If Church Law requires married priests & deacons to abstain from sex, what is to be done? (+ what did I leave unsaid before?)

Five days ago I blogged about my father’s canonical argument that the current law of the Church says permanent deacons (and all clerics) are obliged to abstain from sex with their wives.

The aftermath has been about what I expected it to be: many people took the news in a spirit of curiosity and openness, and joined me in petitioning that the Holy Spirit will enlighten the proper authorities in the Church as they consider what is to be done.

Others immediately rejected the possibility that all clerics in the Latin Rite are bound to observe continence, and instead have responded by attributing a multitude of shady motivations to me and my father for raising the question in the first place (well, to be precise, my father raising the question with competence and me helping to raise its visibility).

In the hopes of keeping this conversation constructive, let’s focus first on what my father proposes may be done, if it is indeed the case that Church law requires married priests and deacons to abstain from sex. My father writes that there are ultimately only four paths forward:

1. Deacons and priests, even if married, must observe perfect and perpetual continence.

2. Canon law requires priests, but not deacons, to observe perfect and perpetual continence.

3. Canon law requires priests (and perhaps deacons, mutatis mutandis) to observe only periodic or temporary continence in regard to the celebration of the Eucharist.

4. Neither deacons nor priests, if married, need observe any sort of continence.

If you notice, No. 1-No. 4 follow a spectrum from most regulated to least regulated when it comes to married clerics and continence. My father has suggested that No. 1 is how the law of the Church currently reads. No. 4, however, is what the majority of married clerics currently practice. No. 3, surprisingly enough (as I explain below) is how many of the Eastern Churches treat married clerics. I think there may be strong reasons in sacramental theology to suggest No. 1 or No. 2 is the best approach.

My father expands on each of these options at-length here. My father also concludes with this:

I think it ironic, to say the least, that Western married deacons and priests, despite belonging to the Church that has unquestionably held with nearly absolute consistency for a celibate (and, even if married, a completely continent) clergy, have —doubtless for lack of direction— adopted an approach to continence that, not only has no support in Western law or tradition, but fails to satisfy even the mitigated continence expectations of various Eastern Churches.

Some people are not struck by the fact that, with no express approbation or endorsement by ecclesiastical authority, such a dramatic abandonment of Western expectations regarding an important area of clerical life has occurred in so short a time.

In other words, the fact that the current lived experience of married deacons and priests in the West, contrary to our long tradition in the Latin Rite of having a celibate (and indeed, continent) clerical state, is now even less restrictive than the mitigated requirements of some Eastern Churches for their married-ordained men, should at the very least give us pause. Maybe we need to take a deep breath and try to understand this issue with more clarity, instead of simply continuing as if there is no question here.

What I have just written above is the most important part of this post, and I would urge you to familiarize yourself with my father’s original argument that Church law requires married priests and deacons to abstain from sex with their wives, and also this page where he explains the four possible canonical and pastoral situations for remedying this problematic situation.

For those who are interested in the next (but related) topic, I would enjoin your patience and good will for a moment. The one reaction I was surprised to see was those who claimed I had ulterior motives in drawing attention to my father’s argument.

I have noticed that, in the absence of me saying everything things explicitly, my critics and those who disagree with me will often attempt to fill in the ensuing void with their own interpretation of my motivates and goals.

So I’d like to take this opportunity to fill in some of those gaps.

First of all, it’s not true that I took any “joy” in informing 15,000+ deacons and married priests that a case is to be made that the Church believes their ordination to holy orders requires them to abstain from marital relations. I have nothing but respect for these men. I know and admire many married deacons, others who are in formation to become married deacons. I know and admire married priests (both in the Latin Rite and in Eastern Churches).

I also love the Church. For years I pursued graduate studies in theology, only pausing after I had earned an M.A. (in moral theology and biblical studies) and an S.T.B as well. I still may go back for more. Because I love the Church and love her teaching, and because I grew up in the house of a Canon Lawyer, I love the Church’s law, and I believe fidelity to the law of the Church and to the Church’s teachings are of paramount priority for a Catholic.

After almost six years of covering Catholic news, it does not surprise me that confusion over proper catholic practice sometimes arises. As a sinner, I know how often I have failed to live up to the love of Christ, and to live up to His laws as they are presented by the Church. It also doesn’t surprise me that Catholics are sometimes ignorant about their faith and about the practices of the Church. I know I’ll be learning about my faith until the day I die, and I try to never shy away from opportunities to learn more about my faith and the practices of the Church.

So why did I take so long to publish my agreement with my father’s assessment of Canon 277? For one thing, the text of my father’s argument was not available online until only recently, so I could only link to it recently. Before this article was available online, I was aware that confusion was growing over this topic. So only after my father posted his argument online did I have the chance to alert others to what the actual argument really was, instead of people hearing second (and third-hand) rumors.

Some have suggested that I timed my posting to undermine the progress of the Anglican ordinariate established by Pope Benedict, because I fear the prospect of more married priests in the Church. This is such a low blow it almost does not deserve an answer, especially considering how quickly and how often I have expressed my sincere joy over the Anglican ordinariate’s creation, and my dedication to defending the ordinariate against those who are worried those Anglicans who accept the offer will be too “orthodox.”

Let me dispel some other misleading claims: I never suggested that married priests and deacons should immediately stop having marital relations. In fact I carefully avoided any such suggestion because it is not at all clear to me that this is the proper course. As for those who have snapped back when they have seen this argument, “well, I’m not going to obey that stupid teaching” – that says more about their (lack of) formation and more about their relationship to the Church than it does about the validity of the point being raised.

A last comment I have seen made about my decision to raise the visibility of this issue is that it was motivated by my “politics.” Now I’ll just come out and admit I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean, except that the type of people who normally make this claim about my actions always tend to interpret my respect for being faithful to the Church’s teaching as a “political” move. Again, that says more about what some people think about the Church than about what (supposedly) motivates me.

To conclude, conversations about the requirement for continence applying to all those in the clerical state (including married clerics ) have been going on for some years and doubtless will continue. It is my prayer and hope that these conversations prompted by my father’s argument and my summaries will help us get closer to the right conclusion, and prepare our hearts to receive whatever clarification comes from Rome.

To all who have sincerely helped move this conversation in that direction, thank you.



  • marv!!!

    How does continence relate to Godliness? I must have missed a part in the Bible. As I’ve mentioned before, the ritual of not allowing Priests to get married began as a way for the Church to make sure that when Priests died, their estates went to the Church rather than to a spouse. It had nothing to do with Godliness or purity of heart. This entire continence issue seems to imply that when a person has sex, he or she is somehow “less.” What a travesty!

    • Bruce

      Last I checked, “marv!!!” was not the Magisterium.

    • Laura

      1 Corinthians 7. Priestly celibacy has nothing to do with estates as you so cynically suggest. Where did you get such an idea?

    • bmccoy

      “Some are incapable of marriage because they were born so; some, because they were made so by others; some because they have renounced marriage for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Whoever can accept this ought to accept it” (Mt 19:12)
      So yes as you so clearly stated you must have missed a part of the bible. You should check your sources before you accuse the church of using a discipline for its own greed. It is not that sex (in the proper context) is not holy, it is that we are called to devote ourselves to God and distractions such as sex. It is not just sex that it is recommended we give up. It is also considered noble to give up possessions (poverty), and our will (obedience), for God and give ourselves totally to him.

  • Deacon Augustine

    Mr Peters, on reflection I have no objection to you and your father raising this question and for pointing out the apparent disparity between the letter of the law and the common practice of the Church.

    It is an issue which needs clarification for the good of souls and the honour and integrity of Holy Mother Church.

    However, I do find the tone of the following paragraph objectionable:

    “I think it ironic, to say the least, that Western married deacons and priests, despite belonging to the Church that has unquestionably held with nearly absolute consistency for a celibate (and, even if married, a completely continent) clergy, have —doubtless for lack of direction— adopted an approach to continence that, not only has no support in Western law or tradition, but fails to satisfy even the mitigated continence expectations of various Eastern Churches.”

    More specifically it is the words “have – doubtless for lack of direction – adopted an approach to continence” which cause offence. They imply some lack of due diligence on behalf of candidates for the diaconate to understand the teaching of the Church on this matter or even an attitude of making our own way on this in defiance of the law.

    This is not a case of “lack of direction” in any way, on the contrary this is the positive direction and teaching we have received from our canon lawyers, our seminaries, our bishops and Congregations of the Holy See.

    Don’t you think that this is a question which is discussed on every course of diaconate formation? Don’t you think that all the ramifications of our obligation to partial celibacy (on prior death of a wife) are covered in depth? Don’t you think that the Church is concerned that we have full freedom to receive the Sacrament of Order validly by being in possession of all the facts regarding our duties and obligations?

    As far as I know there is not one single bishop who has ordained married men who understands the law to require that they practice perpetual continence in marriage. Not even the Bishop of Rome. (If any Roman deacons read this, perhaps they could confirm this.)

    If your interpretation of the law proves to be upheld, then please do not muddy the waters by any of this talk of “lack of direction”. It would amount to a consistent failure of the Magisterium of the Church – right up to the very highest level – to understand and apply the law correctly.

    I do not believe you are wrong to pose the question, but I do hope, for your sake, that you are ready to deal with the consequences that would arise out of that.

  • Imrahil

    I think the point why this arises such vital discussions is not that we happen to want by any means clergy practising their marriage. Nor can the point be that Your father isn’t right about what canon law reads (as far as I’m permitted to judge as non-canonist). As to the said possibilities, I personally opine for something in the direction of no. 3 where there are married deacons or married priest converters, and upholding the possibility that who is ready, with his wife, to vow continence may get a dispensation and then be ordained even to what is normally reserved for celibates, i. e. priesthood or theoretically the deaconate below 35 years.

    The point why this arises so much confusion, and why I myself can’t think that the law of the Church (with some difference to the letter of the canons) can hold such a precept now, is that we would suppose the whole Church ignorant of its own law. And I’m convinced that we are talking about the whole Church.

    Now I think ignorance of law can be in individuals, but not in the whole Church. Your father said: “Either can 277 means what it says or it doesn’t.” It doesn’t, because it can’t. Not because it shouldn’t, don’t misunderstand me. Because it can’t. Because in that case a canonist not even “only” of such high respect as your father, but maybe somebody of even higher respect such as the then-prefect of the Signatura or the then-president of Interpretations Council, would necessarily have phoned the Pope himself by December 1, 1983, and the Pope himself reacted in a clearifying way, e. g. via a decree of the Interpretations Council, by no later than the beginning of Lent, 1984.

    That doesn’t take away the need your father adressed of clearifying what the law says now.

  • TheresaEE


    I appreciate your father’s drawing attention to an apparent contradiction which exists between the Church’s Legislation regarding clerical continence, and the situation today among married deacons and some married Latin Rite priests.

    After reading the works of Roman Cholij, Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler, Christian Cochini, Stefen Heid and others who make a very cogent case for the Apostolic origins of the Law of Continence for the higher orders (bishop, priest, deacon), it does appear that one might legitimately ask: How and when has this ancient legislation been abrogated in such a way that even the mitigated requirements that exist in the East are not being followed?

    These are valid questions for the Roman curia, and are asked in service to Truth. It does not serve Truth to ignore these questions, or to express animosity and/or cynicism towards those asking them.

    I, for one, eagerly await a response from Rome, and I thank you, and your father, for drawing attention to this apparent contradiction.

  • Bruce

    Because this seems to torque so many of you off, it must be a good thing. I will state now, for the record, that I would like ALL priests and deacons to be continent, married or not. I support Church Law on this and I am obedient to whatever She asks of me. No sex for priests or deacons regardless of marriage. I support it!

    • Francis

      Bruce: HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! Thanks, you made my day.

  • Wm Riley

    I suggest everyone click over to the Deacon’s Bech where the elder Peters admits that his article may be out of date given the Holy Father’s recent Apostolic Constitution. Not a full recanting of the current applicability of his article, but a useful start. The truth will even set canonistas free.



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