Married deacons: celibacy, continence, chastity

1. Dr. Peters’ interpretation of Canon 1031 §2 is that the consent of the wife required therein is a consent to permanent and perpetual continence (i.e. to abstain from marital relations). Pope John Paul II gives a different interpretation of this Canon:

“Equally important is the contribution that a married deacon makes to the transformation of family life. He and his wife, having entered into a communion of life, are called to help and serve each other (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 48). So intimate is their partnership and unity in the sacrament of marriage, that the Church fittingly requires the wife’s consent before her husband can be ordained a permanent deacon (Can. 1031 §2).”

[Pope John Paul II, The Heart of the Diaconate: Servants of the Mysteries of Christ and Servants of Your Brothers and Sisters, Address to Deacons of the United States, Detroit, Michigan; September 19, 1987]

This address is quoted by the “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States” (26 December 2004).

Pope John Paul II states that the married deacon and his wife have “entered into a communion of life” and he references Gaudium et Spes, 48. But that passage from Gaudium et Spes begins with a discussion of the “intimate partnership of married life and love”, saying that: “By their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.” So the Pontiff is indirectly referencing the continued marital relations of the spouses after ordination of a permanent deacon. He is not saying that the couple has departed, to some extent, from the ordinary communion of life of marriage, but that they continue this, even enter into it in a new light.

The holy Pope then goes on to interpret Canon 1031 n. 2 in a substantially different manner than Dr. Peters. Pope John Paul II understand the wife’s consent, not as consent to permanent and perpetual continence, but as consent to his admission as a candidate for the permanent deaconate. The intimacy of their partnership and unity is not in any way ended by this consent, but rather is continued. And this is the basis of the need for her consent.

The Congregation for the Clergy expresses the same interpretation: “The spouses of married deacons, who must give their consent to their husband’s decision to seek ordination to the diaconate, should be assisted to play their role with joy and discretion.” (Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons; 1998). Again, the consent is not to perfect and perpetual continence, but rather a consent to candidacy, to seeking ordination to the diaconate.

2. The USCCB “National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States” states that a married permanent deacon practices marital chastity, but a widowed permanent deacon practices celibate chastity:

“Not only does this understanding strengthen and nurture his own commitment to marital chastity, but it also helps to prepare him for the possibility of living celibate chastity should his wife predecease him.” (n. 72).

This implies that married deacons may have marital relations. Chastity is sexual purity according to one’s state of life. The chastity of unmarried persons is to refrain from sexual relations, until and unless they marry. The chastity of married persons is to refrain from sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse. Only the widowed permanent deacon lives celibate chastity.

3. In the same USCCB document quotes briefly from the Congregation for the Clergy Directory. I offer the full quote from the Congregation document here:

“The Sacrament of Matrimony sanctifies conjugal love and constitutes it a sign of the love with which Christ gives himself to the Church (cf. Eph. 5:25). It is a gift from God and should be a source of nourishment for the spiritual life of those deacons who are married. Since family life and professional responsibilities must necessarily reduce the amount of time which married deacons can dedicate to the ministry, it will be necessary to integrate these various elements in a unitary fashion, especially by means of shared prayer. In marriage, love becomes an interpersonal giving of self, a mutual fidelity, a source of new life, a support in times of joy and sorrow: in short, love becomes service. When lived in faith, this family service is for the rest of the faithful an example of the love of Christ. The married deacon must use it as a stimulus of his diaconia in the Church.” [Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons]

Notice that this passage on the married deaconate describes the marriage of the deacon as a source of new life, referring to the primary end of marriage: procreation.

The Congregation for the Clergy goes on to say that the married deacon and his wife are called to a chastity which may includes “the practice of a certain continence.” But by comparison, the widowed permanent deacon is called to live “perfect and perpetual continence.”

Again, we see that the Holy See and the USCCB understand that only the unmarried (single or widowed) deacon is called to perfect and perpetual continence.

The unmarried permanent deacon is called to celibacy (for the sake of ordination, he chooses not to marry), and to continence (he refrains from sexual relations), and to chastity (sexual purity in heart and mind, as well as in body).

The married permanent deacon is not celibate (he is married). He and his wife may practice a periodic continence for the sake of prayer and self-denial, or as a form of NFP. He is also called to marital chastity: to have relations only with his spouse and to remain pure in heart and mind.

More in this post: May married deacons have marital relations?

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