions were placed on his married life before — unless he had already made (or was supposed to have made) the definitive renunciation?


Fr Gabriel Burke C.C. said…
Thanks for this wonderful post.
If Dr Peters is correct. would there be grounds for annulment of Orders due to lack of discretion?
20 January 2011 03:37
Casa Santa Lidia said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
20 January 2011 06:44
Casa Santa Lidia said…
LOL!! if only…..or, how about canon 1098? O:)
20 January 2011 06:46
Casa Santa Lidia said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
20 January 2011 19:43
Casa Santa Lidia said…
Anon. (sorry, but I don’t publish Anons)
No, what it means is that there are large numbers of priests, deacons, layfolk (and…maybe some bishops) who have not heard of this before. And what THAT means, is that the people who are commenting on the other blogs, and a fair number seem to be clerics, have only minimally ever read the Fathers (actually probably only St. Augustine) or never bothered to read each of the Ecumenical Councils (maybe only Vatican II, which is a shame if only because most of the other 20 are really short and easy to read!), or never took the time to sit down and figure out where the Latin Church celibacy discipline came from and why married “permanent” deacons were seemingly exempted from it while priests are not. Sure, you could blame seminary formation, but all of us — smart, adult, faithful Catholics that we are — are supposed to be deepening our faith and our knowledge of the Church on our own too, no? Not waiting for someone to spoon-feed it to us? It does baffle me, the lack of initiative — like many people who leave university and never pick up a book again (maybe for pleasure, but not for study) I think it is the same with us after our catechism classes or for those leaving seminary. Time for study is a factor, of course. But to have only the fuzziest bits of information about the Church before the last few decades now seems to be very common. I think that we Catholics tend to think “I’m Catholic; of course I know the Church!” — but there’s no “final exam” as it were, no way to test what I do and do not know. And so at each moment of my life as a Catholic I have felt that I know pretty much all there is to know, or at least enough. Or rather, this was the case for me until a few years ago, when I went to Rome to study canon law. Now the Church appears to me as an Everest that is always appearing around each corner I turn…there’s always more, and it always seems somewhat out of reach, as if I will never truly be able to know everything. But when we love someone, we want to know everything about that person, no? So that keeps me going. O:)
20 January 2011 19:48
Raphaela said…
Thank you for this post and for shedding much light and no heat at all on the issue. My reading list is already too long, but I very much fear I’ll be adding to it from the works you list here… :)
25 January 2011 02:16

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Light from New Zealand: Brendan Daly on Celibacy, Continence and the Formation of Canon 277

The Obligations of Continence and Celibacy for Priests

CELIBACY is a hotly debated issue in the Catholic Church for a number of
reasons. There is the enormous scandal of sexual abuse by clergy and the perception by many people that if the law on celibacy was changed then sexual abuse would be a much smaller problem.

There are many cultures around the world that do not accept celibacy. For example, although missionaries have been working with Inuit people in Northern Canada for well over 100 years, not one Inuit man has ever been ordained a Catholic priest. However, there are married Inuit clergy belonging to other denominations.


History of Celibacy

There are two very divergent approaches to celibacy at the theological level beginning with Gustav Bickell (1838-1917) and Francis Xavier Funk (1821-1917). Gustav Bickell argued that clerical celibacy was of apostolic origins and intrinsically related to ministry. Celibacy was initially a customary law, and only gradually received a fixed, written form. Scholarship in recent times that supports the argument of Gustav Bickell has been the work of Cochini in Paris, Cholij at the Gregorian University, and the Vatican archivist Stickler.1

Francis Xavier Funk argued that clerical celibacy was the consequence of canon law and Church discipline beginning with the Council of Elvira, in Spain, in 306. Many scholars including Vogels,2 Balducelli3 and Dennis4 are very critical of Cochini and the idea that clerical continence was of apostolic origins. They contend that this has not been proved. They argue that there is a lack of clear evidence about priestly celibacy and continence prior to the fourth century especially in relation to the apostles and in the first century after their deaths. They say patristic support is limited. However, they do not produce strong patristic or council legislation to support their own view. Balducelli is very critical of the theological justifications for continence in the sources that Cochini uses. These sources have a negative attitude to sexual intercourse: e.g. the reference to Origen’s 6th homily on Leviticus 21 concerning the necessity of perpetual prayer and the necessity of uninterrupted continence.5
Cochini, recognising this, argues that the theological justification for celibacy should change to the priest’s relationship to Christ whom he represents.

At this point in the Church’s history, everyone is conscious of the sexual misconduct and abuse problems within the Church. Unfortunately, there seems to have always been a gap between the teaching of Jesus and the human reality. This human reality has always complicated the Church’s legislation and any interpretation of it. Balducelli is probably right in contending that historical objectivity is elusive when clerical celibacy is being discussed. As Stickler maintained ‘a correct interpretation of the sources can only be established on this basis: by taking into account their authenticity, integrity, credibility and particular worth.’6

Key Concepts

The Chinese have a proverb that ‘the first step towards wisdom is getting things by their right names’. This is particularly true on the subject of celibacy.

>Clerics7 are all those who have been ordained deacons.

>‘Continence means the non-use of the sexual faculties.’8

>‘Chastity is the moral virtue that moderates and regulates the sexual appetite in man and woman.’‘Single persons are chaste when they are continent with all persons until they marry. Clergy are bound to perfect and perpetual continence; and are chaste when they do not use their sexual faculties with anyone of either sex for life.

Celibacy is a publicly committed state of living chastely, whereby the person, accepting the gift of God and identifying with Jesus Christ, freely chooses not to marry for the sake of the kingdom of God while serving God and other people.

‘Celibacy’ comes etymologically from the Latin coelebs meaning an unmarried man. However, it must be distinguished from simply being not married like a bachelor, as well as reflecting key aspects of Church teaching.10


Jesus taught that the reign of God was imminent and that following him overrode many ordinary activities in life. Being a disciple involved ‘losing one’s life’ (Mk. 8:35); ‘leaving the dead to bury their dead’ (Mt. 8:22); ‘taking up the cross’ (Mk. 8:34); since anyone loving ‘father or mother, son or daughter more than
him would not be worthy of him’ (Mt. 10:37). For Jesus and his disciples the task of proclamation had to also be enacted ‘sacramentally’ in their lives ‘for the sake of the kingdom of heaven’ (Mt. 19:12). Peter was married since Jesus cured his mother-in-law. (Mark 1: 29-31) In the text of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus makes
the leaving of wife explicit in his answer to Peter’s question:

Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.11

In Matthew 19:27 and Mark 10:29-30, leaving one’s wife is merely implied in the context of leaving everything in order to follow Jesus. The apostles left home because of their commitment to the Lord and to the preaching of the Gospel. People at home were left behind as a result.

Saint Paul writing to the Corinthians shows his clear preference for celibacy:

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about the affairs of the world, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided.12

The Pastoral letters, to Timothy and Titus, teach us that bishops, presbyters and deacons were often married men. In the Pastoral Letters to Timothy and Titus there is a special phrase that recurs also in early canonical legislation and patristic writings: ‘a husband of one wife’. Saint Paul writes to Timothy stating that: ‘A bishop must be above reproach, married only once.’ (1 Tim 3:2.). Then writing to Titus, Saint Paul tells him to appoint, in Crete,presbyters ‘married only once’.(Titus 1:6). Writing to Timothy concerning deacons Paul says, ‘Let deacons be married only once’ (1 Tim 3:12). De la Potterie is of the opinion that there is no doubt that the expression ‘husband of one wife’ is a covenantal formula.13 De la Potterie14 points out the parallel with 2 Corinthians 11:2,where Saint Paul describes the Church in Corinth as a ‘wife’, a ‘bride’ presented to Christ as a ‘chaste virgin’. Elsewhere in the New Testament, bridal imagery is significant as in Rev. 21:1-3, or in Ephesians 5: 22-23, where marriage is a sacramental image of the union of Christ and his Church. Ordination makes ordained ministers sacramentally representative of the relationship of Christ to the Church as bridegroom to bride, so that those ordained can only be ‘husband of one wife.’15

Early Church

Clement of Rome (ca. 96) and Ignatius of Antioch16 (ca. 110) speak of early Christians being celibate and imitating Christ. However, in the first few centuries of the Church, early inscriptions, synods, papal decretals and patristic writings demonstrate very many of the clergy were married and had children. Pope Hormisdas (514-523) fathered a son who became Pope Silverius (536-358).17 However, we do not know if Pope Hormisdas fathered his son before ordination.

While it is relatively easy to compile impressive lists of married clergy, Cholij, Cochini and Stickler argue that the married status existed with a longstanding, discipline of obligatory clerical continence that was of apostolic origin. This discipline existed in both Eastern and Western Churches. The basis for the
total continence was the cleric’s total consecration to God and the Church. Total personal consecration was understood to be intimately connected to ordination. Once a person was ordained as a deacon, priest or bishop, then that person was sacramentally consecrated to God. A single man or a widower could not marry
after ordination, since the man was then obliged to continence anyway.

* * *
Western Legislation

The Spanish Council of Elvira in 305 A.D taught in canon 33:

We decree that all bishops, priests, and deacons, and all clerics engaged in the ministry, are forbidden entirely to have conjugal relations with their wives and to beget children; whoever shall do so, will be deposed from clerical dignity.18

There is no indication that this legislation is a new imposition on clergy. If it were new legislation, there would have to be a case made to justify its introduction. Also, there would be historical records of opposition to such a demanding new requirement of clergy. Clearly this was no new legislation, but legislation that was made to counter a non-observance of a well-known and recognised tradition.

All the leading Latin Fathers of the 4th century, including Saints Augustine, Jerome (347-419) in his Commentary on the Epistle to Titus19 and Ambrose (333-397) in his Letter to the Church of Vercelli,20 support the legislation concerning clerical continence.

Pope Siricius (384-399) in the decretals Directa (385 A.D.) wrote a letter to Himerius answering his questions about continence. This letter was intended for circulation amongst the Carthaginians in one of the provinces of Spain. It stated:

Moreover, as it is worthy, chaste and honest to do so, this is what we advise: let the priests and Levites have no intercourse with their wives, inasmuch as they are absorbed in the daily duties of their ministries. Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, told them: ‘Leave yourself free for prayer’ (1 Cor 7:5).21

Pope Siricius followed this letter up with one to North Africa in 386 in order to communicate the deliberations of the Roman Synod in 386. He quoted from 2 Thessalonians 2:15 ‘stand firm, and hold to the traditions’ that clearly included continence as taught by Saint Paul, and celibacy.

After receipt of the letter of Siricius, the Council of Carthage in 390 was very influential:

The bishops declared unanimously: It pleases us all that bishop, priest and deacon, guardians of purity, abstain from [conjugal intercourse] with their wives, so that those who serve at the altar may keep a perfect chastity.22

Rusticus of Narbonne asked Pope Leo the Great if married clergy could have conjugal relations. He replied ca. 458:

The law of continence is the same for the ministers of the altar as for bishops and priests, who when they were laymen or readers could lawfully marry and have offspring. But when they reached the said ranks what was before lawful ceased to be so.23

A cleric was required to live with his wife in continence.

The laws on celibacy were sometimes enforced. Socrates, the Byzantine historian [ca. 440] records the excommunication of clerics not being continent with their wives after ordination at Thessalonika.24 The Emperor Justinian (483-565) considered that priests were obliged to be continent even if they did not always observe the law:

Some of them despite the holy canons beget children from the wives with whom, according to the priestly rule, they are not permitted to have relations.25


Justinian declared all children born after ordination to be illegitimate, and he required bishops to have no children for fear that they would give church property to them.

Gregory of Tours (538-594), in his History of the Franks, recounts how Urbicus, bishop of Clermont, was deposed because he did not persevere in being continent.26

Eastern Legislation

Celibacy was first legislated for deacons at the Eastern Council of Ancyra [314 A.D.]:

Canon 10. If deacons at the time of their ordination declare they must marry, and that they cannot be continent, and if accordingly they marry, they may continue in their ministry, because the bishop gave them permission to marry; but if at the time of their ordination they were silent and received the imposition of hands and professed continence, and if later they marry, they ought to cease from ministry.27

 Varying texts of the canon exist and Cochini argues that if someone says before ordination that he could not be continent, then he would not be ordained.28

Celibacy was first legislated for presbyters at the Council of Neocaesarea (314-325):

Canon 1: If a priest marries, he will be excluded from the ranks of the clergy; if he commits fornication or adultery, he will in addition be excommunicated and subject to penance’.29

Cochini points out that an Armenian collection of canons (365 A.D.), the Apostolic Constitutions (300-400 A.D.) and, indirectly, canon 14 of the Council of Chalcedon (451 A.D.) supports this discipline for deacons and priests.30

The Council of Trullo (691/692) was a crucial council for deciding Greek practice over clerical celibacy. In Canon 13, the Council stated:

Since we know it to have been handed down as a rule in the Roman Church that those who are deemed worthy to be advanced to the diaconate or presbyterate should promise to no longer cohabit with their wives we, preserving the ancient rule and apostolic perfection and order, will that the lawful marriages of men who in holy orders be from this time forward firm, by no means dissolving their union with their wives nor depriving them of their mutual relations at a convenient time. Wherefore, if anyone shall have been found worthy to be ordained subdeacon or deacon or presbyter, he is by no means to be prohibited from admittance to such a rank, even if he shall live with a lawful wife. Nor shall it be demanded of him at the time of his ordination that he promises to abstain from lawful relations with his wife.31

The canon is clearly directed against the Latin Church and its practice. Moreover in canon 12, the Council had defended the discipline of continence. The use of marriage was  not unconditional, and whenever a priest acted liturgically as a priest he had to live a discipline of temporary continence.32 In conceding the use of marriage to clerics lower than bishops, the Council had to re-edit ancient texts. The canons of Carthage that legislated for permanent continence were represented as laws for temporary continence.

First Lateran Council (1123)

At the first Lateran Council, attended by at least 300 bishops, abbots and religious, clerical celibacy was legislated for the universal Church in canon 21:

We absolutely forbid priests, deacons, subdeacons and monks to have concubines or to contract marriages. We adjudge, as the sacred canons have laid down, that a marriage contract between such persons should be made void and the persons ought to undergo penance. 33

The Council reinforced an existing obligation by declaring prohibited marriages invalid.

Saint Raymond of Penafort (1180-1275) summed up the reasons for the law of celibacy:

The reason is twofold: sacerdotal purity, in order that they may obtain in all sincerity that which with their prayers they ask from God (Dist. 84, c. 3 and dict. p.c. l, Dist. 31); the second reason is that they pray unhindered (1 Cor 7:5) and exercise their office. They cannot do both things together: that is, to serve their wife and the Church.34

However, in the period leading up to the Council of Trent, many clergy were not practicing continence or celibacy. The Council of Trent discussed the question of celibacy and firmly rejected the teaching of the reformers stating that the marriages of clerics and religious were invalid.35 In fact the Council was very successful in bringing about a general observance of the law of celibacy because it introduced seminaries for the training of priests.

* * *

1917 Code

Canons 132 and 133 legislated for the obligation of celibacy:

Canon 132§1. Clerics constituted in major orders are prohibited from marriage and are bound by the obligation of observing chastity, so that those sinning against this are sacrilegious, with due regard for the prescription of canon 214§1.36

The law required that clerics had to abstain from marriage and positively to observe perfect and perpetual chastity. Canon 133 then legislated for prudential behaviour to support the celibate commitment.37

Clerics could not live in the same house with any woman, or frequently visit her or receive visits from her in order to safeguard chastity and guard against the appearance of evil. The general thrust of the law was to enable clerics to avoid compromising their celibacy.


Vatican ll and the Post Vatican ll Debates and Documents

From the time of the second Vatican Council, the issue of optional celibacy for priests has often been raised and discussed in the media and theological circles. In the 1960’s and 1970’s many priests and seminarians expected that
optional celibacy would soon be a reality in the Catholic Church.

Clerical celibacy was not formally on the agenda of the Vatican Council, but it came up frequently in discussions and debates.38 The vote on the proposal to ordain young men to the priesthood without the obligation of celibacy was 839 for and 1364 against.39

In the decree on Priestly Life and Ministry 16, the Council enunciated the theological basis for celibacy:

Perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven was recommended by the Lord (Mt 19:12). It has been freely accepted and laudably observed by many Christians down through the centuries as well as in our own time, and has always been highly esteemed in a special way by the Church as a feature of priestly life. For it simultaneously signifies and incites pastoral charity as well as being in a special way a source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world.40

Great stress was placed on celibacy for the sake of the kingdom, with references to its worth and history in the Church. The Council was confident ‘that the gift of celibacy, so appropriate to the priesthood of the New Testament, is liberally granted by the Father.41

In the debate on life and ministry of priests, the general secretary of the Council read a letter from Pope Paul Vl recommending that the issue of priestly celibacy not be addressed by the Council. The Council Fathers applauded this move. Pope Paul Vl stated on October 11, 1965:

It is not suitable to have a public debate on this subject which requires not only to preserve this ancient, holy and providential law of priestly celibacy as far as we can, but to reinforce the observance of it by reminding the priests of the Roman Church of the causes and reasons which, particularly today, make one consider this law of celibacy very suitable because through it priests can devote all their love solely to Christ and give themselves completely to the service of souls.42

The decree on Priestly Training no. 10 insisted that seminarians should be thoroughly prepared to accept the obligation of celibacy ‘as a precious gift of God’.43 Similarly, but in more detail, the Decree on the Renewal of Religious Life spelt out the obligation to celibacy and continence, while noting that ‘the observance of perpetual continence touches intimately the deeper inclinations of human nature.’ 44

1967 Encyclical on Priestly Celibacy

Pope Paul Vl acknowledged that serious questions had been raised concerning celibacy and outlined the arguments that had been raised for and against priestly celibacy, but concluded:

Hence, we consider that the present law of celibacy should today continue to be linked to the ecclesiastical ministry. This law should support the minister in his exclusive, definitive and total choice of the unique and supreme love of Christ; it should uphold him in the entire dedication of himself to the public worship of God and to the service of the Church; it should distinguish his state of life both among the faithful and in the world at large. The gift of priestly vocation dedicated to the divine worship and to the religious and pastoral service of the People of God, is undoubtedly distinct from that which leads a person to choose celibacy as a state of consecrated life.45

Pope Paul Vl clearly distinguished priestly celibacy from celibacy in onsecrated life in a religious institute, but upheld celibacy despite all the difficulties and criticisms that have been made of it.

The 1971 Synod of Bishops

The 1971 Synod established a special commission to prepare a document summarising the discussions of the synod. It was published through a papal rescript dated November 30, 1971. The Synod document repeated Church
teaching on celibacy:

Celibacy for priests is in full accord with the vocation to the apostolic following of Christ as well as with the unconditional response of a man who has been called and who takes up pastoral service. Through celibacy the priest, following his Lord, demonstrates in a fuller way that he is prompt and ready and, setting out on the way of the cross, he desires with a paschal joy to be consumed somewhat as the Eucharist. If, however, celibacy is lived in the spirit of the Gospel, in prayer and watchfulness, with poverty, joyfulness, contempt of honours, brotherly love, it is a sign which cannot long be hidden but which effectively proclaims Christ to men even of our age. For today words are scarcely valued but the witness of a life which shows the radicalism of the gospel, has the power to attract vehemently.46

Towards the end of the Synod the bishops voted on the law of celibacy: ‘The current law of celibacy for priests in the Latin Church must be observed in its entirety.’ Voting Placet 168;  Non placet 10;  Placet iuxta modum 21;  abstentions 3 .

Then on the ordination of married men, the bishops were asked to vote for either

Formula A: Always without prejudice to the right of the Supreme Pontiff, the ordination of married men as priest is not admitted, not even in special cases.
Formula B: It belongs to the Supreme Pontiff alone, in special cases, because of pastoral needs and in view of the good of the universal Church, to allow ordination as priests to married men who, however, are of rather advanced age and of upright life. 

107 voted for Formula A while 87 voted for Formula B. There were 2 abstentions and 2 null votes.47

Pope John Paul ll

On the occasion of the Lord’s Supper, Holy Thursday 1979, Pope John Paul ll wrote his first letter to the priests of the world. He acknowledged that the question of priestly celibacy had been considered profoundly and completely at Vatican ll, in the encyclical Sacerdotalis caelibatus and at the 1971 Synod of Bishops. He explained the reason for celibacy was that Jesus inspired it himself:

The essential, proper and adequate reason (for celibacy) in fact, is contained in the truth that Christ declared when he spoke about a renunciation of marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and which St. Paul proclaimed when he wrote that each person in the church has his or her own gifts. Celibacy is precisely a ‘gift of the Spirit.’ 48

In this letter to priests, the Pope did acknowledge the difficulties of celibacy and
spoke in no. 8 of the treasure of celibacy being held ‘in vessels of clay.’ Throughout his pontificate he was always conscious of how celibacy was both an eschatological sign as well as being of great social importance for ministry to the people of God.

Relationship of Marriage and Celibacy

Pope John Paul ll was conscious of the relationship between celibacy and marriage. He saw issues, such as the commitment involved and the appreciation of the importance of each, being intertwined in particular societies. He
stated in his encyclical Redemptor hominis March 4, 1979:

Priests must be distinguished for a similar fidelity to their vocation (same fidelity as married people have to their vocation of marriage) in view of the indelible character that the sacrament of orders stamps on their souls. In receiving this sacrament, we in the Latin Church knowingly and freely commit ourselves to live in celibacy, and each one of us must therefore do all he can, with God’s grace, to be thankful for this gift and faithful to the bond that he has accepted forever.49

In the apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio, November 22, 1981, the Pope upheld the importance of celibacy:

Virginity or celibacy, by liberating the human heart in a unique way, ‘so as to make it burn with greater love for God and all humanity,’bears witness that the Kingdom of God and His justice is that pearl of great price which is to be preferred to every other value no matter how great, and hence must be sought as the only definitive value.50

The Pope maintained the discipline of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven is an important eschatological sign.

Formation of Canon 277 of the 1983 Code

Following Vatican Council ll, the Pontifical Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law worked on the Schema De clericis in 1966. The study group on clerics discussed celibacy October 24-28, 1966. They proposed texts for draft canons 132 and 133. In canon 132, a §2 was proposed exempting married deacons from the obligations of celibacy and continence.51

Following consultations around the world, the 1977 and 1980 Schemas had two canons concerning celibacy. Married deacons were exempted from the obligations of celibacy and continence:

Canon 135 §1. Clerics are obliged to observe
perfect and perpetual continence for the sake
of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore
bound to celibacy.
§2. The prescription of §1 does not bind men of
a mature age who are married and are promoted
to the permanent diaconate; who, however, if
their wife dies are bound to celibacy.52 

Following consultation around the world two proposed canons concerning priestly celibacy were discussed on 15 January 1980 and the last phrase of canon 135, 2 concerning married deacons remarrying was removed. The canons now became canons 250 and 251 in the 1980 Schema.53

These canons were discussed at the plenary session of the Pontificia Commissio Codici Iuris Canonici Recognoscendo 20-28 October 1981. It was said that the violation of perfect continence pertained to moral theology. In canon 251§2 audito consilio presbyterali was removed, as it would affect the legislative power of the bishop, who might know confidential facts and matters. The phrase ‘quod est peculiare Dei donum’ [which is a special gift of God] was added to canon 250§1 of the 1980 schema. This phrase had been used in Presbyterorum ordinis 16, and it was inserted to answer the question how the charism of celibacy, that God gives to some, can be made obligatory for all priests.

On 25 March 1982 the last schema of the Code of Canon Law54 was prepared and was submitted to the Pope on 22 April 1982.55 The texts of canons 250 and 251 of the 1980 schema became canons 279 and 280 of the 1982 schema:

Canon 279, 1 §1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain close to Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.
§2 The prescription of §1 does not bind men who are married and are promoted to the permanent diaconate.56
Canon 280§1. Clerics are to behave with due prudence in relation to persons whose company can be a danger to their obligation of preserving continence or can lead to scandal of the faithful.
The diocesan Bishop has authority to establish more detailed rules concerning this matter, and to pass judgment on the observance of the obligation in particular cases.57

Pope John Paul ll, after receiving the final draft of the new Code of Canon Law on 22 April 1982, assisted by seven experts, including Josef Cardinal Ratzinger and Alfons Cardinal Stickler, personally reviewed the entire draft.58 A small number of changes were made to the final draft. These included removing a number of references to administrative tribunals and the second paragraph of canon 279 of the 1982 schema. This paragraph had said that the obligation for celibacy and perpetual continence did not apply to married deacons. Draft canons 279 and 280 were combined to become canon 277 of the 1983 Code that was then promulgated on 25 January 1983.

The text of canon 277 read:

§1 Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy. Celibacy is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can more easily remain closeto Christ with an undivided heart, and can dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and their neighbour.
§2 Clerics are to behave with due prudence in relation to persons whose company can be a danger to their obligation of preserving continence or can lead to scandal of the faithful.
§3 The diocesan Bishop has authority to establish more detailed rules concerning this matter, and to pass judgment on the observance of the obligation in particular cases.59

Canon 277§1 defines the obligation of celibacy, and the motivations for being celibate, especially for the Kingdom of God. Canon 277§2 advises clerics to be prudent so as not to endanger their continence or cause scandal. The 1983 Code does not single out men or women as being a source of scandal, and leaves it to the diocesan bishop to make particular law concerning this matter as well as to make judgments on particular cases. Clerics cannot validly marry without a dispensation from celibacy. If they marry without a dispensation from celibacy, they are automatically removed from office, and can eventually be dismissed from the clerical state.60

Significantly Pope John Paul ll decided to make continence obligatory for all clerics in the Latin Church, whether they were married deacons or not. This decision illustrates the absolute conviction that Pope John Paul ll had concerning the importance and value of celibacy and continence. His approach fits in perfectly with the argument of Cochini that all clerics within the Latin Church, from apostolic times, were obliged to continence.61

Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis

After the 1990 Synod of Bishops, Pope John Paul ll issued the Apostolic Exhortation on priestly formation.62 In it he stated that celibacy is a special charism:

Referring to the evangelical counsels, the council states that pre-eminent among these counsels is that precious gift of divine grace given to some by the Father (cf. Mt. 19:11; 1 Cor 7:7) in order more easily to devote themselves to God alone with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-34) in virginity or celibacy. This perfect continence for love of the kingdom of heaven has always been held in high esteem by the church as a sign and stimulus of love, and as a singular
source of spiritual fertility in the world.…  In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the church, giving himself or herself completely to the church in the hope that Christ may give himself to the church in the full truth of eternal life.63

Continence is to be consciously chosen for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The Church requires celibacy for priests because it sees a link between celibacy and ordination:

For an adequate priestly spiritual life, celibacy ought not to be considered and lived as an isolated or purely negative element, but as one aspect of a positive, specific and characteristic approach to being a priest. Leaving father and mother, the priest follows Jesus the Good Shepherd in an apostolic communion, in the service of the people of God. Celibacy, then, is to be welcomed and continually renewed with a free and loving decision as a priceless gift from God, as an ‘incentive to pastoral charity’, as a singular sharing in God’s fatherhood and in the fruitfulness of the Church, and as a witness to the world of the eschatological kingdom.64

Clerics profess undivided loyalty to Christ and the Church. People usually marry, so the commitment of celibacy requires discipline and a determined spiritual effort. The Pope was conscious of the difficulties and pointed out:

At the same time let priests make use of all the supernatural and natural helps which are now available to all. Once again it is prayer, together with the Church’s sacraments and ascetical practice, which will provide hope in difficulties, forgiveness in failings, and confidence and courage in resuming the journey.65

As Pope John Paul ll taught in his encyclical Veritatis splendor, 22 it is not possible for a human being, using only his own strength alone, to transcend human aspirations.66

Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis

A Synod of Bishops devoted to the Eucharist was held in October 2005. At the synod the issue of married clergy was raised in order to alleviate the shortage of priests and to make celebrations of the Eucharist more accessible for people.

Following the Synod, Pope Benedict XVl addressed the issues of celibacy and continence within the context of his apostolic exhortation on the Eucharist in no. 24 where he pointed out that:

The Synod Fathers wished to emphasise that the ministerial priesthood, through ordination, calls for complete configuration to Christ… This choice on the part of the priest expresses in a special way the dedication that conforms him to Christ and his exclusive offering of himself for the Kingdom of God. The fact that Christ himself, the eternal priest, lived his mission even to the sacrifice of the Cross in the state of virginity constitutes the sure point of reference for understanding the meaning of the tradition of the Latin Church. It is not sufficient to understand priestly celibacy in purely functional
terms. Celibacy is really a special way of conforming oneself to Christ’s own way of life… it is a profound identification with the heart of Christ the Bridegroom who gives his life for his Bride… I reaffirm the beauty and the importance of a priestly life lived in celibacy as a sign
expressing total and exclusive devotion to Christ, to the Church and to the Kingdom of God.67 

Pope Benedict XVl has reiterated the identification between the priest and the person of Jesus Christ. The way of life of the priest is to be modelled on that of Jesus himself. Being a priest is not just a functional job. The priest is required to conform his way of life to that of Jesus Christ. Pope Benedict XVl, in an address to the Roman Curia on 22 December 2006 pointed out that the rationale for celibacy, ‘The solely pragmatic reasons, the reference to greater availability, is not enough: such a greater availability of time could easily become also a form of egoism that saves a person from the sacrifices and efforts demanded by the reciprocal acceptance and forbearance in matrimony; thus, it could lead to a spiritual impoverishment or to hardening of the heart.’ 68  The priest represents Jesus Christ and acts in his name in a special way. His celibacy expresses his total and exclusive devotion to Christ, and his commitment to carrying on his mission.

Anglicans In Full Communion

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, on November 4, 2009, promulgated an Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, Providing for Personal Ordinariates for Anglicans Entering into Full Communion with the Catholic Church.69 The document provides for the spiritual and liturgical heritage of Anglicans, and addresses issues for former Anglican clergy entering in full communion. It states concerning celibacy in no. VI.

§1: Those who ministered as Anglican deacons, priests, or bishops, and who fulfill the requisites established by canon law and are not impeded by irregularities or other impediments may be accepted by the Ordinary as candidates for Holy Orders in the Catholic Church. In the case of married ministers, the norms established in the Encyclical Letter of Pope Paul VI Sacerdotalis coelibatus, n. 42 and in the Statement In June, are to be observed. Unmarried ministers must submit to the norm of clerical celibacy of CIC can. 277, §1.
§2. The Ordinary, in full observance of the discipline of celibate clergy in the Latin Church, as a rule (pro regula) will admit only celibate men to the order of presbyter. He may also petition the Roman Pontiff, as a derogation from can. 277, §1, for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective criteria approved by the Holy See.70

These procedures for the granting of a privilege are the same as those for the ‘Pastoral Provision’ for Episcopalian priests in the United States being ordained as Catholic priests.71

Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda S.J., Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University, points out that:

… by the concession that those who were married Anglican ministers, including bishops, may be ordained priests according to the norms of the Encyclical letter of Paul Vl Sacerdotalis coelibatus, n. 42 and of the Declaration In June, while remaining in the married state (Ap. Cons.Vl § 1); 4. by the possibility that, following a process of discernment based on objective criteria and the needs of the Ordinariate (CN Art. 6§ 1), the Ordinary may also petition the Roman Pontiff, on a case by case basis, to admit married men to the priesthood as a derogation of CIC can. 277 §1, although the general norm of the Ordinariate will be to admit only celibate men (Ap. Cons. Vl § 2).72

Former married Anglican bishops can only be ordained priests when they enter the Ordinariate. This practice respects the tradition of the Church as reflected by the Oriental Churches which require all bishops to be celibate. Former married Anglican priests may be ordained as Catholic priests. However, it is clear that future candidates for ordination as priests in the Personal Ordinariates will have to be celibate.


Pope John Paul ll at a General Audience summarised the history of the law on celibacy:

Jesus did not promulgate a law, but rather proposed an ideal of celibacy for the new priesthood that he was instituting. This ideal has been increasingly affirmed in the Church. It may be understood that, in the first phase of dissemination and development of Christianity, a large number of priests were married men, chosen and ordained following the Judaic tradition… This is a phase of the Church that was undergoing the process of organising itself, and, to put it in this way, of experimenting with what, as a discipline of the states of life, best reflected the ideal and the advice which the Lord had proposed. Based on experience and reflection, the discipline of celibacy has continued to slowly affirm itself, until it has become generalised in the Western Church, by virtue of canonical legislation.73

A Priest acts ‘in the person of Christ the Head.’74 By virtue of his ordination, a priest is sacramentally configured and ontologically identified with Christ. The priest is not simply another Christ like every baptised Christian. Rather a priest represents Christ precisely in his leadership role as head of the body the Church. Just as Jesus does not marry and is totally committed to his mission, the Church requires that those to be ordained as priests have discerned a vocation to celibacy, before they are ordained and act in his name. Their celibacy expresses their complete and total identification with Christ and their commitment to continuing his mission.


1 Christian Cochini, S.J. The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, trans. Nelly Marans, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 469 p, French original 1981.
Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, (Herefordshire: Fowler Wright Books, 1989), 226 p.
Alphons Cardinal Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy: Its Historical Development and Theological Foundations, trans. Brian Ferme, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 1995.
2 Heinz Vogels, Celibacy – Gift or Law? A Critical Investigation, (London: Burns and Oates, 1992),
3 Roger Balducelli, “The Apostolic Origins of Clerical Continence: A critical Appraisal of a New Book”, Theological Studies, 43(1982), 693-705.
4 George Dennis, Theological Studies, 52(1991), 738-739.
5 Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 251.
6 Alfons Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy, 14.
7 Canon 266§1. “By the reception of the diaconate a person becomes a cleric, and is incardinated in the particular Church or personal Prelature for whose service he is ordained.”
8 J. Provost, “Offences against the Sixth Commandment: Toward a Canonical Analysis of Canon 1395”, The Jurist, 55(1995), 650. I think his definition of celibacy as “not being married”, is technically correct in law, but there is a need to take into account the fact that it is a positive quality expressing one’s commitment to Christ, and is not just a negative quality of not marrying.
9 Roman Cholij, “Clerical Celibacy in the Western Church: Some Clarifications”, Priests and People, September, 1989, 301.
10 John Paul ll, Apostolic Exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, 25 March 1992, AAS, 84(1992), no. 29. (hereinafter PDV)
Richard Sipe has a definition of “Celibacy is a freely chosen dynamic state, usually vowed, that involves an honest and sustained attempt to live without direct sexual gratification in order to serve others productively for a spiritual motive”, in Celibacy: a way of loving, living and serving, (Missouri: Triumph Books, 1996), 41.
Paul Vl, Encyclical, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, 24 June 1967, AAS, 59 (1967), 657-697.
11 Luke 18:28-30. Scripture translations taken from the New Revised Standard Version, 1995, (New York: Oxford University Press).
12 1 Corinthians 7: 32-33.
13 Ignace De la Potterie, S.J., “The Biblical Foundations of Priestly Celibacy”, For Love Alone: Reflections on Priestly Celibacy, Ed. Divo Barsotti, (Slough: St. Pauls, 1993), 219.
14 De la Potterie, “The Biblical Foundations of Priestly Celibacy”, 23.
15 Paul Williamson, Seminar on Priestly Celibacy, at Holy Cross Seminary, Auckland, 2000.
16 1 Clement 33, 1-2; Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Polycarp, 5, 2.
17 Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 112. He has list of married clergy 87-123.
18 Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, 36.
19 “But if laymen are asked to abstain from relations with their wives for the sake of prayer, what should one think [then] of the bishop, of him who must be able to present spotless offerings to Godevery day, for his own sins and for those of the people?…Let the bishop also practice abstinence:not only, as some think, with respect to carnal desires and embraces with his wife, but also withrespect to all the troubles that can agitate the soul”,in Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 238.
20 “he orders that the bishops be the husband of an only wife, not in order to exclude the one who never took part in the marriage (which is in fact beyond the law), but so that, through conjugal chastity, he keep the grace of his baptism, and on the other hand, the apostolic authority does not ask him to beget children during his priestly [career];[the Apostle] did talk about a man who [already]had children, but not about one who is begetting[others] or contracts a new marriage.”, in Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 234.
21 Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 11.
22 Concilia Africae a. 345-525, ed. By Munier, Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina 149, (Turnout, 1974) 13; in Alfons Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy, 24.
23 Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, 37.
24 PG 67, English translation in Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 320.
25 Codex Justinianus, l, 3, 44, in Cochini, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 354.
26 Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, 73.
27 English translation from Henry Percival, (Ed.),The Seven Ecumenical Councils of the UndividedChurch, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1900),67.
28 Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 171.
29 Cochini, Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, 177.
30 Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, 138 ff.
31 Council of Trullo; English translation in Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, 115-116.
32 Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West, 199.
33 First Lateran Council, English translation in Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils, vol. 1, 194.
34 Quoted in Stickler, The Case for Clerical Celibacy, 50.
35 Council of Trent, Canon 9. “If anyone says that clerics in holy orders, or regulars who have made solemn profession of chastity, may contract marriage, and that such a contract is valid, in spite of church law and the vow… let him be anathema.” English translation in Decrees of the Ecumenical
Councils, vol. 2, 755.
36 Codex Iuris Canonici (1917), Pope Pius X, (Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1917); English trans. Edward Peters, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001. “Canon 132§
§2. Minor clerics can enter marriage, but, unless the marriage was null because of inflicted force and fear, they drop from the clerical state by the law itself. 
§3. A married man, who, even in good faith, takes up major orders without apostolic dispensation is prohibited from exercising those orders.”
37 Codex Iuris Canonici (1917), Pope Pius X, Rome, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1917; English trans. Edward Peters, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001). “Canon 133§1. Clerics should take care not to retain or in other ways to frequent women upon whom suspicion can fall.
§2. It is permitted to them to cohabit only with the sort of women whose natural bond places them above suspicion, such as mother, sister, aunt, and others of this kind, or others whose upright way of life in view of maturity of years removes all suspicion.
§3. The judgment about retaining or frequenting women, even those who commonly fall under no suspicion, in particular cases where scandal is possible or where there is given a danger of incontinence, belongs to the local Ordinary, who can prohibit clerics from retaining or frequenting [such women].
§4. Contumacious [clerics] are presumed [to be living in] concubinage.”
38 K. Wulf, “Commentary on the Decree Presbyterorum Ordinis, in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican ll, ed. Herbert Vorgrimler,vol. 4, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1969), 279-288.
39 W. Bassett and P. Huizing, eds, Celibacy in the Church, (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), 57-75.
40 Flannery, 892.
41 P.O. 16; English translation in Flannery, 892.
42 T. L. Bouscarin, CLD, vol 6, 200.
43 Vatican Council ll, O.T. 10; English translation in Flannery, Vatican Council ll: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, Collegeville, The Liturgical Press, 1975, 715.
44 Vatican Council ll, Perfectae Caritatis, 12, in Flannery, ibid.,618
45 Paul Vl, Encyclical, Priestly Celibacy, Sacerdotalis caelibatus, 24 June,1967, no.s 14-15, St. Paul Editions, 8-9; AAS, 59(1967), 662-663; Flannery, vol 2, 289
46 Synod of Bishops, Apostolic Exhortation, Ultimis temporibus, November 30, 1971; AAS, 63(1971), 898-922; Flannery, 687.
47 AAS 63(1971), 917-918; Flannery, vol. 2, 689-690.
48 John Paul ll, Epistle, Novo Incipiente, 8 April 1979, AAS, 71(1979), 407; Flannery, Vol. 2, 354-355.
49 John Paul ll, Encyclical, Redemptor hominis March 4, 1979; in AAS, 71(1979), 257-324; English translation in Origins, 8(1979), 642.
50 Pope John Paul ll apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio, November 22, 1981, no. 16; AAS 74(1982), 81-191; Flannery, 826-827.
51 Coetus Studiorum De Clericis, Sessio l, 24-28 October 1966, Communicationes, 16(1984), 174-178. “Canon 132§1. Clerici, recepto diaconatus ordine, obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam, ideoque ad coelibatum adstringuntur.”
“§2. Praescripto paragraphi 1 non tenentur viri maturioris aetatis in matrimonio viventes qui iuxta decreta compentis Episcoporum Conferentiae a Summo Pontifice ad probata, ad diaconatum stabilem promoventur.”
52 1977 Schema Canon 135§1: “Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam ideoque ad coelibatum adstringuntur.
§2. Praescripto §1 non tenentur viri maturioris aetatis in matrimonio viventes qui ad diaconatum stabilem promoti sunt; qui tamen et ipsi, amissa uxore, ad coelibatum servandum tenentur.”52
53 Canon 250§1. “Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy.
§2. The prescription of §1 does not bind men who are married and are promoted to the permanent diaconate.”
Canon 251§1. “Clerics are to behave with due prudence in relation to persons whose company can be a danger to their obligation of preserving
continence or can lead to scandal of the faithful. 
§2. The diocesan Bishop, having consulted the Council of Priests, has the authority to establish more detailed rules concerning this matter, and to pass judgment on the observance of the obligation in particular cases.”
54 Pontificia Commissio Codici Iuris Canonici Recognoscendo, Codex Iuris Canonici SchemaNovissimum, Rome, Typis Polyglottis Vativanis, 1982, 308 p. 55 Nereus Tun Min, The Diocesan Bishop’s Concern for Clerical Celibacy in the Light of Canon 277§3: Bishops of Myanmar and Priestly Celibacy, Doctoral Thesis, (Rome: Pontificia Universitas Urbaniana, 2001), 30, has useful material on this. Cf. also Edward N. Peters, op. cit., 171.
56 Canon 279§1: “Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam ideoque ad coelibatum adstringuntur, quod est peculiare Dei donum, quo quidem sacri ministri indiviso corde Christo facilius adhaerere possunt atque Dei hominumque servitio liberius sese dedicare valent.§2, Praescripto 1 non tenentur viri qui in matrimonio viventes ad diaconatum permanentem promoti sunt.”
57 Canon 280§1: “Debita cum prudentia clerici se gerant cum personis quarum frequentatio suam obligationem ad continentiam servandam in discrimen vocare aut in fidelium scandalum cedere possit.
§2. Competit Episcopo dioecesano ut hac de re, audito Consilio presbyterali, normas statuat magis determinatas utque de servata hac obligatione in casibus particularibus iudicium ferat.”
58 Edward N. Peters, “Canonical Considerations on Diaconal Continence”, Studia canonica, 39 (2005), 171.
59 Canon 277§1: “Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam ideoque ad coelibatum
adstringuntur, quod est peculiare Dei donum, quo quidem sacri ministri indiviso corde Christo facilius adhaerere possunt atque Dei hominumque servitio liberius sese dedicare valent.
§2: “Debita cum prudentia clerici se gerant cum personis quarum frequentatio ipsorum obligationem ad continentiam servandam in discrimen vocare aut in fidelium scandalum vertere possit.
§3. Competit Episcopo dioecesano ut hac de re, normas statuat magis determinatas utque de huius obligationis observantia in casibus
particularibus iudicium ferat.”
60 Canons 1087, 194§1, 1394§1.
61 Cochini, C., Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981). See also Edward N. Peters, “Canonical Considerations on Diaconal Continence”, Studia canonica, 39(2005), 147-180, and Congregation for the Clergy, Directory of the Life and Ministry of Deacons, a t i o n s / c c a t h e d u c / d o c u m e n t s /rc_con_ccatheduc_doc_31031998_directoriumdiaconi_en.html number 61
62 Pope John Paul ll, apostolic exhortation, Pastores dabo vobis, 25 March 1992, AAS, 84(1992), 658-804; English translation in Origins, 21 (1992-1993), 717, 719-759.
63 Pope John Paul ll, Pastores dabo vobis, 29.
64 Pope John Paul ll, Pastores dabo vobis, 29.
65 Pope John Paul ll, Pastores dabo vobis, 29.
66 Pope John Paul ll, Veritatis splendor, 6 August
1993; AAS, 77 (1992), 507-785; English translation Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
67 Pope Benedict XVl, apostolic exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis,
68 p e e c h e s / 2 0 0 6 / d e c e m b e r / d o c u m e n t s /hf_ben_xvi_spe_20061222_curia-romana_en.html
69 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum Coetibus, “Providing For Personal Ordinariates for AnglicansEntering Into Full Communion with the Catholic Church,”4 November, 2009. APOSTOLIC  C O N S T I T U T I O N 
A N G L I C A N O R UM COETIBUS accessed 16 November, 2009.
70 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ibid.
71 Bishop Bernard Law, “Report of Bishop Bernard Law on the Episcopal Priests Who Seek Roman Catholic Priesthood,” in Origins, 4 September 1980, 10(1980), 178. C.f. Brendan Daly, “Anglican Clergy Becoming Catholic Clergy – Why Re-ordination?” Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand Newsletter, 2009:1; 62-73.
72 Gianfranco Ghirlanda, S.J., “The Significance of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus,” library/view.cfm?recnum=9178, accessed 16 November 2009.
73 John Paul ll, General Audience, July 17, 1993, in L’Osservatore Romano, July 21, 1993, 11.
74 “in persona Christi capitis”, LG. 10.

Referring to the evangelical counsels, the council states that pre-eminent among these counsels is that precious gift of divine grace given to some by the Father (cf. Mt. 19:11; 1 Cor 7:7) in order more easily to devote themselves to God alone with an undivided heart (cf. 1 Cor. 7:32-34) in virginity or celibacy. This perfect continence for love of the kingdom of heaven has always been held in high esteem by the church as a sign and stimulus of love, and as a singular source of spiritual fertility in the world.… In virginity or celibacy, the human being is awaiting, also in a bodily way, the eschatological marriage of Christ with the church, giving himself or herself completely to the church in the hope that Christ may give himself to the church in the full truth of eternal life. —Pope John Paul ll, Pastores dabo vobis, 29.


Rev. Dr Brendan Daly is Principal at Good Shepherd College, Auckland, a Lecturer in Canon Law, a Judge on the Appeal Tribunal of the Catholic Church for Australia and New Zealand, and an Associate Judicial Vicar of the Tribunal in New Zealand.


Brendan Daly on Continence for all Clerics [c. 277]

The Obligations of Continence and Celibacy for Priests

Significantly Pope John Paul ll decided to make continence obligatory for all clerics in the Latin Church, whether they were married deacons or not. This decision illustrates the absolute conviction that Pope John Paul ll had concerning the importance and value of celibacy and continence. His approach fits in perfectly with the argument of Cochini that all clerics within the Latin Church, from apostolic times, were obliged to continence. 61

COMPASS: A Review of Topical Theology
 2009 Summer, vol. 33, no. 4, page 28

Memorandum of Canon Law. Has custom derogated from Canon 277?

Memorandum of Canon Law
On whether custom has derogated from Canon 277 such that married clerics in the Roman Church are no longer bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence
Dr. Edward N. Peters*
November 2012
Note: This memorandum does not make the formal case that all clerics in the Roman Church are bound by Canon 277 to observe perfect and perpetual continence. That argument is made in detail elsewhere (e.g., in the resources gathered here: Rather, this memorandum discusses whether widespread inadvertence to the obligation of continence by married clergy might derogate from that obligation—put another way, whether “custom” is (or might be by late January 2013) applicable against the obligation of continence set out in Canon 277.

Canon 277: Viva Continence!

Clerical Continence and the Restored Permanent Diaconate by Donald J. Keefe SJ

Clerical Continence and the Restored Permanent Diaconate

The results of the historical research of Alfons Cardinal Stickler into the apostolicity of the tradition of clerical celibacy and continence,[1] the corroboration of his conclusions by Frs. Christian Cochini and Roman Cholij, and the theological analysis of the intrinsic relation between the sacramental signs of marriage and of priestly orders proposed by Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver at a recent Roman conference,[2] are all in practice controverted by the effective condonation of the noncontinent exercise of their orders by post-conciliar married deacons who having lived in ignorance of any obligation to abstain from conjugal relations after their ordination, have now have been absolved of any obligation to continence, and in fact, if widowed, may apply for dispensation from what has been a diriment impediment to remarriage and, if remarried, continue in the exercise of their orders.[3]

This anomalous departure from the ancient tradition of clerical continence appears to have its inception in the discussions of the restoration of the permanent diaconate during the second Vatican Council.[4]  However, it cannot be shown to have been authorized by the Council, whether tacitly or overtly, nor by Pope Paul VI in the documents by which he formally instituted the restored permanent diaconate and permitted the ordination to it of mature married men, nor by the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Further, it is not unlikely that the practical condonation of the use of marriage by such deacons has led to a comparable condonation of the use of marriage by converts from among Protestant clergy who have later been ordained in the Roman Catholic rite; it is evidennt enough the noncontinence of married deacons is no more anomalous than the noncontinence of married priests.

Therefore, the restoration of the permanent diaconate and the ordination of married men to the permanent diaconate in the wake of Vatican II requires a further examination for, if the effective condonation of clerical noncontinence in married deacons and married priests in the Roman rite is in fact legitimate, that legitimacy can rest upon no other grounds than the documents underlying the restoration of the permanent diaconate.  In what follows, we shall show that those documents provide no justification or warrant for diaconal noncontinence.

I.  The Documents of Vatican II: Lumen Gentium §29

The concluding sentence of Lumen Gentium §29 reads:

De consensu Romani Pontificis his Diaconatus viris maturioris aetatis etiam in matrimonio viventibus conferri poterit, necnon iuvenibus idoneis, pro quibus tamen, lex caelibatus firma remanere debet.[5]

It is as well to note at the outset that it is the significance of “lex caelibatus” which is in issue.  Granted that the canonical requirement of consecrated celibacy for those in major orders, (the “lex caelibatus”) is waived for married candidates (men “in matrimonio viventes”), and is retained for presumptively unmarried, because more youthful, candidates for the diaconate (“pro juvenibus idoneis”), the meaning of this waiver of the “lex caelibatus” granted the more mature candidates for the diaconate must be determined.  Specifically, does the waiver legitimate, for those candidates who are married, the continuance of conjugal relations with their wives after their ordination?

The language of Lumen Gentium itself cannot be said to do so.  The waiving of the “lex caelibatus” refers simply to dropping the juridical prohibition of married candidates for higher orders; the dropping of the requirement of nonmarriage for an older candidate says nothing about a removal of the obligation of clerical continence after his ordination, unless his continuing in conjugal relations be thought inseparable from his marriage.  Since continuing in conjugal intimacy is not thus integral to marriage, and that as a matter of canon law, such a reading of Lumen Gentium cannot be defended.[6]

Similarly, Austin Flannery’s translation of Lumen Gentium§29 offers no justification for diaconal noncontinence:

Should the Roman Pontiff think fit, it will be possible to confer this diaconal order even upon married men, provided they be of more mature age, and also on suitable young men, for whom, however, the law of celibacy must remain in force.  (387)[7]

Neither do the reports of the conciliar discussions and debates concerning the restoration of the permanent diaconate justify the equation of the waiver of celibacy with a waiver of clerical continence, although some evidence of a conciliar confusion of the obligation of consecrated celibacy with the obligation of continence, whereby the waiver of the one might be thought to be assimilated to the waiver of the other, begins to surface in them.[8]

Herbert Vorgrimler’s commentary on Lumen Gentium §29 relates the procedure decided upon in the third session for the restoration of the permanent diaconate; he affirms, as in line with the conciliar decision, that the “duty” of celibacy is not to apply to married deacons:

Only two points are laid down with regard to the way it (the restoration of the permanent diaconate) is to be done: the competent authority is the episcopal conference, with the consent of the Pope; the duty of celibacy is not to be imposed upon men of more mature age, although it remains for younger men.[9]

The phrase used by Vorgrimler, that of a “duty of celibacy,” is entirely misleading; §29 of Lumen Gentium speaks of a “law of celibacy,” not of a “duty.”  This is not mere quibbling: such a misreading reveals a certain lack of reflection upon the relation of major orders to consecrated celibacy on the one hand and to continence on the other.  In fact, it amounts to a confusion over the meaning, and therefore the interrelation, of celibacy and of continence, and of their respective relations to major orders.  In the first place, major orders are a diriment impediment to marriage; e.g., we read in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” that

Post ordinem receptum diaconi, grandiore etiam aetate promoti, ex tradita Ecclesiae disciplina ad ineundum matrimonium inhabiles sunt.[10]

As Paul VI here affirms, ordination to the diaconate makes subsequent marriage impossible: an unmarried deacon cannot marry, and a married deacon, upon the death of his wife, cannot remarry.  The language here is not disciplinary: it speaks of a simple sacramental incapacity, the sort that is termed a diriment impediment.  Canonists are accustomed to speak of major orders as a diriment impediment to marriage only when celibacy is formally embraced as a condition of ordination.  However, the inability of a married major cleric to remarry upon the death of his wife can only be due to precisely such an impediment: i.e., one which as inherent in his exercise of his orders simply nullifies any such attempted marriage.  It is of course true that this impediment is not absolute: a cleric may be laicized and, in consequence of such laicization, of such removal from the exercise of orders, he may be granted a papal dispensation from the law of celibacy.  Nonetheless, in the absence of such dispensation, the “lex caelibatus” binds even the laicized cleric, and simply precludes a subsequent marriage.

This inhibition upon the marriage of major clerics is not mere Roman rigorism.  The reasons for it rest upon the meaning of ordination itself, and finally derive from the nuptial relation between Christ and the Church which is celebrated in the Eucharistic sacrifice.  A diriment impediment to marriage, an inability to marry, a sacramental incapacity, is inherent in the exercise in persona Christi of major orders.  However, this impediment is distinct from (a) celibacy, and (b) continence.

Celibacy denotes the unmarried status, the absence of the marital bond.[11]  Concretely, celibacy is thus merely a matter of fact: the absence of a marital bond.  However, “consecrated celibacy” denotes a specific commitment to the unmarried state, as alone consonant with ordination to a major Order, whether that be in prospect, or already received.[12]  Heretofore, in the Latin rite, consecrated celibacy has been canonically requisite to the reception of major orders.  The institution of the married permanent diaconate is by way of exception to this canonical and liturgical tradition.

The noncelibate state, on the contrary, denotes the presence of a marital bond, and the consequent incapacity to enter upon another marriage prior to the death of one’s spouse.  Prior to the approval of the admission of married men to the permanent diaconate by Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium,noncelibate men, as has been seen, were barred by canon law from receiving major orders.  However, noncelibacy — which is to say, the existence of the marital bond — has never been understood to be a diriment impediment to such ordination.

Continence is deliberate abstention from sexual relations.  Its first reference is to abstention from marital relations; by extension and a fortiori, it denotes abstention from all extramarital sexual relations.  Abstention from marital relations may be temporary, in accordance with the Pauline counsel in I Cor 7:5, or it may be permanent, as required by the reception of major orders, a sacrament transcending but not annulling marriage.[13]  Cochini has shown such clerical continence to have been required of married men by an tradition which can only be of apostolic origin.[14]  Married men who, with the consent of their wives, were ordained as bishops, priests, or deacons, were thereafter held to continence: only in the Eastern Church has this obligation not been observed, and Cholij has shown the inadequacy of the supposed conciliar foundation of that rejection of clerical continence.  The Code of Canon Law continues to require the consent of the wife of the candidate for the permanent diaconate.

The canonical clerical celibacy proper to the Latin rite, which has been dropped for the “more mature” candidate for the restored permanent diaconate, is the unmarried status heretofore canonically requisite for ordination to any of the three major orders.

The sacramental character of Orders is thus analogous to the vinculum of sacramental marriage, in that ordination to a major Order simply renders the ordained man, whether married or unmarried, incapable of contracting marriage apart from laicization and papal dispensation.  Thus, such ordination bars the cleric arctius altari conjungi from attempting or entering into marriage, quite as an existing marriage bars one from entering into another marriage.

It is then evident that one cannot accurately speak of a “duty” of celibacy any more than one can speak accurately of a “duty” of marriage.  Quite as marriage connotes the obligation of fidelity, clerical (here, diaconal) celibacy connotes the duty or obligation of continence.  But as marriage is distinct from fidelity, so celibacy is distinct from continence.  As marriage is not the same as fidelity to marriage, neither is celibacy the same as the continence which, analogously, is fidelity to major orders.  However, such casual reference to celibacy as a “duty” precisely suggests or connotes this identity, and so induces the confusion between celibacy and continence which seems to have governed much of the discussion of the celibacy of the permanent diaconate at Vatican II.

To speak of clerical celibacy as a “duty” further implies that clerical celibacy is not a committed state, but is only a continuing moral responsibility which one might fail to meet, as one may fail to meet the duty of marital fidelity.  Such language further suggests what could not be affirmed, the merely “functional” status of clerical celibacy: that is, to speak of a duty of celibacy is to intimate that celibacy, with its connoted moral obligation of clerical continence, is not integral to major orders.

Therefore, while it is entirely proper to speak of a celibate major cleric’s duty of continence, it is quite misleading to speak of his celibacy as a “duty.”  Duties are positive moral — and therefore free — concomitants of a positive office, or munus, which arise out of that office.  Because they arise out of an office or munus such as orders, duties consist in continuing fidelity to that office, but they are not identified with the office, and should not be spoken of in such a fashion as to blur that fact.  Once ordained, an unmarried deacon, priest, or bishop is not free to be noncelibate, for a man exercising major orders simply cannot marry: such a cleric cannot be married apart from dispensation.  But he is certainly free to be continent, for otherwise continence would not be a matter of fidelity; therein lies the particular obligation, the “duty,” of the major cleric — here, the deacon.

Vorgrimler informs us that two points, viz., the authority competent to admit married men to the permanent diaconate, and the married (non-celibate) character of the permanent diaconate, were those most debated at the second and third sessions:

For the course of the voting, see the historical introduction to this commentary by G. Philips.  In view of the interventions and the results of the voting, the text was considerably revised by the Theological Commission (relatores: B. Kloppenburg, O.F.M., and P. Smulders, S.J.), and adopted into the draft of July 3, 1964 in a form which differs substantially from the present text only in two points.  One is concerned with the authority competent to admit married men to the diaconate.  Here the Theological Commission was ordered to insert the words De consensu Romani Pontificis.  The second point was whether young men who wished to be deacons were obliged to celibacy or not.  The council decided in favor of celibacy, but it should be noted that as many as 839 Fathers rejected celibacy in such cases.  The official relator, Bishop Jiménes L. Henriquez [sic], was not in favor of young married deacons.  (227; emphasis added)

In the first place, if Vorgrimler’s recital of a conciliar discussion of the “obligation” of celibacy is accurate ad litteram, this usage again reveals the acceptance of a certain suggestio falsi within the conciliar discussion, wherein “celibacy,” which in the technical language of canon law simply refers to the unmarried state, is discussed as though it were an obligation: viz., the word is used by the conciliar Fathers as though it were associated with “continence” in such wise that a noncelibate or married diaconate is one which is noncontinent, i.e., a diaconate which contemplates the continuing use of marriage by the married ordinatus.  If on the other hand, Fr. Vorgrimler may be thought to be reading his own confusion on this point into the conciliar discussion, it does not appear that that discussion contained anything which might have worked to correct such a mistake.  As we shall see, this confusion of celibacy with continence, and of noncelibacy with noncontinence, did in fact obtain among the bishops, and nothing in the record of the conciliar discussion of Lumen Gentium §29 evidences any recognition of the confusion, nor any clarification of it.[15]

Further on in his commentary on this passage, Vorgrimler has observed that

It is also noteworthy that the tasks of the deacon include liturgical functions, but that his role in the celebration of the Eucharist, which is one of the most outstanding features of the diaconate in the Eastern Churches, receives no mention.  (229)

Vorgrimler’s report of a lack of conciliar interest in the liturgical dimension of the diaconal office, particularly in the celebration of the Eucharist, is consistent with Michael Novak’s report.[16]  Gérard Philips’ historical survey,[17] cited by Vorgrimler supra, contains the following observations:

Here (relative to the priesthood) the whole assembly was perfectly unanimous.  But when the votes were taken on the diaconate, the difference of viewpoint emerged more strongly than ever.  In principle, the revival of the permanent diaconate was accepted by 1903 votes against 242.  But the next day, 29 September, the question came up as to whether the local authorities, with the approval of the Pope, could decide on the actual revival, and here almost a third of the voters expressed themselves in the negative.  (702 against 1523).  But the nub of the controversy was whether this form of diaconate could be entrusted to married men of mature age.  Here the two thirds majority was slightly larger, 1598 ayes against 629 noes.  The next clause was the only one which was rejected by the assembly.  The draft envisaged the possibility of young men who were not bound by the law of celibacy being ordained deacons.  Here a large majority of the Fathers flatly said no: 1364, against 839 ayes.  (130).

Philips’ account says nothing of the noncontinence of the married men ordained to the permanent diaconate: again, the same silence characterizes Novak’s fuller treatment of the conciliar debate.

A confusion of celibacy with continence, of marriage with noncontinence, and so a confusion of the institution of a noncelibate (married) diaconate with the formal permission for the diaconal use of marriage, is evident on both sides of the debate.  The only possible inference from Philips’ account is that the minority of bishops — 839 out of 2203 is no inconsiderable fraction —, who voted against holding even the younger and unmarried deacons to the “lex caelibatus,” could hardly have understood the universally noncelibate, viz., married, diaconate which they contemplated for the younger men nonetheless to oblige such men, once married, to abstention from the use of marriage.  There would not have been sufficient point to such a proposal to gain the support of eight hundred and thirty-nine bishops.  The minority bishops could only have had in view, and were understood by their conciliar adversaries to have in view, the establishment of a novel diaconate: one whose members, because they could marry after ordination, need not be continent after ordination.  But there is no conciliar clarification of the minority’s obvious identification of noncelibacy with noncontinence.  One can hardly avoid concluding that the majority of the conciliar Fathers shared this confusion with the minority.

The latent, or tacit — but in any case evident — confusion among the conciliar Fathers of clerical celibacy with clerical continence, and so of married clergy with clerical noncontinence, which this vote manifests, could not but have carried over into the conciliar approval of the ordination of married candidates for the diaconate, to whom the “lex caelibatus” would not apply.

For it does not appear that the conciliar Fathers ever considered a married diaconate to which the lex caelibatus would not apply, to be the mere tautology that it is.  For the conciliar bishops, the waiver of the lex caelibatus with respect to married deacons was quite uncritically understood to connote the legitimation of conjugal intercourse.  The vote on the waiver of celibacy for the younger deacons could only imply that more than a third of the bishops voting were in favor doing what had never been formally discussed: legitimating subsequent marriage or remarriage by a man in full exercise of major orders.

As Gérard Philips observes, “a large majority of the Fathers flatly said no” to the minority proposal of the dropping of the law of celibacy for the younger candidates for the diaconate.  We may be quite sure that in the minds of the minority, the noncelibacy which they would permit the younger candidates did not carry the implicit qualification that as married deacons they would live in continence.  Rather, for reasons which we shall later explore,[18] the minority view of the restored diaconate had so accepted a dissociation of celibacy from major orders, at least with respect to the diaconate, as to no longer consider ordination to the diaconate a diriment impediment to subsequent marriage.

Given this dissociation, they could hardly be concerned for the continence of married deacons.  But again, insofar as one may judge from the conciliar documents, as well as from the reports of those present, there was no significant discussion of this underlying point of view.  It would seem to have passed unchallenged by the majority, who simply held to the ancient tradition.  For there is no record of such a subtlety entering into the conciliar discussion.  In the view of the minority at least, the relaxation for diaconal candidates of the lex caelibatus was identically the relaxation of the traditional requirement not only of married continence for those in diaconal orders, but was also the dismissal of the tradition which had found in major orders a diriment impediment to marriage.

But what of the majority?  We can only conclude that they rejected what they understood the minority to approve: the admission to the diaconate of unmarried candidates, who subsequent to ordination might marry and enter into marital relations.

It is important to emphasize that an approval by the conciliar Fathers of the subsequent marriage of unmarried deacons would have for them to have flatly rejected the liturgical and doctrinal tradition of clerical celibacy which Stickler, Concini and Cholij have rightly judged to be apostolic in its origins — and more, to have done this without any conciliar discussion of so radical a step.

Yet further, that step — the conciliar approval of a view of diaconal orders in which ordination to the diaconate would not be a diriment impediment to marriage — would not only have amounted to a conciliar approval of the noncontinence of married clerics across the board; its dissociation of celibacy from major orders would have instituted a drastic alteration in the sacramental doctrine of Roman Catholicism, one extending to the Eucharist itself, which for reasons which cannot here be explored, would thereby have ceased to be the offering of the One Sacrifice.[19]

Therefore, the majority of the conciliar Fathers, whose views found expression in Lumen Gentium §29, were aware of the doctrinal significance of clerical celibacy, if inarticulately: for the majority, the celibacy required of the younger candidates to the diaconate connoted a continuing obligation to continence, and most certainly was associated with recognizing, in ordination to the diaconate, a diriment impediment to subsequent marriage.  The majority’s rejection of a noncelibate youthful diaconate, one whose members might later marry, is otherwise unintelligible.  This rejection of the minority approval of a noncelibate and noncontinent youthful diaconate cannot but have had consequences for what the majority understood the opening up of the diaconate to married men to entail, but these consequences seem never to have been explored at the Council.

Consequently it is manifestly important to clarify the terminology used in the conciliar approval of the restored permanent diaconate, and in the papal legislation implementing that restoration.  Specifically, it is necessary to avoid what the conciliar Fathers did not avoid, the confusion which would identify the “lex caelibatus” with the obligation to continence and, eo ipso, would identify relaxation of the “lex caelibatus” with a relaxation of the obligation of continence in those ordained to major orders.

We have seen that “celibacy” and “celibate” do not identify respectively with “continence” and “continent.”  A celibate priest or deacon is unmarried; he is expected to be continent, but a sinful noncontinence does not nullify his celibate state.  A noncelibate priest or deacon is one who is married; his noncelibacy does not imply or warrant his noncontinence, in law or in fact.

Thus the celibacy and the continence of those in major orders are in the same positive correlation which links marriage to fidelity in the married;[20] a married deacon or priest cannot be celibate — this is a matter of definition.  Nonetheless, he should be continent, for the reasons adduced by Cochini and Cholij, and resumed in Archbishop Stafford’s recent lecture.[21]  It is then evident that those men who are candidates for a liturgical office by which they will be arctius altari conjungi[22] are held to continence, and precisely by such ordination, whether they are celibate or married.  No other reading of Lumen Gentium §29 is internally coherent, nor could it be made consistent with the later papal legislation instituting the restored diaconate.

II The Papal Documents

Three years after the Council, Paul VI began to lay down the norms for the permanent diaconate: first in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,”[23], then in “Pontificalis Romani Recognitio,”[24] and finally in “Ad pascendum”[25].  Moreover, the Pope had earlier spoken to the same subject, if only briefly, in “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus.”[26]

“Sacerdotalis Caelibatus” is then the first in time of these documents; it bears only in passing upon the diaconate but, because “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” follows immediately upon it, what it has to say on that subject is of no little interest.  We quote §13 of “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus,” in full, and the final paragraph of §42:

§13         Porro hi contradictorum veluti concentus non solum perantiqua et grandia testimonia sive Pastorum Ecclesiae, sive magistrorum pietatis opprimere videtur, sed etiam viva in nostrisque oculis haerentia exempla, ab innumerabili cohorte edita sanctorum ac fidelium Dei administrorum, qui in re vera sacrum caelibatum demonstrant sibi causam itemque indicium eius fuisse doni, quo se totos laetissimosque Christi mysterio tradiderunt.  Quae utique egregia exempla, non minus nostris quam praeteritis temporibus posita, placate constanterque adhuc loquuntur.  Quapropter Nos, quibus praesentes res semper curae fuerunt, teneri non possumus, quin nec opinatam hanc mirificamque veritatem animadvertimus, qua docemur nunc etiam in Dei Ecclesia, ubicumque terrarum ea sancta tabernacula statuit, innumerabilem multitudinem sacrorum administrorum — subdiaconorum, diaconorum, presbyterorum, episcoporum — voluntarium Deoque sacratum caelibatum caste et integre servare.

§42         Ceteroqui Ecclesiae primores ab hac utenda potestate minime abstinere ex eo colligitur, quod recens Concilium Oecumenicum sapienter censuit, ut sacer nempe diaconatus ordo provectis etiam aetate viris, in matrimonio viventibus, posset conferri.  (emphasis added)

The italicized phrase is perhaps a term of art, although the 1983 Code of Canon Law avoids it; first appearing in Lumen Gentium §29, immediately afterwards in “Sacerdotalis Caelibatus,” and then in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” it imports a continuing condition or status which will not cease upon ordination: this can only be the marriage bond itself.  To interpret it otherwise, as warranting the continuing use of marriage by a married deacon is to rest the use of marriage by a deacon upon a highly debatable exegesis of a rather obscure canonical phrase, and to suppose that such a drastic departure from tradition could rest upon such a debatable exegesis.

Such a putative papal rejection of the tradition of diaconal continence would require more foundation than the documents instituting the permanent diaconate can provide.  This is particularly the case when, as here, the implication of a papal dismissal of the requirement of diaconal continence would have clear doctrinal import, as is shown to be the case by Cochini’s establishment of the apostolic origin of the tradition of clerical celibacy.

The third of these documents, the “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” is Pope Paul VI’s formal statement of the rules governing the restored permanent diaconate.  In it, a paragraph confirming the existing law relative to the diaconate, except insofar as specifically altered (“nisi aliter cautum fuerit”), prefaces the numeration of the new regulations; viz:

698         Principio igitur quae in Codice Juris Canonici de diaconorum juribus et officiis, sive omnium clericorum communibus, sive eorundem propriis, statuuntur, ea omnia, nisi aliter cautum fuerit, confirmamus et in eos etiam valere edicimus, qui stabiliter in diaconatu sunt mansuri.  Pro quibus praeterea haec alia, quae sequuntur, statuimus.

There follow thirty-five headings of regulations respecting the restored permanent diaconate; of these, the second, eleventh, sixteenth, twenty-fifth, and twenty-sixth bear upon the requirement, or not, of diaconal continence.

The second paragraph contains a clear if unattributed paraphrase of the final sentence of Lumen Gentium §29; it merely changes the order of phrases in that sentence.  However, even as altered, this text deals only with celibate and noncelibate candidates for the diaconate, and says nothing which could be read to authorize the noncontinence of married deacons.  The law of celibacy, imposed on unmarried candidates for the diaconate, obviously does not hold for married candidates: once more, “celibate” means “unmarried,” and it is simply as a matter of definition that married candidates are not celibate.

Here we place in sequence, for purposes of comparison, once again the final sentence of Lumen Gentium, §29, and the excerpt from “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” which depends upon it:

Lumen Gentium, §29: De consensu Romani Pontificis hi Diaconatus viris maturioris aetatis etiam in matrimonio viventibus conferri poterit, necnon iuvenibus idoneis, pro quibus tamen lex coelibatus firma remanere debet.[27]

699         “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” ¶2: In petenda ab Apostolica Sede approbatione exponendae sunt tum causae, quae novam huiusmodi disciplinam aliqua in regione constitutendam suadeant, tum rerum condiciones, quae veram boni eventus spem afferant; itemque describendus erit eiusdem disciplinae modus, utrum videlicet agatur de diaconatu conferendo iuvenibus idoneis, pro quibus … lex caelibatus firma remanere debet, an viris maturioris aetatis, etiam in matrimonio viventibus, an utrique candidatorum generi.  (original emphasis)

To repeat, the reference in the latter excerpt to Lumen Gentium §29 is by way of italicization, not citation, and so can be said to be implicit.  It can be read only as warranting or authorizing the ordination of deacons “in matrimonio viventibus,” which is to say, the ordination of married men to the diaconate.  Nothing whatever appears in that text to authorize the novelty of a continuing exercise by them of conjugal relations subsequent to their ordination.  It cannot be said to have been instituted by the Pope even tacitly, as by indirection.  It is therefore evident that the condition of such a drastic change in the diaconate, as restored by Vatican II and Paul VI, viz., the “nisi aliter cautum fuerit” set forth in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” at 698, quoted supra and again here, simply is not met:

698 Principio igitur quae in Codice Juris Canonici de diaconorum juribus et officiis, sive omnium clericorum communibus, sive eorundem propriis, statuuntur, ea omnia, nisi aliter cautum fuerit, confirmamus et in eos etiam valere edicimus, qui stabiliter in diaconatu sunt mansuri.  (emphasis added)

The eleventh paragraph of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” requires the permission of the wife before the ordination of the married candidate to the permanent diaconate:

700         ¶11. Grandioris aetatis viri, sive caelibes sive etiam matrimonio conjuncti, ad diaconatum vocari possunt: hi vero ne admittantur, nisi constet non solum de uxoris consensu, sed de eiusdem etiam christiana morum probitate illisque dotibus, quae viri ministerium nec impediant nec dedecorent.  (emphasis added)

Once again, we here see celibacy contrasted not with noncontinence but with marriage, and the contrast evidently is understood as exhausting the possibilities.  This paragraph quite clearly restates the traditional requirement for permission from the wives of married ordinands who, by their husbands’ ordination and consequent continence, would find themselves comparably bound to continence: we shall see that the moral demands placed upon the wife by her husband’s ordination are sufficiently alluded to in the “nisi constet non solum de uxoris consensu, sed de eiusdem etiam christiana morum probitate illisque dotibus, quae viri ministerium nec impediant nec dedecorent.”

Paragraph sixteen is yet more difficult to account for, if one supposes the use of marriage by the married permanent deacon to be licit:

701         ¶16. Post ordinem receptum diaconi, grandiore etiam aetate promoti, ex tradita Ecclesiae disciplina ad ineundum matrimonium inhabiles sunt.

The phrase, “grandiore etiam aetate promoti,” can only refer to those candidates for the diaconate who are “viri(s) maturioris aetatis, etiam in matrimonio viventibus,” (“sive caelibes sive etiam matrimonio conjuncti”) i.e., the older candidates for the permanent diaconate, to whom the law of celibacy does not apply.  Here, we are informed that, whether married or not, once ordained the older deacons are incapable of marrying, or of marrying again.

It is impossible to understand why a second marriage should be excluded “ex tradita ecclesiae disciplina” if, contrary to that traditional discipline, conjugal intimacy in an existing marriage is acceptable.  The paragraph clearly refers back to the ancient tradition which found such a remarriage, with its implication of reinstituted conjugal intercourse by one in higher orders, entirely immoral and in fact impossible.  This interpretation, the sole possible one, of course invokes again the traditional law of continence for married deacons.

The twenty-fifth paragraph is as follows:

702         ¶25. Diaconi, utpote qui Christi et Ecclesiae mysteriis inserviant, a quovis pravitatis vitio se abstineant Deoque semper placere studeant, ad omne opus bonum pro hominum salute parati.9 (Cfr. 2 Tim 2,21)  Ob receptum ergo ordinem, longe aliis excellant oportet in vitae liturgicae actione, in studio precandi, in divino ministerio, in oboedientia, in caritate, in castitate.  (original emphasis)

First to be remarked of this paragraph is the Pope’s emphasis upon the traditional liturgical responsibility of the permanent deacon, a matter we have seen to have been largely ignored by Lumen Gentium §29.  Secondly, we note that the “castitas” to which the preceding quotation makes reference is the traditional equivalent of that “pudicitia” which from the earliest years had described the continence required of those ordained to the episcopacy, priesthood, and diaconate.[28]

The twenty-sixth paragraph of this papal document takes for granted the liceity of permanent deacons “in matrimonio viventium,” once again contrasting that state not with continence, but with celibacy.  A single diaconal spirituality is said to be incumbent upon both celibate deacons, and those who are married, viz., those “in matrimonio viventes:”

702-03   ¶26. Episcopalis Conferentiae erit efficaciores normas statuere ad spiritualem vitam alendam diaconorum, tam in caelibatu quam in matrimonio viventium.  Curant tamen locorum Ordinarii, ut omnes diaconi:

1)  assidue legendo attenteque secum meditando Dei verbo vacent;

2)  frequenter vel etiam cotidie, quantum fieri potest, Missae sacrificio actuosi intersint, SS. Eucharistiae sacramento reficiantur idemque pietatis causa invisant; (emphasis added)

Again, we note the stress which Pope Paul VI has placed upon the Eucharistic focus of the restored diaconate.  Here the Pope makes the first clear reference, whether in Lumen Gentium or in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” to the ordained deacon as “in matrimonio vivens.”  The only use of such language in Lumen Gentium or in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” related to married candidates for the diaconate.  If in fact “in matrimonio vivens” does imply ongoing conjugal relations, surely here was the place to have made it clear, for the contrast, constant heretofore, of celibacy with marriage, not with noncontinence or with the use of marriage, has excluded a reading of “in matrimonio viven(te)s” which would imply the liceity of marital intercourse after ordination to the diaconate.

The earlier paragraph (11) of the same document, in which we have read that the consent of the wife of the married candidate for the diaconate is prerequisite to his ordination, only confirms the equation of “in matrimonio viventes” with the reality of marriage bond itself:

700         ¶11. Grandioris aetatis viri, sive caelibes sive etiam matrimonio conjuncti, ad diaconatum vocari possunt: hi vero ne admittantur, nisi constet non solum de uxoris consensu, sed de eiusdem etiam christiana morum probitate illisque dotibus, quae viri ministerium nec empediant nec dedecorent.  (emphasis added.)

According to the tradition which Cochini and Stickler have cogently argued to be of apostolic origin, it was precisely the post-ordination use of marital relations by the married deacon which was described as an impediment to the diaconal ministry at the altar, and as indecent.  Consequently, the addition of this ad cautelam proviso must be read as meant to guard the consequently continent modality of life required for the admission of married candidates to diaconal orders: that they be continent thereafter, and this with the wife’s consent and with her foreseen moral support.

This interpretation is the simplest reading of the language of paragraph 26, “tam in caelibatu quam in matrimonio viventium.”  Once again, it is to be noted the paired opposites are presented as exhaustive; further, if “in caelibatu (viventes)” simply means “unmarried,” as opposed to “in matrimonio viventes” as the equivalent of “married,” nothing in this paragraph (26) can be shown to warrant a noncontinent married permanent diaconate.  If on the other hand “caelibatus” does not exhaust the alternatives to “in matrimonio vivens” this needs to be shown, whereas that it does not has only been assumed — unwarrantably — by those who suppose the married deacon to be permitted conjugal relations simply qua noncelibate.

It must be therefore be concluded that at this point in the documentation there has appeared no warrant for the novel understanding of the diaconate whereby the ordination of married men to the permanent diaconate would no longer oblige them to subsequent continence.  Because they are married, such deacons are by definition not celibate, but this says nothing as to their freedom to continue to engage in marital relations.  The relaxation of the “lex caelibatus” for the permanent diaconate does not in any manner imply the relaxation of the obligation of continence for those in major orders.  It is intended merely to open up candidacy for the permanent diaconate to a group of men formerly excluded from such orders by the fact of their married state, their noncelibacy.

It is further to be noted that conjoined to paragraph 26 supra is a subsection exhorting precisely the close association of the deacon with the Eucharistic sacrifice which has been — and remains — the liturgical ground for clerical continence.  In fact, whatever the silence of the Fathers at the Council on the point, “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” clearly assigns to the restored permanent diaconate the liturgical responsibilities within the Church’s Eucharistic worship which have been traditional to the diaconate as such:

701         ¶22.     Secundum memoratum Concilii Vaticani II Constitutionem, diaconi est, quatenus loci Ordinarius haec ipsa expedienda commiserit:

1)         inter actiones liturgicas episcopo et presbytero adesse in omnibus, quae rituales varii ordinis libri eidem attribuunt;

3)         Eucharistiam asservare, sibi ceterisque distribuere, eam in viaticum morientibus offere, atque eucharisticam benedictionem, quam dicunt, cum sacra pyxide populo impertire.

Further, the prefatory pages of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” leave no doubt that the restored permanent diaconate is indeed the sacramental Order of the apostolic tradition, ordination to which confers a specific character, by which the deacon is ordered to the service of the altar.  This service of the altar had been further spelled out in earlier introductory paragraphs, among them following, which assign and confirm the traditional liturgical duties of the diaconate:

697-98   Sacrum diaconatus ordinem iam inde a prisca Apostolorum aetate catholica Ecclesia magno in honore habuit, quemadmodum ipse Gentium Doctor testatur, qui diaconos una cum episcopis nominatim salvere jubet1 (Cfr. Phil 1, 1) atque Timotheum docet, quaenam virtutes animique dotes ab iisdem sint expetendae, ut suo digni ministerio aestimentur.2 [Cfr. I Tim 3, 8-13.] (emphasis added)

Porro Oecumenicum Concilium Vaticanum II, perantiquam huiusmodi morem servans, honorificam diaconatus mentionem in Constitutione, a verbis Lumen Gentium incipienti, fecit ibique, cum de episcopis et presbyteris egisset, tertium quoque sacri ordinis gradum celebravit, eius dignitatem illustrando atque officia percensendo.  Verum hinc probe intellegens haec munera, ad vitam Ecclesiae summopere necessaria, in disciplina Ecclesiae latinae hodie vigenti in pluribus regionibus adimplere difficulter posse, hinc tantae rei commodius consulere exoptans, sapienter decrevit, ut diaconatus in futurum tamquam proprius ac permanens gradus hierarchiae restitui posset.3 (Cfr. n. 29; A.A.S. 57 [1965] p. 36.)

Quamvis enim nonnulla diaconorum munera laicis viris, in terris praesertim missionali opere excolendis, revera committi soleant, eos tamen juvat… qui ministerio vere diaconali fungantur…per impositionem manuum inde ab Apostolis traditam corroborari et altari arctius coniungi, ut ministerium suum per gratiam sacramentalem diaconatus efficacius expleant.4 (Cfr. Conc. Vat. II, Decr. Ad Gentes, n. 16; A.A.S. 58 [1966] p. 967)  Qua profecto ratione optimo quasi in lumine collocabitur propria huiusce Ordinis natura, qui non tamquam merus ad sacerdotium gradus est existimandus, sed indelebili suo charactere ac praecipua sua gratia insignis ita locupletatur, ut qui ad ipsum vocentur, ii mysteriis Christi et Ecclesiae stabiliter inservire possint.5  (Cfr. Conc. Vat. II, Const. Dogm. Lumen Gentium, n. 11: A.A.S. 57 [1965] p. 46.)

In 1972, norms for admission to the diaconate were promulgated in “Ad Pascendum;” these include:

6. The special consecration of celibacy observed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and its obligation for candidates to the priesthood and for unmarried candidates for the diaconate are indeed linked with the diaconate.  The public commitment to holy celibacy before God and the Church is to be celebrated in a particular rite, even by religious, and is to precede ordination to the diaconate.  Celibacy taken on in this way is a diriment impediment to entering marriage.

In accordance with the traditional discipline of the Church, a married deacon who has lost his wife cannot enter a new marriage.26

26Apostolic Letter Sacram Diaconatus Ordinem, n. 16: A.A.S. 59 (1967), p. 701.

“Ad pascendum,” A.A.S. 64 [1972] 534-540; tr. Documents, 439

The language bearing upon the continence expected of the ordained deacon, married or unmarried, remains indirect.  For example, the celibacy attaching to the office of the priesthood, and of the unmarried deacon, is said to be a diriment impediment to marriage.  We have earlier seen that the married deacon is unable to remarry (“Post ordinem receptum diaconi, grandiore etiam aetate promoti, ex tradita Ecclesiae disciplina ad ineundum matrimonium inhabiles sunt”).  If there was there no explicit mention of a diriment impediment, it is understandable enough, for it is ordination to the diaconate which is the ground of the impediment: the language quoted here is sufficiently explicit as to its reality.  In the end, the obligation of consecrated celibacy is of sacramental, not merely of juridical provenance: thus before affirming that diaconal orders constitute a diriment impediment to marriage, “Ad Pascendum” speaks not of an illiceity but of an incapacity in the deacon with respect to subsequent marriage.

That the requirement of diaconal continence is left intact by Vatican II and Pope Paul VI is yet further manifest in the spate of scriptural and patristic references in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” and again in “Ad Pascendum” — these references to Phil 1:1, to I Tim 3, to 2 Tim 2, to Ignatius Martyr, to Polycarp, to Irenaeus, to Justin Martyr, to Tertullian, to the Didascalia Apostolorum, to Hippolytus’ Traditio Apostolica, to Leo the Great — invite the application to the renewed permanent diaconate of all that had been understood by the patristic tradition to pertain to the diaconal office.

With the publication of Cochini’s research, anticipated by the work of Alfons Cardinal Stickler and confirmed by that of Roman Cholij, the burden of going forward with the evidence rests upon whoever would deny that the apostolic tradition of continence is integral to the apostolic and the patristic understanding of the diaconal Order, and consequently that the tradition is liturgical and therefore is doctrinal.  It is not at all a mere disciplinary usage, as Cochini and Cholij have shown.

As prelude to the list of “norms” set out in “Ad Pascendum,” Pope Paul VI recited his extensive consultation with “experts,” as well as with the episcopal conferences.  It is inconceivable that he would have ignored the scholarship of Fr. Stickler who, raised by Pope John Paul II to the archiepiscopate in 1983 and to the Cardinalate in 1985, had already at the time of the Council a stellar reputation as a Church historian, and who as we have seen had published a paper directly on the continence of the diaconate in 1964 and another in 1970, well prior to “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” and “Ad Pascendum.”  Cochini has written:

Fr. Stickler was an expert at the Second Vatican Council, which decided, as we recall, the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Church.  His study, “The Continence of the Deacon, Especially during the First Millennium of the Church,” published in 1964, was written as part of studies aiming to bring to the Council Fathers elements of reflection borrowed from history.  The author points out that one must understand celibacy in the early Church not only as meaning a prohibition of marriage, but also in the sense of perfect continence for those who were already married.  The Western Church Tradition is studied in the light of the teachings of the councils, of the Fathers, and of the Roman pontiffs who always preserved (or restored) its essential features.  The author opines it is on the basis of motivations inherent in the very nature of the Order and of the sacred ministry that this uninterrupted tradition demands a perfect continence on the part of those who have been married before receiving sacred Orders.

Apostolic Origins, at 43.

The doctrinal point raised by Fr. Stickler — viz., that continence is integral to the diaconal service at the altar — seems never to have been expressly contested by the Fathers in the Council.  This impression is confirmed by the conciliar reportage, supposing it to be accurate, of Vorgrimler and Philips, supra, as well as that of Henri Fesquet.[29]  Similarly, Michael Novak’s fuller account of the debate over diaconal celibacy never touches on this point.  The only debate was over marriage versus celibacy for the diaconate; the continence which the tradition has required of married deacons simply did not arise as a topic of discussion.

In connection with this reportage, it is noteworthy that Stickler’s name, that of a peritus at the Council who had addressed this much-discussed subject expressly in the 1964 article cited by Cochini, supra, is not found in the index of Vorgrimler’s Commentary, in which the quotations supra from Vorgrimler and Philips appeared; neither is he mentioned in Fesquet’s book, nor in Novak’s, nor in the Actus Synodalia.  It can hardly be supposed, then, that his well-known position had been controverted by the conciliar Fathers: such a controversy could not have passed unnoticed, whereas we have both Vorgrimler and Philips as witnesses to its absence from the conciliar discussion.  We must conclude that Stickler’s point of view was never opposed at the Council, and more likely, that the question of whether or not the married permanent deacon was to be continent was not raised at all.  As has been seen, it does appear that a large minority of the conciliar Fathers took for granted the noncontinence of the married diaconate: otherwise, the minority approval of waiving celibacy also for the younger candidates for the diaconate is without point.

Cochini has shown that the continence of the diaconate was from the earliest records considered to be on the same level as that of the priest and the bishop, and that this requirement of continence in those serving the altar did and does not rest upon such early legislation as that promulgated by the Councils of Elvira (305) and of Carthage (390) (which, bye the bye, are cited neither by “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” nor by “Ad Pascendum”) but rests rather upon a liturgically-grounded apostolic tradition which links celibacy and marital continence to the intercessory Eucharistic role of the higher clergy, whose rank reflects the level of their direct responsibility for the celebration of the Mass.  Following I Tim 3:8-13, this continence was from the earliest times held consistent with the ordination of married men to the episcopate, the priesthood and the diaconate, who were held to strict continence thereafter.  Such ordination of married men was predicated upon the prior consent of the wives of the candidates, for of course ordination imposed continence upon them as well as upon their husbands, even to the point of forbidding the widows of deacons, as well as of priests and bishops, to remarry quite as it forbade widower bishops and priests to remarry; we have seen this requirement reaffirmed in §11 of “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” and also in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.  The ordination of younger, unmarried men to the diaconate required then as now a life-long commitment to celibacy and obviously to continence.

It is only with the Council in Trullo, at the end of the seventh century, that this discipline lapsed in the Eastern Churches; Cochini has detailed the circumstances of this deviation, and Cholij, a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, has seconded Cochini’s conclusion that it is indeed a deviation, as has also Henri Crouzel.[30]

In the light of Lumen Gentium’s omission, stressed by Vorgrimler, of any mention of participation in the celebration of the Eucharist as among the duties, liturgical and otherwise, of permanent deacons, it might have been asked whether the “permanent diaconate” envisaged by the Council had not suffered a sea change from that of which the apostolic tradition has demanded celibacy.  For an instance of such change exists: Cochini and Cholij both record a change in liturgical responsibility in the reverse direction, which affected the subdiaconate in the West from the fifth century onward to Vatican II.  From its primitive standing as an exterior service or ministry akin to that of an acolyte, lector or porter, the subdiaconate had by the fifth century became directly involved in the celebration of the Eucharistic mystery.  Thereupon it was recognized by the Pope as a major Order, and its candidates were committed to continence, despite the considerable inconveniences involved in the drastic demand this novelty placed upon married subdeacons.  The abolition of the subdiaconate as a major Order, and its consequent dissociation from celibacy by Pope Paul VI in “Ministeria Quaedam,” §4,[31] can only reflect a shifting of the liturgical responsibilities of the subdiaconate away from direct responsibility for the Eucharistic celebration.  In Rahner’s view, just such a shifting of responsibility, from liturgical to practical responsibilities, would appear to have long since overtaken the permanent diaconate at the time of its recommended reinstitution by Lumen Gentium and Ad Gentes Divinitus, and its actual institution by “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem” and “Ad Pascendum.”

However, if only because the conciliar motives for that reinstitution of the permanent diaconate, as set forth in Lumen Gentium, §29 did not touch the diaconal exercise of a direct responsibility in the offering of the Eucharistic sacrifice, it is evident that no change in the liturgical responsibilities of the permanent diaconate was in contemplation at the Council.  What may have been assumed by many of the Fathers present there is another matter.

In any case, Paul VI, in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” explicitly reaffirmed the liturgical and particularly the Eucharistic responsibility, and the correlative Eucharistic spirituality, of the restored diaconate.  The Pope was equally insistent upon the traditional hierarchical rank of the permanent diaconate, and upon the indelible sacramental character which the ordination to it, by the imposition of hands, effects.

There can be no doubt that the Pope has restored the permanent diaconate in the sense of the traditional, sacramentally-conferred, hierarchical Order, an Order which he describes in the traditional language of “altari arctius conjungi.”[32]  It is this closeness to the altar, inseparable from their liturgical office, that Cochini has shown to be the basis for the ancient tradition requiring continence of deacons, as it is required of bishops and of priests.

Yet further: it must be kept in mind that the Nota Explicativa which Pope Paul VI added as an appendix to Lumen Gentium bars the reading into that document, by way of a supposedly latent implication, of any novel doctrinal affirmation:

the sacred synod declared as binding on the Church only those matters of faith and morals which it has expressly put forward as such.[33]

It is impossible to find in the documents of Vatican II any intent or indeed any intimation of an intent to teach a novel interpretation of the sacrament of orders; in fact, the conciliar intent to attach the renewal of the permanent diaconate to the biblical and patristic tradition is evident.

Thus, the post-conciliar proliferation of married and noncontinent deacons, in the face of an evident apostolic tradition denying the liceity of such a practice, demands a solution which can only be an explicit recognition of the binding character of the apostolic tradition of diaconal continence.  The pastoral problem has no other answer, for any alternative would undercut the nature of the diaconate itself, as arctius altari conjungi.  Further, the implications of the noncontinent married diaconate for the celibate priesthood cannot be ignored: if a noncontinent diaconate, “altari arctius conjungi,” is legitimate in the Latin Church, all that remains for the legitimation of a married and noncontinent priesthood and episcopacy is negotiation of the terms of the surrender of all sacramental realism.  In the final analysis, we are dealing with a matter which puts in issue the point upon which the Reformation turned, and which was resolved at Trent: the Mass as the celebration, or not, of the Eucharistic sacrifice.  If the apostolic doctrine on that point is to be upheld, so also that which is strictly conjoined to it, the celibacy of those who serve the altar upon which the One Sacrifice is offered and the One Flesh of the New Covenant instituted.

The contemporary fact of the married deacons — and perhaps of married priests as well — in full exercise at once of their marital intimacy and their orders is an obvious surd in Roman Catholic life and worship, for the coincidence of conjugal relations with responsibility for service arctius altari conjungi has been illicit since apostolic times for reasons going to the heart of the Church’s Eucharistic worship in truth.  Consequently, there is every reason to deny that the restoration of the permanent diaconate in any sense legitimates the noncontinence of deacons “in matrimonio viventes.”

The Fathers at Vatican II, and Paul VI in his implementation of Lumen Gentium, §29, were intent upon the restoration of the third hierarchical Order; it is evident from the opening paragraphs of “Pontificalis Romani Recognitio” that there was no intent to introduce a novelty:

Pontificalis Romani recognitio non tamen generali modo a Concilio Oecumenico Vaticano II praescribitur,1 sed etiam peculiaribus regitur normis, quibus eadem Sacra Synodus ritus Ordinationum, sive quoad caeremonias sive quoad textus2 dimutari iussit.  (original emphasis)

Sed ex Ordinationis ritibus illi imprimis considerandi sunt, quibus per Sacramentum Ordinis, vario gradu collatum, sacra Hierarchia constituitur: sic ministerium ecclesiasticum divinitus institutum diversis ordinibus exercetur ab illis qui iam ab antiquo Episcopi, Presbyteri, Diaconi vocantur.3  (original emphasis)

In recognitione autem ritus Ordinationum Sacrarum, praeter principia generalia, quibus integra instauratio Liturgiae, iuxta praescripta Concilii Vaticani II, regi debet, summopere attendendum est ad praeclaram illam doctrinam de natura et effectibus Sacramenti Ordinis, quae in Constitutione de Ecclesia ab eodem Conciliio pronuntiata est, nam textus et ritus ita ordinari oportet ut sancta, quae significant, clarius exprimant, eaque populus christianus, in quantum fieri potest, facile percipere atque plena, actuosa et communitatis propria celebratione participare possit.4  (original emphasis)

1Conc Vat. II, Const. de Sacra Liturgia, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 25: A.A.S. 56 (1964) p. 107.

2Ibid., n. 76: A.A.S. 56 (1964) p. 119.

3Conc. Vat. II, Const. dogm. de Ecclesia, Lumen gentium, n. 28: A.A.S. 57 (1965) pp. 33-34.

4Conc Vat. II, Const. de Sacra Liturgia, Sacrosanctum Concilium, n. 21: A.A.S. 56 (1964) p. 106.

After reading language such as this, it is impossible to believe that the restoration of the permanent diaconate by the Council and the Pope contemplated making any alteration in the sacrament of orders.  Some at least of the conciliar Fathers must have been aware of the doctrinal weight of the traditional obligation of diaconal continence; Fr. Stickler’s articles would not have passed unnoticed.  While the Fathers agreed at the Council to permit a married permanent diaconate, and while there is reason to suppose that the commentators we have cited (Vorgrimler, Philips, Novak, Fesquet), and with them a minority of the Fathers, understood the phrase “in matrimonio viventibus” to connote or denote permission for the continuing use of marriage by married deacons, there is no indication in the records of the conciliar debates that the Fathers ever approved a noncontinent married diaconate.  In fact, the evidence is all to the contrary effect.  The reasons for the confusion at the Council over the meaning of diaconal celibacy are not apparent on the record.[34]

Married bishops, priests, and deacons are no novelty in the Church, but the use of marriage by men in major orders is precisely the novelty which Stickler understood it to be; we have seen Stickler repeat this conviction, which the research of Cochini and Cholij has since corroborated.

Finally, the theological development of the doctrine of “Pastores Dabo Vobis” presented by Archbishop Stafford’s lecture provides further reason for agreeing with Cochini’s affirmation of the patristic origin of the Latin tradition of clerical celibacy; it does appear that the sacramental signs themselves of marriage and of orders intimate the impropriety of noncontinence in anyone who is “altari arctius coniungi,” as we have seen the diaconal office described by Paul VI in “Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem.”

Vorgrimler has pointed to the large minority of bishops at the Council who voted to relieve even the unmarried deacon of any consequent obligation of celibacy.  We can hardly suppose so large a number of the world’s Catholic bishops to be intent upon dismissing an apostolic doctrine, and yet the perduring tradition of clerical continence can have no other ground — but this is precisely what does not appear to have been suspected by that minority of Fathers who voted against diaconal celibacy at the Council.  The minority of the Fathers — a sizable minority — quite clearly intended to dispense even the young unmarried deacons from both celibacy and from continence in marriage.  The only alternative to this conclusion is that the minority read “celibacy” strictly, to mean unmarried simply, so that the dropping of the requirement of celibacy for unmarried deacons meant permission for them to marry after ordination coupled with the obligation to live continently thereafter — but for the reasons which have been set out, that alternative appears to be excluded: in brief, it is pointless.

When the majority reaffirmed the requirement of celibacy traditional for unmarried deacons, and at the same time approved the ordination of married men to the diaconate — thus approved the ordination to the permanent diaconate of men who were not celibate — they did not thereby license the use of marriage by such deacons; had they done so, there would have been no possible basis for their firm refusal to drop the requirement of celibacy for younger candidates for the diaconate.

In sum, there is every reason to insist that the sacrament of orders remains as it has been, and that the current practice — one cannot speak of its canonical institution — of a noncontinent diaconate is an aberration which will not attain a permanent standing in the Church.

Donald J. Keefe, S.J.

(formerly) St. Joseph’s Seminary, Dunwoodie

October, 1998


[ed. note: while this essay shows signs of being dated, the essential dogmatic elements remain the same]


[1] Alfons Stickler, “La continenza dei diaconi specialmente nel primo millenio della chiesa,” Salesianum 26 (1964) 275-302; “Tratti salienti nella storia del celibato,” Sacra Doctrina 15 (1970) 585-620; “Il celibato ecclesiatico” in L’Osservatore della Domenica, supplements to nos. 103, 109, and 115 of L’Osservatore Romano for May 6, 13, 20, 1979; “L’évolution de la discipline du célibat dans l’Église en Occident de la fin de l’âge patristique au Concile de Trente,” in Sacerdoce et célibat.

[2] Archbishop (now Cardinal) J. Francis Stafford, “The Eucharistic Foundation of Sacerdotal Celibacy,” Origins 23/12 (2 Sept., 1993) 211-216.  The then-Archbishop Stafford delivered this address at a conference on the priesthood, held under the auspices of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy on May 26-28, 1993, at the Gregorian University in Rome to mark the first anniversary of the papal encyclical, Pastores Dabo Vobis.  His essay relies upon Christian Cochini, S.J., Origines apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal.  Préface du Père A. Stickler; coll. Le Sycamore (Paris: Éditions Lethielleux; Namur: Culture et Vérité, 1981).  Page references hereafter to Fr. Cochini’s chef d’oeuvre will be to its English translation, The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy.  With a Preface by Father Alfons M. Stickler.  Translated by Nelly Marans (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990) [henceforth, Apostolic Origins].  This latter edition is furnished with an index, unfortunately lacking in the original.  See also Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy In East And West.  Foreword by Alfons Cardinal Stickler, S.D.B., Librarian and Archivist of the Holy Roman Church; Preface by Michael Napier of the Oratory (Leominster, Herfordshire: Fowler Wright Books, 1989) [henceforth, Clerical Celibacy].  At the time of his writing, Fr. Cholij, a priest of the Ukrainian Catholic Church, was secretary to the bishop of the Ukrainian-rite Catholics of London.  As Cardinal Stickler observes, Fr. Cholij’s book is a most valuable supplement to Fr. Cochini’s work, the more so in that although himself a member of a rite (Ukrainian) permitting the ordination of married men and their subsequent exercise of marital rights, Cholij agrees with Cochini that this concession rests upon a mistaken interpretation written by the Quinisext Council (In Trullo) into the Greek translation of the canons of the Council of Carthage.

Fr. Cochini’s book originated as a doctoral dissertation for the Institut Catholique (Paris), while Fr. Cholij’s study was written as a doctoral dissertation in canon law at the GregorianUniversity in Rome.  Cochini’s dissertation, defended before a board headed by Jean Cardinal Daniélou, S.J., was at the latter’s urging, with the approval of Henri Cardinal de Lubac, and under Fr. Alfons Stickler’s guidance, later expanded into the present work.  Its invaluable contribution to the theology of Orders seems to have been little  regarded in this country, although since its appearance in English translation it is being widely read.  Its distinguished author is now a missionary in Taiwan.

[3] During the summer of 1998, American ordinaries received two documents, written in close association by, respectively, the Congregation for the Clergy and the Congregation for Education.  The document from the Congregation for the Clergy was published in English as “Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons,” Origins 28/11 (Aug. 1998) 181-91.  In it we read:

For married candidates, to live love [sic] means offering themselves to their spouses in a reciprocal belonging, in a total, faithful and indissoluble union in the likeness of Christ’s love for his church, at the same time it means welcoming children, loving them, educating them and showing forth to the whole church and society the communion of the family (§68, 188a; emphasis added).

An English translation of the document issued by the Congregation for Education was published in the same number of Origins as “Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons,” ibid., 191-204; it contains the following passage:

In particular, the widowed deacon should be supported in living perfect perpetual continence.192  He should be helped to understand the profound ecclesial reasons which preclude his remarriage (cf. I Tim 3:12), in accordance with the constant discipline of the church in the East and West.193  (§62, at 200b; emphasis added).

192Cf. Canon 277.1.

193Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, III, 16; Ad Pascendum, VI; Canon 1087.  Provision is made for possible exceptions to this discipline in the June 6, 1997, circular letter of the Congregation for Divine Worship; and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Prot. No. 26397, 8.

The circular letter referenced in the footnote quoted supra (193) was published in English as “Deacons’ Remarriage: Laicizing Priests,” Origins 27/11 (Aug. 28, 1997), 169, 171-72, wherein we read:

1. The competence1 to treat of cases of dispensation from the obligations of sacred ordination and of vows in the above mentioned institutes, such dispensation being inseparably connected with dismissal from the clerical state, lies with this congregation. (at 169b; emphasis added)

1Cf. Secretary of State, Letter 230.139 (Feb. 8, 1989).

On the next page of the English tr. of the circular letter the following language appears:

6. As a consequence of the new disposition concerning the permanent diaconate and of the norms issued by the Holy See5 and by numerous episcopates regarding formation, lifestyle and ministerial activities entrusted to deacons, a difficulty that arises from the impediment preventing “married permanent deacons, widowed after ordination” from contracting a further marriage [sic].  Such a second marriage after ordination could in fact be attempted only under the pain of canonical nullity.6  (at 171a-b)

5Cf. Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, 29; Paul VI, apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (June 18, 1967): A.A.S. 59 (1967), pp. 697-704; apostolic constitution Pontificalis Romani Recognitio (June 18, 1968): A.A.S. 60 (1968), pp. 369-373; apostolic letter Ad Pascendum (Aug. 15, 1972): A.A.S. 64 (1972), pp. 534-550; Code of Canon Law, Canons 236, 276.2 and .3; 1035.1; 1037; 1042.,1; 1053.3; John Paul II, “Catechesis” from the Oct. 13, 1993, general audience address: Insegnamenti XVI, 2 (1993), pp. 1000-1004; Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1554.

6Ad Pascendum, VI, and Canon 1087 in connection with Canon 1078.2.1.

7. For some time it has been evident that because of this prohibition grave difficulties have arisen for those who have been widowed after ordination but are desirous of remaining in the diaconal ministry.

8. With a view to establishing a new practice modifying the current norm, which requires three cumulative and simultaneous conditions which would constitute motivating exceptions for the granting of a dispensation from the prohibition of Canon 1087, this dicastery has requested and has obtained from the Holy Father that any one of the three following conditions taken singly are [sic] sufficient for a favorable consideration of the dispensation from this impediment, namely:

—The great and proven usefulness of the ministry of the deacon to the diocese to which he belongs.

—That he has children of such a tender age as to be in need of motherly care.

—That he has parents or parents-in-law who are elderly and in need of care (§8, at 171b).

And finally, at the end of the circular letter:

9. The Cardinal Secretary of State, in a letter (No. 4092.629) of Feb. 27, 1997, has communicated the approval given by the Holy Father on Feb. 10, 1997, to these above-mentioned new criteria regarding the dispensation from celibacy for priests under the age of 40; and in a letter of March 22, 1997 (No. 402.629) [sic], permission was given for the new conditions under which dispensation may be granted from the impediment to a second marriage on the part of the permanent deacons who have been widowed after ordination.  It was further established that this circular letter be sent to diocesan and religious ordinaries informing them of these new measures for future reference.

10. Diocesan and religious ordinaries are therefore kindly requested to give due attention to these instructions should they have occasion to forward petitions for dispensation to this congregation.

Vatican City, June 6, 1997

Archbishop Jorge Medina Estevez, Pro-Prefect

Archbishop Geraldo M. Agnelo, Secretary

The first passage quoted, (§68) excerpted from the document published by the Congregation for the Clergy, clearly knows nothing of, or ignores, the traditional requirement that married men in major orders be continent in their marriage after ordination: the propriety of sexual relations between married deacons and their wives is even insisted upon.  As will be shown, the liceity of this departure from tradition was never discussed during the Council by any of the bishops concerned for the married diaconate.  Further: it is evident that with their promulgation by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, the new norms annul the diriment impediment to marriage constituted by prior ordination to major Orders.  The “diriment” character of that impediment has been summarily negated; the impediment of Orders has been treated as though it were of merely canonical provenance and standing, and its dispensability thereby taken for granted.  The “great and proven usefulness of the ministry of the deacon, etc.,” now trumps “the constant discipline of the church in the East and West” which has required that “such dispensation (be) inseparably connected with dismissal from the clerical state” — this inseparable connection of its dispensation with dismissal from the clerical state is that which makes the impediment of Orders to be a diriment impediment.  The constant tradition of the Church, East and West, has been denied doctrinal significance, and this without any discussion of the subject by the bishops at Vatican II or elsewhere, and in the entire absence of any competent theological inquiry into the matter other than that provided by Stickler, Cochini and Cholij, whose unanimity contradicts the assumptions of both Congregations and of the Secretary of State.

It is to be noted that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, while asserting that “this dicastery has requested and obtained from the Holy Father that any one of the three following conditions taken singly are sufficient for a favorable consideration of the dispensation from this impediment, etc.,” relies for this assertion of papal permission upon a document which on this point is at best ambiguous, for we have read in the circular letter that:

in a letter of March 22, 1997 (no. 402.629) permission was given for the new conditions under which dispensation may be granted from the impediment to a second marriage on the part of permanent deacons who have been widowed after ordination.

In the first place, the protocol number assigned this letter of March 22nd is the same as given the letter received the previous February 27th concerning the dispensation of laicized priests: both numbers may be in error, and one of them must be.  However that may be, in the footnote citing both of these letters from the Secretary of State we have read that:

The Cardinal Secretary of State, in a letter (No. 4092.629) of Feb. 27th, 1997, has communicated the approval given by the Holy Father on Feb. 10, 1997, to these above-mentioned new criteria regarding the dispensation from celibacy for priests under the age of 40; and in a letter of March 22nd, 1997 (No. 402.629) [sic], permission was given for the new conditions under which dispensation may be granted from the impediment to a second marriage on the part of the permanent deacons who have been widowed after ordination.

Here the Congregation clearly asserts, in the active voice, that the Cardinal Secretary of State has communicated to the Congregation for Divine Worship a papal permission to dispense, under certain circumstances, laicized priests under the age of forty from their canonical incapacity to marry.  In this direct statement there is nothing startling, for while the laicization of a priest does not imply such dispensation, and while its discretional grant by the Pope to priests who have been thus dismissed from the clerical state may be more or less rare, such a dispensation presents no novelty.  However, in the Congregation’s circular letter we find incongruously associated with this dispensation granted to laicized priests, another and entirely different situation.  For it is to be noted that the description in the Congregation’s ‘circular letter,” of the Secretary of State’s letter of March 22nd, couched in the passive voice, makes no mention of any papal approval of the dispensation which may be granted by the Secretary of State to widowed deacons from the canon law and the ancient tradition which have barred their remarriage.  Rather, in that same passive voice, we read that, in the March 22nd letter, “permission was given” to the Congreation for Divine worship to grant such dispensations: it does not say by whom permission was given.

Where, as here in the case of widowed deacons, a papal permission to dispense from a diriment impediment is not clearly asserted, as it was in the circular letter’s immediately prior discussion of the dispensation of laicized priests, that permission cannot be presumed, as the circular letter presumes it.

In the absence of a clearly and responsibly affirmed papal permission, who has the canonical authority to grant such a dispensation from a traditionally diriment impediment?  Within the ambiguous context of the Congregation’s ‘circular letter,’ which touches its jurisdiction, the question does not arise.  Viz., we read:

1. The competence1 to treat of cases of dispensation from the obligations of sacred ordination and of vows in the above mentioned institutes, such dispensation being inseparably connected with dismissal from the clerical state, lies with this congregation. (at 169b; emphasis added)

1Cf. Secretary of State, Letter 230.139 (Feb. 8, 1989).

The second clause of the quoted sentence is clearly a continuing limitation placed upon the authority of the Congregation for Divine Worship.  The limitation is stated in the present tense, as a fact in being at the time of the writing of the letter.  And in fact, nothing in the following paragraphs of the letter recite any expansion of this jurisdiction by the Pope, who alone can dispense from diriment impediments.  There is only the general statement by the Congregation in paragraph 8, which we have read supra, stating that:

8.   With a view to establishing a new practice modifying the current norm, which requires three cumulative and simultaneous conditions which would constitute motivating exceptions for the granting of a dispensation from the prohibition of Canon 1087, this dicastery has requested and has obtained from the Holy Father that any one of the three following conditions taken singly are [sic] sufficient for a favorable consideration of the dispensation from this impediment, namely:

—The great and proven usefulness of the ministry of the deacon to the diocese to which he belongs.

—That he has children of such a tender age as to be in need of motherly care.

—That he has parents or parents-in-law who are elderly and in need of care (at 171b).

This is curious: the “motivating exceptions” apply to all dispensations from “the prohibition of Canon 1087”, which applies to everyone in major orders, not merely to deacons: it reads:

Can. 1087 – Invalide matrimonium attentant qui in sacris ordinis sunt constituti.

Yet we have seen that the circular letter’s application of these exceptions to the dispensation of priests from “the prohibition of Canon 1087” requires their prior laicization, in such wise that these exceptions can have no bearing on their case.  Viz.: the first condition expressly concerns deacons who will remain in the exercise of their orders, while the second and third “conditions” for granting dispensations from Canon 1087 likewise can have no application to the previously unmarried and now laicized priest, unless it contemplates condoning the contumacious attempted marriage of the previously laicized priest under the age of forty who, unable for some reason to meet his responsibilities for his young children, or parents, or parents in-law, now seeks a dispensation from Canon 1087, which condonation can hardly be presumed.   Nonetheless, we have seen that the next paragraph of the circular letter expressly applies these new conditions to priests:

9. The Cardinal Secretary of State, in a letter (No. 4092.629) of Feb. 27, 1997, has communicated the approval given by the Holy Father on Feb. 10, 1997, to these above-mentioned new criteria regarding the dispensation from celibacy for priests under the age of 40; and in a letter of March 22, 1997 (No. 402.629) [sic], permission was given for the new conditions under which dispensation may be granted from the impediment to a second marriage on the part of the permanent deacons who have been widowed after ordination.

The clarification of this confusion must be left to canonists: it defeats common sense.

The puzzlement over the reality of an intimated papal approval of the new conditions which would permit the novel remarriage of widowed men in major orders without their prior laicization, which in fact underwrites the encouragement given them by the Congregation for Education and the Congregation for the Clergy to live in marital relations with their wives, might easily be resolved, were the subject letter of March 22nd letter from the Cardinal Secretary of State to the Congregation for Divine Worship available for public or even episcopal inspection.  However, such correspondence is not available in any published collection insofar as a reasonably diligent search can discover.  Thus, even were its protocol number accurately cited in the English tr. of the circular letter in Origins, it would be without value to anyone seeking that information.

One cannot but wonder why these two letters from the Secretary of State, disparate in time as well as in subject matter, were so closely associated by the circular letter from the Congregation for Divine Worship.  They were dealt with separately by the Secretary of State, and no reason appears for their being lumped together four or five months later by the Congregation for Divine Worship: we have seen the muddle which this close association has permitted and perhaps forced.  Further, such a clear departure, in the case of the widowed permanent deacon, from an ecclesial tradition whose authority is nonetheless cited in the first section of that circular letter, needs some rather more solemn form of communication than can be provided by a circular letter.

In this connection, it should not pass without remark that the title given this circular letter by the editor of Origins simply reverses the letter’s order of treatment of its subject matter, which deals first with the dispensation of laicized clergy, and only then with the dispensation of widowed permanent deacons.  This was hardly inadvertent: the editor recognized the relative unimportance of the former subject, and the high significance of the latter, and thus testifies further to the incongruity of their being bundled together in the circular letter.

Not only is the situation anomalous which results from the novel dispensation granted widowed permanent deacons from what has been the diriment impediment of Orders to marriage: it clearly invites a comparable nullification of the celibacy and continence required of the priesthood by a comparably ancient ecclesial tradition, and by the canon law.  This outcome might be thought acceptable on the ground that several Eastern Churches in union with Rome nonetheless permit the marriage of their priests prior to ordination.  They do not of course permit the re-marriage of their priests after ordination without having first dismissed them from the clerical state.  The Eastern practice since Trullo provides no grounds for the re-marriage of widowed permanent deacons.

Once the widowed deacon’s re-marriage is admitted as consistent with his continuing in the exercise of his orders — i.e., with remaining in his clerical state — not only is there undercut the continent fidelity traditionally essential to the spirituality of Orders; there is also invoked by this anomaly a Protestant interpretation of the Eucharist.

Given that the permanent deacon is in major Orders, and thereby arctius altari conjungi, his capacity to remarry while in the exercise of his Order implies either that the diaconal Order is no longer arctius altari conjungi, or that the Eucharist is no longer the offering of the One Sacrifice of the Second Adam for the Second Eve, for by this authorization of the remarriage of widowed deacons the nuptial symbolism of the sacrament of Orders has been dismissed without any discussion of that symbolism, or even any exhibition of interest in it, and this on the level of universally-distributed proclamations by two of the Vatican dicasteries.

The anomaly of diaconal remarriage may continue to be ignored, as it has been by documents issuing from three Vatican dicasteries and the from Vatican Secretary of State: it does not thereby cease to insert confusion into the sacrament of Orders, a confusion which touches the Church’s worship in truth.  Catholic sacramental worship is utterly dependent upon the truth, the authenticity of its sacramental signs, whose institution is of God, not man, but whose safeguard must be the Magisterium.

[4] Actus Synodalia Sacrosancti Concilii Oecumenici Vaticani II, Vol. III, periodus tertia, Pars I, Sessio Publica IV. Congregationis Generalis LXXX-LXXXII (Rome: Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1973) [hereafter, Actus Synodalia], 259-69, esp. 266ff.

[5]A.A.S. 57 [1965] 36.

[6]Codex Juris Canonici, C. 277 distinguishes clearly between celibacy and continence:

§1. Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam, ideoque ad caelibatem adstringuntur, quod est peculiare Dei donum, quo quidem sacri ministri indiviso corde Christo facilius adhaerere possunt atque Dei hominumque servitio liberius sese dedicare valent.

§2. Debita cum prudentia clerici se gerant cum personis, quarum frequentatio ipsorum obligationem ad continentiam servandam in discrimen vocare aut in fidelium scandalum vertere possit.

The distinction between continence and celibacy is again recognized in C. 599:

Evangelicum castitatis consilium propter Regnum coelorum assumptum, quod signum est mundi futuri et fons uberioris fecunditatis in indiviso corde, obligationem secumfert continentiae perfectae in caelibatu.

The most recent examination of the historical articulation of this apostolic tradition, with an overview and criticism of previous studies of clerical celibacy, is provided by Christian Cochini’s study, cited in note 2, supra.  In the foreword of Roman Cholij’s comparable work, Clerical Celibacy In East And West, also cited in note 2, supra, Cardinal Stickler has written that:

These two studies surpass, therefore, all the preceding ones which are often one-sided and even historically wrong, and will constitute in the future the new, scientifically certain basis for every safe statement in this delicate field with all its different and even opposed subjective meanings and objective difficulties.

[7]Vatican Council II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents, [henceforth, Documents] at 387.

[8]The official summaries of the Conciliar discussion of diaconal celibacy may be found in Francisco Hellín, Concilii Vaticani II Synopsis in ordinem redigens schemata cum relationibus necnon Patrum orationes atque animadversiones 2. Constitutio Dogmatica de Ecclesia Lumen Gentium; ser. Studi sul Concilio Vaticano II (Città del Vaticano: Libreria Editrice Vaticana 1995), 310-315; see also “Relationes circa Caput III”, 2066-2067; 2077-2080.

[9]This may be found in Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II [henceforth, Commentary] at 22-30.

[10]“Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” §16 (A.A.S. 59 [1967] 697-704) at 701.

[11]Stickler has drawn attention to the more inclusive understanding of celibacy in the early Church; see note 1, supra, and Cochini, Apostolic Origins, at 43.

[12]“Ad pascendum,” A.A.S. 64 (1972) 534-540; tr. Documents, at 439:

6. The special consecration of celibacy observed for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and its obligation for candidates to the priesthood and for unmarried candidates for the diaconate are indeed linked with the diaconate.  The public commitment to holy celibacy before God and the Church is to be celebrated in a particular rite, even by religious, and is to precede ordination to the diaconate.  Celibacy taken on in this way is a diriment impediment to entering marriage.

In accordance with the traditional discipline of the Church, a married deacon who has lost his wife cannot enter a new marriage.26

26Apostolic Letter Sacram Diaconatus Ordinem, n. 16: A.A.S. 59 (1967), p. 701.

[13]Archbishop Stafford developed this point in the lecture cited in note 2, supra.

[14]The review article, “The Apostolic Origins of Clerical Continence: A Critical Appraisal of a New Book,” Theological Studies 41 (1982) 693-705, which Fr. Roger Balducelli, O.S.F.S., directed to the French original of Cochini’s study, applies an Enlightenment notion of historicity to Cochini’s conclusion of the apostolic origins of clerical celibacy, and on that rather fragile if commonplace foundation dismisses Cochini’s findings.  This is to proceed rather by an ideologically-driven fiat than by a serious examination of Cochini’s argument.  The Enlightenment’s rationalization of history is really not the last word on the subject.

[15]I am indebted to a conversation with Edward N. Peters, J.D., J.C.D., Diocesan Director for Canonical Affairs for the Diocese of San Diego, for a clarifying insight into the failure of the conciliar Fathers to distinguish between celibacy and continence during their discussion of the renewal of the permanent diaconate.  Their inadvertent melding of celibacy with continence may well underlie the post-conciliar divagation from the ancient apostolic tradition of diaconal continence.

[16]Michael Novak, The OpenChurch: Vatican II, Act II (New York: Macmillan, 1962, 1963, 1964), 121-27; see also Ralph M. Wiltgen, S.V.D., The Rhine Flows Into The Tiber: The Unknown Council (New York: Hawthorn Books, 1967), 96-100.

[17]Gérard Philips, “History of the Constitution,” Commentary, 105-137.

[18]See note 33, infra.

[19]The point is developed in Gerald Emmett Cardinal Carter’s “Do This in Memory of Me”: A Pastoral Letter on the Sacrament of Priestly Orders (Toronto: The Mission Press, 8 December, 1983); see also the comparable pastoral letter of Archbishop J. Francis Stafford, “In the Person of Christ, The Head of the Body: The Mystery of the Priestly Vocation,” Origins 18 (1988) 349-360, together with the address cited in note 2, supra.

[20]At bottom, as Cardinal Stafford has pointed out, this is the relation between the ex opere operato effect of the sacrament (the res et sacramentum) — which is the diaconal, priestly or episcopal character in the ordained, and is the matrimonial vinculum in the married — to the ex opere operantis effect, (the res sacramenti) of the sacramental sign — which in the ordained is celibacy, in the married is fidelity, and in each is the free fulfillment, the spirituality, of the respective sacramental sign — whether of Orders or of Matrimony.

[21]Cf. note 1, supra.

[22]“Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem,” A.A.S. 59 [1967] 697-704, at 698.

[23]A.A.S. 59 (1967) 697-704.

[24]A.A.S. 60 (1968) 369-373.

[25]A.A.S. 64 (1972) 534-540; (Documents, 433-441).

[26]A.A.S. 59 (1967) 657, 697; §§ 13 and 42.

[27]See note 4, supra.

[28]Cochini, op. cit., 236 (quoting Ambrose, De officiis III (PL 104b-5a), 247-48, and citing Origen, Eusebius of Caesarea, the so-called Canons of Hippolytus, Epiphanius of Constantia, and Jerome; et passim.

[29]Henri Fesquet, The Drama of Vatican II: The Ecumenical Council, June 1962 – December, 1965; tr. Bernard Murchland; American Intro. by Michael Novak (New York: Random House, 1967).

[30]Henri Crouzel, “Une nouvelle étude sur les origines du célibat ecclésiastique,” Bulletin de littérature ecclésiastique 73 (1982) 293-97.  Cochini’s and Cholij’s works are cited in note 2, supra, et passim.

[31]A.A.S. 64 (15 August, 1972) 529-534; Documents 427-32.

[32]See note 22, supra.

[33]Documents, 423.

[34]The reasons given by the bishops and their theologians at the Council for their advocacy of a noncelibate permanent diaconate sometimes simply assumed without discussion that diaconal celibacy is without intrinsic relation to the diaconate.  This view appears in a highly pertinent document provided me by the late Fr. William J. O’Rourke, S.T.D., then pastor of St. Steven’s Church, Quinebaugh, CT.  Entitled “Formal Request to Restore the Diaconate as a Permanent Order Presented to the Fathers of Vatican Council II in 1962 by the Original Deacon Circle, Munich, West Germany,” it has more recently been translated and published by Patrick McCaslin and Michael Lawler as Appendix 2 of Sacrament of Service (Mahway, NY: Paulist Press, 1986).  Its signatories stressed that

The diaconate, to which, according to St. Paul (cf. I Tim 3:12) the earliest Church councils and the custom of the Eastern Churches up to the present day, married men are admitted, had in the early Church its own specific nature: the basic fundamental was always the liturgical office, while the exercise of the other essential offices, namely the works of charity and the ministry of the word, varied in importance according to the needs of particular places and times. (at 146)

Further on, to the same effect:

The tasks of the restored diaconate would all have their source and center in the intimate connection of the deacon’s office with the Holy Eucharist.  (at 146)

But the signatories and their theological advisor[s] evidently had no intimation of any causal link between that “intimate connection” and the tradition of diaconal celibacy, for they continue:

What of the question of celibacy?  The celibacy of the priest plays an impressive part in witnessing to the reality of supernatural goods, especially in our day, when so much emphasis is placed on the goods of this world.  This celibacy would also apply to deacons under the new plan, when they were members of religious orders.  On the other hand, the Church is also stressing more and more today the witnessing power of the sacrament of matrimony as a sign of Christ’s union with his Church and as a means of sanctification in the world.  As the diaconate of its nature does not require celibacy, it seems that there are rich potentialities for holiness in the married life for those who would also belong to the hierarchy of the Church as deacons.  (at 148-49)

Obviously, this highly pragmatic rationale for a married diaconate can apply to the priesthood as well as to the diaconate.  Further, we see here the confusion of noncelibacy with noncontinence in the allusion to the “rich potentialities for holiness in the married life.”  It would strain the intention of the authors considerably to read into such language that transcendence of matrimony by major orders and the consequent obligation of the ordained to live in continence, which the apostolic and patristic tradition affirms.

The pragmatic mentality we have noted in the “Original Deacon Circle” surfaces again in the near-ultimatum presented the conciliar Fathers by Bishop McHugh of Panama: “Aut diaconatus instauretur uxoratus, aut non instauretur.”  For Bishop McHugh, as for most of the bishops favoring the married diaconate, the justification for its renewal was pastoral and practical.  The married diaconate was perceived as a means of bringing a more or less influential class of laity into closer association with the mission of the Church.  Even Cardinal Spellman, although he had opposed the restoration of the permanent diaconate, had also treated the question of its restoration pragmatically, as a merely disciplinary matter, and Cardinal Döpfner of Munich, who rejected Cardinal Spellman’s objections to the restoration, evinced no interest in exploring the doctrinal content of the traditional requirement of celibacy in the diaconate, although he defended the sacramentality of the diaconate as a matter of doctrine.

Cardinal Döpfner was a major spokesman for the restoration of the permanent married diaconate; his argument, here as elsewhere, was clearly reliant upon the views of his famous peritus, Karl Rahner, whose viewpoint on the question is set out in “The Theology of the Restoration of the Diaconate,” Theological Investigations V, 269-314 (a translation of his contribution, “Die Theologie der Eneuerung des Diakonates,” to a massive collection of articles which he co-edited with Herbert Vorgrimler, Diaconia in Christo; ser. Quaestiones Disputatae 15/16 (Herder: Freiburg im Breisgau, 1962); see pp. 285-324).  In this essay, Rahner displays a highly nominalist theology of diaconal ordination and diaconal orders.  We find him simply reversing the order of sacramental causality, reasoning as though the sacramental sign were indefinitely plastic, continually informed by concrete facticity of the empirical situation, and not by the liturgical intentionality intrinsic to every sacramental sign and therefore intrinsic to the sacramental character received at ordination, the res et sacramentum which is the effect ex opere operato of the outpouring of the Spirit on the Church by the risen Christ.

E.g., we are told that

If one bears the distinction of office and of the rite of the transmission of office clearly in mind — and if one is quite clear in one’s mind about the fact that in the very nature of things a rite of the transmission of office can “demand” celibacy only if the office to be transmitted demands it — then it will be easy to answer the question with which we are now concerned.  For the Church shows by her practice that she does not see any very close and necessary connection between the office of deacon and celibacy.  For this office exists and is transmitted in the Church without celibacy being demanded.  For, those men and office-bearers in the Church in whose case the desirability of a sacramental transmission of office is indicated here are de facto for the most part married men, and neither the official Church nor people in the Church have ever maintained or felt any incompatibility or inconvenience in the co-existence of this office in recent centuries or at the present time.

Throughout this widely-published article, Rahner expressly presupposes that the service rendered by the participation of married laymen in the Church’s mission is the concrete exercise of a factual if anonymous diaconate which, as anonymous, can only have arisen and been transmitted nonsacramentally: we have seen him speak nonchalantly of deacons as

those men and office-bearers in the Church in whose case the desirability of a sacramental transmission of office is indicated here.  (emphasis added)

For Rahner, clearly enough, the meaning of the diaconal office is controlled by the pragmatics of its quite anonymous exercise.  This entirely gratuitous presupposition controls his analysis.  In view of the presupposed “de facto” situation, ordination to the diaconate, as he argues, must now conform to what that “diaconate” already is, by virtue of its supposedly de facto ongoing transmission and exercise by married laymen.  Every significant question is begged.

Rahner’s reasoning discounts a priori the sacramental efficacy ex opere operato of ordination to the diaconate, and reduces the Church’s liturgical worship to that level of historical anonymity which will support the article’s major premise of an anonymously transmitted diaconate already in existence as a matter of hard fact: i.e., pragmatically.  There is no reason for limiting his rational to the diaconate.

Consequently, for Rahner, the sacramental sign of diaconal orders is intrinsically empty, devoid of any intrinsic intelligibility and so without any intrinsic sacramental efficacy, for that intelligibility, and therefore that efficacy, according to Rahner’s postulate, have already been supplied ab extra, pragmatically and “anonymously” by the de facto historical situation.

To accept this rationale is to accept ordination sola fide; the diaconal Order can have nothing to do with the sacramental realism which specifies Catholicism, nor can any of those office-bearers in the Church in whose case the “desirability of a sacramental transmission of office is indicated”.

We need not here repeat nor enlarge upon the sharp criticism already made of Rahner’s sacramental theology: for a celebrated instance of that criticism, see William A. Van Roo, S.J., “Reflections on Karl Rahner’s “Kirche und Sakramente”,” Gregorianum 44 (1963) 465-500.  The same sacramental nominalism as Rahner then endorsed now serves such organizations as CORPUS with respect to their dismissal of any need for priestly celibacy, and such organizations as the Women’s Ordination Conference with respect to their dismissal of any need for priestly masculinity, or indeed for the priesthood as defined by the Council of Trent.

Summarily, those theologians and bishops favoring the restoration of the permanent diaconate as noncelibate generally understood celibacy to be a merely disciplinary usage, advantageous under past circumstances but without intrinsic significance for the diaconate, and a matter therefore dispensable for practical purposes.  The dropping of this supposedly extrinsic disciplinary requirement was dealt with by them simply as the quite acceptable and necessary price to be paid for supposedly pastoral ends — which were recited at length by some dozen contributors to the last section of the Diaconia in Christo.  It is fairly evident that when celibacy is understood to be merely a disciplinary matter, its waiver is eo ipso the waiver of continence in the married deacon: any other view must derive from something more than an extrinsic disciplinary usage.

The conciliar Fathers’ unconcern for the doctrinal weight of the ancient tradition of diaconal celibacy, and for any doctrinal import which the restoration of the permanent diaconate as noncontinent might have, was not uncommon.  While those favoring the restoration often stressed also the doctrinal character of the close association of the diaconate with the priesthood and the episcopacy, this association contributed little to the discussion.  The novel association of the restored diaconate with marriage and the exercise of marital intercourse by married deacons was much more in view, however uncritically, as the language, already cited, of the “Formal Request” of the Original Deacon Circle reveals:

the Church is also stressing more and more today the witnessing power of the sacrament of matrimony as a sign of Christ’s union with his Church and as a means of sanctification in the world.

From the perspective afforded by the passage of more than thirty years, it may be said that the hopes placed in such a “diaconate” as Rahner, the authors contributing to the final section of Diaconia in Christo, and “The Original Deacon Circle” envisaged, have not been fulfilled, whether in the First World or in the Third.  An anonymous diaconate is finally imperceptible, which is to say, fictive.  An anonymous diaconate cannot but vanish from history, for it has no sacramental objectivity, no character given ex opere operato by the efficacious sacramental sign that is ordination to the diaconal service of the altar, and can only be imperceptible to, and thus without impact upon, the secularity of the world.  If the restoration of the permanent diaconate is to be efficacious in those dioceses which elect it, such restoration can be realized only by a return to the Catholic tradition, and to a fuller appreciation of the sacramental, liturgical, and apostolic specificity of the diaconate than was in evidence among those discussing its renewal at Vatican II, or has been in evidence since.

Dr. Peters, Cardinal Coccopalmerio, and Canon #277: rupture or continuity?

Summary of the clerical continence debate and response to a recent Roman statement thereon

November 2, 2012

Note: This post will be of interest only to those following the debate over the clerical continence obligations set out in Canon 277.

The publication of now-Cdl. Francesco Coccopalmerio’s December 2011 letter denying the continence obligations of married deacons (see Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2012 at pp. 12-14) makes feasible, at last, the publication of my responses to those remarks (see no. 6 below). Before doing that, however, some background to, or perhaps better a recapitulation of, the basic history of this controversy might be helpful.

1. Over the last few decades, various theologians and Church historians (including Stickler, Heid, Cochini, Keefe, McGovern, and Levada) have concluded that complete sexual continence has been, from ancient days, an expectation for all clerics in the Western Church, even those clerics who are married.

2. About five years ago, I published an extensive canonical examination of the possibility that married clerics (specifically deacons) were bound to observe “perfect and perpetual continence” in accord with Canon 277. I concluded that modern canon law upholds this ancient obligation notwithstanding an almost universal inadvertence to this requirement among married Roman clerics today.

3. About three years ago folks with access to my canonical study began discussing it before more popular readerships (eventually bringing it to the internet) whereupon numerous representations (some accurate, some ludicrous, but most simply missing the point) of my views were aired. I responded to as many of these representations as I could.

4. In March 2011, then-Abp. Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, published a very brief (as in, one phrase in one sentence) comment against the view that married deacons are bound by any canonical continence obligations. I replied to that brief remark here.

5. In December 2011, Abp. Coccopalmerio sent a much longer “clarification” to then-Abp. Timothy Dolan, president of USCCB, who in turn forwarded the letter to Abp. Robert Carlson (in light of his USCCB committee duties), who in turn circulated the Roman prelate’s letter to US bishops and their staffs under a short cover letter. I noted the appearance of the “clarification” and cover letter here (scroll to no. 12) and sent my extended replies to the original letter itself directly to those with access to its text. I refrained, however, from public commentary on the original letter until such time as the archbishop’s’ remarks became available to the public—even though it was professionally distressing for me to see it, in my view, being misapplied chiefly by those ascribing to it a canonical definitiveness that it neither claims nor has. I did offer here (see “Second”) two observations on points gleaned from summaries of the original letter, which points—though clear to specialists yet likely escape the notice of those not—were exacerbating confusion on this matter.

6. As now-Cdl. Coccopalmerio’s “clarification” of 17 Dec 2011 has become publicly accessible, a PDF of my reply Memorandum dated 16 Feb 2012 (alongside the original letter) is available here. As does the cardinal himself, of course, I stand ready to offer any additional observations that might be required for the accurate resolution of this controversy.

By way of post-script, let me elaborate on a point I’ve made elsewhere, but which is seldom acknowledged: the Church decides matters of significant moment in her own way, at her own time. It is not for experts to tell the Church what to do on a given matter, or even when to do it, but rather, in accord with their qualifications and studies of an issue, to say “here is what you have done in the past, and here is what you are doing now” and to ask in that light, “is this what you want to do?”

My position is, of course, that Western law and tradition expect, beyond any question, the observance of perfect and perpetual continence among all clerics, and that arguments from, say, silence and/or inadvertence (hallmarks, I suggest, of a hermeneutic of rupture) are insufficient to defeat that expectation. But that is not to say that the Church cannot choose to modify or abandon her clerical discipline in this regard; indeed, I suspect that the Church can change her expectations here, and that persons with deeper knowledge of, among other things, the theology of holy Orders, the sacred liturgy, and the nuptial imagery of the Eucharist should advise her on whether such change is a good idea or a bad. My only point is that the Church has not, contrary to common assumption, formally changed her expectation in regard to complete clerical continence, and that damage is being done to important ecclesiastical values by assuming otherwise. As for what the Church will decide to do in this matter, or when she will decide to do it, such things are not for me to say.

I can say, though, that this question is not going away. To the contrary, what was even a few years ago a question posed chiefly in regard to married deacons is suddenly relevant to hundreds, even thousands, of married priests coming in or perhaps coming into full communion and taking on ministry under current and/or proposed provisions. Now, however strong are the arguments for clerical continence among deacons—and they are very strong—those arguments are even stronger yet when applied to priests, men who are still more closely configured to Christ our High Priest and who are the very agents of his Eucharistic cult on earth.

More than 30 years ago, then Fr. Raymond Burke wrote in regard to certain questions on marriage law that “The too rapid growth of practice without a clear and solid theoretical foundation has its most serious consequences in the confusion regarding the very foundations of matrimonial law”. Burke, Lack of discretion of judgment (1986) 85. I think that now-Cdl. Burke’s wise words resonate in regard to the scope of clerical continence, the sudden and prominent rise of a married clerical state in the West, and an effectively bi-furcated order of diaconate, as well.

My scholarship and my prayers, such as they are, are offered toward a fitting resolution of all of these issues.

Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD