The Controversies of the Permanent Diaconate

This is a syndicated post from The American Catholic. [Read the original article...]

I read.  I read a lot.  I like to think that I have a decent working knowledge of contemporary discussions within the Church.  And yet more often than not, I am humbled when I run across a topic or debate that has been ongoing for years, but I am just now reading about it.  It just goes tho show that the more a man knows, the more he knows how much there is that he doesn’t know.

It happened most recently this past weekend.  I got wind of a debate about the permanent diaconate and decided to read up on it, when what to my surprise, the debate is almost a decade old.  Of course I knew that there have been several contentious conversations surrounding the topic of the permanent diaconate.  One the one hand, some have never fully accepted its reinstatement.  One the other hand, enthusiastic proponents of the institution refuse to recognize the complications and confusion that come from a married man with one foot in world of clergy and the other in the world of the laity.  For my own part, I readily recognize that Holy Mother Church has granted us the reality of the permanent diaconate, and I thus take an initial posture of humility and obedience.  And yet the whole thing has always been a bit confusing for me.  When some have suggested that I pursue the diaconate, I have had trouble reconciling the “dual vocation” nature of the whole thing.  Perhaps this is indicative of the aforementioned confusion, or perhaps it simply means that I am not called to such a state in life.

Nevertheless, there is a particular debate regaining some steam based on a Canon Law article from the well-known canon lawyer, Dr. Edward Peters.  The article was written back in 2005, but I get the impression that he has been defending his thesis ever since.  As I stated from the start, for whatever reason, I am just now getting wind of it, and I have to admit that topic is fascinating, which probably speaks more to my being a geek than it does to the topic itself.  The question is simple:

According to Canon Law, when a married man is ordained a deacon, must he refrain from martial intercourse for the rest of his life?

The question itself is provocative, with my initial reaction being, “Well, of course not.”  In fact, it was provocative enough that I thought of titling this post something like, “Deacons and Sex,” just to see if it would generate more hits.  I took the high road, however.

 I immediately read Dr. Peters’ article, and I have poured through many of the irate responses written since 2005.  When all is said and done (though I suppose this matter remains somewhat open, so all is not in fact said nor done), I have three observations to make.  First, Dr. Peters is on to something.  His argument is compelling, cohesive, and comprehensive.  Second, most people are mischaracterizing Dr. Peters’ argument.  Third, those that are responding to Dr. Peters have not yet provided a reasoned response.  This of course doesn’t mean that one is out there yet to be discovered and/or written; it simply means that I have not yet found it.
What I would like to do here is to present a very trimmed down outline of Dr. Peters’ argument, indicate where most people seem to have misunderstood or mischaracterized the argument, and address the one counter argument I have found that even comes close to a refutation of Dr. Peters’ position.
Let’s begin with a few definitions.  We must distinguish between continence,celibacy and chastity.  By continence we mean the refraining of all sexual relations.  By celibacy we mean refraining from marriage itself.  By chastity we mean the conforming of one’s sexual actions with the moral law within the context of one’s state in life.  We will be concerned mostly with the first two definitions: continence and celibacy.
Of course all of God’s people are required by the moral law to practice chastity.  For an unmarried person (ordained or otherwise) this would require continence, or the abstaining from all sexual relations.  For married people this may require periodic continence if for serious reasons they do not wish to conceive a child.  Similarly by reason of the moral law this same reason, celibacy (not being married) also requires continence (not engaging in sexual activity).
We should also note what is not being debated here or even generally within the current discussion: can an ordained deacon subsequently marry, if he has never been married, or re-marry if his spouse passes away?  The answer to this question is certainly, “No.”  Canon Law is quite clear in this regard, and no serious person is debating that point.  There are those who think it should not be this way, but do so with specific knowledge that Canon Law stipulates otherwise.
With that, let’s outline the argument of Dr. Peters.
The central Canon for Peters is #277:

“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” (CCC 1983, c. 277).

Note first that deacons most certainly fit the definition of “clergy,” and so they are seemingly included in this call to “perfect and perpetual continence.”  (Recall that this means the refraining of sexual activity.)

 What follows is a list of Dr. Peters’ major points:

1.  There is a deliberate distinction between celibacy and continence: both are mentioned for good reason.  In the case of the married deacon, celibacy (refraining from being married) is not applicable by the very definition of celibacy.  In the case of a priest, continence is redundant.  (By the moral law, any many who is not married would be bound by continence.)  Thus, the canon seems to be stressing both celibacy and continence separately, and in its wording holds continence as the “higher” good that is surrendered, with celibacy being presented as a secondary good.

2.  The first point is made clearer by reference section 2 of this same canon (#277): “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” (emphasis added by Peters).  Here there is a mention of continence, but not of celibacy.

These two points serves to illustrate that continence and celibacy are two separate concepts, and they are not necessarily joined together in all cases.

3.  Canon 288 specifically exempts permanent deacons from a variety of obligations (such as the inability to hold political office and the requirement to wear clerical dress, among other obligations), and it makes no attempt to distinguish between married and non-married permanent deacons.  There is no mention of continence among the exemptions.

4.  Canons 1042 and 1037 deal with the exemption for celibacy among permanent deacons.  (1037 is where we find the requirement that unmarried men who become ordained to the diaconate are bound not only to continence, but also to celibacy; that is, they cannot get married.)  Neither canon specifically dispenses the permanent deacon from the requirement to observe continence.

These two points serve to illustrate that Canon Law has ample opportunity to specifically exempt married deacons from the requirement of continence, but in fact does not.

5.  Canon 1031 requires that a married man obtain the consent of his wife before being ordained to the diaconate.  Peters argues the fact that spousal consent is required provides a strong argument that the intent of Canon 277 is that married deacons are bound to continence within their marriage.  He asks, “To what is the spouse consenting, and why is her consent necessary?”  Peters argues that if the consent is not because of the required continence, then no-one has been able to provide a reasonable answer to its necessity.  Vague attempts are made at claiming that the wife is consenting to the pressures that may be put on the marriage because of this new commitment, but Peters sees these arguments as quite weak: in no other Sacrament does one need the permission of the spouse in order to receive it.  One does not, for instance, need to permission of a non-Christian spouse in order to receive Baptism, even thought this could very much put pressure on the marriage.  The requirement of spousal consent would only make sense if the wife was being asked to forgo one of her own rights guaranteed by her state in life, i.e. the sexual union with her husband.

6.  The 1917 Code of Canon Law does not distinguish between the requirement of continence and the requirement of celibacy (no such distinction would have been necessary since all clergy was to be unmarried, and all unmarried men, regardless of particular state in life, are called to continence by the moral law).  Yet available commentators on the 1917 Code, in discussing dispensations from the Vatican for married clergy, were unanimous: a married man who is ordained would be required to forego sexual relations with his wife.  This is important because in reinstating the permanent diaconate, Pope Paul VI said explicitly, “We must confirm all that is said in the [1917] Code of Canon Law about the rights and duties of deacons, either those rights and duties which they have in common with all clerics or those proper to themselves, except where We here state otherwise, and We decree that these rules are to apply to those whom are to be permanent deacons as well.”   The exemption from celibacy is “state[d] otherwise,” and yet nowhere is there an exemption from continence.  This, it seems that the intent of the Holy See at the time when the permanent diaconate was reinstated was explicitly not to remove the exemption of continence from married deacons.

7.  The final argument comes from the revision history of the pivotal canon 277.  Peters notes that the paragraph underwent two signifiant changes.  The first version had the following statement immediately after the first section.  “Men of mature age, promoted to the stable diaconate, who are living in marriage, are not bound to the prescription of section 1 [which imposes both celibacy and continence]; these however, upon the loss of their wife, are bound to celibacy.”  What is significant here is that the language is vague enough to suggest that all of canon 277 section 1 would not apply to married deacons.  It seems to dispense with the entire section, which could then be read as exemption married deacons from both celibacy and continence.  The second version revised the very same sentence as, “Men promoted to the permanent diaconate, living in marriage, are not bound to the prescription of section 1.”  This is even more vague as it seems to not only exempt married deacons from continence, but could also be understood to allow a deacon to re-marry upon the death of his spouse.  What is significant here is that neither version of the sentence made it into the final promulgated Code of Canon Law.  The history suggests that the authors knew that these statements were vague and could be misconstrued to exempt marriage deacons from continence.

These three points positive evidence that the intent of those writing the canon was to specifically retain the requirement of continence for married deacons, (the first being the reference to Pope Paul VI found above).

 After this (not so) brief review, I think it is important to state clearly what it is that Dr. Peters believes, but more to the point what he doesn’t believe:

A.  The 1983 Code of Canon Law, after careful examination from a variety of angles, imposes upon married men who want to be ordained as permanent deacons a requirement of continence.  That is, married men who are ordained to the diaconate are to refrain from sexual relations.  Such a drastic requirement is precisely why spousal consent is necessary.

B.  [CURRENT DEACONS, PLEASE READ.]  Those who have been ordained to the permanent diaconate already and have not been made aware of this requirement are not bound by it.  Under Canon Law, no one can be bound to surrender a right unless they were made aware of it at the time of their ordination.

It is important to note that Dr. Peters very much sees the current situation as one that is irregular.  What’s more, he doesn’t even seem to take any one specific position on how to rectify it.  More to the point, I cannot find anywhere that he suggests that married deacons should have imposed on them a requirement of continence.  He is simply stating that Canon Law does in fact make such an imposition.

Peters offers four solutions for rectifying the current situation:  (1) reaffirm the unbroken tradition of continence for all clerics, including married deacons – from this point forward begin enforcing the requirement with newly ordained men, (2) reaffirm the practice for priests, but abandon it for married clergy, (3) change the requirement to a temporary continence for married clergy, or (4) abandon any expectation of continence for married clerics.
Dr. Peters’ thesis is simple: practice and Canon Law are not in conformity.  One of the two (or both) needs changed.  Either rewrite or otherwise clarify the current Code or change the practice to confirm with the Code.  Those who have come out in violent opposition to Dr. Peters seem to have missed this point.  While I am sure that Dr. Peters has his own personal preference within the four options, I cannot find anywhere that he oversteps his bounds as a canon lawyer: he merely states that something needs done, and he offers the list of possible solutions.
Finally, we have the various attempts at debunking Peters’ argument.  Most of these are not worth considering, as they have missed the point altogether.  Some have attempted a historical study on the presence of married clergy within the Church, but this is altogether irrelevant.  Peters is making an argument from Canon Law.  Whether married deacons were required to observe continence throughout all of history is not relevant; Peters is claiming that they are required to do so now.
Others has cited the widespread ignorance of the law itself as proof of Peters’ erroneous reading.  In other words, “Surely if thousands of married men have been ordained by bishops without knowledge of this requirement, something must be wrong.  Surely Peters’ reading must be erroneous.”  The problem here is (1) there is no attempt at why canon 277 should not be read according to Peters, but only states that it is “not being read according to Peters,” and (2) Peters himself has nowhere suggested what the practice should or should not be, only that it is not in conformity with Canon Law.
The only argument worth dissecting is the one that claims an implicit exemption from continence based on the explicit exemption from celibacy.  In other words, it is clear that married men (by definition) are exempt from celibacy.  Further, because part of being married included the natural right to engage in marital intercourse, the exemption from continence is implied.  First, this is quite weak.  Peters goes to great lengths to (1) show the numerous places where the exemption could have been made explicit but is not, and (2) offer at least three positive arguments for the intent of retaining the requirement of continence (the necessity of spousal consent, the explicit intent of Paul VI in reinstating the permanent diaconate, and the history of revision of canon 277).  The whole of this counterargument seems to be, “I don’t like this requirement, so I am going to claim an implied exemption.”
There is one author that has at least attempted a logical argument similar to this.  He begins by stating that the canon is equivalent to a logical if-then statement.  (I’ll spare you all of the formal logic language.)  He then offers what is a well-known law of logic: the law of contrapositive.  The law of contrapositive states that “If then q” is logically equivalent to “If not then not p.”  We can see this by example.  The statement “If a number is greater than 2, then then number is positive” can be re-written as, “If a number is not positive, then it is not greater than 2.”  The author then proceeds to go through canon 277.  He claims that “Clerics are obliged to continence and therefore are bound to celibacy” is equivalent to, “Clerics who are not bound to celibacy are not therefore obliged to continence.”  The author then applies the latter to married deacons.

This seems to have merit on the surface, and yet one feels a sleight of hand, or perhaps a sleight of words.  His argument only works if canon 277 intends to present a true logical if-then statement.  In other words, it only works if (1) canon 277 can be rewritten as, “If a cleric is obliged to continence, then he is obliged to celibacy,” and (2) this if-then statement is true.  Regarding (1), this is debatable, as the example below will illustrate.  Regarding (2), it is simply a restatement of the very issue at hand.  Dr. Peters says that the expressed exemption of deacons from celibacy later in Canon Law is precisely the counter example that renders such a statement false.  In fact, notice the careful rewording of the contrapositive above: it no longer speaks in terms of absolute requirements, but it instead uses the relative pronoun “who.”  A more accurate contrapositive would be, “Clerics are not bound to celibacy and therefore are not obliged to continence.”  If the author is correct, then it would seem to imply much more than married deacons being exempt from continence and celibacy, but rather all clergy.  This is clearly not correct.

Finally, we can see a parallel in the Confiteor in which we profess, “I have greatly sinned, and therefore I ask Blessed Mary … to pray for me.”  It is because I have sinned that I ask others to pray for me.  The author above would have us believe that this is equivalent to saying, “Those who do not ask for the prayers of others have not sinned.”  This is clearly false and it comes not from an error in logic, but from an imprecise translation of an English statement into formal logical statements.  In other words, “therefore” (or “because of this”) as used in the English language is not equivalent to the  “If … then …” of formal logic.

Of course, one thing that could resolve this debate is some clarification form the Vatican.  I have not yet been able to find any, but I am happy present it if someone wants to pass it my way.
*          *          *

I intended this to be short – I have failed miserably.


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Jake Tawney (26 Posts)

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