Sex and the Married Deacon

Ok, I am now going into territory that more angelic deacon wives might fear to   tread.  For several days the Catholic blogs have  been heating up on the question, “ are married deacons obligated under Canon Law to observe continence” (abstaining from sex). Of course this would mean that deacons wives would, by default, have to abstain.

For the record, I tried to stay out of the discussion. Really. But it will not die. And I do have a horse in the race.

It all began with a paper by Canonist Dr. Ed Peters Dr. Peters, who I respect and admire, asserts that married deacons are required under cannon law to be continent. Huh!

My Jaw is still super glued to the floor.

But I respectfully think that he is wrong. It is my humble opinion that he is looking through a very narrow canon law lens.  That said, let me be clear: if Dr. Peters is correct and the Church issues a clarification deacon and I will, of course, be obedient.

Thankfully, I am not alone. Here is a taste.

Deacon Greg Kandra is aghast:

Well, now.  Does anyone seriously think that tens of thousands of married deacons — not to mention the hundreds of married priests — are now suddenly going to commit to stop having sex with their wives?  Does anyone think the vocation could even survive such a 180 degree turnaround? 

Well yes if the Holy Spirit wills it.

Deacon William T. Ditewig, who has a Ph.D in theology from the Catholic University of America weighs in  you can read his arguments here. His conclusion is, therefore, that the mind of the church is such that there is NO expectation of clerical continence by married deacons, despite Dr. Peters’ claims.  Perhaps Dr. Peters is correct that the law should be changed to prevent any similar misunderstanding in the future.

There are many more priests and deacons who have weighed in on the subject, but I am not going to link to them all. Some have taken Dr. Peters position, but his is the most compelling. His latest contribution may be found here.

Okay. So even though I am the peasant in the room, I am going to weigh in. Being out classed has never stopped me before.

The Code of Cannon Law (CCL) is not, as I understand it, always the final say on Church teaching and disciplines.

The consistent Liturgy of the Church, the consistent practice of the Church, and relevant Church documents must also be considered.

First let us consider the Rite of Ordination to the deaconate. In the rite, unmarried men promise to remain celibate.  If married deacons are to practice continence, why is such a promise not included in the rite for married men?


The document, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons states:

…. For married candidates, to live love means offering themselves to their spouses in a reciprocal belonging, in a total, faithful and indissoluble union, in the likeness of Christ’s love for his Church; at the same time it means welcoming children, loving them, educating them and showing forth to the whole Church and society the communion of the family…..(#68)

This suggests that married deacons are not required to abstain. At least I don’t think that the passage is saying, in effect, hurry up and have children while you are in formation, because once you are ordained it will not be possible!

The second document, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons is clear:

“The Sacrament of Matrimony sanctifies conjugal love and constitutes it a sign of the love with which Christ gives himself to the Church (cf. Eph. 5:25). It is a gift from God and should be a source of nourishment for the spiritual life of those deacons who are married.” (#61)

In other words the physical union of husband and wife is integral to the life of the married deacon (and all married persons).

Third, in the early Church, married men were ordained to the deaconate. There is no evidence, no record that they practiced continence.

Finally requiring continence within marriage corrupts marriage and virginity:

Whoever denigrates marriage also diminishes the glory of virginity. Whoever praises it makes virginity more admirable and resplendent. What appears good only in comparison with evil would not be truly good. The most excellent good is something even better than what is admitted to be good. (CCC 1620).

Yes. I do think that requiring continence from married deacons degrades the Sacrament of Marriage. It also diminishes the great sacrifice that celibate clerics offer up for the kingdom

It turns marriage into something that it is not. Sacramental Marriage is unitive and fruitful (along with indissoluble). It is through chastity and the marital act that unity is fully realized. And of course, unless you are the Virgin Mary, continence precludes fruitfulness.

Okay, for older deacon wives fruitfulness is moot. But it applies to younger deacons and their wives.

The CCC states, 1643 “Conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter – appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and it is open to fertility. In a word it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values.

Okay getting off my soap box now.  Besides I may be wrong, but I think that this is just a case of Canon Law not being in sink with the actual mind of the Church. It should be clarified so that we don’t indulge in making mountains out of ant hills.

About Susan Kehoe

I am the wife of a Catholic deacon living in Des Moines Iowa. My husband Larry was ordained in 2006. We have two children and five grandchildren.. Our daughter and her family live in Ireland, and our son and his family live in Franklin Massachusetts.
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17 Responses to Sex and the Married Deacon

  1. ... says:

    “Well yes if the Holy Spirit wills it.”

    well, the Holy Spirit actually does NOT will it. Nowhere in the Bible or in the Tradition does it state that sex between a clergyman and his WIFE is sinful or that it prevents him from fulfilling his ministry obligations.

    Besides, if the Church has not cleared up this issue before saying married clergymen should be perpetually continent, then it means that the Church does NOT expect married deacons or priests to abstain from having sex with their wives.

    And even though it is true that “for older deacon wives fruitfulness is moot”, sex isn’t just for procreation, as various Church’s documents state.


  2. Susan Kehoe says:

    First please leave a name. I have changed the blog rules to reflect this requirement.

    This is a Latin Rite Catholic blog. In general most of the clergy are celibate. It is the discipline of the Church. The exception is eastern rite Priests and deacons if married at the time of ordination, but not after, and Latin rite deacons. It also includes Anglicans clergy who come into the Catholic Church.

    I agree with you that since, for example, my husband at his rite of ordination did not promise celibacy or continence ,it is not applicable.

    Also you are correct that the marital act is not only ordered to procreation, it is one of the things that the sacrament of matrimony is ordered to. The other is the unitive aspect . But openness to fruitfulness is essential to a marriage being valid.

    And if the Church declares, which I doubt, that the view of one canon lawyer is correct, we will obey. It is only through the Church that we can really know what the Holy Spirit wills.


  3. Tom Neal says:

    As ever, your blogs are colorful, depthful, and faithful.
    Keep up the writing!


  4. Well, I hate to stir the pot, but …

    Just as you “do think that requiring continence from married deacons degrades the Sacrament of Marriage“, so I think that ordaining married men as deacons and priests degrades the Sacrament of Holy Orders. Not a very `ecumenical` statement as that term is defined these days, but Fr. Christian Cochini, Fr. Roman Cholij (an Eastern Catholic priest), and Cardinal Stickler have made a pretty strong case that historically and theologically, only perpetual continence (which married deacons and priests were required to practice in the early Church) is proper to the clerical state.

    I have written more on this at St. Louis Catholic blog. So has Dr. Peters.


    • Susan Kehoe says:

      WSO, please provide sources. It has been a long tradition in the Eastern Rite Churches of admitting married men to the priesthood and diaconate. They are not required to practice continence, and there is no historical evidence that I am aware of that it was mandated in the early Church. Please cite your sources with links.


  5. anonymous says:

    “First please leave a name. I have changed the blog rules to reflect this requirement. ”

    uhm, I don’t have to, you know?

    “This is a Latin Rite Catholic blog. In general most of the clergy are celibate. It is the discipline of the Church…”

    I know all that. I’m a practicing roman catholic.

    “And if the Church declares, which I doubt, that the view of one canon lawyer is correct, we will obey. It is only through the Church that we can really know what the Holy Spirit wills.”

    It’s good to see that you would obey. But then again, the Holy Spirit wouldn’t command that. 1º because it’s pointless and 2º because the whole purpose of matrimony is family

    God bless


    • Susan Kehoe says:

      Did you read my post? I am arguing that one, or even more, cannon lawyer is not he magisterium. I do not think that continence will be required. There are two purposes of matrimony: the unitive and the procreative. Both are central to the marital embrace.

      As for the name. Well this is my blog. I get to make the rules. So a moniker, nick name, or handle that is used each time you comment is the house rules. Anonymous, anon etc are not acceptable. I don’t want to ban anyone, but I can and I will.

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. In the future, dear guest, please use some kind of name.
      God Bless


    • boy says:

      , I doubt this change in Canons 1008, 1009 will have any drtmaaic effect on our ministry.While it is not uncommon for the deacon to be put in his place , I also agree with Richard that we deacons should not aspire to be something we are not. The line, pronounced or not, should always serve as a source of energy for us to be better servants to the People of God.Deacon Gayden Harper


  6. anonymous says:

    Wade St. Onge,
    You say “Just as you “do think that requiring continence from married deacons degrades the Sacrament of Marriage“, so I think that ordaining married men as deacons and priests degrades the Sacrament of Holy Orders”. You’re mixing up everything. 1º, it is not the same. The whole purpose of marriage is to have a family and be united to your spouse – why would you want to get married if that’s not your goal? -. The purpose of the Holy Orders is not to have celibacy, but to serve God’s Church. What you’re saying is ridiculous since Jesus actually chose a married man – Peter – to be a Pope, God has not revealed to his church through the Holy Scriptures and/or Tradition that it’s His will for the clergy to be restrained to celibate men only and the Church has mantained married clergy for 12 centuries. Moreover, celibacy is not a dogma or doctrine, it’s a discipline – a very good one, indeed, ONLY for those who ARE called to be celibate -. It’s not essential to the clergy, hence, it can’t degrade the Holy Orders. Besides Jesus created marriage and sex. How would something that God created be degrading to the Holy Orders??

    And i’m sorry, but the classical argument that “married clergymen used to practice continence with their wives” is just ludicrous. Yes, it may have been the case for some, but not for all. How can the Church confirm that statement in every case??? it’s simply impossible


    • Susan Kehoe says:

      I agree with you for the most part. The Church does not require married clergy, deacons, former Anglican priests etc. to practice continence and it never has.

      One small quibble is that while we can deduce that Peter was married because scripture refers to his mother in law, since there is no mention of a wife, some of the Fathers thought that he was a widower.

      Please find a name or handle to stick with while commenting on this blog. It doesn’t have to be your real name.

      God Bless


      • tum says:

        Paul mentions Peter being accompanied by a wife. See 1 Cor 9:5. Corinthians is an earlier writing than the gospels. Not only does he mention Peter being accompanied by a Christian wife, he does so shortly after discussing marriage and his own justification for being an apostle. From what Paul says, it sounds like Peter was married and accompanied by his wife. Poor Catholic Church, all this weird speculation about the sex lives of the ancients. My guess is if people are having sex now, it is likely they were having sex in the “old days” as well.


  7. daniel says:

    I am concerned about the number of people who have unnecessarily been confused by the public debate of a few canon lawyers whose pedantics really should have remained within the ivory tower.

    I posted this rebuttal of the case for perfect continence for deacon’s wives elsewhere, but it might help some reader here:

    Referring to the public acceptance of an obligation to celibacy in c. 1037, Peters points out in his article that “No one seriously suggests that celibate clerics are not bound by the obligation of continence and the canon does not restate the obvious.” Why can’t Peters see the same logic that is so obvious to almost everyone else: “No one seriously suggests that married clerics are not bound by the obligation of rendering marital rights (c. 1135) and the canon does not restate the obvious.”

    In Western Tradition, a married man could only be ordained to the diaconate if his wife had taken a “vow of chastity” sanctioned by the ordaining bishop or its equivalent. Peters ignores this aspect of the Western tradition. The fact that this requirement has been discontinued in current canon law gives a strong indication that the wife is not required to live “clerical continence”. Her consent to the ordination is required because there is more to married life than sex, and more to Holy Orders than its absence. Peters shows the depth of his understanding of marital cooperation by suggesting that the wife should have no more say in the ordination of her husband than their children, except because of her rights to the marital act. For Peters, that seems to be the only difference between the status of a wife and children in a family.

    If a wife’s choice of perfect and permanent continence naturally follows from 277 and 1037 (her consent to the ordination), then why does 1037 need to require a public commitment to celibacy for unmarried ordinands, when this also follows from 277. Why restate the obvious?

    It is clear to most that the promotion of married men to the diaconate without requiring wives to take the equivalent of a “vow of chastity” indicates that this is a development in the modern Church… better still, a return to the tradition as it was 1000 years ago. It also seems clear that there is no need to change canon 277, its meaning is obvious to anyone with a proper estimation for the sanctity of marital relations and the importance of the obligations of a husband towards his wife. These obligations commute (and I am using the word technically) the clerical obligation of perfect and permanent continence, (which does apply to all clerics who do not have a conflicting obligation) to “a certain continence” for married deacons.

    The old law required that an ordinand’s “wife consented and the bishop sanctioned the vow of chastity to be pronounced by the wife”. In his article, Peters writes that “the wife’s consent had to be formally pronounced because, unlike her husband’s obligations in this regard, hers are not already set forth in the text of the law.” Peters confuses the effect of the consent with the effect of the vow of chastity here. Clearly it was not her consent to the ordination, but the vow that set forth her obligations. Understanding the role of this vow undermines Peters’ argument that the consent of the wife to the ordination includes consent a life of perfect continence.

    However, a married man awaiting ordination who was aware of the law could ask: am I foregoing my right to request marital relations (c.277), while still being obliged to render them for my wife(c.1135) – is that what the law presently indicates, and is what is meant by “a certain continence”?

    The best thing that can come out of this discussion is a clarification of what the “certain continence” of married deacons and priests entails.


  8. Susan Kehoe says:

    Thank you for your input. I have corresponded with Peters via his son. He refuses to acknowledge that not only is the wife not required to consent to continence, he ignores the fact that the ordination rite does not require the married deacon to take such a vow. Unmarried men do take such a vow. Cannon law does not stand apart from the liturgy and the practice of the Church.


  9. Peter M J Hess says:

    Throughout this entire discussion I am left unclear as to why the full expression of sexuality by a married couple — of which one member is a deacon or a priest — should ever have been called into question. Is it because an orgasm ritually defiles a man who will be at the altar? Is it because sex is filthy and pollutes a man in his ministry? Is it because sex makes if difficult for a man to concentrate on his pastoral ministry? Please help me to understand this issue.


    • Daniel says:

      Its because the deacon, priest and bishop represent Christ, who was celibate for his kingdom. The bishop, who represents Christ fully as head of the household of each local church must be celibate even in the Orthodox churches.
      Christ called those who could follow him in this eunuchs- not a nice term!


      • Peter M. J. Hess says:

        Daniel, that does not answer my question about why sex in a diaconal marriage is good at first but not later. That is what I do not understand.


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