Catholic asceticism and the permanent diaconate

I recently came across an intriguing article by Catholic canonist Ed Peters. It turns out that not only is the married (and sexually active) permanent diaconate a historical divergence from the Latin Church’s ancient theological patrimony of clerical continence, it may even be a departure from the plain letter of canon law.

I had no idea this was the case, but it suggests the possibility of something deeply pernicious: widespread disobedience to Church law on the part of Catholic bishops during the immediate postconciliar era, and especially in the United States, where something like half the world’s permanent deacons reside. An effort to stir up agitation against priestly celibacy, perhaps?

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41 thoughts on “Catholic asceticism and the permanent diaconate

    • The Pope could, yes. What’s interesting is that, evidently, the initial drafts of the 1983 Code of Canon Law included a provision explicitly exempting men permanently destined to the diaconate from the obligation of continence, but JPII struck the provision before promulgating it.

      So there goes the “typo” thesis: the Vatican knew exactly what it was doing.

    • There is a very small number, yes — largely former Lutheran and Anglican pastors who were already married and then converted to Catholicism. What got my attention about Peters’ article was this story about a married Episcopalian priest and convert to Catholicism who announced his intention to live continently with his wife once he is ordained into the presbyterate.

      The establishment of the Anglican Ordinariate probably gives impetus for the Vatican to make clear its stance here, since there is even less historical and canonical wiggle-room for non-continent priests than there is for deacons.

      • Our bishop in the Traditional Anglican Communion entered the Anglican Ordinariate and is not a bishop, I assume because he was married (his wife is deceased). I don’t think bishops can be married in either the Western Rite, the Eastern Rite or the EO Churches.
        I have met married ex-Lutheran priests in Novus Ordo parishes.

      • Right; I think episcopal celibacy may actually be doctrinal rather than disciplinary, but in any event, the longstanding practice has demanded total episcopal celibacy.

        I often how wonder how people juggle the responsibilities of marriage/family and running a parish. The two priests at my (mid-sized) parish are just about run ragged; I can’t imagine them caring for children and wives, as well.

      • But if he is a widower, he could still become a bishop. Many Orthodox bishops are widowers. There is a difference between celibate and virgin.

        From what I remember hearing about Anglicanorum Coetibus, Anglican bishops in the personal ordinariate would become priests. Though some are priests+ in the sense that they are ordinaries. Aren’t ordinaries usually bishops in the Roman Church?

      • But if he is a widower, he could still become a bishop. Many Orthodox bishops are widowers. There is a difference between celibate and virgin.

        Correct.

        From what I remember hearing about Anglicanorum Coetibus, Anglican bishops in the personal ordinariate would become priests. Though some are priests+ in the sense that they are ordinaries. Aren’t ordinaries usually bishops in the Roman Church?

        Usually, but not universally. The heads of religious orders, societies of apostolic life, etc., are considered ordinaries, but aren’t typically bishops. Rome seems to keep a short leash on whom it admits to the episcopacy; rogue priests are much less of a problem than rogue bishops, since the latter can schism and create parallel churches.

  1. As one in formation for the permanent diaconate I can say two things for my colleagues. First that Peters’ article has stimulated far ranging and heart searching discussion and secondly that none of us think it in any way an attack on priestly celibacy. The deeper issue of how canon 277 has been understood and acted upon in the church is, however, another question entirely.

    • I’m glad to hear that you and the others in your class are taking this seriously, PhilR; so many of the responses I’ve read to Peters’ argument are essentially “Why won’t this mean man let us have sex?!”

      Here’s something that might be an interesting test case — have any of you considered applying to the Vatican for a dispensation from the continence obligation prior to your ordination? Their response would be interesting.

  2. I had no idea this was the case, but it suggests the possibility of something deeply pernicious: widespread disobedience to Church law on the part of Catholic bishops during the immediate postconciliar era.

    It’s an interesting article and news to me as well, but “widespread disobedience to Church law on the part of Catholic bishops” is not news. Girl altar boys were a violation of canon law until 1994. Communion in the hand was a violation of liturgical law for a decade or so (I don’t exactly remember) until indults started getting handed out. “Liturgical abuses” were and are widespread, and a claim that the bishops don’t know about them would be ludicrous. Bishops, en mass, disobeying Rome has been the de facto norm since the Council.

    What I am curious about are the implications of widespread flouting of the law by bishops. How does this fact affect our interpretation of what Rome does and says? How does this fact affect Rome’s prudential calculus on any number of issues? What is it feasible for Rome to do and what is it not feasible for Rome to do? How does it affect our obligations to our local ordinaries? How does it affect the way we interpret the hierarchy’s utterances? To me, asking “Is there a crisis in the Church” is getting a little old. Obviously, there is a crisis. The people still denying it aren’t going to be convinced. What are the implications?

    • I guess I’m not shocked at the fact of disobedience as much as I am the sheer scope and magnitude of it, and the appalling dishonesty and sophistry offered in defense of that disobedience. (Some of the responses to Peters’ arguments are just… icky.)

      Another good question to consider is how the fact that the permanent diaconate remains largely an American institution (we have something like 5% of the world’s Catholics and 50% of the world’s permanent deacons) impacts this analysis. It’s very possible Rome had no idea what was going until it was too late to do anything effective about it.

      • Could be. Another possibility is that they knew but did not believe they would be obeyed if they did anything. It’s an odd thing not to know. They’ve got a Papal Nuncio whose job description includes keeping them informed of goings on in the US.

        The US is also exceptional in its granting of annulments. Ed Peters has written on this also, by the way. US annulments went up from 300 per year immediately pre-Council to fifty thousand per year post-Council. I can’t now lay my hands on statistics, but I believe that annulments in the early 20th C were even more rare—maybe single digits per year. Nominally, the criteria for granting annulment are pretty much the same as they always were, but, in practice, they have changed radically.

        It seems reasonably clear that pre-Conciliar rates are much closer to right. The criteria for annulment are, on their face, very narrow.

        This is not a minor issue, either. Belief in the sacramental, permanent character of marriage is threatened by this scandal. If annulment is “Catholic divorce,” then Catholics don’t really believe in permanent, sacramental marriage, do they? Plus, the souls of the people getting the annulments and then getting remarried are presumably in jeopardy.

        So, this also seems parallel to your example, but even more disturbing since it touches on a truth of the Faith rather than just a matter of discipline. I think there are many of these things.

      • Yeah, annulment’s a very interesting case. I recall this horrid article in which the annulment process is actually regarded as a “form of healing,” i.e., narcissistic psychobabble.

        The same article indicates that America’s representation in rates of annulment is about 10 times our representation in the population of Catholics worldwide. The deacon who runs my parish’s RCIA class is also the advocate for annulment-seekers and the way he has spoken about it sometimes gives me the impression that he and others in the diocese regard it as an aggravating check-the-box exercise that has to be endured in order to get people the sacraments which they’re (apparently) entitled to no matter what.

      • I distinctly remember the Father who taught my RCIA class being very anti-annulment. But I have no idea whether my diocese grants a lot of petitions or not.

    • It’s an interesting article and news to me as well, but “widespread disobedience to Church law on the part of Catholic bishops” is not news. Girl altar boys were a violation of canon law until 1994. Communion in the hand was a violation of liturgical law for a decade or so (I don’t exactly remember) until indults started getting handed out.

      What tended to happen was that uncanonical practices (like the rather awful practice of communion in the hand) were introduced at parish level and then retrospectively legalised. Liberal priests referred to what they were doing as “anticipatory obedience”.

      I’m told that they even gave classes at some seminaries about how to establish a contra legem custom. Maybe they still do.

      What I am curious about are the implications of widespread flouting of the law by bishops.

      It has been wisely said that there are only two reasons why a bishop, once appointed, will obey a command from Rome. First, because he is hoping for promotion. Second, because he actually wants to. Otherwise, there isn’t a whole lot that Rome will do. Firing disobedient bishops is practically unheard of. Even Hunthausen only got a coadjutor.

      I make no comment on whether this is right or wrong – it is simply a political consequence of the way the system is currently set up.

      • It has been wisely said that there are only two reasons why a bishop, once appointed, will obey a command from Rome. First, because he is hoping for promotion. Second, because he actually wants to.

        Exactly. But this is pretty interesting to think about. Suppose the Pope wants to change the way the Church does things in the US. His choices are to appoint bishops who agree with him about the way things should be run or to appoint “company men:” the guys looking for promotion. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

        Firing disobedient bishops is practically unheard of. Even Hunthausen only got a coadjutor.

        Well, I understood that his coadjutor was actually in charge. But, even if this is so, taking away a bishop’s responsibilities is rare.

        The question I have about this is what drives the reluctance? Is it fear that, if the Pope goes around firing disobedient bishops left and right, then there will be a schism—that they will say “That’s nice, but I control the assets; the priests like me; I’m not leaving?” Or, maybe the fear is that firing disobedient bishops is a way to manufacture a bunch of Malingos who go around randomly ordaining people.

      • I assume the removal of a bishop involves an elaborate canonical process and since dissidents are adept and covering their escapes under a cloud of squid ink, it’s better to not appoint a dingbat to bishop in the first place. Easier said than done I suppose, but it’s not hard to tell what the Holy Father thinks of your administration come mandatory retirement age. Bishop Clark of the diocese of Rochester was an unmitigated whirlwind of progressivist destruction. The ink was barely dry on his resignation when it was accepted and the management of the diocese was handed to the bishop next door for the time being who immediately called for cessation of the much-abused general absolution.

      • Removing bishops is a strange process. On the one hand, as Scott says, there’s canonical due process involved: only the Pope can initiate removal proceedings against a bishop, and only in response to some serious, sustained, unrepented transgression against canon law. That said, the Pope has the authority to revise canon law at a whim, so it’s not clear to me why canon law itself can’t be redefined to establish, as grounds for removal, the sort of manifest incompetence, dishonesty, and disobedience we see spring up periodically.

        I suspect the reason he doesn’t is (a) an understandable aversion to rocking the boat and the lawlessness and disorder which endless and repeated revisions to canon law would usher in, and (b) as Bill suggests, a desire not to burn the bridges that cross the Tiber.

    • Bishops, en mass, disobeying Rome has been the de facto norm since the Council.

      Also, before the Council.

      I think the diaconate was originally seen as a path to priesthood, so it made sense for them to be celibate. It’s now become almost like “permanent priest assistant”, which is a slightly different role.

      • Also, before the Council.

        Could be, I guess. What are the 1950s analogues to girl altar boys, communion in the hand, clown Masses, annulments for all, and etc?

        Or are you saying that there have been previous episodes of mass disobedience, not that mass disobedience happens constantly throughout history?

      • I think she’s saying the latter, but some of the abuses you cite have their origins in the immediate preconciliar liturgical situation. I think communion in the hand got its start there. And I’ve heard horror stories about the perfunctory 10 minute Low Mass, which gave fresh impetus to the demand for liturgical renewal.

      • Priestly celibacy is a relatively recent innovation, dating to around the Council of Trent. The priority has always been clerical continence and observation thereof, so the pre-Tridentine policy was to ordain married men with their wives’ approval and consent to permanent and perpetual continence. The scandal was that so many priests had difficulty observing continence while living with wives with whom they had previously enjoyed conjugal rights, so the celibacy requirement was added on as an additional protection.

        This is where Peters’ detractors sort of miss the point when saying that the canon requiring continence (and therefore celibacy) doesn’t apply to the already-married. Continence is the ultimate requirement, and celibacy the normative means of achieving it, but there’s no reason to believe a dispensation from celibacy implies a dispensation from continence, and much reason to believe it doesn’t (i.e., the plain letter of the Church’s law and a basically uninterrupted tradition stretching back to apostolic times of clerical asceticism).

      • I meant more the lapse of priestly celibacy after the death of Charlemagne. The discipline was long tradition (see Council of Elvira in 305 AD) and was only reinforced at Trent, but it was confirmed at the Second Lateran Council in 1139 A.D.

        6. We also decree that those in the orders of subdeacon and above who have taken wives or concubines are to be deprived of their position and ecclesiastical benefice. For since they ought to be in fact and in name temples of God, vessels of the Lord and sanctuaries of the holy Spirit, it is unbecoming that they give themselves up to marriage and impurity.

        7. Adhering to the path trod by our predecessors, the Roman pontiffs Gregory VII, Urban and Paschal, we prescribe that nobody is to hear the masses of those whom he knows to have wives or concubines. Indeed, that the law of continence and the purity pleasing to God might be propagated among ecclesiastical persons and those in holy orders, we decree that where bishops, priests, deacons, subdeacons, canons regular, monks and professed lay brothers have presumed to take wives and so transgress this holy precept, they are to be separated from their partners. For we do not deem there to be a marriage which, it is agreed, has been contracted against ecclesiastical law. Furthermore, when they have separated from each other, let them do a penance commensurate with such outrageous behaviour.

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  4. So, one wonders if what is being tee’d up here is that we must accept gay priests who live with their partner (married or not) so long as the priest promises to observe “perfect and perpetual continence” — which of course could never be verified.

  5. One thought, if I may, folks. I would not phrase the Canon 277 problem so much in terms of “disobedience” as I would say “ignorance”. I know of almost no married clerics who were even aware of what Canon 277 said. Thus, while one might well be acting in violation of the law (and the unbroken Western tradition behind the law) it’s harder to make the case that one is being “disobedient” here, as the term is used. Best, edp.

    • So, one must accept that not merely were the clerics themselves ignorant, but also everyone else in the Church hierarchy who was aware of the marriage?

    • Certainly, Dr. Peters, I didn’t mean to imply the deacons themselves were disobedient (my experience is that very very few are well-versed in canon law), but that the failure falls on those who ordained them in the first place, ignoring canon law and the Church’s traditions altogether.

  6. I have read that there are a great many more permanent deacons in the US than the rest of the world combined. Does anyone know if continence is demanded of permanent deacons elsewhere in the world?

    • I don’t know with certainty but my impression is no, the expectation of continence isn’t really enforced anywhere.

      I really do wonder, though, why the permanent diaconate “caught on” so much in the United States but not elsewhere. It can’t just be a response to the priest shortage since, after all, the priest shortage is even more pronounced in other places.

  7. America has a lot of ministers, even among Protestants. It’s like asking why there are so many annulments — where else do Catholics bother to remarry, rather than just shacking up?

  8. The Catholic Church in the U.S. stands apart from other major denominations in its shrinking numbers of clergy compared to the numbers of the laity. A married diaconate is clearly a response to the increasingly serious shortage of priests. I find it hard to believe that the Vatican did not know what it was doing or disapproves of the American diaconate.

    Dr. Edward Peters refers to an “unbroken and unanimous tradition.” Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin all married, appealing to an earlier tradition, attested to in Mark, 1:30, Luke 4:38, 1 Cor. 9:5, 1 Tim 3:2, and Heb. 13:4. The Anglican Communion has no particular restrictions on marriage for clerics. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has some restrictions, but not the same restrictions Catholic tradition. The earliest tradition is stated in Genesis 2:18. The Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition is clear that marriage is a duty, a blessing, and a joy.

    • The Catholic Church in the U.S. stands apart from other major denominations in its shrinking numbers of clergy compared to the numbers of the laity. A married diaconate is clearly a response to the increasingly serious shortage of priests. I find it hard to believe that the Vatican did not know what it was doing or disapproves of the American diaconate.

      We’re still left to wonder, then, what it’s intention is for married permanent deacons, since it deliberately declined to exempt from the requirement to remain perfectly and perpetually continent.

      Dr. Edward Peters refers to an “unbroken and unanimous tradition.” Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin all married, appealing to an earlier tradition, attested to in Mark, 1:30, Luke 4:38, 1 Cor. 9:5, 1 Tim 3:2, and Heb. 13:4. The Anglican Communion has no particular restrictions on marriage for clerics. The Eastern Orthodox tradition has some restrictions, but not the same restrictions Catholic tradition. The earliest tradition is stated in Genesis 2:18. The Old Testament and subsequent Jewish tradition is clear that marriage is a duty, a blessing, and a joy.

      He’s talking about the unanimous and unbroken tradition of the Roman rite of the Church, i.e., the rite to which canon law applies and is intended to govern and the tradition within which that law must be understood.

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