May married deacons have marital relations?

Over at the In the Light of the Law blog, Canon lawyer Dr. Edward Peters has several posts claiming that married permanent deacons and married priests (in so far as this is permitted in the Latin Rite) may not have sexual relations with their wives. His basis for this argument is Canon law, and that is the fundamental problem. Canon law is entirely subordinate to the eternal moral law. So if the eternal moral law permits a married cleric (ordained person) to have relations with his wife, then any reading of Canon law to the contrary must be a misreading. But I say more. Even if Canon law explicitly forbid a married permanent deacon or a married priest from having marital relations, the spouses could do so without sin or fault; such a law would be null and void because it contradicts the eternal moral law.

Dr. Peters’ position is essentially Pharisaical. He is treating a rule as if it had the same weight as the eternal moral law, and he is treating a rule as if it could nullify or alter the unchanging moral truths of eternal justice. If this were true, then the teaching of the Church on morality could be changed by Canon law, and any teaching on morals would not be irreformable. But he does not seem to realize the implications of his position.

1. Proof that married deacons and married priests may continued to have marital relations is found in cases where a married priest is considered for promotion to the episcopate. Before this can occur, both spouses must take vows of perpetual continence. And this is according to the Tradition of the Church, long before Canon law even existed. (Prior to the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the role of Canon Law was filled by various collections of individual decisions of the Holy See on various matters of discipline and prudential judgment.) But married men who became deacons or priests and their spouses have never been required to take such a vow. This Tradition in the Church has stood since the earliest days of the Church. Sacred Tradition takes precedence over Canon law.

2. Even if one were to argue that this Tradition is really only a custom, it has stood since the earliest days of the Church throughout the Church; it is universal and immemorial. On the basis of the canonical principle that “Custom is the best interpreter of laws” (Can. 27), we would be obliged to interpret the current Canons on married clerics as permitting marital relations, except for married Bishops who have taken the above stated vow with their wives.

3. Peters argues that the Canon requiring a married man to have the consent of his wife in order to undertake Holy Orders implies that she consents to his (and therefore their) perpetual continence. However, this interpretation requires equating ‘consent’ to a vow of perpetual continence, which is absurd. Neither does Canon law mention such a ‘consent’ to perpetual continence for the married cleric. Such a grave matter as both spouses agreeing to be perpetually continent for the rest of the marriage cannot be merely implied by an interpretation of the word ‘consent’ in a Canon referring to only one spouse’s consent.

4. Can. 7 “A law is established when it is promulgated.” A controversial interpretation of a Canon is not a promulgation, therefore, such a law requiring perpetual continence by married clerics is not established.

5. Can. 18 “Laws which establish a penalty, restrict the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are subject to strict interpretation.”

Magisterial teaching frequently refers to marital relations as a right. Therefore, Canon 1031, §2 (concerning the wife’s ‘consent’ to the reception of Holy Orders by her husband) cannot be interpreted so as to take away that marital right.

6. Also, Canon 1031, §2 refers to the admission of a man as a candidate, not to the actual reception of Orders. A candidate might not continue to receive Orders. So it is absurd to claim that he and his wife have in effect vowed perpetual continence by her consent to his admission merely as a candidate.

7. The Church lacks the authority to compel anyone to give up their right to marry and to have marital relations within marriage. The eternal moral law limits marriage to one man and one woman, and governs marital relations between the spouses; at times, they might be obligated morally to refrain. But other than under the moral law, the Church cannot as a matter of discipline take away the right to marry or to have marital relations in accord with the moral law.

And this is why it is said that the Church only admits to the priesthood men who have freely chose celibacy, rather than saying that the Church imposes celibacy on them. But for the same reason, the Church cannot impose perpetual continence on a married man and his wife when he is admitted by the Church to the deaconate or priesthood.

8. The spouses have a moral obligation to have marital relations with one another, called the marriage debt. Part of the reason for this obligation under the moral law is to assist the other person in remaining free from grave sexual sins.

[1 Corinthians]
{7:1} Now concerning the things about which you wrote to me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.
{7:2} But, because of fornication, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
{7:3} A husband should fulfill his obligation to his wife, and a wife should also act similarly toward her husband.
{7:4} It is not the wife, but the husband, who has power over her body. But, similarly also, it is not the husband, but the wife, who has power over his body.
{7:5} So, do not fail in your obligations to one another, except perhaps by consent, for a limited time, so that you may empty yourselves for prayer. And then, return together again, lest Satan tempt you by means of your abstinence.

Dr. Peters’ position places both spouses in grave danger of sexual sin, since he claims that the married cleric and his wife remain together and yet may not have sexual relations. Satan may tempt them by means of their abstinence.

9. And this is precisely why a married priest is not admitted to the Episcopate, except if he and his spouse both take vows of perpetual continence and they separate. But married permanent deacons and married priests do not separate; they live in the same home with their spouses. If it is a sin for them to have marital relations, the fact that they live together and the fact that they have not taken any vows of perpetual continence, represents a grave temptation to sin. Also, the fact that a married Bishop separates from his wife, and a married deacon or married priest does not separate from his wife, is a witness to the Tradition that the latter may have marital relations.

10. The primary end and highest good of marriage is the procreation of children. Canon law lacks the authority to change the ends and goods of marriage, such that some other good would be substituted, even the higher good of celibacy. Canon law does not have the power to change either the eternal moral law or the essentials of any Sacrament.

11. No Sacrament can ever nullify or work to the detriment of any other Sacrament, since all Sacraments are of God and God cannot contradict Himself. But if married ordained deacons and priests cannot exercise the right and highest good of marriage (procreation), then a good of one Sacrament, Holy Orders, would be nullifying a good of another Sacrament, Marriage. Such a position is untenable under Sacramental theology.

Therefore, the conclusion that a permanent deacon (or priest in a few cases in the Latin Rite) and his wife are obligated to refrain from marital relations for the rest of their marriage, due to his reception of Holy Orders, is a grave misinterpretation of Canon law and is contrary to Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture, and the teachings of the Magisterium on marriage.

UPDATE: The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts has settled the matter:

In recent months, published opinions have appeared in scholarly journals and on Internet blogs that have raised questions about the observance of diaconal continence by married permanent deacons in the Latin Catholic Church. The opinions have suggested that the clerical obligation to observe “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (c. 277, §1 CIC) remains binding upon married permanent deacons, despite the dispensation provided to them in canon law from the obligation to observe celibacy (c. 1042, 1° CIC).

In response to repeated requests for an authoritative clarification on this matter, the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations and the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance requested the assistance of the USCCB President in seeking a clarification from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

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.

However, Dr. Peters and some other commentators have refused to accept this judgment. They insist that their interpretation of Canon Law should prevail over the marital rights inherent to the Sacrament of Marriage, in contradiction to the interpretation of proper authority in the Church.

Ronald L. Conte Jr.
Roman Catholic theologian and
translator of the Catholic Public Domain Version of the Bible.

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