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Catholic Deacons and Celibacy: Conjugal Love and Charitable Disagreement

By Deacon Keith Fournier
January 21st, 2011
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A highly regarded Canon Lawyer claims that married men ordained to the diaconate or the priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church must practice continence. What does Canon #277 say and what does it mean? Will the discussion raised by Canon lawyer Edward Peters reach Rome? With the coming infusion of married men serving as Priests and deacons it is time for a clarification of Canon #277 which dispels confusion.

CHESAPEAKE, Va. (Catholic Online) - After my morning prayer on the Feast of St Anthony I reflected on the excerpt on the Life of Anthony by St. Athanasius in the Office of Readings entitled "St. Anthony receives his vocation". I was moved by the naturally supernatural way in which this great ascetic and disciple of Christ lived his calling in the ordinary day to day world in which he found himself.

After receiving his call to the monastic life, and before he went into the desert, he began to live his vocation in the exigencies of real life. He cared for his sister who was orphaned when both parents died. In doing so he allowed his vocation to be forged and formed in the fire of daily experience and it took shape. I resolved in prayer to try even harder to do the same as a husband, father, grandfather and deacon of the Church.

I then opened my E mail and found a letter from Deacon Greg Kandra, a man whom I respect. It was sent to a list of deacons and concerned an article written by a Canon lawyer, Edward Peters, a man whom I also respect. Edward Peters has reintroduced the discussion of Canon #277 of the Code of Canon Law and the practice of clerical celibacy in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church in a post entitled "Canon 277 and clerical continence in the Roman Church."   

His claim is not new. He joins others such as Father Ray Ryland in asserting that married men who enter the clerical state should practice continence, including married deacons and priests. I often visit Ed's excellent blog on Canon Law. I am also a fan of his son, Thomas Peters, of the American Papist/ Catholic Vote. Thomas also posted a piece entitled "Church Law says Permanent Deacons (and all clerics) are obliged to abstain from sex, notes Canonist Edward Peters {updated}" 

I am not a Canon Lawyer but a Civil lawyer. However, I have studied Church history and theology and have served as a member of the Catholic Clergy, a deacon, for fifteen years. I am familiar with the ongoing dialogue and debate concerning Canon #277 and the underlying issues involved. They lead us back to the earliest centuries of Church history and the early pronouncements of Church Councils  concerning clerical celibacy.

I found it intriguing that this discussion began on the weekend on which the announcement was made that the Venerable John Paul II will be raised to the altar. There is no doubt that his work, popularly called the "Theology of the Body", is at the epicenter of the resurgence of important theological work on nuptiality,  conjugal love, marriage, and the complimentarity of consecrated celibacy and marital chastity. 

It also came on the weekend when the first three priests of the Anglican Ordinariate were ordained. Former Bishops of the Anglican Church, these married men laid aside Episcopal office. They did so out of love for the Catholic Church, a hunger for full communion, and respect for the ancient practice, even in the Eastern Churches, that Bishops must be chosen from among the celibate clergy. However, they did not - nor were they asked to - pledge to remain continent within their marriages. In a beautiful part of the Ordination Liturgy, their wives actually brought forward their priestly vestments.

Perhaps it is also not accidental that this is the Feast of St. Anthony. The Egyptian Saint Paphnutius, his disciple and student, is often raised in discussions on the admission of married men to the diaconate and priesthood. Many scholars say the saint was a legend; others disagree. Eastern Christians, both Orthodox and Catholic, point to his purported intervention at the Council of Nicea opposing mandatory continence for married clerics. Some others claim that even if he was a legend, his position was confirmed at local Church Councils such as the Fourth Century Council of Gangra.

I write with deep appreciation for the celibate vocation among the ordained ministers of the Church, the religious orders and the growing lay ecclesial movements. I have had the privilege of knowing some profoundly holy consecrated celibates. Consecrated celibacy "for the kingdom" is a prophetic witness in every age. It is a particularly poignant and effective one in an age which is losing its soul, partly because it has followed the path of nihilism and utilitarianism on many fronts, including its view of human sexuality.

The fact that the issue of continence for married men who serve as deacons is now being raised by someone as credible as Edward Peters invites us to reflect on consecrated celibacy as well as chaste Christian marriage. Deacon Greg Kandra's E-Mail message to me was captioned "Off to the cold showers, men". I presumed the caption was meant to be humorous. However, I found it to be unfortunate. It minimized the issues raised by the interpretation of Canon #277 offered by Edward Peters and did not really affirm the dignity of Christian marriage.  

The Marital embrace is an expression of the gift at the heart of the Sacrament of Love, Christian Marriage. It is not some concession to disordered passions but rather about those passions transfigured by grace.  Marriage in Christ is a vocational call to the evangelical counsels. Chastity is binding on all the faithful and practiced in accordance with one's state in life, including marriage. The vocation of a chaste Christian marriage - and the family built upon it - is a prophetic witness in an age that is hostile to fidelity.

To use an old cliché "some of my best friends" are priests and deacons, both celibate and married. They are all living their vocation with dignity and holiness. Within that community of celibate and married priests, there are different kinds of ministry, in the one priesthood of Jesus Christ. The Eastern Church, both Catholic and Orthodox, assigns married priests to different types of ministry than celibate priests. Similarly, in the Latin rite, married men ordained to the priesthood serve in a manner that reflects and respects their state in life and offers its pastoral witness as a gift to the whole Church.

In the Eastern Catholic Church there is an unbroken tradition of admitting both celibate and married men to candidacy for the order of deacon and priest. The men must have married before ordination as deacons. In the Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches we read: "Clerical celibacy chosen for the Kingdom of Heaven and suited to the priesthood is to be greatly esteemed everywhere, as supported by the tradition of the whole church; likewise, the hallowed practice of married clerics in the primitive church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches throughout the ages is to be held in honor. Clerics, celibate or married, are to excel in the virtue of chastity; it is for the particular law to establish suitable means for pursuing this end. In leading family life and in educating children married clergy are to show an outstanding example to other Christian faithful." (Canons # 373-375)

We now have married men within the body of Catholic clergy, deacons and priests.  We must learn from this fact and trust that the Lord is behind it. At the foundation of both consecrated celibacy and sacramental marriage is a call to live the nuptial mystery. The consecrated celibate does so in an immediate and prophetic way, while the married man does so in a mediated way, through their chaste love with one woman and the couple's openness to life. Both responses have a prophetic dimension as well as a pastoral one.

If, as Edward Peters and others including Fr. Ray Ryland assert, the Latin Code of Canon Law raises impediments to this lived experience of a married diaconate or a married priesthood which allows for the sexual expression of married love, there is a serious need for a clarification of Canon #277. 

When I was invited to Holy Orders as a deacon, I knew that it was a vocation. As a Married man I pledged to embrace celibacy if my wife should predecease me. My wife gave her consent. I soon came to understand the theology I had studied; there truly is an "ontological" change that occurs at ordination. My life was turned upside down and has never been the same. I believe there is room in the Catholic Church, East and West, for a celibate and a married clergy, deacons and priests. Both consecrated celibacy and consecrated Christian marriage are a response to the invitation to holiness and a gift to the whole Church because they both participate in the one nuptial mystery revealed in Jesus Christ.

The prophetic witness of celibacy has endured beyond the ranks of celibate clergy. It is also preserved in the inspired vowed life of monastic orders, the sacrificial witness of religious men and women, and the increasing new ecclesial associations of lay men and woman, who have chosen it, not to avoid marriage, but to enter more fully into the very nuptial mystery that marriage also reveals, but in a unique and prophetic way.

I hope that the discussion raised by Canon lawyer Edward Peters reaches Rome. With the coming infusion of married men serving as Priests it is time for a clarification of Canon #277 which dispels confusion. If that clarification were to result in a direction from the Magisterium of the Church asking married men serving as Deacons to embrace marital continence, my wife and I would prayerfully follow the Church. In so doing we would have the witness of many couples who have done the same to follow. One of the recent examples was Fr Eddie Doherty and Catherine de Hueck Doherty, co-founders of the Madonna House Apostolate. Their story, contained in "The Life of Eddie Doherty" is well worth reading. 

However, I expect that the continued work of the Holy Spirit in bringing about the full communion of the One Church will lead to something else, the recovery of the ancient practice of allowing both celibate and married men to discern whether they are called to ordered service as deacons or priests. As the witness of the Eastern Church has confirmed, such an approach has not lessened the respect for and embrace of consecrated celibacy among the clergy. It has, in fact, enhanced the whole Church.

Finally, this recent discussion on Catholic Deacons, celibacy, conjugal love, continence and chastity calls for a recognition and application of the principles of charitable disagreement among Christians. Edward Peter's article is a credible and scholarly work which deserves a serious and respectful response.

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