Responses by Edward N. Peters to Deacon Rex Pilger on diaconal continence [canon 277]

re-posted in full with the kind permission of Edward N. Peters

Canon Law Articles & Reviews

Responses to Deacon Pilger’s comments concerning diaconal continence

Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD

Introductory Remarks

The Rev. Brian Van Hove, SJ, and Dcn. Rex Pilger are debating in the Homiletic and Pastoral Review whether the obligation of clerical continence (1983 CIC 277) applies to married permanent deacons (see Notes below). Van Hove argues affirmatively, Pilger negatively. My 2005 article on this question has been cited approvingly by Van Hove, but I have not intervened in the HPR discussion because, until recently, my own work had not been challenged by either side. In the October 2008 issue of HPR, however, and on his personal website, Pilger attempts to refute several points that I made or accept concerning clerical continence.

The remarks below are offered for the benefit of those studying the implications of Canon 277 for married permanent deacons generally, and for those following the exchanges between Van Hove and Pilger in particular. I must caution, however, that the issues raised in this discussion are quite complex. Those not familiar with the broader discussion should avoid forming any conclusions based only on what follows.

A priest with Van Hove’s breadth of study needs no help from me defending his position, so I do not take up Pilger’s criticisms of Van Hove except to correct Pilger’s claim that Van Hove’s case “primarily rests on a 2005 paper of Edward Peters”. Actually, most of Van Hove’s arguments derive from such important scholars as Alfons Cdl. Stickler, Christian Cochini, Roman Cholij, Stefan Heid, Henri Crouzel, and Donald Keefe, not from a minor canonist like me.

Van Hove

Responses to Pilger’s comments

Pilger 1: “First, a minor detail: ‘Minor Orders’ were suppressed by Paul VI. There are at present only ‘Orders’”.

Response 1: If this is a minor detail, why does Pilger mention it, unless he wants to imply that my use of the term (or Van Hove’s) is passé? In any case, what Pilger dismisses as a “minor detail” surfaces an important issue: It is essential that one be aware of the distinctions between the obligations binding men in “major orders”, in contrast with those binding men in “minor orders”, in order to discuss competently the possibility that obligations long associated with major orders now apply to all men in “holy orders” in the West. I and others argue that, as a matter of law and history, married clerics in major orders were forbidden the use of marriages already contracted, while clerics in minor orders were not so restricted. It would be, therefore, virtually impossible to discuss the situation of men who are in, or who are considering entering, (major) orders today if we pretend that the traditional division of orders into major and minor had no relevance for the current discussion.

Pilger 2: “Consider the logical content of part of canon 277: The obligation of continence implies the obligation of celibacy. An equivalent, complementary, form of this statement is: the non-obligation of celibacy implies the non-obligation of continence.” Pilger’s emphasis.

Response 2: Pilger’s errors here are lapidary.

First, it is misleading of Pilger to attempt to rephrase the obligation aspect of c. 277 by using the verb “implies”; I am unaware of any provision in the 1983 Code wherein the verb “to imply” conveys a consequential obligation; certainly, c. 277 does not use the word. Unless Pilger can find some examples of such usage, I must score his eisegetical substitution of an equivocal word into the canon, in order to advance what he purports to be an argument about canonical obligations, when canon law itself does not use such vocabulary to impose obligations.

Second [A reader tells me that my second reason for rejecting Pilger’s claim is not convincing. I see why the reader says that. In my Follow-up (26 October 2008) below, I clarify my second objection.]

Third, Pilger’s supposedly “equivalent, complementary” recasting of the canon, if such recasting were accurate, would mean that canon law had made a pastorally ridiculous statement. Pilger says that c. 277 can be reformulated as “the non-obligation of celibacy implies the non-obligation of continence.” But that can’t be what canon law would hold, else, my single, teenage sons, who most certainly are not obligated to celibacy, would not be obligated to continence either! Obviously, canon law commits no such blunder; rather, Pilger’s manipulated text does.

In the end, Pilger’s attempt at a logician’s argument distracts him from seeing that the obligation of continence, like the obligation of praying the Office, can arise from more than one source. Certainly celibate men are obliged to observe continence (the source of that obligation being natural and divine law, not celibacy per se), but men can also be obligated to continence for reasons besides their not being married. I, Van Hove, and weightier authors besides, argue that the obligation of continence arises with the reception of holy orders per c. 277. Pilger is free to dispute that claim, but he first has to recognize what claim is being made.

Pilger 3: “There is another explanation [for the elimination–which apparently Pilger concedes–from the 1983 Code of an exemption for married deacons from the clerical obligation of continence]; the ‘exemption’ wasn’t necessary: Explicit provision for marital rights in marriage is already existent by virtue of the sacramental marital state (almost a tautology).”

Response 3: I think it careless of Pilger to imply that all married deacons are in “sacramental” marriages, for they certainly need not be. But beyond that, what Pilger thinks is a “tautology” is actually his own petitio principii. He is merely asserting the right of married people to engage in marital relations regardless of the possibility that they might have freely and mutually accepted the obligation of continence consequent to the husband’s reception of holy orders. That, of course, is precisely the point in dispute, and Pilger’s alleged “tautology” masks his avoidance of the central question. The defeat of Pilger’s “tautology” claim leaves him simply conceding that an express continence exemption for married deacons was, as I pointed out in my article, eliminated from c. 277 § 1 by Pope John Paul II (see Notes below).

Pilger 4: “As part of the diaconal ordination rite, only unmarried candidates take a vow [sic] of celibacy; married candidates do not take a corresponding vow [sic] of continence.”

Response 4: Prescinding from Pilger’s confusing of clerical promises with religious vows, it is well known that “assertions from absence” are risky propositions. If this one does anything, however, I think it supports the idea that clerical obligations stated in the law are not usually reiterated in the ordination rite (pace c. 276 § 2, n. 3). Consider: at their ordination diocesan priests do not make, for example, a promise of residing in the diocese or of offering mass for the people entrusted to their care as pastors. Why not? Perhaps because these and many other clerical obligations are already explicitated in the Code (cc. 283 §1 and 534 § 1 respectively). So too, it appears, is the obligation of continence (c. 277).

Finally, Pilger’s (5) discussion of the description of the deacon in the Catechism of the Catholic Church is moderately interesting, but his invocation of Canons 1008 and 1009 is bootless, for neither norm sheds any light on our discussion; moreover, I wonder whether one should assume, as Pilger does, that, if there is a conflict between the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism in a given area (and I don’t see much evidence that Pilger is qualified to make such determinations), it must necessarily be the Code that stands in need of correction. It is one thing to hold, as I do, that canon law works in service to doctrine; it is quite another thing to assume that the Catechism, in any given passage, is more accurately phrased than the Code.

I think that the above responses show Pilger’s comments to be inadequate rebuttals of the arguments I have set out regarding clerical continence obligations.


Pilger’s interest in diaconal continence might be purely academic, or it might reflect his concerns about the ramifications of Canon 277 being applicable to all clerics for the future of the permanent diaconate or about the expectations for married men (and their wives) who were ordained without adequate knowledge of the obligation of continence. These are reasonable questions for which I and others have proposed, I think, reasonable answers. I urge Pilger and all those interested in these questions not simply to skim a few blog posts or letters to the editor on this matter, but to study carefully the works of those who are analyzing this important question with an openness to following wherever the Truth might lead.

+ + +

End Notes

The basic sequence of the HPR exchange is: Rex Pilger, “Making sense of the ministry of the deacon”, HPR November 2006 pp. 23-27; Brian Van Hove, Letter, HPR April 2007 p. 6; Richard Kosterman, Letter, and Fr. Vincent, Letter, HPR November 2007 pp. 3-4; Brian Van Hove, Letter, HPR March 2008 pp. 6-7; Mark Gross, Letter, HPR July 2008 pp. 5-6; and Rex Pilger, Letter, HPR October 2008 pp. 4-5. For all the letters, see R. Pilgers’ Deacon’s Bench Weblog of October 2, 2008.

1983 CIC 277. § 1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity. § 2. Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful. § 3. The diocesan bishop is competent to establish more specific norms concerning this matter and to pass judgment in particular cases concerning the observance of this obligation.

The textual development of Canon 277  § 1

[Schema de] Populo Dei 135

1980 Schema Codicis 250

1982 Schema Codicis 279

1983 CIC 277

§ 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.

§ 1. Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam, ideoque ad coelibatum adstringuntur.

§ 2. Praescripto § 1 non

tenentur viri

{qui, in matrimonio viventes}

ad diaconatum permanentem promoti sunt.

§ 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.

§ 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.

from E. Peters, Incrementa in Progressu 255

+ + +

Follow-up (26 October 2008)

I had originally (25 October) posed my second objection to Pilger’s argument as follows:

Second, at the level of common parlance, Pilger’s argument fails, for his assertion about equivalent negation holds only if the assertion and the allegedly consequent implication to be negated are uniquely and exclusively related to each other. What do I mean?

Well, for example, one could say that being ordained ‘implies’ having the indelible character of orders on one’s soul, and that not being ordained ‘implies’ not having such a character. Though such an assertion would be unremarkable, at least it would be true, because ordination and the character of orders are uniquely and exclusively related. But, to take a different example, could one say that being a deacon ‘implies’ the obligation of praying the Liturgy of the Hours, and that not being a deacon ‘implies’ not having to pray the Divine Office? Of course not, for one might be obligated to pray the Office in virtue of another title, for example, because one is a religious or is under private vow, etc. Because, as I and others have argued, celibacy and continence, like diaconate and the Divine Office, are not uniquely and exclusively related, Pilger’s attempt to restate the meaning of the canon negatively (in order neatly to dispatch with his own reformulation) fails.

Restatement of my objection (26 October):

I think Pilger’s reformulation of Canon 277 is wrong, and that his reformulation in turn yields a wrong principle of interpretation, but I have not clearly explained that above. I’ll try to do so here.

Recall that Pilger wrote: [A] The obligation of continence implies the obligation of celibacy. An equivalent, complementary, form of this statement is: [B] the non-obligation of celibacy implies the non-obligation of continence.

I attempted above to set up a different example using ordination and Divine Office. In doing so, however, I failed to track Pilger’s phrasing; I should have set up my example as (A) being ordained “implies” having to pray the Office; and (B) not having to pray the Office “implies” not being ordained. That phrasing would have followed Pilger’s and showed that Pilger and I agree on the formal logic. Instead I arranged my example differently than Pilger did his, critiqued an argument he had not offered, and went immediately to my third objection without showing clearly how I got there. So, I must retrace my steps and try now to address the problem with Pilger’s rephrasing of Canon 277 directly.

So again, look at Pilger’s rephrasing of the canon: “The obligation of continence implies the obligation of celibacy.

The problem with Pilger’s attempted rephrasing is this: the obligation of continence (which binds all unmarried men and women) simply does not imply the obligation of celibacy. All unmarried persons are obligated to be continent even if most of them recognize that they are not bound to celibacy and are in fact consciously moving toward marriage. What Pilger fails to appreciate is that, in canon law and moral theology, “celibacy” is a willed-state, not a “default” setting or a generic description for the condition of being unmarried. To be “celibate”, in pursuit of holy orders or otherwise (e.g., religious life, apostolic consecration, etc.), means to have promised to remain permanently in the state of not being married, and not simply to have recognized that one happens to be not married at the time, even as an adult.

Because the obligation of continence does not imply the obligation of celibacy, Pilger’s rephrasing of the meaning of Canon 277 to (A) “The obligation of continence implies the obligation of celibacy” is substantively false.

Now, if Pilger’s reformulated statement (A) is substantively false, then his subsequent statement (B) the non-obligation of celibacy implies the non-obligation of continence”, even if (I say if, because I still dispute Pilger’s use of “implies” for, I presume, the canon’s ideoque) it is logically equivalent of his (A), unavoidably yields a substantively false assertion. That was the thrust of my third criticism of Pilger’s reformulation of Canon 277, wherein I pointed out that unmarried persons who indisputably are not bound to celibacy are nevertheless bound to continence. Pilger’s formally sound, but materially false, reformulations of the canon would have unmarried persons who are not bound by celibacy not being bound by continence either. I’m sure Pilger would not advocate that outcome, but his rephrasing of Canon 277 results in that assertion and thus must be rejected as reflecting what the canon is saying.

Follow-up 2010:   see


The Obligation of Perfect and Perpetual Continence
And Married Deacons in the Latin Church


Submitted to the Faculty of the

School of Canon Law

Of The Catholic University of America

In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements

For the Degree

Doctor in Canon Law


Anthony K. W. McLaughlin

Washington, D.C.



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