Monthly Archives: October 2011

Read what Dr. Edward Peters has to say about Canon 277! His blog “In the Light of the Law” is the place to look!

Dr. Edward Peters: Memorandum on Rev. William Woestman’s advisory opinion on Canon 277 §1

Memorandum on Rev. William Woestman’s

advisory opinion on Canon 277 §11

Rev. Woestman’s advisory opinion2 on Canon 277 § 1 did not directly respond to my writings on this topic,3 but for convenience I will comment on his remarks as if my position on Canon 277 had been discussed. Woestman is well qualified to make arguments against my interpretation of the law and he sets out his views
reasonably. May my responses to him occasion insights for others into this

Observations on the question posed to Woestman

The original question, as it was posed to Woestman, subtly distorted, I think, the debate concerning clerical continence. A questioner wrote: “After reading on the internet that all permanent deacons are obliged by the code of canon law ‘to observe perfect and perpetual continence,’ a deacon and his wife are most disturbed and distressed.” Of course they would be distressed by such a prospect. It makes the Church, or at least canon law, seem unpredictable, unjust, and not a little unrealistic. But none of these imputations regarding the Church or her legal
system are accurate. The first step toward correcting such misimpressions, and
toward resolving an important point of clerical discipline, is to frame the issue rightly.

I have not argued that the Code of Canon Law—by which one means, of course, that complex of canons promulgated by John Paul II in 1983 to be understood and applied as a whole—obliges married permanent deacons and their wives to continence. To the contrary, I have from the outset argued that the Code of Canon Law read as a whole, and the natural law that stands behind it, exempts from the obligation of continence men who were ordained without knowledge of, or consent to, the obligation (which I argue is) set out in Canon 277. Peters, Studia Canonica, 177-178. I have proposed no change in the conduct of married clergy and their wives at present and, depending on which of the potential resolutions of this issue the Church eventually chooses (see below), perhaps no change for married men already ordained, and their wives, ever.

What I have argued, and still hold, is that Canon 277 of the 1983 Code obliges married clerics (deacons in my Studia Canonica article, but the arguments apply even more strongly to priests) to perfect and perpetual continence, and that
(setting aside cases of married men ordained without awareness of this obligation who, along with their wives, must be treated separately) the disconnection between, on the one hand, the plain text of Canon 277 and the canonical tradition behind the canon, and on the other hand the conduct of virtually all married clergy and their wives, must, for the sake of those directly involved and for good order in the Church, be reconciled. Peters, Studia Canonica 179-180. I have suggested four ways that the necessary reconciliation of law and life in this matter can come about.

The Church can:

(1) conclude that Canon 277 obliges all married clerics to perfect and perpetual continence and, after a suitable period of formation, allow married men already ordained, and their wives, to consent to such observance or give up active ministry;

(2) conclude that the theology of Orders suffices, after all, for the Roman Church to drop her ancient expectation that deacons and their wives observe continence, but requires her to retain her ancient discipline in regard to priests who, with their wives, would be given, as above, a suitable period of time and formation to make an informed and free choice in the matter;

(3) require deacons and priests to commit to and practice some form of ‘periodic continence’ as is done by some Eastern Churches; or,

(4) ratify the abandonment of any expectation of continence for married clerics in the West.

It is beyond my ken as a canonist to know which of these four resolutions is soundest, but a choice among these four options is inevitable.4 The resolution of this debate should be decided, I think, by something more than protracted

Consideration of Woestman’s responses, according to numbered paragraphs  

[1] Woestman acknowledges that, when married men were ordained in the West over recent centuries, they were expected to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as were their wives. This is, I think, a very important (and accurate) concession to grant. We may go on to say that continence for Western married clerics, although rarely consulted during the last millennium, has been unanimously expected by ecclesiastical authority since antiquity.5

 [2] I am aware of a few cases of married Protestant ministers being ordained to
Catholic priesthood beginning in the 1950s, but I have never seen, and Woestman seems not to have, any documentation on the conditions under which they were ordained. These cases cannot be taken as evidence, therefore, of either a retreat from or a reinforcement of the obligation of clerical continence. As
for married men coming into full communion and being ordained in accord with
Benedict XVI’s ap. con. Anglicanorum coetibus (2009) documentation on these cases, too, is slight. I see no evidence for or against clerical continence in them.

 [3] I agree that the Second Vatican Council’s const. Lumen gentium (1965) does not address continence for deacons.6 But from conciliar silence on the matter I would construe, if anything, and contrary to Woestman, conciliar consent to the unanimous interpretation of the then-applicable Canon 132 § 1 of the PioBenedictine Code,7 whereby continence was required of all clerics, married and single. Qui tacet consentire videtur. Reg. Iur. XLIV (1298); see also Peters, Studia Canonica, 156-160. Thus, while I suggest refraining from construing much of anything from silence, I think it insupportable to construe from silence on a point of law, an abrogation of a law unquestionably observed for many
centuries, by dint of something as vague as “implicit implication”.8

I thank Woestman for calling attention to Jorge de Otaduy’s brief comment that ‘married deacons are not obligated to keep perfect continence and may continue their married life.’9 This text was not available to me when I wrote my Studia Canonica article, else, I would have responded then as I respond now: Otaduy simply asserts the non-obligation of continence. He does not demonstrate it against the plain text of Canon 277 § 1 or against the ancient Western tradition that held, without exception, all married clerics to be bound by continence. Indeed, Otaduy’s reading of Canon 277 § 1 forces him to ‘adapt’ the express reiteration of the continence obligation found in Canon 277 § 2 to fit his opinion
about § 1, rather than conforming his opinion on both paragraphs to suit the
plain text of the law. My position, in contrast, requires no manipulation of
either provision within Canon 277.

Finally, I think, contrary to Woestman, that the obligation of continence for deacons (and a fortiori priests) is stated clearly, first in 1917 CIC 132, incorporated by reference into Paul VI’s ap. lit. Sacrum diaconatus ordinem (1967),10 whence into Canon 277 of the 1983 Code.

 [4] Woestman acknowledges here, as he has before,11 that the text of Canon 277
does not exempt married clergy from the obligation of perfect and
perpetual continence. Again, this is a remarkable concession from one who holds
that continence is not obligatory for all clerics. But, Woestman goes on to
suggest that continence is ‘excluded by the circumstances and the whole context
in which the law was written.’ My discomfort with implicit revocation of ancient
obligations against the plain text of the law and against unbroken historical
development persists.

As for the canonists whom Woestman suggests shared his position in the past, I have commented in several places against this claim, but two points may be repeated: first, widespread inadvertence to the obligation of continence should probably not be construed as meaning anything, but, if it is to be construed as meaning something, it should be construed as widespread acceptance of an obligation whose existence was unquestioned; second, a number of other canonists (e.g., Provost and Coriden) do admit that the obligation of continence survived into the 1983 Code, and, unable to avoid the import of Canon 277, they use other arguments (which I have addressed elsewhere) to attempt to defeat the obligation. Peters, Studia Canonica, 152 and 174-177.

 [5] Advocates of the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence for all Western married clerics and their wives need not accept a picture of John Paul II as a stealth Legislator who, when as a bishop he voted in 1964 to restore the diaconate as a permanent rank of Orders,12 was plotting to bide his time until he could be elected pope, just to surprise clerics and their wives with a dramatic requirement — although Woestman’s injection of a bit of levity to this effect is appreciated. In any case, I have discussed at length what I think John Paul II accomplished by removing from Canon 277 the express exception for deacons (but not for priests) that had been proposed for them in earlier drafts of the canon.13 The burden is not on me to prove what dropping an exception to a rule means for those were going to be exempted from the rule; rather, the burden is on those who still claim that, despite the loss of the exemption, the rule does not apply to them.

Scholion on Canon 1087

Woestman mentions another scenario that deserves a longer reply.

He posits a widower deacon who petitions Rome for a dispensation from Canon 108714 to enable him to enter a new marriage while remaining in ministry. The cleric receives the petitioned dispensation for marriage, but ‘at the same time [it] … oblige[s] the deacon and his new wife “to observe perfect and permanent continence.”’ We are to take such a scenario, I suppose, as something approaching unthinkable.

But is it?

Consider: Why does a widower deacon need a dispensation to marry again? Because he labors under an impediment against marriage per Canon 1087. Why does he labor under that impediment? Because he freely sought, duly prepared for, consented to, and received sacred ordination. During the lengthy period of preparation for ordination, he and his wife were expressly informed that reception of holy Orders would mean that he was incapable of entering another marriage for the rest of his life.15

Now, is a widower deacon owed a dispensation from celibacy to permit him a second marriage? No.16 Would the granting of a dispensation therefore be a favor to him? Yes. And if these things are so, would it be unjust to grant the favor—indeed, the very favor petitioned, namely, the ability to enter marriage—upon a condition which does not eviscerate the favor itself? I cannot see how. So, the question squarely presents itself: Does expecting continence of a remarried
cleric and his new wife eviscerate the favor of the dispensation to allow the
cleric to marry at all?

Surely no Catholic labors under the misunderstanding that sexual relations, even consummation, are necessary for the validity and sacramentality of Christian marriage. All of the benefits of marriage—intrinsic indissolubility, sacramental graces, spousal companionship and practical assistance,17 civil and social
stability, and so on—all of these are accorded the deacon and his new wife
consequent to a dispensation from celibacy. Only one thing, the right to sexual
relations, is withheld,18 but then, that right was, or should have been, mutually surrendered by the deacon and his first wife upon admission to holy Orders anyway.


As noted above, Woestman did not pen his advisory opinion in reply to my articles, and so I have reacted herein primarily to his observations. I think I have answered them reasonably completely in the confines of a memorandum, but I would be happy to expand on my remarks as others might find useful.

At some point, however, I believe it incumbent upon those who disagree with my position on Canon 277 to deal directly with the extensive arguments that I and others have offered regarding the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence for clerics in the Western Church. To date, no one has taken on those arguments in any systematic way, and only a very few, such as Woestman, have even offered different arguments.

If my interpretation of Canon 277 is correct, then preparations for what I called above Option One need to be undertaken; if my interpretation of Canon 277 is partially correct, then preparations for Options Two or Three needs to begin. And if my interpretation of Canon 277 is wrong, then, of course, no changes whatsoever in the expectations, formation, or conduct of Western married clerics and their wives will be required, and Western discipline for married clerics, after centuries of holding to a far stricter norm, would have ceased, almost overnight, and without hierarchic articulation, to attain even to the East’s post-Trullan
minimalist expectations for married clergy in this regard.

Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD
27 October 2011

11983 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 See William Woestman, ‘Canon 277 § 1: obligation of continence for validly married clerics’, 2011 Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions (Canon
Law Society of America, 2011) 7476, available online at

3 Chiefly, Edward Peters, ‘Canonical considerations on diaconal continence’, Studia Canonica 39 (2005) 147180, available in PDF at, and Edward Peters, ‘Diaconal categories and clerical celibacy’, Chicago Studies 49 (2010) 110116,
available in PDF at A complete
directory of my writings, and those of several others, concerning Canon 277 is
available at

4 I suppose a fifth option is possible: the first, second, or third option is decided upon and clergy formation programs are adapted accordingly. But married men already ordained, and their wives, are left in peace. I offer no opinion on the prudence of such a bifurcated approach, but I caution against it being confused with the fourth option, namely, the express or tacit ratification of the abandonment of continence among married clergy. The fourth option is itself a choice and, not to do anything, now that the matter is being frankly discussed, is, at some point down the road, to choose the fourth option.

5 Peters, Studia Canonica, 156162. While my published studies only go back to the 1917 Code, a number of historians and theologians have traced the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence to primitive Christianity. See generally Liotta (1971), Cochini (1981/1990), Cholij (1989), Stickler (1993/1995), Heid (1997/2000), Keefe (1998), and McGovern (1998). Those works are cited in full at:

6 Although not expressly speaking to deacons, Lumen gentium 42 does present continence in terms that a married deacon, and his wife, could appreciate: ‘perfect continence, out of desire for the kingdom of heaven, has always been held in particular honor in the Church. The reason for this was and is that perfect continence for the love of God is an incentive to charity, and is certainly a particular source of spiritual fecundity in the world.’

7 1917 CIC 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.

8 I would offer a similar response to Woestman’s suggestion that conciliar or postconciliar use of the phrase ‘in matrimonio viventibus’ (living in marriage) to describe “clerics who are married” suffices to reverse many centuries of unanimously recognized legal obligation. Such would be, if nothing else, quite an interpretational burden to hang from a present active participle.

9 See Jorge de Otaduy, commentary on Canon 277, in E. Caparros, et al., ed., Exegetical Commentary on the Code of Canon Law (Midwest Theological Forum and Wilson & Lafleur, 2004) II/1:349.

10 “Therefore, in the first place, all that is decreed in the [1917] Code of Canon Law about the rights and obligations of deacons, whether these rights and obligations be common to all clerics, or proper to deacons—all these, unless some other disposition has been made—we confirm and declare to be in force also for those who will remain permanently in the diaconate.” AAS 59 (1967) 698, Vatican trans., emphasis added. See generally Peters, Studia Canonica 162.

11 See Peters, Studia Canonica, 175176, highlighting comments that Woestman offered in his treatise The Sacrament of Orders (2001).

12 And not, as it is usually described, to restore “the permanent diaconate”, which characterization is a postconciliar neologism importing problematic thinking into the theology of holy Orders. Peters, Chicago Studies, 110112.

13 See Peters, Studia Canonica, 167171, and my Brief memorandum of 19/20 February 2011, available online at

14 1983 CIC 1087. Those in sacred Orders invalidly attempt marriage.

15 While explanation of the continence obligation attached to holy Orders is
virtually absent from formation programs for married men and their wives, the
obligation of celibacy is regularly explained to them. Note, that the minimalistic requirements for dispensing widower deacons from celibacy, briefly in place from 1997 to 2005, have been replaced with stricter norms:

16 While I deny that a dispensation from celibacy is “owed” to a widower deacon with small children, I recognize the difficulties such cases occasion. Hard cases, however, make bad law. I have suggested, on these and other grounds, a solution to the problem of widower deacons being left with small children: raise the age required for admitting married men to the diaconate from 35 to 50 (or whatever age is necessary to be sure that minor children are not in the home). Peters, Chicago Studies, 114.

17 Recall that the factor prompting the petition for dispensation in the first
place is supposed to be the need of small children for a mother. But must a
mother to stepchildren have sex with their father in order to fulfill her role
as a stepmother? I am not asking whether sexual relations between a husband and his second wife are normal, or good, or expected. I grant those things. I am
asking whether sexual relations are necessary for a second wife to mother her
husband’s children? If not, how can the failure to engage in such relations
defeat the purpose for which the dispensation to marriage was granted at all?

18 Strictly speaking, a second thing is withheld from a non-consummated
Christian marriage, namely, “extrinsic indissolubility” per Canon 1056. But, in
short, this simply means that the pope, and only the pope, and not the
couple themselves or any other authority, could dissolve such a marriage. The
chances of a pope actually dissolving such a marriage are, of course,
vanishingly small.

Dr. Edward Peters: Memorandum on Abp. Francesco Coccopalmerio’s letter of 4 March 2011

Memorandum on Abp. Francesco Coccopalmerio’s

 letter of 4 March 2011

On March 4th, 2011, Abp. Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, issued a short response to a letter faxed him just two weeks earlier.1 In his brief reply, the archbishop purports to offer—in a single, parenthetical remark—a clarification of what is, in fact, a complex and controversial canonical issue, namely, the scope of clerical continence under Canon 277.2 The designation of his letter as only a “clarification” indicates that no formal interpretation of Canon 277 was intended, but because the letter comes from the President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, some will take his remark as settling a controverted canonical point. I do not believe
that the archbishop intended such an understanding to be accorded his brief
remark, but I write for those who might be susceptible to confusion in this

Below I will show that, in light of the proper procedures for settling disputed questions of canon law, a parenthetical remark, even by one who holds high dicasterial office, carries no canonical weight and remains merely a personal opinion. Given, moreover, that the prelate’s remark is informal, it is not surprising that he deals with none of the substantial objections to his position; if he did wish his opinion to have persuasive value, it would have needed to address a number of weighty objections. Finally, and unfortunately, when addressing a related canonical issue, the archbishop’s letter fails to take into account an important updating of the law.

 1. The archbishop’s letter carries no canonical weight

According to article 155 of John Paul II’s apostolic constitution Pastor bonus (1988), it is the responsibility of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts “to publish authentic interpretations [of universal laws] which are confirmed by pontifical authority, after having heard, in questions of major importance, the views of dicasteries concerned.”

The proper interpretation of Canon 277 is undoubtedly a matter upon which the PCLT could act, but it has not done so here: no papal approval of the archbishop’s interpretation of Canon 277 is claimed, nor is there any indication that the views of other dicasteries were sought prior to releasing the letter, even though determining the scope of clerical continence would seem to qualify as “a question of major importance”. None of the characteristics associated with the promulgation of an official interpretation of law (see 1983 CIC 16) is apparent, doubt-less for the reason that the archbishop is not interpreting Canon 277 on behalf of the PCLT, let alone is he doing so on behalf of the Church.

But, even though the archbishop’s letter lacks canonical authority, it cannot simply be ignored. Having been published, in two languages, in a respected and widely distributed resource, it will inevitably be consulted by others interested in questions surrounding the clerical obligation of continence. These other persons, many of whom will not be trained in canon law, need to be cautioned against ascribing to what they will see as, after all, an archbishop’s letter on dicasterial stationery, more importance than such a document actually enjoys.

Nevertheless, even though the archbishop’s letter cannot be considered a dicasterial decision, it still seems to represent the personal views of a prominent canon lawyer on a controverted canonical issue. Now the personal opinion of a canonist is only as persuasive as his or her assertions about the matter are sound. Insofar, moreover, as it represents the views of a prominent canonist on a matter that pertains to the good of the Church (1983 CIC 212 § 3), the archbishop’s letter is an appropriate object for reply by those especially qualified to offer same (1983 CIC 218). 

2. The archbishop’s letter expresses a personal opinion on Canon 277 without advancing arguments for that opinion

The issue actually posed to the archbishop concerning the obligation of continence for married clerics was oddly phrased: “an aspirant to the Permanent Diaconate who is a married man has declared he will not practice perfect and perpetual continence” in accordance with Canon 277. He says that he has been told that men in the diocese have been given a general dispensation from this requirement.” On the basis of this narrative, it is possible to formulate a canonical question: “Are clerics who are not celibate nevertheless obligated to practice continence?”

Substantial arguments for and against the obligation of continence among married clerics are available and deserve careful evaluation.3 The archbishop simply answers, however, literally parenthetically, that married clerics “do not have the obligation of celibacy (and therefore of continence) during the marriage.” Such a remark expresses his opinion, I grant, but it does nothing to advance discussion the central issue, for no reasons or arguments in favor of this opinion are given, and instead, it is simply proffered. Naturally, one wonders on what basis the archbishop has come to the conclusion that married clerics in the West are not bound to continence.

A single comment on the text of, not Canon 277, but rather Canon 288,4 provides perhaps a glimpse into the archbishop’s reasoning that married clerics are not required to practice continence. The archbishop mentions three consequences flowing from ordination (celibacy, continence, and an impediment against marriage), and asserts that “This is why canon 277 is not included in the list in canon 288.” Although the antecedent for the word “this” is ambiguous, perhaps the archbishop means that the alleged non-applicability of (only) the continence
obligation set out in Canon 277, in the case of married deacons (only), explains why Canon 288 does not bother to make mention of (any part of) Canon 277.5 But, if so, and however the archbishop’s explanation of the text of Canon 288 might fare,6 his claim about Canon 277 once again merely asserts the alleged non-obligation of continence to married clerics, and thus fails to advance discussion of the correct meaning of Canon 277.

A number of scholars and canonists argue that all clerics, including those married, are bound by Canon 277 to observe perfect and perpetual continence, and have offered extensive argumentation in favor of that position.7 According to the conventions of discourse, the burden shifts to those who disagree with this
position to make their case(s) in accord with canon law and sound reasoning.
Again, because the archbishop was only offering his personal opinion on Canon
277, in a parenthetical way at that, it is understandable that he did not offer
support for his position, but because some might misconstrue his opinion as
indicative of ecclesiastical thinking on the matter, it seems proper to sketch
some of the points that a more formal stance against clerical continence would

 3. Sketch of arguments upholding the obligation of continence for all clerics in the Western Church

As noted above, many canonical, theological, and historical arguments work to uphold the obligation of continence for all Western clerics, but briefly, anyone arguing for the liceity of genital sexual activity among married clerics (including deacons, but even so, priests) in the West, must explain how their views:

  • square with the plain text of Canon 277 § 1, which expressly establishes two obligations, a primary one of continence for all clerics, and a secondary obligation of celibacy for (in light of other canons) most clerics;
  • are consistent with the unanimous interpretation of all predecessor norms leading up to Canon 277 (e.g., 1917 CIC 132), whereby married clerics in the West have been required to observe “perfect chastity” after ordination;
  • explain the decision by John Paul II to remove from the proposed text of Canon 277 language that would have exempted married deacons (but even then, not married priests) from observing continence and celibacy after ordination;
  • account for the twice-recognized canonical right of the wife of a candidate for Holy Orders to block the reception of that sacrament by her husband (see 1983 CIC 1031 § 2 and 1050, 3º);
  • trump (other than by resort to Canon 4, which I have argued elsewhere is bootless) the views of other canonists who have examined Canon 277 only to find, sometimes to their
    disquietment, that its text does, after all, require continence of all Western clerics; and,
  • honor an unbroken Western tradition that scholars such as Liotta (1971), Cochini (1981/1990), Cholij (1989), Stickler (1993/1995), Heid (1997/2000), Keefe (1998), and McGovern (1998), have argued dates to the Apostolic Age and operates in protection of profound sacramental values.

4. Special difficulties with the discussion of norms for dispensation from celibacy

The final paragraph of the archbishop’s letter purports to explain the conditions under which a petition for a dispensation from celibacy can be sought by a formerly-married deacon who, after the death of his wife, wishes to marry again. Why the prelate chose to address this topic at all is not clear, for it seems not to have been raised by original inquiry. In any event, according to the archbishop’s letter, such dispensationswill eventually be granted only if the petitioner
[demonstrates] one of three reasons: the great and proven usefulness of the deacon’s ministry to the diocese to which he is attached; the presence of children of tender age requiring maternal care; [or] the presence of elderly parents or in-laws requiring assistance (cf. Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, Circular Letter of June 6th, 1997).

The archbishop’s letter presents the 1997 CDWDS norms for dispensations from celibacy as reflective of current dicasterial discipline in this matter. The 1997 norms, however, are no longer in force; they were abrogated by papal directive more than years ago.

On July 13th, 2005, Francis Cardinal Arinze, then Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, announced the decision of Pope Benedict XVI to replace the 1997 CDWDS dispensation provisions with new norms requiring the concurrence of three factors, namely, great pastoral usefulness of the cleric’s ministry, and attestation of the bishop, and the presence of minor children.8 These and other important modifications in dicasterial practice were underscored by, among others, the USCCB‟s Secretariat for the Diaconate some six years ago.9 The invocation of abrogated norms concerning dispensations from celibacy further indicates, I think, that the archbishop’s letter was not composed with the level of care commensurate with an official interpretation of law or even with the expression of a considered opinion.


It has been the goal of my writings on clerical continence to demonstrate, in accord with the accepted principles of canonical interpretation, that a great discontinuity has arisen between the plain text of Canon 277 (and the unanimous tradition behind that norm) and the understandings and consequent conduct of married deacons and priests in the West. I have pro-posed a number of ways that this discontinuity can be addressed over time, ways that, I suggest, preserve the ecclesial values behind clerical continence on the one hand, and respect the rights of married clergy and their wives on the other. I look forward to contributing to further informed discussions of this matter.

Meanwhile, Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter of March 4th, 2011, is not an official interpretation of Canon 277. As the mere expression of a personal opinion, moreover, it does not, in the absence of supporting argumentation, make a substantial contribution to this debate, though such does not seem to have been its intent. I hope that my comments on it will save others from invoking it as something more than a mere opinion concerning clerical continence.

Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD
27 October 2011



1 See Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2011 (Canon Law Society of America, 2011) 18-20, where the letter (albeit misidentified as falling under Canon 227 instead of Canon 277) is provided in its Italian original and an English translation. It is also available on-line at .

2 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 pru-dence 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.

3 My writings on clerical continence are of secondary importance compared to the great historical and theological studies offered by various other scholars, but mine provide a succinct overview of the issues involved. See, e.g., Edward Peters, “Canonical considerations on diaconal continence”, Studia Canonica 39 (2005) 147-180, available in PDF at, and Edward Peters, “Diaconal categories and clerical celibacy”, Chicago Studies 49 (2010) 110-116, available in PDF at For the most concise presentations of the ancient roots of perfect and perpetual continence among clerics in the West, see Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler (Austrian prelate, 1910-2007), The Case for Clerical Celibacy, trans. B. Ferme, (Ignatius Press, 1995) 106 pp., from his Seine Entwicklungsgeshichte und seine theologischen Grundlagen (1993).

4 1983 CIC 288. The prescripts of cann. 284, 285 §§ 3 and 4, 286, and 287 § 2 do not bind permanent deacons unless particular law establishes otherwise.

5 Although the archbishop’s letter came in response an apparent inquiry about married deacons, Canon 277 does not distinguish between married clerics and single, or between deacons and priests (or bishops, for that matter, though that issue never arises). Mindful of the maxim, Ubi lex non distinguit nec nos distinguere debemus, a sound interpretation of Canon 277 must suffice for deacons and priests, married and single, or, it must provide a compelling basis for distinguishing among various kinds of clerics. None of these important considerations are alluded to in the archbishop’s letter.

6 I suggest a simpler explanation for the absence of Canon 277 from Canon 288‟s list of exemptions from clerical obligations: the Legislator did not intend to exempt (married) permanent deacons from the clerical obligation of continence set out in Canon 277, any more than he wished to exempt permanent deacons (married or otherwise) from the clerical obligation of obedience and reverence set out in Canon 273, or from the clerical obligation to foster simplicity of life set out in Canon 282 § 1, or from the clerical obligation to avoid things unbecoming to the clerical state set out in Canon 285 § 1, and so on. None of these canons is listed in Canon 288 because the Legislator intended no exemptions from them. These kinds of considerations, among others, must be answered by anyone who wishes to use the absence of Canon 277 from Canon 288’s list of exemptions to claim that married clerics do not need to observe continence.

7 I have posted an extensive bibliography of the chief works, published and non-published, asserting the continence obligation of all clerics in the West, here:

8 See “Document No. VIII: Competence for dispensations from the priesthood and diaconate”, avail-able in Canon Law Society of Great Britain & Ireland Newsletter, no. 143, (September, 2005) at 119. See also fn. 9.

9 See

Dr. Edward Peters: Responses to recent assertions concerning Canon 277 and clerical continence

Friday, October 28, 2011

Responses to recent assertions concerning canon 277 and clerical continence

The 2011 issue of Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions, published by the
Canon Law Society of America, contains two items of interest to those following
the discussion of clerical continence under Canon 277. The first, offered as a
“Roman Reply”, is a brief letter from Abp. Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. The second is an advisory opinion by Rev. William Woestman, omi, now with the Archdiocese of Chicago. Both gentlemen disagree with my interpretation of Canon 277.

Now, I say “my interpretation” advisedly. I am not alone in reading Canon 277 as imposing an obligation of continence on all Western clerics, married or celibate, though I am presently the author most engaged in the public debate about the sharp discrepancy that has set in between the text of and tradition behind Canon 277 on the one hand, and the lived experience of tens-of-thousands of Western married clerics and their wives on the other. Also, my interpretation does not, contrary to how it is usually presented by opponents, direct a single specific resolution, but instead admits of various resolutions.

In any case, Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter and Rev. Woestman’s opinion need reply, the first, because it will inevitably be mistaken for something akin to Roma locuta causa finita (which it quite clearly is not), and the second because it is a rare example of a qualified scholar trying to deal with this complex question in a competent manner. I disagree with the conclusions contained in both documents, but Rev. Woestman’s, especially, raises some points that will allow me, I think, to show how the question of clerical continence in the Roman Church remains very much an open one.

My reply to Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter is here; that to Rev. Woestman’s opinion
is here
Edward N. Peters
Detroit, Michigan

Sister Mary Monica Wood, RSM (1925-2011)

Sister Mary Monica Wood, RSM

October 19, 2011

“A Few Lilies”

Sister Mary Monica was the maven of  “economy of expression.” She had an attention to words and a graciousness with them which is associated with her generation. Expression must be spare and elevated,  and we who appreciated her short stories last winter know what this meant once we listened to her voice.

Her stories of bunnies and bambis, of kitties and puppies, and life in Alma, did not have one unnecessary syllable. Nor did they lack a syllable.  Her sentences were well crafted and few.

Not long ago she said to me that she did not think she had much time remaining and that her time might soon be over. In keeping with her economy of expression, I did not reply and was silent.

Sister was surely the wise virgin who kept oil in her lamp. In fact, I believe she invested in oil. I wondered what those cupboards in her office contained, and now we know.

She had extra oil because she knew what the lamp was for, what was the purpose of its light. The reason was captured by the poem of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Heaven-Haven” ‒ which, some have forgotten, was subtitled “A nun takes the veil:”


by Gerard Manley Hopkins

A nun takes the veil

I have desired to go
Where springs not fail,
To fields where flies no sharp and sided hail
And a few lilies blow.
And I have asked to be
Where no storms come,
Where the green swell is in the havens dumb,
And out of the swing of the sea.

Her economy of expression is contrasted with the copious and generous abundance of oil for her lamp. She knew the importance of the light and the need to keep it burning brightly to “see His face” one day.

She understood that faith GIVES WAY to vision, that hope GIVES WAY to possession, but that charity NEVER GIVES WAY. Rather it deepens and is perfected.

Now Sister needs neither oil nor lamp, but I have the feeling that she left behind quite a bit of it for our lamps.


Rev. Brian Van Hove, SJ
Alma, Michigan

Symbols and the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’

Symbols and the ‘Hermeneutic of Continuity’

In her provocative book “The Rite of Sodomy” [New Engel Publishing, 2006] author Randy Engel writes of the camauro worn for centuries by the popes in Rome, “During Christmas 2005, the pope was photographed showing off a red medieval fur-lined hat—a picture that can only be described as overtly camp.”  [p. 1171] There is a different and better explanation.

Engel is perhaps revealing a lack of knowledge of church history. She should have written instead that it is “overtly papal.” The camauro appears in the portraits of popes before the Reformation. Its revival for a single occasion by Pope Benedict is surely within his well-known program of the ‘hermeneutic of continuity’. He insists that there was no break with tradition and that the Second Vatican Council is misunderstood if it is seen in terms of a ‘hermeneutic of rupture’. Any symbolic union with the past is a way of emphasizing continuity with it as Russell Shaw indicates in “Continuity and Change”  (, 25 March 2011).

To this end Benedict revived the processional cross-staff of Pope Pius IX, the wider use of Latin in St. Peter’s for the sacred liturgy, kneeling to receive Holy Communion on the tongue, and other specific symbolic choices which predate the 1962-1965 council. Obviously, Engel published her study before the motu proprio of August 2007 which restored the Roman Missal of 1962 as well as before the 13 May 2011 Instruction Universae Ecclesiae.

Paul Zalonski puts it thus:

“Perhaps the most apparent and luxurious sign of the new era is the pope’s vestments. Benedict has worn an ancient form of the pallium, or cloak, preferred by first-millennium pontiffs. He also brought back the ermine-trimmed red satin mozzetta, a short cape. And the pope clearly does not obey the article of American political faith to never don an unconventional cap. He has sported a red saturno, a sort of papal cowboy hat, and an ermine-trimmed camauro, a crimson cap that resembles a Santa hat and is worn on nonliturgical occasions.”

[ ]

Was it not Sigmund Freud who said that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”? Ms. Engel is naively American in her political faith and just too untraditional in her statement that the camauro is merely “camp.”

For all we know, the pope’s personal physician may have ordered the elderly Benedict to wear a hat outdoors, and for a pope there is no other choice except the historic “camauro” which is simply the pontifical biretta. John Allen (online National Catholic Reporter, 21November 2010) wrote that inDecember 2005 Benedict XVI once sported the camauro, a thick woolen cap last worn by Pope John XXIII. Several commentators touted it as an example of Benedict’s traditionalism, but in a Peter Seewald interview the pope says the reality was far more prosaic: It was a cold day, Benedict has a sensitive head, the camauro was lying around, and he simply put it on. Benedict says he’s never done so since, “in order to forestall over-interpretation.”


December 21, 2005

“Pope Benedict XVI, sporting a fur-trimmed hat in the rich red color of a Santa
hat, arrives in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, for his weekly general audience.

The red hat with white fur trimming is known in Italian as the ‘camauro’.

It was popular among pontiffs in the 17th century. More recently, it was used
for Pope John XXIII when his body was exhumed and moved to the St. Jerome altar of St. Peter’s after his beatification in 2001. Then it was decided to re-dress the body in the choir dress of cassock, rochet, ermine-lined mozzetta and camauro.”
Pope John XXIII 

           Pope Benedict XVI   December 21, 2005Pope Innocent VII(1404-1406)Pope Julius II (15031513)


Latin: camelaucum,
from the Greek kamelauchion = camel skin hat

A cap traditionally worn by the pope. Camauros are red with white ermine trim, and are worn in place of the biretta of lower orders of clergy. The camauro is thought to represent the headgear of the “armor of God”. It has been part of the papal wardrobe since the 12th century. For a while it was worn by cardinals, though without the ermine trim, but in 1464 it was restricted to the pope with cardinals wearing the scarlet zucchetto instead. The papal camauro fell into disuse after
the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, but Pope Benedict XVI wore one in December 2005. One wonders why we have not seen it since. Perhaps the pope’s doctor did not think the camauro was warm enough.

What we need to see is the white camauro worn during the Octave of Easter.

Reverend Brian W. Van Hove, S.J.

Alma, Michigan

‘Turned-Around Altars’ from “Sacred Music” [Summer 1993]

               “TURNED-AROUND” ALTARS
by Fr. Robert J. Skeris

Father Klaus Gamber, who is deceased, has written for many years
about the liturgical reforms that followed on the II Vatican Council. “The
Reform of the Roman Liturgy” (available from Foundation for Catholic
Reform, 1331 Red Cedar Circle, Fort Collins, Colorado 80524, $23) has
been translated from German into French and English, and has
provoked considerable comment in the European press.

One of the points considered by Father Gamber is the position of the altar
with reference to the congregation. One of the most evident reforms
following the council is the practice of having the priest face toward the
congregation. Much of the propaganda that brought about the priests’ change
in position alleged that it was only a return to a custom of the early
Church. History and archeology were both cited (but without true facts) as
evidence in the claims. Without much study or questioning, priests and
parishes across the country accepted the stories and tore out their altars,
replacing them with tables of wood and blocks of stone that allowed the
priest to face toward the congregation. The designs of the original
architects, the over-all lines and focus of the church were set aside and
thrown out. In most cases the artistic results were bad, and at best the
new arrangement looked like a remodelled dress or suit.

The destruction of the church and sanctuary was unfortunate and often
costly. In some parts of the country, the damage done to the churches by
the altar-bashing reformers was greater than what the Vandals did to Spain
or North Africa. But the greater evil was the damage done to the liturgical
presence and actions of the priest. He was told to make eye-contact with
the people, to direct his words to them, to become the “presider” at the
community assembly, the “facilitator” of the active participation of the
congregation. The notion of the Mass as sacrifice was discouraged, while
the idea of a common meal was promoted. The altar became the table, much
like in the days of Archbishop Cranmer in England.

Among those asked to comment on Father Gamber’s book was Cardinal
Ratzinger, who was interviewed in the Italian journal, <Il Sabato> (April
24, 1993). He explained that there is no historical data, either in writing
or from archeology, that establishes the position of the altar in the early
centuries as having been turned toward the people. To look at the people
was not the question in the early Church, but looking toward the east where
Christ would appear in His second coming, the parousia, was most important.
Thus church buildings and the altars were “oriented” (faced to the east) so
that the priest especially would see Him on His arrival. If because of the
contour of the land or some other obstacle, the church could not be so
located, then the priest, always looking toward the east, would have to
stand behind the altar and face toward the people. That he was looking at
the congregation was only accidental to the eastward position he took.
Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome is a good example of this, because the
church could not have the usual west entrance because of the Vatican Hill.

The cardinal explains further that the almost universal change to altars
facing toward the people is not a decree of the II Vatican Council. Nor was
it impossible before the council to offer Mass toward the people. A
tradition of fifteen centuries of priests’ standing at the head of their
congregations was swept away in a few years. That tradition admitted of
exceptions. I, myself, probably had a record of celebrating Mass in Latin,
facing the people, more than any other priest in the country before the
council. The church where I had weekend duty had such an altar in the
crypt, and I offered Mass twice each Sunday for nearly ten years, all prior
to 1963.

The cardinal was asked if the Church would revert to the ancient tradition
practiced before the council. He replied that there would not be a change
“at this time:” He said that the people are far too confused now by so many
changes so quickly introduced. But he did not say that it would not happen
at a future date. Surely, a great boost in restoring reverence to the
celebration of the Mass would be given by a return. Father Jungmann, whose
work on the history of the liturgy (<Missarum solemnia>) was in large part
responsible for the introduction of the change, had second thoughts about
the value of the change.

The interesting aspect of the discussion brought about by Father Gamber’s
book is that little by little the propaganda and false assertions invoked
to bring about the liturgical reforms following the council are now being
exposed and found to be without truth or basis, historical, archeological
or liturgical. The errors swallowed by the clergy and laity alike in the
sixties included such lies as the elimination of Latin, the forbidding of
choirs, tearing out of communion rails, statues, tabernacles, and
vestments-all in the name of the council or perhaps the “spirit of the
council:” Thank God the truth is beginning to re-appear.


This article appeared in the Summer 1993 issue of “Sacred Music.” Published
by the Church Music Association of America, 548 Lafond Avenue, St. Paul, MN

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Copyright (c) Trinity Communications 1994.
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