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Reminder: Canon 277, at some point, needs to be authoritatively addressed

January 9, 2017

Fr. Dwight Longenecker has written, as usual, an informative essay, this time on some of the practical problems associated with a married Roman Catholic clergy. I recommend his essay for those following this important question. With one caveat.

Longenecker writes: “Finally, what about children? Many people seem to forget that a [married] priest and his wife will be faithful to the church’s teaching. That means they will not be using artificial contraception. If they are young and fertile, is the parish ready to accept the responsibility of feeding and housing a dozen clergy kids?”

That phrasing, implying the continued exercise of conjugal relations between married clergy and their wives, touches upon a serious issue that has yet to be authoritatively addressed by ecclesiastical leadership, namely, whether Canon 277 § 1, which restates the Western Church’s ancient expectation of “perfect and perpetual continence” for all of her clergy, even (by unanimous scholarly agreement over the centuries) those clerics (including deacons, but even more importantly, priests) who are married.

As Longenecker correctly notes, the question of having married clergy is one of discipline, meaning that Church practices binding at one time may nevertheless change in response to another; but the clerical continence question, while perhaps “disciplinary” to the extent that many people (mistakenly, in my view) think that the Western practice of complete clerical continence changed after Vatican II, might also be rooted in more fundamental doctrinal questions about the nature of the priesthood and the nuptial signification of the Eucharist. Canons and canonical interpretations that are rooted in doctrinal realities (which canons need not recite those doctrinal roots in order to claim them, as can be seen in, say, Canon 1024 which simply restricts ordination to baptized males, without explaining why) are much less susceptible to change, especially to inadvertent change, than are legal norms rooted in merely disciplinary considerations.

The arguments defending the plain meaning of Canon 277 offered by several others besides me are complex and I shall not reproduce them here. Rebuttals of our thesis are, in contrast, light and themselves rather easily refuted. Even two letters from the pontifical text commission purporting to dispose of this matter fail, in my opinion, to resolve the issue of Western clerical continence at all, let alone, to resolve it correctly. And, while other norms protect, to be sure, the consciences of men ordained (and of their wives) without knowledge of Canon 277 and the tradition behind it, such expediencies do not get at the substance of the law itself and the values it upholds. But all of these discussions and several others besides are available here. I invite interested persons to consult them as they wish.

Of course I do not expect, given various other matters occupying Rome at present, to see much movement on the question of continence among married clergy, but I write as occasion permits to preserve the question for when circumstances might favor its consideration. Longenecker’s good essay provided such an occasion, and I took it.

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