Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Noli me tangere, uxor!

Might as well join the current fracas over continence among the permanent diaconate.

Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Angelic Doctor, often said: NEVER DENY, SELDOM AFFIRM, ALWAYS DISTINGUISH.

Words of wisdom we can apply to the brouhaha Dr. Edward Peters recently caused when he said canon 277 makes permanent continence an obligation not just for celibate clergy but also for married clergy (permanent deacons and now recently ordained married Anglican converts to the priesthood).

I am not of the caliber nor expertise of Dr. Peters. I highly respect his credentials and orthodoxy.  He does raise credible points and valid questions that should not be causally dismissed.

As we know, Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholics have had married clergy from day one while the Latin Roman Catholics have had celibate clergy equally as long. The Council of Elvira made celibacy normative in 309 and Pope Gregory made it mandatory in 1074. Eastern Christianity has always had an optional celibacy so that there are both married and unmarried priests and deacons but the episcopacy never embraced the option. Bishops exclusively come from the celibate priesthood.  While the Protestant tradition is to prefer married clergy, they have no restrictions on when a minister is to marry (i.e., before or after their pastoral commission)  Since they do not have valid Orders, it does not matter when their ministers marry.  Catholic and Orthodox clergy are validly ordained and it is imperative that the sacrament of matrimony PRECEDE the sacrament of Holy Orders (not for validity but as part of tradition and continuity)

On the matter of clerical continence, however, there is some animated discussions to say the least. Eastern Catholicism which has married clergy, does have a tradition of TEMPORARY or sometimes called LITURGICAL continence for the clergy. Unlike PERMANENT continence, this other version refers to married clergy (deacons and priests) abstaining from sexual relations with their spouses for three days prior to the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. Permanent continence was practiced in the west among Latin married clergy before celibacy became mandatory. The Oriental Catholic church, however, always had a temporary continence which centered on the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

Pope Gregory XIII in 1573 decreed that "married Greek priests before celebrating the Sacred Sacrifice or Holy Mass is to abstain from relations with his wife for a week or at least for three days."  (Collectio Lacensis I 450; Bullarium Romanum V, 2, 73: Presbyter Graecus conjugatus ante sacrum sacrificium seu sanctam missam celebrandum vel per hebdomadam, vel per triduum abstineat ab uxore

Pope Benedict XIV issued a rescript in 1748 for Armenian Catholics who up until then were obliged to abstain for eight days before AND eight days after the Divine Liturgy. The pontiff reduced the obligation to eight days before only.

Pope Clement XIII issued a rescript in 1758 for Chaldean Catholics reducing continence to three days. Ruthenian and Ukrainian Catholic norms in the 18th century also embraced the three day continence before the celebration of the Divine Liturgy.

It seems, therefore, that perpetual continence was not normative in the Oriental (Eastern) Catholic churches but a temporary continence was.  This temporary continence for married clergy centered on the celebration of the Divine Liturgy much as the Levitical priesthood in the Old Testament had a similar practice of temporary continence to preserve ritual purity. In neither case was conjugal relations between husband and wife seen as sinful anymore than dietary abstinence does with ordinary food (like the one hour fast before Holy Communion). "Fasting from the bed" as it was sometimes called, had no intent of vilifying the marital act, rather, it raised the level of Eucharistic Sacrifice to one that required a personal oblation as well.

In that vein, I can see Rome asking, suggesting or requiring married clergy in the West (Latin Rite) to practice a temporary clerical continence (three to perhaps one day) to honor the Eucharistic Sacrifice. Theology of the Body dispels any Puritan or Manichean extreme of seeing marital relations as being impure and intrinsically evil. However, giving up a valid and licit good for a higher good has always been part of Catholic practice and devotion.

Out of fairness to those already ordained permanent deacons and those married priests ordained as former Anglicans, Lutherans, etc., since the continence 'obligation' was not obvious and evident at the time they were ordained, it would be unjust to impose something EX POST FACTO. Currently ordained married clergy could practice this as an option whereas future married clergy in the Latin Rite could see this as an obligation.  It will certainly be a topic at the next few 40 Hours celebrations, that's for sure.

Bottom line, permanent deacons are allowed to be married before ordination. The Holy See has allowed certain married Protestant ministers to be ordained priests after conversion to the Catholic religion. These married men ARE de facto Catholic CLERGY by virtue of their ordination.  Married deacons and married priests pose no threat to celibate priests. The Latin Church will retain celibacy as the norm and permit married priests at the pleasure and will of the Roman Pontiff. 

There is a principle of canon law ODIA RESTRINGI, ET FAVORES CONVENIT AMPLIARI which means that odious or restrictive laws are to be applied and interpreted STRICTLY whereas favors and privileges are to be applied and interpreted BROADLY. Ergo, restricting the conjugal rights of married clergy must be imposed precisely and carefully.  When the law grants a favor or privilege, it is to be done generously. Therefore, we should proceed cautiously when imposing any further burdens on those who are seeking full communion or ordained ministry in the Catholic Church.  Human sexuality when it is between a husband and wife and oriented toward love (unity) and open to life (procreation) is not sinful, rather, it is a holy act when done by those who are united in the holy bonds of the sacrament of matrimony. So it is not from some Manichean or Puritanical distortion of all sex being evil and immoral, rather, it is from an oblative (agape) love of sacrificing and offering up a legitimate and proper good to honor and give special reverence to the supreme and holy Sacrifice of the Mass. That is why I do not think canon 277 is meant to impose perpetual continence on married clergy.  The one hour fast before Holy Communion is of the same perspective, i.e., legitimate goods like food and drink, are temporarily given up to give honor to the Holy Sacrifice of the Altar.

The married deacons and married priests I know are devout, holy, orthodox men of great faith and obedient sons of the church.  I dare say I do not think any of them were told prior to ordination that perpetual continence was a canonical requirement.  Justice demands that all obligations be disclosed and understood before anyone becomes bound by them.  The CONTEXT seems to be that the perpetual continence was meant to dissuade married clergy in the Latin church and to reinforce mandatory celibacy for the West.

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