Tuesday, January 29, 2013

ordinariate priests and clerical continence

John Cornelius unwittingly sparked a minor internet controversy when he declared he was going to refrain from further sexual relations with his wife once he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest (see Priest's Wife post on it here). Cornelius, who was previously ordained as an Episcopalian, has joined the Catholic Church under the provisions of the Anglican Ordinariate. 

Now, I think most would presume that this is surely a private matter between Fr Cornelius and Mrs Cornelius. But not necessarily so, says the canonist Prof Edward Peters. Prof Peters has written extensively on the subject over the past number of years (see here for his resource page on the subject and here for his 2005 article in the journal Studio canonica). Obviously, it would take more time than someone in my situation has available to go through all the material he provides. But if I understand him correctly, his argument is that married clergy are still bound by the requirements of Canon Law in relation to clerical continence. 

One might imagine that the obligation to continence (refraining from all sexual activity) was abrogated along with the requirement for celibacy (not marrying). But Prof Peters is able to muster a considerable weight of evidence to underpin his contention that on those occasions when the Church ordains a married man, the derogation applies only to his celibacy, not his continence. He specifically notes that Canon 288, which releases permanent deacons from various canonical obligations on the clergy, specifically does not exempt the c277§1 obligation to continence.  

Rome has been silent on this topic. And I think Prof Peters accepts that the common understanding is that when the Church ordains married men, who are for the most part former Anglican clergy, that the requirement for continence disappeared along with their dispensation from celibacy. 

My own presumption is that the intent was to lift the requirement for continence along with that of celibacy and any canonical irregularity about this situation was inadvertent (of course, in law it is not the intent but what the text actually says that matters). And I have no sense that this is a topic of worry for these former Anglican clergy or their current bishops. Certainly none of the blogs I dip into are throbbing with angst over this issue. But if any one should be concerned, in the absence of a definitive declaration from Rome on this, I wonder would c277§3 provide any comfort? It states:

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.

That seems to give competence to the ordinary of a diocese to pronounce authoritatively within his jurisdiction as to whether clergy who have been dispensed from celibacy are also dispensed from continence - but not being a canonist, I could be very wrong about this! But if it is the case, while it would not provide universal certainty, but it would allow bishops to give local relief for those who are worried.


  1. Hi Father. I considered the Canon 277.3 issue, here. http://canonlawblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/why-canon-277-3-does-not-allow-bishops.html

    It does not resolve this problem.

    Best, edp.

    1. Hi Dr Peters,
      I'm sticking this here, not having your email, & hoping that this will register in your in-box: re your post http://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2013/04/04/when-discussing-canon-law-primum-non-nocere/
      The 'English' child mentioned sound a lot like 'little Nellie of Holy God' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_Organ) ... in which case, the child was Irish, not English ...

  2. Dr Peters,

    thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to read my post and comment. I accept your analysis of Canon 277.3 (wishful thinking is no replacement for thoughtful scholarship on this, or any other, matter).

    I suppose what we are left with on this issue is that practice seems to have strayed from the letter of the law. I think your comment on Fear Not Little Flock puts it best:

    'The "this" I had in mind was married clerics in the West, experience with which, and solutions to praxis problems in the wake of, go way, way back. People need to study that. The current situation is what's anomalous, there has been wholesale inadvertence to Western law and tradition here since the 1970s; dealing with THAT problem has not been thought through (well, not since, maybe, the 4th century).'

    Thanks again & every blessing