Dr. Edward Peters 

To work for the proper implementation of canon law is to play an extraordinarily

constructive role in continuing the redemptive mission of Christ. Pope John Paul II







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1917 Code


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23 may 2017

The obligation of perfect and perpetual continence binds all Western clerics


Clerics in the Western Church, even those married, are bound by Canon 277 (and the unbroken and unanimous tradition behind that canon) to observe perfect and perpetual continence. This thesis, though it surprises most and astounds some, is not offered lightly. It is firmly grounded in Western law and tradition and has, in fact, withstood every attempt to repudiate it over the centuries, even during periods (such as obtain now) of widespread inadvertence to the requirement.


The Law

Canon 277. § 1. Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam, ideoque ad coelibatum adstringuntur, quod est peculiare Dei donum, quo quidem sacri ministri indiviso corde Christo facilius adhaerere possunt atque Dei hominumque servitio liberius sese dedicare valent. § 2. Debita cum prudentia clerici se gerant cum personis, quarum frequentatio ipsorum obligationem ad continentiam servandam in discrimen vocare aut in fidelium scandalum vertere possit. § 3. Competit Episcopo dioecesano ut hac de re normas statuat magis determinatas utque de huius obligationis observantia in casibus particularibus iudicium ferat.


• Eng. trans. 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.




The single most common mistake hampering discussion of this issue is confusing "celibacy" (the willed state not to enter marriage) with "continence" (the choice not to engage in conjugal relations); adding to this modern confusion is the fact that these two concepts are sometimes used, by various sources, interchangeably.


Contents of this page


Fundamental thesis: all Roman clerics, even those married, are subject to the obligation of continence

  • citation to Studia Canonica article defending thesis, direct to PDF

  • importance of studying the topic for oneself, below

  • emphasis on canonical nature of argument, below

Situation of married men ordained without consent to continence, below

Arguments for diaconal continence apply a fortiori to priests, below

Four ways to reconcile law-tradition and current clerical practice, below or direct to page

Historical studies demonstrate an unbroken tradition of clerical continence, below

  • Short overviews

  • Continence during the first millennium

  • Gratian's Decree

  • Ius Decretalium

  • Pio-Benedictine Code

Some theological studies of clerical continence, below

Recent letters from the PCLT do not resolve the question, below

Wider questions on married clergy in the West have arisen, below

Fuller discussion of some earlier points related to clerical continence, below

  • More on late modification of what would become Canon 277, direct to Memo

  • More on the dicasterial phrase "a certain continence", direct to Memo

  • Why Canon 277 § 3 does not authorize exemptions for married clerics, blog post

  • Mistranslation of Presbyterorum ordinis 16, direct to PDF

  • Reply to Woestman's comments on phrase "in matrimonio viventibus", direct to Memo

Additional materials with relevance to clerical continence, below

  • Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Non latet (1858)

  • Congregation for Catholic Education, circ. let. “Come è a conoscenza” (1969)

  • Martimort’s Deaconesses (1986)

  • Brian Mullady, op, recently defended priestly celibacy (2010)

  • Cdl. Levada's remarks on celibacy and continence (2011), on-line here

  • Why Dcn. John Cornelius and his wife Sheryl are doing a praiseworthy thing (2013), here

A specific question on the Rite or Ordination, below

Why inadvertence to Canon 277 does not result in "custom" contrary to it, direct to Memo

New studies on, or related to, clerical continence being published, below

Concluding thought, below




Fundamental thesis: all clerics, even those married, are bound to complete continence


(a) All clerics in the Western Church, even those married, are bound by Canon 277and the unbroken Western tradition behind that canonto observe perfect and perpetual continence. See Edward Peters, “Canonical considerations on diaconal continence”, Studia Canonica 39 (2005) 147-180, searchable PDF here, abstracts in English, French, and Latin below. It is impossible to follow, let alone contribute to, discussion of this topic unless one first understands (even if one disagrees with) the arguments made in this article.


(b) My thesis has for obvious reasons provoked much commentary, some public, some private, some by professionals, much by amateurs (by which I mean persons who, notwithstanding sometimes impressive credentials in other fields, possess only a superficial knowledge of canon law). While I believe my canonical writing are understandable by intelligent readers with a background in Catholic thought, I caution non-canonists from assuming things that canonists would dismiss and from overlooking things that canonists would take for granted. The internet, especially the blogosphere, is a haven for people who would rather write than read. Many of the cyberspace comments about my thesis have been written by those who did not read, let alone understand, my Studia article. I urge those following this discussion not to rely on others' characterizations of my thesis and instead to commit to the personal study necessary to understand this important matter. In any event, I cannot monitor, let alone respond to, all public discussions of this topic, though I have tried to reply to as many posts as reasonably possible, below.


(c) It is important to underscore that my thesis concerns what canon law requires today. To carry that burden I do not need to prove Scriptural or apostolic foundations for Canon 277. Most modern canons do not boast Scriptural or apostolic roots yet no one doubts their binding character. While I am, as it happens, persuaded of the Scriptural and apostolic foundations for the current canonical discipline, those who attempt to refute my thesis based on their interpretations of the Bible or Church history argue in vain. My argument is not Scriptural or apostolic; it is canonical. Biblical or historical critics are free, I suppose, to use their opinions to argue for a change in canonical discipline but not to prove what that discipline is. I have presented what canon law requires of clerics; my conclusions are susceptible only to canonically cogent refutation.



The situation of currently ordained married men and their wives


From the outset of my observations on the text of Canon 277 I have acknowledged the anomalous canonical situation of married men ordained without personal (or uxorial) consent to the obligation of continence and I have defended the exercise conjugal rights among such persons. See, e.g., Peters, "Considerations", 177-178. My writings on the obligations of clerical continence have been prospective in nature, asking what should be done in the future about disconnect between law and tradition on one hand and common assumptions and practices on the other.



Arguments for diaconal continence apply a fortiori to priests


Although my Studia article did not address the continence obligations of married priests, I believe that the arguments set out for deacons apply even more strongly to priests, that is, to clerics who are even more closely configured to Christ the High Priest than are deacons.


More discussion of these four options is offered here.

Four ways to reconcile law-tradition and clerical practice are possible


I have avoided urging to the Church toward or away from any particular resolution of this issue. I see, however, only four possible ways to reconcile the current disconnect between tradition and canon law on the one hand and current clerical practice on the other, namely: the Roman Church can:

  • reaffirm the unbroken tradition of perfect and perpetual continence for all clerics; or,

  • reaffirm the continence obligation for all priests, but abandon it for married deacons; or,

  • assert a temporary continence obligation for married priests (and possibly deacons); or,

  • abandon any expectation of continence for married clerics (i.e., canonize the present situation).

From here: "I think it ironic, to say the least, that Western married deacons and priests, despite belonging to the Church that has unquestionably held with near absolute consistency for a celibate (and, even if married, a completely continent) clergy, have—doubtless for lack of direction—adopted an approach to continence that, not only has no support in Western law or tradition, but fails to satisfy even the mitigated continence expectations of various Eastern Churches. Some people are not struck by the fact that, with no express approbation or endorsement by ecclesiastical authority, such a dramatic abandonment of Western expectations regarding such an important area of clerical life has occurred in so short a time. But, as I said in my Studia article, I think it very important, both for the operation of law and for the stability of the faith community, that such a complete change in fundamental clerical practice either be formally recognized in law if it is genuine, or be reasonably but firmly removed from practice if it is not. The current continued dichotomy between law and history on the one hand, and assumptions and practice on the other, is quite incongruous and ultimately unsupportable."








Cdl. Stickler

Historical studies demonstrate an unbroken tradition of clerical continence


Several important historical studies of clerical continence preceded my canonical examinations of this topic. I found the following works insightful.


The best short overviews of this matter are:

  • Alfons Maria Cdl. Stickler (Austrian prelate, 1910-2007), The Case for Clerical Celibacy, trans. B. Ferme, (Ignatius Press, 1995) 106 pp., from Stickler's Seine Entwicklungsgeshichte und seine theologischen Grundlagen (1993). Order English version here. Excepts from Stickler's Case are available on line here.

  • Thomas McGovern, Priestly Celibacy Today (Scepter/Midwest Theological Forum, 1998) 248 pp., esp. pp. 58-65. Order it here. McGovern's basic text is apparently available on-line here.

  • Ignace de la Pottiere († 2003), "The biblical foundation of priestly celibacy", Vatican website, here.

  • Magdalen Ross, extended blog post "On clerical continence" (18 Jan 2011), here.

Fr. Cochini


Extended studies of clerical continence as observed during the first millennium are:

  • Christian Cochini (French Jesuit, b. 1929), The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy, trans. N. Marans (Ignatius Press, 1990) 469 pp., from Cochini's Origens apostoliques du célibat sacerdotal (1981), a doctoral dissertation directed by Jean Cdl. Danilieu. Order it here.

  • Roman Cholij, Clerical Celibacy in East and West (Gracewing, 1989) 226 pp., available in part on-line here.

  • Stefan Heid (German priest, b. 1961), Celibacy in the Early Church: the beginnings of a discipline of obligatory continence for clerics in East and West, trans. M. Miller (Ignatius Press, 2000) 376 pp., from Heid's Zölibat in der frühen Kirche: Die Anfänge einer Enthaltsamkeitsplicht für Kleriker in Ost und West (1997). Order English version here.


Fr. Heid



Cochini (1990)


Stickler (1995)



McGovern (1997)



Heid (2000)

Cattaneo (2012)

The classic examination of clerical continence in Gratian's Decree is: Filippo Liotta, La Continenza dei Chierici nel Pensiero Canonistico Classico: da Graziano a Gregorio IX (Quaderni de Studi Senesi, 1971) 401 pp. Reviews: C. Munier, Revue d’ Histoire Ecclésiastique 67 (1972) 485-489 (French); J. Brundage, Speculum 48 (1973) 376-377 (English).


I know of no formal examination of clerical continence under the Ius Decretalium (mid-13th to early-20th centuries), but I am preparing one. So far, however, nothing in my examination of the fontes for 1917 CIC 132, see below, suggests the slightest gap in the tradition of clerical continence.


The obligation of complete continence under Pio-Benedictine law, even for the few married clerics of those times, was unanimously upheld by standard commentators. See Peters, "Considerations" at 156-160.



Fr. Keefe

Some theological studies of clerical continence


Some theological studies of clerical continence preceded my canonical examinations of this topic. Besides theological discussions found in the above historical works, one may note:

  • A. Cattaneo, ed., Married Priests? 30 Crucial Questions about Celibacy (Ignatius, 2012) 179 pp.

  • Donald Keefe (American Jesuit, b. 1924), “Clerical Continence and the Restored Permanent Diaconate” (October, 1998), available from Fr. Van Hove, SJ, on-line here.

  • J. Coppens, ed., Sacerdoce et Célibat: Études Historiques et Théologiques (Gembloux/Peeters, 1971) 752 pp., English edition, Priesthood and Celibacy (Ancora, 1972) 1023 pp.

As further evidence that the PCLT letter(s) do not qualify as “authentic interpertation(s)” of Canon 277, note that the PCLT itself indicated that in 2011 it had replied to several questions not considered dubia iuris, including a question “concerning permanent deacons in regard to Canon 277” (my trans).  See Communicationes 43 (2011) 35.

Two letters from the PCLT issued in 2011 do not resolve this question


Two letters on Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts letterhead dealing with the continence obligations of married deacons were produced in 2011.


(a) In the first document, dated March 4, 2011, Abp. Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the PCLT, responded to a letter faxed him two just weeks earlier (see Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2011 at 18-20, on-line here) and, in a single, parenthetical remark, purported to offer a "clarification" of what is, of course, a complex and controversial canonical matter. While the designation of this letter as only a "clarification" indicated that no formal interpretation of Canon 277 was intended, some observers took the prelate's slight remark as settling a controverted canonical point, so I commented on it here.


(b) In the second document, dated 17 December 2011, Abp. Coccopalmerio offered an extended "clarification" of the continence obligations of married deacons. The prelate's letter was not immediately released to the public, but it was distributed to all US bishops under a cover letter from the USCCB dated 31 January 2012, available on-line here. I commented publicly on the US cover letter here, but responded only privately to the PCLT letter until such time as it was released to the public. That eventually happened (see Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2012 at 12-14) at which point I made my response available here.


Two important points concerning both letters should highlighted:

  • Abp. Coccopalmerio’s second letter (even less so, his first) is not, and does not claim to be, an "authentic interpretation" of Canon 277. The authority of the PCLT over universal law in the Church is set out in ap. con. Pastor bonus (1988) n. 155: "With regard to the universal laws of the Church, the Council is competent to publish authentic interpretations confirmed by pontifical authority, after consulting the dicasteries concerned in questions of major importance." See also EXEG COMM I: 322-323 and CLSA NEW COMM 71-73. Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter was not confirmed—neither ‘generically’ nor ‘specifically’—by pontifical authority, and it was sent only to the US bishops. It does not satisfy, therefore, some key requirements of an authentic interpretation of universal law.


  • Abp. Coccopalmerio’s letter, whatever its weight, concerns only married deacons, not married priests. My original Studia article on clerical continence focused on married deacons but, while the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence begins at diaconate, the arguments for obligatory continence among married priests—who are more closely configured to Christ the High Priest and who are more intimately linked to the altar of sacrifice than are deacons—are even stronger. Therefore, even if some change in the law of continence could be established in regard to married deacons (and recent develops such as Omnium in mentem imply, in some respects, a widening wedge between diaconate and priesthood), nothing, absolutely nothing, in Western law or tradition can account for the abandonment of the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence among married priests.


Wider questions about married clergy in the West need examination


The discussion of continence obligations among married clergy is not, I suggest, unrelated to wider questions about the place of married clergy in the Roman Church generally. I outlined some of these questions in Edward Peters, "Diaconal categories and clerical celibacy", Chicago Studies 49 (2010) 110-116, available on-line here.


My Chicago Studies article occasioned, I regret to say, a very poorly conceived and executed reply, namely, Peery Duderstadt, "A Modest Proposal: A Reply to 'Diaconal Categories and Clerical Celibacy'", Chicago Studies 50 (2011) 236-241. It would have been tedious to discuss all of the flaws in Duderstadt's essay—let alone to ask Chicago Studies to publish my reactions—but I felt that some response was in order if only to illustrate for others what kind of ineptitude is wont to present itself, from time to time, even in respected venues, as informed refutation of my thesis. My reply to Duderstadt is available in PDF here.



Some points related to clerical continence can be more fully discussed


Following the publication of the Studia article, some points lightly touched on therein, or not discussed at all, have surfaced among those trying to follow this discussion, to which points I have tried to respond. In no particular order, they are as follows:

  • More on the removal of an exemption proposed for married deacons from the future Canon 277 (19/20 February 2011), further to Peters, "Considerations" at 169-171;

  • More on the dicasterial use of the phrase "a certain continence" (26 February 2011), further to Peters, "Considerations" at 172-174;

  • More on why Canon 277 § 3 does not authorize bishops to exempt married clerics from continence, further to Peters, "Considerations", 151, 168, here.

  • Edward Peters, "A note on a misapplications of Presbyterorum ordinis 16", Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly 34/2 (2011) 33-35, on line here; and

  • William Woestman, omi, published a brief look at, among things, the phrase "in matrimonio viventibus" (see Roman Replies and CLSA Advisory Opinions 2011 at 74-76, on line here), to which I replied on 27 October 2011, here.


Additional materials with relevance to clerical continence


In researching more matters related to Canon 277, I continue to across interesting materials. I offer some of them here:


(a) Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, Non latet (1858)


“Whoever ponders diligently the true tradition of celibacy and clerical continence will indeed find that, from the first centuries of the Catholic Church, if not by a general and explicit law, at least by behavior and custom, it was firmly established that not only bishops and priests, but [all] clergy in holy Orders were to preserve inviolate virginity or perpetual continence”. Quoted by Roman Cholij, “Priesthood and celibacy according to recent Church teaching”, in Congregation for the Clergy, Priesthood: a Greater Love, a Symposium on the Thirtieth anniversary of the promulgation of the Conciliar decree Prebysterorum ordinis (Archdiocese of Philadelphia, 1997) originally titled Sacerdozio: Un Amore Più Grande (1997), at 249-256, at 251, fn. 8. Original text available here.


(b) Congregation for Catholic Education, circ. let. “Come è a conoscenza” (1969)


In the course of its “Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons” (1998), the Congregation for Catholic Education recalled its circular letter of 1969 wherein guidelines for the education of deacons were presented. See Congregation for Catholic Education, circ. let. “Come è a conoscenza” [Formation of candidates for the permanent diaconate] (16 July 1969), Enchiridion Vaticanum III, nn. 1408-1412, at 834-837. That circular letter makes no comments for or against clerical continence.


Martimort (1986)

(c) Martimort’s Deaconesses (1986)


“It is well known that, according to the ancient Latin discipline, priests and deacons who had previously contracted marriage were required, upon ordination, to practice continence but were not required to separate themselves from their wives. … In Rome, in the ninth century, [these wives] received a special blessing … and a special costume was even conferred upon them.” Aimé Georges Martimort, Deaconesses: an historical study (Ignatius, 1986) at 201, citations omitted, discussing the wives of deacons. Order it here.


This passage is interesting in several respects: yet another accomplished ecclesiastical historian reports with aplomb that continence was obligatory for married men becoming deacons or priests in the West; there was appropriate solicitude for the wives of clerics lest they be cut off from the spousal support (financial, emotional, etc.) that they had a right to expect from their husbands, and for that matter, indications that married men should not be required to do without the personal assistance of their wives; and a special blessing and even manner of dress were conferred on the wives of clergy in recognition that wives too were making a great sacrifice consequent to their husbands’ ordination and would benefit by special sacramental support.


(d) Brian Mullady, op, recently defended priestly celibacy in 2010, available here.


I would offer here three emendations to Mullady’s comments on continence.

  • First, the obligation of clerical continence (c. 277) does not forbid married clerics from “consummating” their marriages, for consummation is a singular act (c. 1061 § 1) that would have been performed by married men long before they took holy orders. Rather, clerical continence requires married clergy to cease exercising their right to sexual relations with their wives after ordination (a consequence reflected by the twice iterated requirement—cc. 1031 and 1050—that wives consent to the ordination of their husbands, lest wives be deprived of the opportunity to exercise their conjugal rights within marriage without their consent). Clerical marriages, in any event, despite the observance of continence after ordination, remain “consummated”.

  • Second, I would assert less firmly the idea that clerical continence has its “origin” in the Levitical observances of the Old Testament. I think it better to say that clerical continence finds prefigurement in Levitical (or temporary) continence, certainly, but that the ‘origins’ or foundations of clerical continence today are rooted in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, as Mullady suggests in the rest of his answer.

  • Third, it is not so much, I think, “celibacy” that the Latin Church does not impose on Eastern Churches in union with Rome (indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, there is a growing question as to how much Rome, rhetoric notwithstanding, imposes celibacy on Western clergy these days) but rather, that Rome has not for many centuries expected continence of married Eastern clerics, despite unquestionably requiring it of her own, albeit relatively few, married clerics. The more pressing issue for the Roman Church, therefore, is: to what extent will the near-total, post-Conciliar disregard for the hitherto undoubted obligation of perfect and perpetual continence for Western clergy, including those men married, continue to be ignored? Or, is the obligation simply to be abandoned? 14 Sep 2011.

Cdl. Levada

(e) Cdl. Levada's remarks in Belo Horizonte on celibacy and continence (21 Nov 2011)


Cdl. Levada spoke out of “personal conviction, and not on behalf of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” when he proposed “celibacy and continence as a tradition going back to apostolic times". His thoughtful appeal to history, notably his citations to the Jesuit historian Cochini (along with Alfons Stickler and Peter Brown), are very interesting. Of related interest, and also on the Vatican's website, is Roman Cholij, “Priestly celibacy in patristics and in the history of the Church” (undated), on-line here.


A specific question on the Rite of Ordination


The Rite of Ordination of Deacons (1989) does not require married candidates to promise celibacy or continence; therefore, according to some, married deacons are not bound by celibacy or continence. At least three responses may be offered:

  • The obligations of clerical continence and celibacy are canonical in nature, not liturgical, so one must look to canonical sources (such as the Code of Canon Law), not liturgical (such as the Roman Pontifical), for their scope and application. The canonical obligation of clerical continence is set out in Canon 277 § 1 and is nowhere lifted for deacons or priests. The canonical obligation of clerical celibacy is set out in Canon 277 § 1 and is lifted for deacons in Canons 1031 § 2, 1042 n. 1, and 1050 n. 3, while that for priests can be dispensed by Rome.

  • A formal promise of celibacy is not required from ordinands in order that the matrimonial impediment of holy Orders apply to single men upon ordination (and to married men upon the death of their wives), in accord with Canon 1087; so too, a formal promise of continence is not required from ordinands for the obligation of continence to apply to clerics upon ordination, in accord with Canons 266 § 1 and 277 § 1.

  • The obligations of the clerical state are very many; that only a few of of them are emphasized during the rite of ordination in no way implies that those others which are not expressly declared during the rite are somehow less binding, let alone do they become non-binding.


Inadvertence to the obligation of continence does not result in contrary "custom"


Some holding that Canon 277 binds all clerics in the Roman Church to perfect and perpetual continence nevertheless wonder whether widespread inadvertence to the continence obligation on the part of Roman married clergy might work to derogate from that ancient obligation; put another way, some wonder whether “custom” is (or was by, say, late January 2013) applicable against certain obligations set out in Canon 277. I believe the answer to that question to be No.


In this context the word "custom” is canonical and must be taken in its canonicalnot popularsense if it is to be invoked for canonical purposes. No less an authority than Alphonsus Van Hove (1872-1947) dubbed “custom” the canonical topic “intricatissima”. But, because “custom” might be invoked against the obligations of Canon 277 by some unaware of what the term means canonically, I venture to explain why a “custom” argument does not avail those who hold against the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence for all clerics in the West, here.


Fr. Daly


Fr. Van Hove


Fr. Ryland

New studies on, or related to, clerical continence are being published


Several studies of clerical continence have recently appeared. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • Gary Selin, On the Christological, Ecclesiological, and Eschatological Dimensions of Priestly Celibacy in Presbyterorum Ordinis, Sacerdotalis Caelibatus and Subsequent Magisterial Documents (Catholic University of America, 2011) 366 pp., available on-line here.

  • Anthony McLaughlin, The Obligation of Perfect and Perpetual Continence and Married Deacons in the Latin Church, Canon Law Studies no. 573 (Catholic University of America, 2010), available on-line here.

  • John Boyle, extended blog post, "Permanent deacons are obliged by the law of continence", 10 Nov 2010, with updates, on-line here.

  • (Conference News, 8 March 2010), watch for some journalistic imprecision and translation anomalies, but good report overall.

  • Brendan Daly, "Priestly Celibacy: the obligations of celibacy and continence for priests", Compass 43/4 (2009) 20-33, available on-line here.

  • Brian Van Hove, Letter to the editor (Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Mar 2008), here.

  • Ray Ryland, "The Gift: a married priest looks at celibacy", Crisis (October 2006); Letters to the editor, with responses by Fr. Ryland, appeared in the December 2006 issue of Crisis.

  • Jorge de Otaduy, in commenting on c. 277 § 1 for the Exegetical Commentary (2004) II/1 at 349 states "Married deacons, however, are not obligated to keep perfect and perpetual continence and may continue their normal married life" adding that the import of his opinion above required c. 277 § 2 to be modified for deacons (though no modification for them is found in c. 288). Of course, Otaduy offers his remarks as a gratuitous assertions, presenting no arguments for his views. I suggest that they fall for the same reasons that I have set out at length above. Even so, I would have acknowledged Otaduy's position if I had had access to this commentary when I wrote my Studia Canonical article. I did not.


A concluding thought


This point has been made many times, but bears repeating: the Church does not make major decisions hastily. The questions raised by me and others concerning the obligations of clerical continence under Canon 277 (and the unbroken Western tradition behind that canon) are weighty and require informed resolution. I do not know what that resolution will be. But I do know that many people are looking at one resolution of the question (namely, obligatory clerical continence) and—concluding that its immediate implementation would work an injustice on men ordained without such intentions and on their wives (which it would, of course)—dismissing out of hand that resolution as wrong. Such an approach to legal interpretation, however, is substantively mistaken and methodologically backward: substantively mistaken, in that finding for obligatory continence would not require the immediate cessation of conjugal relations between married clergy and their wives, and methodologically backward in that one should ask first what the law requires, and then ask how might behavior be brought into conformity with the law or, if appropriate, how the law might be amended to reflect new values.


Unus ex Patribus [in Coetu de S. Hierarchia] animadvertit in historia Ecclesiam fuisse reformatam quando in honorem restituta fuit lex coelibatus. Comm. XVI: 177



Abstract – Analysis of c. 277 indicates that two distinct obligations are imposed on clerics in the Latin Church: sexual continence and celibacy. Continence is presented as the fundamental norm. Although the obligation of celibacy is mitigated for permament deacons, Peters finds no relaxation of the law regarding the fundamental obligation of continence for them in canon law. Testing this conclusion, Peters examines Pio-Benedictine dispositions on celibacy and continence for clerics, post-conciliar norms by which the (permanent) diaconate was restored in the West, and the legislative history of 1983 Code dispositions on the subject. He suggests that these norms maintain the obligation of continence for married permament deacons. Peters then examines various arguments by scholars that support the exercise of conjugal rights by permanent deacons (principally arguments based on c. 4) and concludes that, while these might be potentially applicable to those who received sacred orders without awareness of the requirements of law in this area, they are insufficient in themselves to establish a modification of the traditional canonical obligation of continence reasserted in c. 277. Peters invites the competent ecclesiastical authority to articulate in canonically compelling terms why the obligation of continence should not be applied to married permanent deacons, or to take the steps necessary to assure that formation programs for married permanent deacons conform to the requirement of clerical continence so that candidates for ordination and their spouses can make an informed decision.


Résumé – (Anglais). Une analyse du c. 277 indique que deux obligations distinctes sont imposées aux clercs dans l’Église latine: la continence sexuelle et le célibat. La continence est présentée comme la norme fondamentale. Alors que l’obligation du célibat est mitigée pour les diacres permanents, Peters ne trouve aucun relâchement de la loi pour l’obligation fondamentale de la continence pour eux en droit canonique. Vérifiant cette conclusion, Peters examine les dispositions pio-bénédictines concernant le célibat des clercs et la continence, les normes post-conciliaires par lesquelles le diaconat (permanent) fut restauré en Occident et l’histoire législative des dispositions du Code de 1983 à ce sujet. Il suggère que ces normes maintiennent l’obligation de continence pour les diacres permanents mariés. Peters examine ensuite les quelques arguments de la part d’érudits en faveur du maintien de l’exercise des droits conjugaux par les diacres permanents (principalement des arguments fondés sur le c. 4) et conclut que, bien qu’ils soient potentiellement applicables à ceux ayant reçu les ordres sacrés sans connaître les exigencies du droit en la matière, ils sont insuffisants en soi pour entraîner une modification de l’obligation canonique traditionnelle de la continence répétée au c. 277. Peters invite l’autorité ecclésiastique compétente à articuler en des termes canoniques solides en soi pourquoi l’obligation de la continence ne devrait pas s’appliquer aux diacres permanents mariés ou prendre les moyens nécessaires pour que les programmes de formation des diacres permanents mariés soient conformes à l’exigence de continence cléricale afin que les candidats à l’ordination et leurs épouses puissent prendre une décision éclairée.


Abstractus articuli: Edward Peters, “Canonical considerations on diaconal continence, Studia Canonica 39 (2005) 147-180. Anglice. Scrutatio can. 277 demonstrat quod duae obligationes et distinctae imponuntur in clericos in Ecclesia latina: continentiam sexualem et coelibatum. Continentia sexualis autem offertur tamquam norma fundamentalis. Etsi obligatio coelibatus mitigatur pro diaconis permanentibus in Codice 1983, praesens auctor tamen non invenit pro illis relaxationem obligationis fundamentalis continentiae in canonibus. Ad hanc conclusionem tentandam, auctor examinat provisiones Codicis Pii-Benedicti in re coelibatus et continentiae clericalis, normas demanantes post Concilii finem quibus diaconatus (permanens) in occidente restituitur, et historiam legislativam 1983 Codicis dispositionum hac in re. Quas normas sustinere obligationem continentiae pro diaconis permantibus etiam uxoratis praesenti auctori persuasum est. Magna cum diligentia examinat auctor argumenta doctorum qui defendunt exercitium iurium conjugalium a diaconis permanentibus (praecipue argumenta ex can. 4) et concludat quod, non obstantibus argumentis fortasse propositis pro illis qui ordines sacros accepiunt inscientes normas legis in re continentiae obligationis, non esse satis in se statuere modificationem obligationis continentiae vindicatae in can. 277. Postremo, invitat praesens auctor ecclesiasticam auctoritatem competentem demonstrare modis canonice cogentibus obligationem continentiae ad instituendos diaconos permanendos uxoratos non applicari, vel, instruere ut Rationes studiorum in quibuslibet regionibus ad diaconos permanentes uxoratos instituendos conforment ad normas continentiae clericalis, ita ut candidati ad ordines necnon uxores suae possint iudicium bene informatum facere.



The USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations recently notified American bishops that it had received from Abp. Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, a “clarification” regarding whether married permanent deacons were obligated to observe perfect and perpetual continence per Canon 277 § 1. This marks the second time that Abp. Coccopalmerio has offered an opinion on whether Canon 277 § 1 binds married permanent deacons to continence. The prelate's first letter (4 March 2011) and my response to it, are available here.


The Committee has notified US bishops that, per “observations” formulated by PCLT officials, married permanent deacons are not bound to observe continence. The Committee invited bishops to share the dicasterial response with arch/diocesan officials who might find it useful; since then the conference notification has apparently circulated widely. I saw it a few days ago.


There is little to say about the USCCB notification itself. It does not indicate the reasoning by which dicastery officials arrived at their position and it does not add any observations of its own. If the original dicastery letter (PCLT 13095/2011, 17 dec 2011) becomes public—it is not secret, obviously, but I have not seen it in a public venue yet—I will feel free to comment publicly on it. In the meantime, I will share my responses to the Roman letter with those who already have it and who wish to follow this important, and on-going, issue.



Some exchanges in blogosphere, probably of minimal value at this point:


Ignitum Today (March 2013)


American Papist I (2); American Papist II (-); Anchoress (3); Deacon's Bench I (-); Deacon's Bench II (7); Deacon's Bench III (2); Deacon's Bench IV (3); Deacon's Bench V (4); Deacons Today I (6); Deacons Today II (18); Nat. Cath. Reporter (1); Sioux City Deacon (4); St. Louis Catholic (4*) Vox Nova (12); WDTPRS (3).


* My four reply posts are no longer visible at St. Louis Catholic. In fact, all that remains there last I checked is the original "logical fallacy" claim made against me, allegedly penned by a canon lawyer who would not admit publicly to his/her remarks. Pity. I am actually getting questions from people who wonder whether I've seen the SLC post and whether I plan to reply! In any case, as I had pointed out at SLC, I responded to the "logical fallacy" argument on-line more than two years ago and in other threads more recently. Might I suggest trying the thread at Deacons Today II where inconvenient replies from those whose views are publicly challenged don't seem to disappear.


See also:

Some other of my blog posts seem to have been especially consulted in their day:


Sacra Congregatio de Propaganda Fide, instr. ad Archiep. Fogarasien. et Alba-Iulien. Graeci ritus Non latet Amplitudinem Tuam (24 martii 1858), in Collectanea S. Congregationis de Propaganda Fide seu Decreta, Instructiones, Rescripta pro Apostolicis Missionibus, in 2 vols., (Romae: S.C. de Propaganda Fide, 1907) doc. n. 1158, I: 627-630, at 628; also in P. Gasparri & J. Serédi, eds., Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes, in 9 vols., (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1923-1949) doc. n. 4844, VII: 372-376, at 373: "Qui germanam tradtionem de coelibatu ac continentia cleri sedulo expenderit inveniet profecto vel a primis Ecclesiae catholicae saeculis, si non generali et explicita lege, moribus saltem ac conseutudine fuisse firmatum, ut nedum Episcopi et presbyteri, sed ut clerici in sacris constituti virginitatem, vel perpetuam continentiam inviolate servarent." Note: I found all of Non latet worth reading. Note that it dates from nearly a generation before the Bickell-Funk debate. Here is a provisional searchable PDF scan of Non latet until I can secure a better.



Sources for 1917 CIC 132


Canon 277 § 1 of the 1983 Code basically came from Canon 132 § 1 of the 1917 Code. That Pio-Benedictine canon, in turn, arose from many sources as listed by Gasparri in the footnote to that canon. It is not easy for non-canonists to search out the sources (fontes) of Pio-Benedictine law, so, for the benefit of interested parties, I have broken out the sources for 1917 CIC 132 § 1 below. “Friedberg” refers of course to his 2-volume edition of the Corpus Iuris Canonici, and “Gasparii” refers to his 9-volume Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes. I would welcome any corrections or emendations.


Dist. 27, c. 8, Presbiteris (Friedberg I: 100)

Dist. 28, c. 2, Decernimus (Friedberg I: 101)

Dist. 28, c. 8, Diaconi (Friedberg I: 102)

Dist. 28, c. 9, Presbiter (Friedberg I: 103)

Dist. 31, c. 1, Ante triennium (Friedberg I: 111)

Dist. 31, c. 2, Sacerdotibus (Friedberg I: 111)

Dist. 31, c. 3, Episcopos (Friedberg I: 112)

Dist. 31, c. 7, Si laicus (Friedberg I: 113)

Dist. 31, c. 10, Lex continentiae (Friedberg I: 113)

Dist. 31, c. 14, Aliter se (Friedberg I: 115)

Dist. 32, c. 1, Cum sacerdotibus (Friedberg I: 116)

Dist. 32, c. 2, Multorum relatione (Friedberg I: 116)

Dist. 32, c. 4, De illo clerico (Friedberg I: 117)

Dist. 32, c. 5, Nullus missam (Friedberg I: 117)

Dist. 32, c. 6, Preter hoc (Friedberg I: 117)

Dist. 32, c. 10, Eos qui post (Friedberg I: 120)

Dist. 32, c. 11, Erubescant (Friedberg I: 120)

Dist. 32, c. 13, Placuit episcopos (Friedberg I: 120)

Dist. 32, c. 14, Seriatim (Friedberg I: 121)

Dist. 33, c. 7, Habuisse (Friedberg I: 124)

Dist. 81, c. 19, Ministri alteris (Friedberg I: 286)

Causa 27, q. 1, c. 40, Ut lex continentiae (Friedberg I: 1059)


Extra, III, 1, c. 13, Ut clericorum (Friedberg II: 452)

Extra, III, 3, c. 1, Si qui clericorum (Friedberg II: 457)

Extra, III, 3, c. 4, Sane sacerdos (Friedberg II: 458)

Extra, III, 3, c. 5, Diversis fallaciis (Friedberg II: 458)

Extra, IV, 6, c. 1, De diacono (Friedberg II: 684)

Extra, IV, 6, c. 2, Ex literarum (Friedberg II: 685)

Extra, V, 31, c. 4, Clerici (Friedberg II: 836)

in Sexto, III, 15, c. 1, Quod votum (Friedberg II: 1053)

in Clem., IV, c. 1, Eos qui divino (Friedberg II: 1177)

Extravag. Joan. XXII, t. VI, c. 1, Antiquae (Friedberg II: 1212)


Conc. Lateranen. I, c. 3

Conc. Trident., sess XXI, de ref. c. 6

Conc. Trident., sess XXIII, de ref. c. 13

Conc. Trident., sess XXIV, de matrimonio, c. 9

Leo X (in Conc. Lateranen. V), const. Supernae dispositionis, 5 maii 1514, § 34


Innocentius XIII, const. Apostolici ministerii, 23 maii 1723, § 8 (Gasparri I: 585-586)

Benedictus XIII, const. In supremo, 23 sept. 1724, § 6 (Gasparri I: 601)

Benedictus XIII, const. In supremo, 23 sept. 1724, § 28 (Gasparri I: 608-609)

Benedictus XIII, const. Pastoralis officii, 27 mart. 1726, § 3 (Gasparri I: 634)

Benedictus XIV, const. Ad militantis, 30 mart. 1742, § 12 (Gasparri I: 725)

Benedictus XIV, const. Ad militantis, 30 mart. 1742, § 25 (Gasparri I: 728)

Benedictus XIV, const. Etsi pastoralis, 26 maii 1742 § VII, n. 26 (Gasparri I: 748)

Benedictus XIV, const. Etsi pastoralis, 26 maii 1742 § VII, n. 27 (Gasparri I: 749)

Benedictus XIV, instr. Eo quamvis tempore, 4 maii 1745, § 34 seq. (Gasparri I: 898-899)

Benedictus XIV, ep. encycl. Allatae sunt, 26 iul. 1755, § 22 (Gasparri II: 460-461)

Gregorius XVI, litt. ap. Cum in Ecclesia, 17 sept. 1833 (Gasparri II: 754)

Pius IX, ep. encycl. Qui pluribus, 9 nov. 1846 (Gasparri II: 807)

Pius IX, litt. ap. Multiplices inter, 10 iun. 1851 (Gasparri II: 855)

Pius IX, litt. ap. Ad Apostolicae, 22 aug. 1851 (Gasparri II: 857)

Pius IX, Syllabus errorum, prop 72 (Gasparri II: 1008)

Pius IX, const. Apostolicae Sedis, 12 oct. 1869, § III, n. 1 (Gasparri III: 28)


S. C. S. Off. (Ratisbonen.), 22 dec. 1880, ad I (Gasparri IV: 385)

S. C. S. Off. , 13 ian. 1892, ad 5 (Gasparri IV: 470)

S. C. de Prop. Fide, instr. (ad Archiep. Fogarasien et Alba-Iulien.), 24 mart. 1858 (Gasparri VII: 372)


Pontificale Rom., tit. De ordinibus conferendis

Pontificale Rom., tit, De ordinatione subdiaconi





Paul VI, m. p. Sacrum diaconatus ordinem (18 June 1967), Acta Apostolicae Sedis 59 (1967) 697-704. English trans., CLD 6: 577-584. Pope Paul VI, m. p. Ad pascendum (15 August 1972), Acta Apostolicae Sedis 64 (1972) 534-540 supplemented these norms. An English translation is available at CLD 7: 695-698.


Bp. Campbell's Letter

of 16 Aug. 2005, advising of Cdl. Arizine's letter of 13 July 2005, that markedly curtailed options in place since 1997 for permanent deacons to remarry after the death of a spouse.