Regarding Canon 277 and permanent deacons, I know this has been a question for some since Dr. Peters began writing about it (in 2005, I believe), and I can certainly see how the current law could be read to mean that married permanent deacons are obliged to practice continence in marriage. However — and fortunately — we are not bound to follow our own interpretation of canon law, nor are we bound to follow the opinions of canon lawyers, as educated as they may be. We are bound to follow the Church, as the Church is the final arbiter of the law. And the Church has spoken on this issue.
In January 2012, the USCCB issued the following letter to bishops, from Bishop Robert Carlson (Chairman of the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations) and Archbishop Timothy Broglio (Chairman of the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance).
In recent months, published opinions have appeared in scholarly journals and on Internet blogs that have raised questions about the observance of diaconal continence by married permanent deacons in the Latin Catholic Church. The opinions have suggested that the clerical obligation to observe “perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (c. 277, §1 CIC) remains binding upon married permanent deacons, despite the dispensation provided to them in canon law from the obligation to observe celibacy (c. 1042, 1° CIC).
In response to repeated requests for an authoritative clarification on this matter, the Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations and the Committee on Canonical Affairs and Church Governance requested the assistance of the USCCB President in seeking a clarification from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.
Earlier this week, we were informed that Cardinal-designate Francesco Coccopalmerio, President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, with Bishop Juan Ignacio Arrieta, Secretary, has forwarded to Cardinal-designate Timothy M. Dolan the Pontifical Council’s observations on the matter (Prot. N. 13095/2011). The observations, which were formulated in consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, clarify that married permanent deacons are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as long as their marriage lasts.
Should you have any questions about this response, please contact Reverend W. Shawn McKnight, Executive Director of the Secretariat of Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations. In addition, please feel free to share this response with those within your diocesan curia who will find it helpful.
For the sake of completeness, here is the text of the above referenced letter from the President of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts to Cardinal Dolan, President of the USCCB.
PONTIFICIUM CONSILIUM DE LEGUM TEXTIBUS
Proto 13095 / 2011
I refer to your letter of April 8, 2011 in which Your Excellency has requested this Pontifical Council to clarify whether married permanent deacons, so long as their marriage lasts, are bound to observe the perfect and perpetual continence indicated by can. 277 § 1 CIC. The question was raised because some have expressed the opinion that permanent deacons are also bound to the obligation which the said canon imposes on clerics in general.
It should be noted that often the canonical discipline on a given topic is not inferred from the wording of a single legal precept, but rather from the whole set of existing regulation on the matter in the law of the Church, always in harmony with what has been stated by the Church’s Magisterium. This is what can. 17 CIC prescribes.
With regard specifically to the question above, after consultation with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and having made the necessary studies, this Pontifical Council offers the following observations.
1. In can. 277, § 1 CIC, the requirement of perfect and perpetual continence is inseparably linked to the obligation of celibacy to which all clerics, in principle, are bound.
Also, can. 1037 CIC requires that unmarried candidates for the permanent diaconate must assume the obligation of celibacy prior to ordination. Furthermore, can. 1087 CIC establishes an impediment to marriage for those in sacred orders. For this reason, permanent deacons who are widowers cannot marry, unless being dispensed, and therefore are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence.
The particular discipline of these two last canons, 1037 and 1087 CIC, applicable to certain situations of permanent deacons, explains on the one hand why can. 288 CIC did not exempt in a general way “all” permanent deacons from the obligation of continence established by the can. 277 § 1 CIC; and on the other hand how it is evident from all these norms that the canon wanted to exempt married permanent deacons from such obligation of continence so long as their marriage lasts.
2. Indeed, can. 1031 § 2 CIC admits married men to the clerical state in the particular case of permanent deacons, but states nothing about a hypothetical obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence, as the Legislator would indicate if such an obligation were to be established.
Ultimately, the fact that in order for a married man to be admitted to the Order of the diaconate, the consent of his wife is required (cfr. can. 1031, § 2 CIC) implies that an explicit consent would have been required for reasons of justice if the condition of permanent deacon had entailed the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence (cfr. Can. 1055 CIC).
3. Naturally, this canonical discipline does not state anything apart from what the Church’s Magisterium has already affirmed in this regard. In fact, the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium, n. 29 (§ 2), and other successive normative documents of the Holy See, appear to take for granted that married permanent deacons live their marriage in the ordinary way (cfr., above all, CONGREGATIO DE INSTITUTIONE CATHOLICA Ratio fundamentalis institutionis diaconorum permanentium, Institutio diaconorum of February 22, 1998 (nn. 36–38, 62–63, 68); CONGREGATIO PRO CLERICIS, Directorium pro ministerio et vita diaconorum permanentium, Diaconatus originem of February 22, 1998 (nn. 7, 27, 33, 45, 50, 59–62, and particularly n. 61).
In conclusion, the current canonical discipline does not require married permanent deacons, as long as their marriage lasts, to observe the obligation of perfect and perpetual continence established by can. 277, § 1 CIC for clerics in general.
I hope that these clarifications, briefly presented in this letter, may be helpful to Your Excellency in indicating what the content of the canonical discipline is at this point.
While remaining at your disposal for any further clarifications, I take this opportunity to extend to you and the members of your Conference my sentiments of personal esteem and prayerful best wishes for a Blessed Christmas and a fruitful New Year.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
+ Francesco Coccopalmerio
+ Juan Ignacio Arrieta