Church Law says Permanent Deacons (and all clerics) are obliged to abstain from sex, notes Canonist Edward Peters {updated}

[To keep things simple I am keeping this topic limited to this one post which will be updated often – please scroll down for the latest updates – the most recent one took place Wednesday, Jan 19, 11AM ET]

I have been struggling to decide the appropriate way to help bring this issue before the Church’s attention.

Canon Lawyer Ed Peters

This little point, illustrated my father Canon Layer Ed Peters, has potentially huge consequences for many thousands of men already serving as permanent deacons in the United States (and around the world), and it also promises to impact the growing number of married Anglican and other protestant clergy coming into the Church through the ordinariate established by Pope Benedict and similar, previous provisions.

Simply put: the law of the Church says that permanent deacons, because they are clerics, are obliged to observe “perfect and perpetual continence.” In simple terms, permanent deacons are obligated by law to refrain from sexual relations with their wife once they are ordained. [Note: Celibacy is the state of being unmarried. Continence is abstaining from sex within marriage. Priests are required to be celibate (which presumes they are continent). Deacons are called to be continent.]

More than that, the same obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence would seem to apply to married priests who obviously remain married after they enter the Church and are ordained as priests (this would seemingly apply to all married Anglican clergy about to be ordained as Catholic priests). Again, simply put, ordination to holy orders in the Roman Catholic Church always carries with it the obligation to abstain completely from sexual relations.

My father has published on his website a complete explanation for this argument, briefly, that we have fallen out of the habit of observing Canon 277 in the Church, but the law (and theology behind the law) remains unchanged. In addition, he has made available the PDF file of his 34 page academic article substantiating his argument. Fair warning: the argument is air-tight. There are, in my opinion, simply no loop-holes to be found.

Fr. John Boyle, an English canonist, also has a helpful post on his blog explaining my father’s argument step-by-step.

I believe this is a “Josiah moment” for the Church. In the Old Testament, we are told that the good King Josiah discovered the law of Moses, after it had been long forgotten, and had it proclaimed again to the people of Israel. In the West today, we have forgotten the Church’s discipline about one of the essential obligations that ordination to orders carries with it. We are now witnessing this forgotten law being discovered again. The question now is, “will we follow the law?”

There are more than 15,000 permanent deacons in the United States alone, and the great majority of them are married. I do not know the number of married priests, but we can expect their number internationally to increase as more married Anglican priests come into the Roman Catholic Church.

To the best of my knowledge, none of these candidates were made aware that ordination to orders in the Catholic Church carries with it the obligation to be continent. This presents an urgent pastoral situation that I trust the American bishops to address.

I know that returning to this teaching will be met with resistance by some (“Wait, this isn’t what I signed up for!”) but my hope is that permanent deacons (and the rest of us) can acknowledge the wisdom of the Church’s teaching and discipline. How we deal with the situation of permanent deacons who were ordained without full knowledge of the requirements bound up with their office remains to be seen, but my father includes some suggestions.

After all, the obligation to abstain from sexual activity elevates the dignity of orders, and increases the sign value represented by observing continence for the sake of God’s Kingdom. This is something that all unmarried priests (and transitional deacons) are already bound to observe. Including permanent deacons and married priests among those who are bound to observe continence matches the reality that all these men described above share fundamentally in the same sacred reality: holy orders. There are not “two ways” of being a cleric in the Roman Catholic Church, instead, one sacrament unites them all, and carries the same obligations for all who are ordained as clerics.

Following the law removes the ambiguity and double-standard that we currently witness in the Church, an ambiguity that those who argue for a married priesthood capitalize on whenever they try to make the case that permanent deacons and married priests being able to have sexual relations means that all priests and deacons should. Rather, the solution is for all priests and deacons to observe the same perfect continence, as has been the long-standing tradition in Canon Law and the Western Catholic tradition.

The obligation of deacons to observe perfect continence, furthermore, provides an opportunity the wives of these married deacons to make a praiseworthy sacrifice on behalf of the Church. As Father Boyle says:

If the future deacon were to become bound by the obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence, this would involve the renunciation by the wife of her marital rights. It would be unjust for her to be deprived of these rights by her husband’s ordination, but she could willingly renounce these rights for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.

In other words, as my father explains in detail, the way the Church’s law is written, it presumes that wives have a say in their husband’s decision to pursue the permanent diaconate – because wives have something to lose if their husbands decide to pursue holy orders. At the same time, they have something to gain if they decide to join in their husband’s decision to abstain from marital relations for the sake of the Kingdom.

I expect my father’s argument to spark a wider conversation in the Church. And I hope that before anyone starts making statements about this finding and drawing claims from it, they read my father’s explanation in full, because he has done his best to anticipate many of the misunderstandings that are sure to happen along the way as people grapple to understand the Church’s teaching.

I believe it is important for this conversation to happen before large numbers of married Anglican priests are brought into the Church. They, and their wives, deserve to know the Church’s teaching on the necessity of all clerics in the Catholic Church to observe continence. And those who are permanent deacons in America and the rest of the world deserve to know the sacred obligation which accompanies their ordination.

UPDATE: Here are links to the first round of reactions to this post. Below I will do my best to quickly respond to the most common reactions I am seeing in comment boxes:

Now I’ll do my best to respond to the most common responses I’ve read around the net:

“But if Deacons can’t have sex they’ll all leave!” – We must recall that the Church is not in the numbers game. Pope Benedict reminded us during his trip to the UK that the Church is not meant to be popular, she is meant to be faithful to the teachings of Christ and to her sacred traditions. The same (false) arguments that people make for married priests in the Western Church equally do not apply to married deacons. The Church has been praying for more vocations to the priesthood and has recently been blessed with a surge in young vocations – men who are willing to live chastely for the Kindgom. It is legitimate to also pray for mature men who are willing to practice continence as deacons.

“Canon Law is wrong/let’s change Canon Law back to the way it was.” – Here’s the thing: Canon Law (certainly since 1917) has always said the same thing about the requirements of holy orders. The way Church law reads now is not a typo or an oversight: it reflects the confirmed judgement and practice of the Church. Furthermore, the Canon Law on this point in question is not arbitrary – it is founded on the Church’s tradition and its theological understanding of sacred orders. The easiest way to understand this is to recall that, in the Church’s eyes, deacons and priests share in the same sacrament: holy orders. It should not surprise us to discover that they are called to observe many of the same personal disciplines as well.

“Sections 1 and 2 of Canon 277 are trumped by Section 3 – problem solved!” – What I think is good about this response is that it means the person claiming it is taking the law seriously. After all, one would only cite the law in support of your argument if you believe the law has standing (I share this view). Of course, to say that Section 3 makes it possible to dispense from the obligation for deacons (and all clerics) to observe continence also means you must believe that Section 1 obliges them to observe continence in the first place. In other words, arguments from Canon 277 presume that the starting-point for the Church when it comes to the obligations of deacons is for them to observe “perfect and perpetual continence.” Now, I know of no published examples where a bishop actually claimed to have used Section 3 to dispense from the obligations described in Section 1, which gets us back to where my father’s argument begins. UPDATE: my father Ed Peters has responded himself to this common question

[Fr. Thomas Boyle offers an opinion on the status of married Anglicans becoming Catholic:

Married men wishing to be priests in the Anglican Ordinariate will obtain a dispensation from the law contained in Can. 277 §1. This means that, not only are they dispensed from celibacy, they are also dispensed from continence.

Anglicanorum coetibus Art VI § 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.”]

FINAL POINT: THIS WON’T BE DECIDED BY US. The theological and pastoral questions raised by my father’s article go beyond the authority of any lay authority to decide definitively. It is up to the bishops of the Church, together with the competent authorities in Rome, to issue a clarification and enunciate a full and timely response to the theological and pastoral questions raised by this argument.

In the meantime, I will do my best to respond to the questions that are sure to arise in the meantime. And I would invite all of us in a spirit of prayer and humility to be attentive to the will of the Holy Spirit, who continues to guide the Church in all things.



  • Deacon Frank Enderle

    Fortunately the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts resolved the issue once again.

    Here is the unofficial translation of the response to a dubium with regard to Canon 277. This question was actually asked and resolved in 1984 or so.

    Unfortunately, Canon Lawyers continue to try to make sense of a non-ussue.

    (Unofficial Translation)
    Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts
    Vatican City, March 4, 2011
    N. 12959/2011

    Dear Sir,

    We have received a fax of your kind letter of February 20th, 2011. In it you proposed a dubium with this reasoning: “However an issue has arisen where an aspirant to the Permanent Deaconate who is a married man has declared he will not practice ‘perfect and perpetual continence’ in accordance with Canon 277. He says he has been told that men in the diocese have been given a general
    dispensation from this requirement.”

    In regard to this matter I am happy to offer the following clarifications:

    The obligation of celibacy applies to all clerics, including permanent deacons who are not married prior to ordination (cf. c. 1037).

    Permanent deacons who are married prior to ordination do not have the obligation of celibacy (and therefore of continence) during the marriage. They have the obligation of celibacy in case of widowhood (cf. c. 1087).

    This is why canon 277 is not included in the list in canon 288.

    Finally, the dispensation from the impediment of canon 1087 does not apply to the diocesan bishop. He can, instead, given the case in question, transmit the request for a dispensation to the Holy See. The dispensation can be requested
    only of the Holy See by a permanent married deacon who has been widowed and will be eventually granted only if the petitioner admits 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 a tender age requiring maternal care; the presence of elderly parents or in-laws requiring assistance (cf. Congregation
    for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, Circular Letter of June 6th, 1997).

    Francesco Coccopalmerio

  • Retired Deacon

    What’s your point? It’s a law, not a doctrine. All laws can be dispensed, changed or muted in someway and that’s essentially what has happened. I wonder if you believe only the Latin mass is the only acceptable liturgy?

    • Deacon Aspirant

      You say that like a law can just be ignored because it has the potential to be changed. This point matters because it IS a law, and we are bound by obedience to obey those laws which are in force.

  • Alphonse Fortnight

    I think it’s funny that Dr. Peters did so much to squeeze the vice on this irregular order. It is about sex in both senses. Continence, the refusal to ejaculate, is the standard by which we shall be judged. All others be anathamized. Get with it or join the fembo religious sisters at the Episcopalian ecclesial community!

  • Tom 1947

    This discussion is valuable as it helps to clarify an issue often glossed over: the church’s bizarre view that sex (in both senses, as an activity and as gender) is central to ministerial roles.
    Requiring continence from married deacons gives the lie to the recent teaching that marriage is a vocation and that married sexual love is part of that vocation’s expression.It returns us to the de facto position that being sexually active is in some way a barrier to faithful discipleship.
    It also chimes with the view that women cannot represent Christ at the altar because he was male and that altar-girls are dangerous.

  • fico

    okay…why dont i get married, live up to 50 or 60yrs and then become a permanent deacon…… i feel that law about permanent deacons not haing sex should be re-addressed… if they can marry let them still have sex. well God’s will be done



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