Thursday, January 20, 2011

On a Recent Contagion of Madness in the Catholic Blogosphere

One of the recent furors in the Catholic blogosphere has been over sexual continence for permanent deacons. It is a good example of the sheer nastiness of Catholics in debate, and several of the offerings in the debate have been cases of attacks that are either dishonest or extraordinarily uncharitable toward Ed Peters, the canon lawyer who inadvertently touched off the whole thing by simply noting that canon law has no provision exempting permanent deacons from the clerical obligation to refrain from sex. I've found it somewhat disturbing, especially as a number of the nastier responses have been from people who ordinarily have good sense.

Peters is not talking out of ignorance here; he's done a considerable amount of study on the subject, and the argument he lays out is quite solid. Law, including canon law, can be weird because it can have unusual conventions (arising from its practical function) that affect what arguments can be accepted or rejected, but structurally there's no problem with it, and Peters is savvy enough not to get tripped up on quirks in canon law conventions. The argument is basically this: Canon law requires of clerics a "perfect and perpetual continence," that is, exceptionless and permanent abstinence from sexual relations. Permanent deacons are clerics. While it exempts permanent deacons from a number of other obligations required of clerics generally (e.g., it allows non-celibates, which in canon law simply means married men, to become permanent deacons), canon law never actually exempts permanent deacons from "perfect and perpetual continence." Indeed, several features of canon law, such as the requirement that married men receive the consent of their wives before being ordained, and the fact that an exemption to this very obligation was dropped from the final promulgation of the 1983 Code, are reasonably interpreted as implying that, all things considered, the obligation to sexual continence does apply to permanent deacons. This does not conform to common assumptions by permanent deacons, nor their assumptions to it, and for reasons not really their fault, since it is not standard practice to inform candidates for the diaconate and their wives. By canon law as well, no one gives up a right if they are not aware that in doing something it is expected for them to do so, and wives have the right to conjugal relations. Thus those deacons who are not currently exercising "perfect and perpetual continence" will in general not be guilty of any fault according to canon law, if they are otherwise being chaste; but, despite the importance of custom to canon law, the conditions under which this customary understanding has developed (namely, simply not informing candidates to the diaconate of even the possibility that they might be under such an obligation, and having existed for less than thirty years) are not such as to allow the custom to be the ground for an exception for permanent deacons. On the basis of this, Peters argues, there are a few options: either the law as it stands should be kept, and deacons from now on made aware of the expectation; or it should be changed on the basis of a developed and coherent theological account of the distinction between deacons and priests, one that has not yet been put forward. What is certainly not going to work is having the law as it stands and nobody following it.

Such is the argument given by Dr. Peters; if you have any doubts about it, you can read it yourself, and you will find that this is an accurate, albeit somewhat simplified, summary. It's fairly straightforward, although the relation between custom and law gets a bit tricky, and Dr. Peters draws no practical conclusion beyond arguing that the situation needs to be properly addressed, either by making people aware of the obligation or by starting the process of changing canon law as it stands so that it expresses a better theological understanding of the diaconate. Calling people's attention to something like this is a service, one of the best services to the Church a canon lawyer can render, because confusions or obscurities in canon law almost always are symptoms of deeper theological confusions or obscurities; and as the number of permanent deacons increases, better understanding of how this form of ordination optimally works will be crucial. But if you were to start not with Peters's own argument but with the responses that has been touched off when it reached the awareness of certain people in the blogosphere, you would think that the whole argument is that permanent deacons are wrong to have sex with their wives and should be punished for it, despite the fact that the whole thrust of the argument is in a very different direction. In several cases the claims that have been made about Dr. Peters have been such that they can only be considered either outright lies or signs that the person in question is condemning Dr. Peters without having even bothered to read the argument, despite its being available and open for everyone to read. This is very troubling. Dr. Peters is not advocating a "rigorist, legalistic understanding of canon law" and indeed explicitly leaves open the option that canon law should be changed: his argument is merely about what canon law actually says at present, and this has nothing to do with rigorism or legalism. He doesn't claim that there is anything "troubling about married permanent deacons having sexual relations with their wives"; he is claiming that there is an overlooked disparity between law and practice that needs to be addressed somehow. It is not a case of "legalism is trumping common sense for this busybody canonist" because not only is there no legalism here but it is thoroughly irrational to claim that a canonist is being a "busybody" for noting that a situation exists that either shows that canon law on the point is inadequate or that candidates to the diaconate (and their wives!) are not being properly informed of what they are consenting to. And Peters has made this either...or explicit at least three or four times now in the discussion; there is no excuse for ignoring it.

I confess that I am very irritated by this whole thing; this is not the sort of dispute I would ordinarily get into, because it's a tempest in a teacup: the only real issues in question here are whether an exemption needs to be explicitly added to canon law and whether practices regarding deacons need to begin slowly to change. That's the sort of thing reasonable people sit down and muse calmly over. But there have been so many disturbing attacks on Ed Peters over it, when the man is just doing his job and trying to clarify issues of canon law, that it just seemed less and less feasible to stand by while this sort of attack was going on. I have no authority whatsoever and I can pretty much guarantee that no one will listen to me even if they happen to read this, but somebody needs to say it: the people who have been slinging insults in Peters's direction need to apologize and quiet down to a calm and sensible tone. The lack of charity that has been shown on the subject has begun to disturb bystanders like myself who have no particular horse in the race, and has begun to be a flat-out embarrassment.

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