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A canonical bombshell

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 17, 2011

Thomas Peters, who blogs for CatholicVote.Org, has a very provocative post calling attention to the argument made by his father, the canonist Ed Peters, that permanent deacons in the Roman Catholic Church are included in the general rule that requires "perfect and perpetual continence" from members of the Roman Clergy. In other words, permanent deacons who are married should abstain from intercourse with their wives. 

Notice: Ed Peters is not arguing that this is what the Code of Canon Law should say. He's arguing that it's what the law does say. Although I am not a canon lawyer, and my opinion doesn't count, I do find his argument persuasive. 

The father-son Peters team makes three important points, all of them unassailable:

  1. If this reading of canon law is accurate, it applies not only to permanent deacons but to the former Anglican priests who will be entering the Catholic Church under the provisions of Anglicanorum Coetibus.
  2. Again, if this reading is accurate, many thousands of married men-- mostly American-- have been ordained to the diaconate without having been properly informed about a very important aspect of what is expected of them. Their wives, too, should have been informed. This isn't what they signed up for!
  3. If the Peters reading of canon law is not accurate, some authoritative clarification is called for.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Aug. 06, 2017 12:23 AM ET USA

    Another good place to start cleaning up corruption would be within the USCCB's Campaign for Human Development and Catholic Relief Service.

  • Posted by: feedback - Aug. 05, 2017 1:16 AM ET USA

    With the evidence of moral (recent gay orgy) and financial (children's hospital funds misused by Card. Bertone) corruption taking place in the Vatican, that would be a good starting point before going international.

  • Posted by: ALC - Aug. 04, 2017 4:34 PM ET USA

    We live in very chaotic times. I Isaiah has something to say about people who call evil good and good evil. I just never thought I would live long enough to have that coming directly from the top and the Vatican. However, it seems as though those of us who are trying to hold onto the centuries of Church teaching are now called evil, rigid, and intolerant and those calling evil good are called merciful.

  • Posted by: pschloss4164 - Jan. 19, 2011 3:52 PM ET USA

    People forget that one can be living the sacrament of matrimony and not have sex (e.g. Mary and Joseph of Nazareth)

  • Posted by: Rex - Jan. 18, 2011 8:13 PM ET USA

    It would come under the law of Dispensation (see for example CCL Chapter V canons 85-93), in these cases the Holy See being the dispensing authority higher than which there is no other, and which is the final arbiter of the canons.The law of celibacy (even for bishops) is not part of the unchanging doctrine of the Church (note 1Timothy 3 v. 2 and 12).

  • Posted by: skladach - Jan. 18, 2011 5:02 PM ET USA

    I haven't read Peters' article, but I have read Stefan Heid's definitive study, Celibacy in the Early Church. Men in lower orders up to and including subdeacon could always marry and have relations in marriage. Once ordained a deacon (because of the proximity to the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass) a man could not marry and, if married already, was expected to practice perpetual continence within marriage (as all married Christians were expected to do in certain liturgical seasons).

  • Posted by: jdieterich616502 - Jan. 18, 2011 11:09 AM ET USA

    I read the article and it is very solid on the basis of what is in the canonical text. Peters is very clear in the opening that his methodology is canonical and not necessarily into the realm of any of the relevant theological disciplines (doctrinal, moral, or sacramental) but he makes a very compelling argument, and I for one am interested to see where it goes from here, if anywhere.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 17, 2011 10:24 PM ET USA

    I may not be an expert in Canon Law, but this doesn't make sense to me. It seems to me that the permanent diaconate would be incompatible with the vocation of marriage if this is true, especially since marriage was their first vocation and therefore the dominant. Agreed though, we need some clarification from the magisterium.

  • Posted by: - Jan. 17, 2011 6:15 PM ET USA

    Aren't husband and wife one flesh? How can relations within the same flesh not by definition be continent?

  • Posted by: wolfdavef3415 - Jan. 17, 2011 5:03 PM ET USA

    Isn't being open to the possibility of life part of the Sacrament?