26 January 2011

Deacons' Wives, Unpack Your Bags: Canon 277 is No Threat to Your Marriages

Readers may be aware of the recent and ongoing flap caused by the published opinion of Canon lawyer Ed Peters that canon law requires "perfect and perpetual continence" of married permanent deacons (and, I suppose, by extension, of married priests), as would be expected of other clerics. This opinion was published in a canon law article back in 2005, but has gained traction very recently. The position can also be found on Dr. Peters' blog (with multiple posts wherein he seeks to explain or bolster his case against objections).

As it so happens, after a long hiatus, the excellent but Unknown Canon Lawyer X has written a response disagreeing with Dr. Peters' argument.

In this case, he again parts ways with Dr. Peters, and his short reply is printed below. He disagrees that perfect and perpetual continence for married priests and deacons is required by canon 277, and points to a fatal non sequitur in Peters' argument. I will only add that though I am inclined to agree with UCLX, it should be noted that neither argument concerns the wisdom of the permanent diaconate program in general, the discussion of which is not germane to this post:


The question raised by the American canonist Dr. Edward Peters, in an article entitled, «Canonical Considerations on Diaconal Continence», in Studia Canonica, (2005), pp. 147-180, is Whether married permanent deacons are bound by obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence, even if they are not bound to celibacy. In articulating his position, Dr. Peters has startled a number of married permanent deacons in the living out of their marital rights and obligations, not to mention raised eyebrows among his fellow canonists serving the Church in North America and Europe.

What is most shocking about Dr. Peters’ opinion, namely, that perfect and perpetual continence remains, at least theoretice, binding upon married permanent deacons, is that the conclusion rests upon argumentation constructed in manifest violation of elementary laws of logic.

This short analysis attempts to elucidate the problem, provide a réplique, and bring some calm to the many married deacons and their families who have become troubled in intellect and conscience as a result of this foray in illogicality.

The point of departure for Dr. Peters’ argument is can. 277, § 1 of the Code of Canon Law of 1983:

Can. 277 — § 1. Clerici obligatione tenentur servandi perfectam perpetuamque propter Regnum coelorum continentiam, ideoque ad coelibatum adstringuntur, quod est peculiare Dei donum, quo quidem sacri ministri indiviso corde Christo facilius adhaerere possunt atque Dei hominumque servitio liberius sese dedicare valent.

The authorized English translation reads:

Can. 277 §1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy [...].

Dr. Peters states that married permanent deacons, because they fall within the category of clerics in genere referenced by can. 277, § 1 of the Code, are held to observe perfect continence. This conclusion is reached on his part by means of a simple deduction implicit in his work:

Clerics are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence (can. 277, § 1). Married permanent deacons are clerics. Therefore married permanent deacons are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence.

The argument is completed, according to Dr. Peters’ research, by the absence of any law of the Church explicitly exempting married permanent deacons from their obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence according to can. 277, § 1. According to the canonist, as the law currently reads, married permanent deacons are neither exempted nor exemptible by an invocation of can. 277, § 3, and thus remain held, at least objectively, to observe perfect and perpetual continence. He writes:

"Without the proposed exemptions in place for married permanent deacons, of course, there is no basis upon which to doubt but that the provision of c. 277, § 1 binding all clerics in the West to the primary good of continence is applicable without distinction based on order."

E. Peters, Canonical Considerations, p. 171

The conducting of strict canonical exegesis reveals that the norm of can. 277, § 1 is encapsulated within an enthymeme, or abridged syllogism. As such, the rules governing the conditional proposition and syllogism become applicable when reverse-engineering enthymemes.

Applied to the question, it becomes readily apparent that Dr. Peters violates one of the most important rules of logic, committing what is commonly called the non sequitur.

This paralogism occurs when the conclusion of an argument does not derive its merit from the premises formally supporting it, such as when a condition, called the antecedent, and assertion, called the consequent, are not joined by a connection between them called a consequence.

According to a fundamental axiom of logic, «Posita condicione, ponitur condicionatum; Negato condicionato, negatur condicio.», roughly translated, «If the condition is posited, so is the assertion; If the consequent is sublated, so is the antecedent

Modo ponendo, or constructively, the antecedent or condition of can. 277, § 1 is «Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven»; the consequent or assertion is, therefore, «[clerics] are bound to celibacy». Modo tollendo, or destructively, the enthymeme should have been understood by Dr. Peters to be, implicitly yet necessarily, «[Married permanent deacons] are not bound to celibacy», therefore, «[married permanent deacons] are not held to perfect and perpetual continence».

Since antecedent and consequent in can. 277, § 1 are joined by the connective, ideoque – «therefore» – a logical consequence is inferred by means of the enthymeme. As such, the use of the ideoque in can. 277, § 1 is neither haphazard nor merely indicative of hierarchical subordination of value on the part of the Supreme Legislator. It was intentionally placed to infer a consequence. Dr. Peters does not deny this, but neither does he affirm the overriding conditionality of the nexus consequentiae between the two obligations prescribed by can. 277, § 1 anywhere in his article.

Dr. Peters posits the first part of his non sequitur when he concedes the antecedent, modo tollendo, that married permanent deacons are not bound by celibacy:

"There is no doubt, of course, that by expressly admitting married men to the permanent diaconate, the canonical obligation of clerical celibacy [...] is abrogated for such men."

E. Peters, Canonical Considerations, p. 153

However, as described above, my learned colleague elsewhere affirms the consequent of the enthymeme formulated modo tollendo, holding, namely, that the provision of c. 277, § 1 mandating perfect and perpetual continence remains binding upon all clerics in the West without distinction (E. Peters, p. 171).

Account taken of the above, Dr. Peters gravely errs in advancing his thesis that can. 277, § 1 obliges married permanent deacons to observe perfect and perpetual continence, because he concomitantly denies that they are bound to celibacy. His opinion, therefore, is gravely misleading, and particularly imprudent to advance in a forum prone to sensationalism.

He cannot have it both ways.