Friday, November 2, 2012

Ed Peters is a canon lawyer, who blogs at In the Light of the Law, and who believes that canon 277 mitigates against clergy, married deacons and married priests included, having sexual relations with their lawful, wedded wives, til' death do them part. He wrote on this issue here, and here, has published a significant academic article on this issue in 2005, and now has blogged on this issue again today (November 2, 2012). The newest entry came to my attention through Deacon Greg Kandra's blog The Deacon's Bench. Deacon Kandra excerpts a section of the Peters' blog post:

My position is, of course, that Western law and tradition expect, beyond any question, the observance of perfect and perpetual continence among all clerics, and that arguments from, say, silence and/or inadvertence (hallmarks, I suggest, of a hermeneutic of rupture) are insufficient to defeat that expectation. But that is not to say that the Church cannot choose to modify or abandon her clerical discipline in this regard; indeed, I suspect that the Church can change her expectations here, and that persons with deeper knowledge of, among other things, the theology of holy Orders, the sacred liturgy, and the nuptial imagery of the Eucharist should advise her on whether such change is a good idea or a bad. My only point is that the Church has not, contrary to common assumption, formally changed her expectation in regard to complete clerical continence, and that damage is being done to important ecclesiastical values by assuming otherwise. As for what the Church will decide to do in this matter, or when she will decide to do it, such things are not for me to say.

Kandra then asks, "Given all that, perhaps someone should just take a red pencil and rewrite that line in the law and be done with it…?" Deacon Kandra is correct, if that is what needs to be done, let it be done. Although, it seems as if Peters has persisted in this, even though the USCCB has penned a letter  sent on January 31, 2012 that reads in part:

Earlier this week, we were informed that Cardinal-designate Francesco Coccopalmerio,
President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, with Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Secretary, has forwarded to Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan the Pontifical Council's observations on the matter (Prot. N. 13095/2011). The observations, which were formulated in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarify that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriage lasts.
I wrote on this entire issue, focusing on Peters' academic article of 2005, in America Magazine in January 2011. I do not know what bothers him so much about deacons and their wives having sex, or married priests and their wives having sex, unless, of course, it is the fact that he thinks they are breaking canon law.The Church seems to think, however, that all is well.

There is another reason, though, why I thought the issue was being raised then and why I believe it is being raised today even more so and that is the influx of married priests into the Roman Catholic Church. I wrote:

Married priests of course are mentioned by Peters in his blog post today and we are very close to the 30 years of continuous practice since the 1983 Code of Canon Law as we approach 2013. It is time to let this be: the Church has allowed this practice, rightly so, and it should have the force of law, because it is reasonable, right and sensible.

John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @Biblejunkies


  1. My opinion on this really hasn't changed since last year. I think Ed has a legitimate, academic, and interesting point about what the law says regarding clerical continence. It is an area where what is done and accepted by ecclesiastical authority in practice is not aligned with what the law actually says. For Ed to raise this point is good, he is doing what a smart canonist should do. The problem lies in what has happened with this information, how it has been spread around, and how it has been misused. In my opinion, Ed has been way too passive insofar as responding to this, and obviously egged on his son to scandalize the faithful. But the inappropriate way of handling the information doesn't take away from the fact that he's raised a very legitimate canonical point.

    I am surprised that Ed would emphasize the point about custom (having the force of law after legitimate observance after 30 complete and continuous years). I think it's a non-issue, just given the requirements for this to occur. Besides, it's not like the legislator's hands are bound against eradicating a custom with the force of law, even if you can say that it actually exists. But this, along with the nuances of canon 277, are things for canon lawyers to nerd out about and to present papers on at conferences. It doesn't belong in the blogosphere or in the conscientious deacon's bedroom.

    I don't know if I would see it as a problem that it is being raised with particular emphasis now that the Anglican ordinariate is alive and growing. Now that the faithful have all been sufficiently confused (thank you, Ed and Thom), they deserve clarification. They have a right to understand clearly what the law intends and expects. Part of the problem is that the supreme legislator just doesn't work that way, offering explanation or change on demand. The Church always moves slowly, especially so when it comes to adding or changing law. She errs (sometimes gravely, tragically errs) on the side of being reactive rather than proactive. It saves the trouble and scandal of having to retract from a position, even if it means great consequences and confusion in the meantime. I was happy to see that +Coccopalmerio at least offered an unofficial response to quell the rumor mills, but I'm not surprised that an official change or answer hasn't been given. Partly because the Church just isn't sure what to think about married clergy, or permanent deacons for that matter. In the scheme of history, this is a very recent, post-Vatican II phenomenon (not counting the married clergy of centuries past). There can't be an official change or decision until there is certainty. Unfortunately, Americans are notorious (in the Church) for their canonical scrupulosity (they say the Romans write the laws, and the Americans follow them) as well as having by a vast majority the most men ordained to the permanent diaconate. It's entirely feasible to me that Rome doesn't appreciate or mind the Americans who keep hand-wringing over this.

    Susan M, JCL

    1. "In my opinion, Ed has been way too passive insofar as responding to this, and obviously egged on his son to scandalize the faithful."

      You can have an opinion, "Susan M", about whether I am "too passive", but not about whether "I egged on my son". You should retract that false assertion.

      And, what are you talking about, about custom? That is not my position. If anything, it is Martens'.

  2. Susan is absolutely right. I don't understand why Peters keeps beating this dead horse. To my knowledge, he has never cited a single Vatican document or Church authority that has affirmed his view that permanent deacons are required to observe perfect continence. His view is also countered by the fact that I don't know of a single diocese in the world that requires married permanent deacons observe it.

    Instead, he's basing his reading of Canon Law purely on deductive reasoning, and treating it as if there are hidden mandates and disciplines of the Church just waiting to be discovered by sentence-splicing canonists.

    I get it, Canon 277 says all clerics are bound to continence and celibacy. Paul VI only specifically exempted them from celibacy. All that says to me is the law isn't completely explicit, whereas Peters thinks there has been a serious and ongoing violation of Church law for 35 years. You'd think a bishop or curial official would have said something by now. The only reason Rome gave any response at all was because Peters was sewing confusion among the people.

    1. I don't really know where to start with the multiple errors in this post. May I ask folks to read my work and decide for themselves whether it is sound.

  3. Can 277 says this:

    Can. 277 §1 Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven, and are therefore bound to celibacy.

    continence = no sex
    celibacy = not married

    As married clerics (priests or deacons) are not bound to celibacy (by definition), they are not bound to continence either.

    Or, applying mathematical logic:

    From the statements:

    1. continent => celibate (Can. 277 §1)

    2 !celibate (the state of the married)

    One CAN NOT logically conclude

    3. continent

    Ed Peters interpretation of this canon is simply wrong, not in accord with the plain meaning of the Canon as written, and not in accord with the practice of the Church.

    While this may not be Ed's own motivation, it seems to play into an agenda to undermine the married clergy.

    God Bless