Dcn. John Cornelius and his wife Sheryl are doing a praiseworthy thing
I saw the news item about a married deacon who announced that, upon his ordination to priesthood, he and his wife will cease conjugal relations. Because such a decision by them is, as everyone who follows this topic knows, consistent with what I think Canon 277 and the unbroken Western tradition behind the canon call for, I had not planned to comment on the story, even though there were some technical inaccuracies in the report that could stand correcting. It appears, however, that the inaccuracies in the story, not to mention the novelty of the announcement itself, are fostering some wrong, and occasionally harsh, reactions by some others, so I’ll comment briefly.
First, it is never required of one who would follow the law that he first be able to articulate that law and defend it in technically accurate terms; one can do the right thing by the law without being able to explain well why it is the right thing to do. Here, in confirming that he and his wife will observe “celibacy” after his ordination to the priesthood, the deacon makes the single most common error one sees in this whole matter, namely, confusing “celibacy” (the determination not to marry) with “continence” (the determination not to engage in sexual relations). Now, Canon 277 expects perfect and perpetual continence of all clerics in the West, married or single, but canon law does not expect celibacy of all clerics. The deacon is hardly alone is making this terminological mistake. We all know what he meant.
Second, about what he meant (that he and his wife will observe continence), while a man need not announce his intention to observe the law, he is certainly free to do so. Indeed, in this case it might even be helpful for him to do so because, unlike most periods in Church history, the faithful have no understanding that married clerics give up their conjugal rights in accord with the requirements of ordination (because today’s married clerics don’t give up such rights, because they were never told that such was expected of them and their wives, nor were they properly formed for such a sacrifice, nor was their consent asked for prior to ordination, etc.); so, a married cleric and his wife who do give up their conjugal rights and note it publicly perform, I think, a witness to his, indeed their, new manner of ministering to and witnessing before the People of God. By the way, a married cleric need not “vow” continence (c. 277) any more than he need “vow”, say, refraining from conduct unbecoming the clerical state (c. 285) or celibacy upon the death of his wife (c. 1087), in order to observe, and yes be required to observe, continence, prudent behavior, or celibate widower-hood: the law itself imposes such obligations.
Third, even if a man were not required to observe perfect and perpetual continence upon ordination, he and his wife would certainly be free to do so, and even to tell others of their sacrifice if they wish. Sadly, though, the ad hominem denigrations I have seen some leveling at this couple’s announcement approach the hysterical. Such counter-cultural witness as this couple offers will, of course, generate animosity in some, but that it is provoking derision among some faithful is disheartening. I may suggest, in any case, that this couple is not the only one observing or considering observing post-ordination continence, but they are, to my knowledge, the only ones who have announced it.
Lastly, the news story does not suggest that the man and his wife observed continence upon his diaconal ordination, but instead are waiting till his presbyteral ordination to begin their observance. That’s interesting as it comports with one of the four ways that I have argued the clerical continence controversy can be resolved.
Briefly—the discrepancy between Western law and its unbroken tradition regarding clerical continence on the one hand and the total abandonment of that observance by modern married clergy on the other being amply demonstrated—the Roman Church can resolve this major disconnect between law and practice in one of four ways: (a) recall with equity, as she has done in the past, all clergy to the observance of perfect and perpetual continence; (b) reaffirm the continence obligation for priests, but abandon it for deacons; (c) institute some form of periodic continence as observed in Eastern Churches; or (d) canonize the status quo and abandon any expectation of clerical continence in the West. This deacon and his wife seem to have chosen option (b), though I don’t think they did so by design.
Deacon, soon to be Father, John Cornelius and his wife Sheryl deserve thanks for their witness to the sublimity of the sacerdotal state, and I ask for remembrance in their prayers.