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No sex please, we’re clergy

Roman Catholic canon law requires all its clergy, married or not, to abstain from sex. Canon 277 has long been ignored but suddenly is hitting the blogosphere. This is relevant not only to the tens of thousands of married Roman Catholic deacons, but to clergy in the Anglican Ordinariates.

More than a year ago, through a private discussion with a follower of this site, I was urged to read Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy by Christian Cochini and Celibacy in the Early Church: The Beginnings of Obligatory Continence for Clerics in East and West by Stefan Heid. These books, and others, argue that clerical continence (the abstaining from sex) was a requirement for bishops, priests and deacons from apostolic times.

Following this line, the Eastern practice of temporary or liturgical continence is a later mitigation of the original discipline. Eastern Orthodox clergy abstain from sex a day or a number of days prior to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy (the Eucharist). Eastern Orthodox bishops are celibate.

I am not aware of any Protestant or Anglican clergy discipline about this. It appears that the Reformation pushed the mitigation to the point beyond it being discussed.

In 2005, the distinguished canonist Doctor Edward Peters, the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair Professor of Canon Law at the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, published, in the highly reputable, peer-reviewed Studia Canonica 39, “Canonical considerations on diaconal continence”. Last Saturday, Dr Peters, having received permission from the journal, placed that work online. You can download it from here. [Dr Peters’ homepage; more information on this article; his blog]

It deals with this canon :

1983 CIC 277. § 1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity. § 2. Clerics are to behave with due prudence towards persons whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful. § 3. The diocesan bishop is competent to establish more specific norms concerning this matter and to pass judgment in particular cases concerning the observance of this obligation.

Dr Peters includes in his argument that the requirement by the wife to assent to the husband’s ordination reinforces his interpretation, as she is to give up her rights to sex. There is no other explanation for a third party to assent to the administration of a sacrament.

The diocesan bishop is not competent to abrogate the law.

The reaction in the blogosphere is fascinating. Other canon lawyers have come out in support of Dr Peters’ conclusion that all Roman Catholic clergy, married or not, are to abstain from sex. Many married deacons have come out with variations of the “You must be kidding!” response, a response that others might take to Humanae Vitae, or clerical celibacy generally, or any other teachings – but hardly a robust reaction. [In passing – may I express a certain surprise that for so many deacons it appears to be the first time that they have even read the canon pertaining to their ordination. It may also not be unfair to say that until this week’s discussion it appears that married RC deacons followed the Protestant and Anglican clergy approach of this issue being beyond discussion.].

The energetic reaction in the blogosphere reflects particularly the situation in USA Roman Catholicism. USA has about 6% of the world’s Roman Catholics; and about 60% of the world’s married deacons. From 1970, when there were none, there are now over 15,000 married deacons in USA. That is now a ratio of one married deacon for every two celibate priests. Married deacons are often salaried church employees, and increasingly run a parish. It is not too much of a stretch to say that married deacons are a significant response in USA to the issue of celibacy. The response from married deacons that the requirement of them of abstaining from sex will destroy the diaconate underscores what is really going on. I have never thought that the Anglican Ordinariate will reach anything like the 400,000 numbers initially touted – the reinforcing of the requirement of continence for their clergy, as required by RC canon law, will not increase whatever numbers were considering this move.

The current Vatican regime is certainly not of the “You must be kidding!” end of the spectrum in relation to Vatican pronouncements, and generally those being ordained and placed in positions of leadership are not of the “You must be kidding!” approach either.

It is very early days in this already-very-energetic discussion – but watch this space.

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31 Responses to No sex please, we’re clergy

  1. I’ll gladly give a robust reaction: it’s PERVERSE.

    The RCC should really get its head out of everyone’s pants and concentrate on doing some good for society.

  2. Anglicanorum Coetibus specifically provides that the Ordinary “may also petition the Roman Pontiff, as a derogation from can. 277, §1, for the admission of married men to the order of presbyter on a case by case basis, according to objective criteria approved by the Holy See”.

    So, the issue of celibacy – and particularly of continence, which is what the canonist-bloggers are debating with regard to married permanent deacons – doesn’t apply to married ordinariate clergy.

    • I am no canon lawyer, Enrico, and thank you for your comment, but my amateur reading of your quote sees in it a derogation of the requirement of celibacy, not a derogation of a requirement of continence. It is you who are making a leap from not requiring celibacy to not requiring continence – which is nowhere in your quote. This is the very point of the work of Dr Peters and others. The clergy of an Anglican Ordinariate may not be celibate, on a case by case basis, but they are required to be continent according to Dr Peters.

  3. I’m sorry if this is rather long…

    I take your point, but canon 277.1 binds clerics to celibacy precisely because they are “obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the Kingdom of heaven”. Dr Peters’s article states that it is by this that “both the obligation of continence and the obligation of celibacy are clearly imposed on clerics in the West”. He goes on to say that, in the case of married permanent deacons, “no canonical provision makes any reference, let alone an express one, to lifting the clear and unqualified obligation of continence binding all clerics already established.” As such, “a contemporary obligation of continence is demonstrably imposed on Western clerics and is not otherwise mitigated even for married permanent deacons”.

    I think he’s absolutely right on the canonical situation of continence with regard to married permanent deacons. Indeed, later on, he draws attention to earlier drafts of canons in that regard, which would indeed have included a derogation in such cases. The 1983 Code ended up not doing so, and Dr Peters addresses all this in recent blog posts.

    However, this is precisely what Anglicanorum Coetibus provides for, and I haven’t seen Dr Peters arguing anywhere that this is not the case, ie he hasn’t argued that they (married former Anglican clergy) are to be required to be continent. He further seems to suggest that permanent deacons would be exempted from continence if they were to be dispensed from canon 277 (but shows clearly that they aren’t). I can’t find anything he has written on this particular aspect of Anglicanorum Coetibus.

    • Thanks Enrico. I cannot follow your logic, as I see Anglicanorum Coetibus dispensing case by case from celibacy, but see no reference as you appear to, to a dispensation from continence. I think the best way forward is to ask it as a question of Dr Peters and await his response. Blessings.

  4. No comment on the article re: continence and celibacy, but Could you please check the way the side bar (recent posts) sits on the page. It overlaps the articles and comments and really hard to print or copy for future reference; let alone read into some of the implied endings of words. Has no-one mentioned this earlier? It drives me crazy and local computer geek (husband) says it’s from your end.

    • Thanks for alerting me to a possible layout issue, Catherine, but there is nothing I can see that is causing this, nor has anyone else alerted me to the issue. I have been told there are some letters lost in viewing the site on some phones. What web browser are you using? And what is the size of your screen? Perhaps others here can confirm they have a similar issue, or help you with yours. Blessings.

  5. I’ve seen this question pop up from time to time, and I must admit, having been aware of the requirement for continence from married RC clergy, I’ve been wondering what the situation is, and how married deacons get around it (or ignore the requirement).

    This is probably why, in the early middle ages (as an Opus Dei Cannon lawyer priest told me), the Church moved from allowed married men to become priests, to only accepting unmarried men. Causes far less confusion and problems.

  6. Seem like this loophole is heading towards being closed. I am sure that the “keep having sex” aspect of being a deacon was very appealing to many who wanted to serve the church in an official position but not willing to take a vow of celibacy and enter into the priesthood.

    • Thanks for these thoughtful comments.

      Good question for clarification, Robert.
      Celibacy is not being married.
      Continence is not having sex.
      Clearly, in RC teaching celibacy means continence.
      But married people are also often continent, eg. when apart, when one spouse is in hospital, etc. In RC teaching Mary and Joseph were married and continent.

      Thanks so much, Lucia and David, for checking that all looks good in the layout.

  7. Sorry, Fr Bosco, to be a bit thick but can you explain to me the difference between celibacy (which seems to me to be the state of not having sex) with continence (which seems to me to be the state of not having sex). I can’t quite see the difference.



  8. What about unmarried deacons? What’s good for Rev. Mr. Peter is good for Rev. Mr. Paul. If we grant economia to married deacons- and there is a precedence for them already– then it would be only fair to grant the same dispensations to unmarried deacons.

    One possible solution is to dispense all permanent deacons, married or unmarried, who were received as candidates prior to the current year, from Canon 277. In the future, perhaps a distinction could be made. Those who are widowed or unmarried prior to ordination are committed to their current state, and have the faculties to preach & proclaim the Gospel at mass. Those who are married can continue in their present state as well, but may not proclaim the Gospel nor preach.

    Why? Celibacy makes perfect sense when ministry calls for the use of creative energy to make Christ present. (for example, interpreting scripture & writing a homily) Sexuality is a creative, life giving power that can easily eclipse other creative energies even when sexuality is entitled by sacrament to complete the nuptial union. The original institution of the diaconate was one of service to the poor, of practicality– not of creativity.

  9. Hi Bosco, I just checked the site in Safari, Camino, Firefox and Chrome, all on the Mac, and everything renders perfectly.

  10. Continence is the state of being chaste. One’s chastity depends on one’s station in life. If you are single, chastity requires abstinence. If you are married, chastity requires faithfulness to your spouse. If you are monastic, chastity requires celibacy. People confuse chastity and celibacy all of the time. This latest “insight” into the Roman Catholic canon law comes exactly from that same confusion. Depending on one’s fasting practices, sexual abstinence may enter into the picture as it does in the East.

    The big difference as far as I see it in Eastern and Western practices is that celibacy arose as the West required their clergy to commit to offering Mass daily. If one needs to abstain from sexual intimacy the night before offering Mass, then there is a very legitimate question of whether it is possible for a clergy member to be married.

    • Thanks for these comments.

      I’m afraid, Anna, that you are confusing several things – and through doing so will make little sense of this discussion.
      I’ve already clarified – continence means not having sex.
      I have intentionally refrained from using the word “chastity” as I thought it would muddy the discussion.
      You are right, Anna, chastity for single people in RC theology requires abstinence – which is continence.
      Chastity for married people requires sexual faithfulness to your spouse – but not continence (ie not abstinence).
      It is not the canon lawyer who is confused, it is your confusion, I’m afraid, of continence and chastity.
      Furthermore, your suggestion that Western celibacy is the result of increasing daily Masses is a nice theory and one I can make sense of – but it is directly opposed by the careful historical research of the books I mentioned plus many others. According to this research it is in fact the Eastern practice that is later – not earlier.

      I’m pleased, Catherine, that your viewing issues are now fixed. Yes, I understand there is a difference between the vow of celibacy and the religious vow of chastity, but, again, I’m concerned that if we explore that too much in this thread it will confuse even further a topic that, clearly, is quite complex – and currently, as I’ve noted, quite heated. So clarity is important to keep having more light than heat.


  11. Thanks for the notes on the layout. I think I have it handled.
    A few years ago; I was talking with an RC Priest friend and also my husband who is an Anglican Priest. We were discussing the same sex blessing issue and issues of celibacy and chastity. We have Anglican Nuns – (much to the surprise of my RC friend)and the topic of vows came up. A woman friend who is a Nun says that Nuns take vows of chastity; this carries far greater responsibility than just celibacy. Chastity requires NO chance of anything that causes her to become sexually aroused. No erotic novels, sexual movies, talk of sexual issues or self gratification in sexual ways. (much less pornography in photographs) It’s an interesting comparison.

  12. Now there’s an interesting catch. But, frankly, I don’t see anyone actually trying to enforce this canon against married deacons or priests. There are also a number of Ukranian Orthodox who would be affected as well.

    A blind eye shall be turned.

  13. The two most recent topics seem to me to go together very well! The Sabbath Torah reading with the 10 commandments reminds me of the way a few simple rules were made into a complicated mess of hundreds of details – where the original said “no work” the details said “you can walk this far, but anything further is work!”. In the same way, simple New Testament rules (plus some of Paul’s qualified recommendations) have been stretched into a complicated tangle of requirements now. In doing so, some churches (and the RCC are not the only one) have painted themselves into a corner. Worse, they try to fix the situation with more paint.

    Perhaps one answer is for everyone to use Anna’s definition of continence… that would be nice. It is a little like the situation in Iolanthe where they have established rules but also a problem, and want the tiniest change to make the problem disappear. But I am sure the lesson here is to get back to basics; to look at what is at the heart of the N.T. (especially what builds up versus what puffs up), and reappreciate the “but”s in the Epistles for what they are – not pesky compromises that spoil doctrinal purity, but loving and careful management for growth of the Body.

  14. This would all be news to the clergy in, for example, Anglo-Saxon England, where clergy “dynasties” had control of various churches into the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was actually a very sensible arrangement: in an era of uneven education, clerical education often took the form of an apprenticeship, and the teaching of sons in priestcraft by their priest fathers was very common indeed. The celibacy requirement (considered separately from continence) was imposed universally in the West largely to remove this possibility. A church controlled by a clerical family could keep its rent-lands out of the hands of a bishop for generations.

    The so-called “Benedictine reform” in England in the second half of the tenth century, in which monks were appointed to the most important bishoprics and control of several cathedrals was forcibly given to monastic priories, was largely justified by a perceived need to wrest control of the Church from married clergy (there were other, rather less idealistic, reasons for a new king’s support of the monks in a messy succession).

    Of course, this didn’t stop secular clerics from fathering children (you know the old Italian joke, “A priest is a man whose children call him Uncle”). But because they were illegitimate, they could not lay legal claim to the priest’s property.

    Now, that certain canonists and theologians were arguing for a higher ideal at various times in Antiquity and the Middle Ages I do not doubt (and there seems to have been a general expectation of episcopal continence from a very early stage indeed, perhaps even the fourth century). But it strikes me as special pleading when a discipline enforced in the later Middle Ages, manifestly to secure control of Church property, is advanced as the universal practice of the early Church!

    See C. Cubitt, “Images of St Peter: The Clergy and the Religious Life in Anglo-Saxon England”, in P. Cavill (ed.), The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England: Approaches to Current Scholarship and Teaching (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2004), pp. 41-54.

    For similar issues, addressed somewhat later in neighbouring Wales, see J. R. Davies, “Aspects of Church reform in Wales, c. 1093-c. 1223”, in C. P. Lewis (ed.), Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2007, Anglo-Norman Studies 30 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008), pp. 85-99, at pp. 91-95 (“Clerical marriage”).

  15. I now understand why a young man I met recently, studying for a Master’s in Religious Education at an RC institution, said to me that he finds the RCC (his church) has very contorted logic and is much harder for him to explain than Orthodoxy (a church it seems he would join if only his wife were willing).

    In any case, not to further muddy the waters, however consider that all priests are (I believe) first ordained to the Diaconate. Thus, if somehow one ordination allows for sexual activity (and I agree with your reading of the plain sense, Bosco – that it is verboten in both cases), but another forbids it, what to do, what to do? Since priests, it would be assumed, somehow retain this Diaconal charism and would be subject to the differing rules. Thus, to my mind, it would seem the young man above is correct in his suppositions. (Orthodoxy, on the other hand, makes a lot of sense here. Marriage first, ordination second – sex ok. Ordination first, then no marriage and no sex either … even should the priest later become a widower.)

    Somehow, in my book, and I’ve recently moved over from RCC to Orthodoxy, one’s neurons are in a never-ending tangle so long as one remains in the RCC. Sex is just one tiny cul de sac in this whole pile of knots!

    Indeed I will follow this whole issue with great interest!

  16. ruidh,

    Canon 277 applies only to Latin Rite Catholics. Specifically it does not apply to Ukrainian Catholics.

  17. As regards the Roman church, it is necessary to return to the previous time at which this topic were investigated, and indeed the judgement of Aquinas, who states:

    The bond of orders dissolves the bond of marriage as regards the payment of the debt, in respect of which it is incompatible with marriage, on the part of the person ordained, since he cannot demand the debt, nor is the wife bound to pay it. But it does not dissolve the bond in respect of the other party, since the husband is bound to pay the debt to the wife if he cannot persuade her to observe continence.

    If the husband receive sacred orders with the knowledge and consent of his wife, she is bound to vow perpetual continence, but she is not bound to enter religion, if she has no fear of her chastity being endangered through her husband having taken a solemn vow: it would have been different, however, if he had taken a simple vow. On the other hand, if he be ordained without her consent, she is not bound in this way, because the result is not prejudicial to her in any way.


  18. I have always thought the rule was ‘If you are a deacon and not married, you can NEVER GET MARRIED. AND if you are married and become a deacon you can NEVER MARRY AGAIN’. With the obvious that you cannot have sex outside of marriage. Rev. Bosco are you under the Roman Catholic Church?

    • Yes, Mark, you are expressing in a different way the tradition of not marrying after ordination. RCs can get dispensations – RC deacons have been known to marry after ordination. That is not really the focus of this thread which contends that married deacons (or priests) in the Latin Rite (RC) are not to have sex with their wives. There is an “about” section on every page of this site. If you ask a question, I’ve recently added a “subscribe to comments” feature.

  19. I have posted this elsewhere, but it might help some reader here:

    I consider that the strongest argument against Peters’ misreading of the present code is the commitment to perfect continence that canon law has always required of the the wife IN ADDITION to her consent to the ordination. In Western Tradition, a married man could only be ordained to the diaconate if his wife had taken a “vow of chastity” sanctioned by the ordaining bishop, or its equivalent. Peters ignores this aspect of the Western tradition. The fact that this requirement has been discontinued in current canon law gives a strong indication that the wife is not required to live “clerical continence”. Her consent to the ordination is required because there is more to married life than sex, and more to Holy Orders than its absence.

    The promotion of married men to the diaconate without requiring wives to take the equivalent of a “vow of chastity” indicates that this is a development in the modern Church… better still, a return to the tradition as it was 1000 years ago. The bishop could choose to ordain a married man to the diaconate without a commitment to perfect continence, even though it was preferred that the couple would accept perfect continence.

    The meaning of 277 is obvious to anyone with a proper estimation for the sanctity of marital relations and the importance of the obligations of a husband towards his wife. These obligations commute (and I am using the word technically) the clerical obligation of perfect and permanent continence, (which does apply to all clerics who do not have a conflicting obligation) to “a certain continence” for married deacons.

    Western Tradition has always considered it necessary that the wife’s consent to perfect continence be explicit if it was to be binding. The old law required that an ordinand’s “wife consented AND the bishop sanctioned the vow of chastity to be pronounced by the wife”. In his article, Peters writes that “the wife’s consent had to be formally pronounced because, unlike her husband’s obligations in this regard, hers are not already set forth in the text of the law.” Peters confuses the effect of the consent with the effect of the vow of chastity here. Clearly it was not her consent to the ordination, but the vow that set forth her obligations. Understanding the role of this vow undermines Peters’ argument that the consent of the wife to the ordination includes consent a life of perfect continence.

    Elsewhere in this blog it is noted that Aquinas states: “The bond of orders dissolves the bond of marriage as regards the payment of the debt, in respect of which it is incompatible with marriage, on the part of the person ordained, since he cannot demand the debt, nor is the wife bound to pay it. But it does not dissolve the bond in respect of the other party, since the husband is bound to pay the debt to the wife if he cannot persuade her to observe continence.”

    Aquinas continues: “If the husband receive sacred orders with the knowledge and consent of his wife, she is bound to vow perpetual continence, but she is not bound to enter religion, if she has no fear of her chastity being endangered through her husband having taken a solemn vow: it would have been different, however, if he had taken a simple vow. On the other hand, if he be ordained without her consent, she is not bound in this way, because the result is not prejudicial to her in any way.”

    Note that in the second paragraph Aquinas says that the wife is bound TO VOW if she consents to the ordination – the consent is separate to the vow that flows from the consent. Obviously canon law has moved on from this logic and the situation seems to be as it is described in the first paragraph of Aquinas.

    Therefore, a married man awaiting ordination who was aware of the law could ask: am I foregoing my right to request marital relations (c.277), while still being obliged to render them for my wife(c.1135) – is that what the law presently indicates, and is what is meant by “a certain continence”?

    • Thanks for your contribution, Daniel. Just a point of clarification for people: when Daniel speaks of “Peters” he means Doctor Edward Peters, not me. And we are not related, as far as I am aware 🙂

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