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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