Can a Deacon Ever Get Married?

Q: Can a deacon get married? –Nicole

A: This is a simple-sounding question, with an answer that is more involved than one might think!

As was seen in “What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?” we have to bear in mind that deacons are ordained clerics.  As such, they are bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence—in other words, they must live celibate, chaste lives for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven (c. 277.1).  It is only logical, therefore, that a man who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders cannot validly marry (c. 1087).

All that being said, however, we need to make a distinction between transitional deacons, who are seminarians studying to become priests; and permanent deacons.  As their name indicates, permanent deacons are ordained to the diaconate as their permanent station in the Church.  Unlike transitional deacons, permanent deacons will not continue their studies and eventually be ordained to the priesthood.  While the permanent diaconate has its origins in the early centuries of Christianity, it fell into disuse and was only restored by Pope Paul VI in 1967.  Permanent deacons generally live in the world and support themselves financially by working in ordinary jobs, like the laity.  Thus they may outwardly appear to be laymen, while they are in fact members of the Catholic clergy.

Since a transitional deacon is on the road to priestly ordination, he is clearly bound by the canons on marriage and celibacy just mentioned above. He will never be able to marry, and is keenly aware of that fact before he makes the decision to seek ordination!

But a permanent deacon may be in a different situation. The Church does ordain men who are already married to the permanent diaconate, and they continue to live with their wives as ordinary married men.  Canon 1042 n. 1 states that a married man is impeded from receiving the sacrament of Holy Orders, unless he is destined for the permanent diaconate.  This means that in this particular case, canon 277.1 (mentioned above) does not apply.

Not every man who seeks to be ordained to the permanent diaconate is already married. Canon 1031.2 makes a clear distinction between unmarried candidates for the permanent diaconate, and married ones: unmarried men may be ordained to the diaconate at age 25, while a married man cannot become a permanent deacon until the age of 35, and only with the consent of his wife.  The different age-minimums found in this canon have their origin in Pope Paul VI’s 1967 Apostolic Letter Sacrum diaconatus ordinem, which provided the norms for the newly restored permanent diaconate in the Church.  Paul explained why married men who become deacons ought to be older:

[T]he age requirement [of 35 years for married men] is to be understood in this sense, namely, that no one can be called to the diaconate unless he has gained the high regard of the clergy and the faithful by a long example of truly Christian life, by his unexceptionable conduct, and by his ready disposition to be of service.

In the case of married men care must be taken that only those are promoted to the diaconate who, while living many years in matrimony, have shown that they are ruling well their own household, and who have a wife and children leading a truly Christian life and noted for their good reputation (III, 12-13).

To sum up thus far, we can see that transitional deacons cannot be married before their ordination, and cannot marry after they are ordained. Permanent deacons, however, can be married before their ordination.  So the next logical question is, can a permanent deacon ever marry after his ordination?

This question might come up in two different types of situations. Firstly, a man who was unmarried at the time of his ordination to the permanent diaconate might later wish to marry.  Secondly, a married man who was ordained a permanent deacon might become a widower—and so he may want to remarry.  Is either of these permitted?

Strictly speaking, the answer is no, because as noted previously, canon 1087 states that a man who has received the sacrament of Holy Orders is unable to marry validly. There is a loophole, however: the Holy See can grant the man a dispensation from the impediment of Holy Orders, thereby allowing him to marry in the Church (c. 1078.2 n. 1).

In practice, if an unmarried man was ordained a permanent deacon, and now wants to get married for the first time, the chances that Rome will grant him the necessary dispensation are slim. He is, after all, bound by canon 277.1 (already discussed above), in essentially the same way that transitional deacons or priests are.  Once made, the promise of celibacy is not to be taken lightly!

The situation of a widowed permanent deacon, however, may be entirely different. For example, let’s say that a married man was ordained to the permanent diaconate, and at a later date his wife died, leaving him with three small children to raise.  Imagine that the widower is trying with great difficulty to care for the children on his own, while both working full-time to support them, and also ministering as a deacon in their parish.  He may reasonably want to remarry, in great part so that his children can have a mother-figure who will also help him to raise them!

In 1997, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments issued a letter (which unfortunately is not on the Vatican’s website), explaining the possible exceptions which might lead the Holy See to grant a widowed permanent deacon the dispensation necessary to allow him to remarry. In general, there are three reasons why such a request may be granted: “The great and proven usefulness of the ministry of the deacon to the diocese to which he belongs; the fact that he has children of such a tender age as to be in need of motherly care; the fact that he has parents or parents-in-law who are elderly and in need of care.”  Note that the letter does not say that such a request will always be granted; it simply indicates that the possibility of approval exists.  The diocesan bishop may certainly express his support, but the final decision rests with Rome, which examines such requests on a case-by-case basis.

In a sense, permanent deacons have a foot in both the clerical world and that of the laity. On the one hand, permanent deacons are generally expected to abide by the rules that pertain to all members of the clergy—and so deciding to get married is ordinarily not an option for them.  But on the other hand, the Church recognizes that a permanent deacon is living in the world, working to support himself and his family, if he has one.  For the wellbeing of permanent deacons themselves, the Church can, and sometimes does, agree to relax the celibacy restriction.  This is often done so as to enable a cleric who has familial responsibilities to do what is reasonably necessary to take care of them.

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Canon Law and Parish Councils

Q1: Can a parish council ever vote to overrule a decision made by the pastor of the parish? If not, then what’s the point of having a parish council in the first place?  –Stephanie

Q2: Is it obligatory for every parish to have a finance council? –Damian

A: Many people wrongly confuse their church’s parish council with a finance council. In actual fact, they are two distinct entities, one of which is legally required while the other is not.  Let’s see what canon law has to say about each one in turn.

Canon 536 addresses the formation of a pastoral council (often referred to in common parlance as a “parish council”) in each parish.  The wording of the canon’s first paragraph is very precise, and shows us that its existence is not mandatory at all: a pastoral council may be established in each parish, if the diocesan bishop considers it opportune after consulting with his presbyteral council (c. 536.1).  Clearly, then, if the local bishop has not determined that each parish in his diocese should have one, there needn’t be a pastoral council in any parish of his entire diocese.  If the bishop has in fact required every parish to have a pastoral council, the law specifies that the pastor of the parish presides over it, and the council has only a consultative vote (c. 536.2).

The code is full of references to a “consultative vote” in a variety of contexts. A vote that is only consultative is not binding.  In other words, members of a pastoral council may vote on an issue in order to share their opinion, but after listening to the members, the pastor of the parish can still choose to disagree with them—and his decision stands.  If the pastor wants to do X, and all the members of the pastoral council want him to do not-X, the pastor can still go ahead with his plan.

This may sound harsh, but it is in keeping with the theological implications of the Church’s understanding of the pastor as the leader of the parish. Logically, since the whole purpose of a parish is to foster the spiritual well-being of the parishioners, it has to be under the care and control of an ordained priest (cf. cc. 515.1 and 521.1).  The pastoral council enables the pastor to obtain the input of members of his parish, and to hear how they stand on various issues affecting the parish—but while they can offer him their advice and opinions, the council members cannot tell him what to do.

It goes without saying, then, that the pastoral council cannot make any decisions in the absence of the pastor of the parish. The Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest, compiled in 1997 by experts from eight different Vatican dicasteries, reiterates that the pastor must preside at pastoral councils, and then it goes a bit further: decisions of a pastoral council are invalid if they are made at a council meeting where the pastor has not presided, or if the council has gathered for a meeting against his wishes (Art. 6, 3).  (See “When are the Laity Permitted to Preach?” for more on this important document.)

In contrast to the pastoral council, a finance council is obligatory in every parish.  Canon 537 notes that it is to help the pastor in the administration of the goods of the parish.  The very fact that a parish finance council is obligatory is an indication that the Church does not expect a parish priest to handle money-matters totally on his own.

Canon 537 also states that parish finance councils are governed by the norms laid down by the diocesan bishop. The bishop could require, for example, that every parish’s finance council include a civil lawyer, an accountant, and a banker.  He might insist that the head of the parish school (if there is one), and/or at least one parent of a child attending the school must be members of the finance council too.  In this way, the finance council could provide the pastor of the parish with different insights and various types of expertise which he understandably doesn’t have.

Still, the members of the parish finance council have only a consultative vote. Once again, this is addressed in the Instruction on Certain Questions Regarding the Collaboration of the Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry of Priest already mentioned above (Art. 5, 2).

Let’s say that a parish is trying to decide what to do with a building on its property that the parish no longer uses/needs. Should they try to rent it out? or sell it altogether? or what?

Now imagine that there’s a member of the pastoral council who has worked in real estate for many years. He understands all the legal and financial implications of renting to tenants vs. selling the property outright.  It only stands to reason that the pastor—whose expertise is theology, not real estate—should listen carefully to what the real-estate expert has to say.  After all, the relationship between all the council members and the pastor should be a positive and constructive one!  Nevertheless, the final decision on what to do with the building does not belong to the real-estate professional; it belongs to the pastor, as head of the parish.

If/when a pastor disagrees with the finance council, this should not automatically be viewed simply as an exercise of raw power on his part. The authority to make a decision always carries with it simultaneously the responsibility for whatever happens as a result of that decision.  It is the pastor—not the finance council—who is required to ensure that parish goods are administered in accord with canon law (c. 532).  Yes, the pastor is expected to ask the finance council for their input on financial matters; but he cannot pin any blame on them, if whatever he ultimately opts to do somehow goes sour.  He alone is going to be held responsible in the end, if the judgments he makes turn out to be the wrong ones.  In short, the pastor cannot point an accusing finger at the finance council for his poor choices!

The responsibility of the pastor for the parish is not limited to financial matters, of course. (See “Who is Responsible for Children’s Religious Education?” for discussion of the case of a pastor who wrongly attempted to deflect blame to a lay-member of the parish in an entirely different type of situation.)  In general, the pastor of a parish has an enormous amount of responsibility on his shoulders, and thus it’s only logical that he needs to have the freedom to make the decisions for which he will be held accountable.

So we can see that while members of a parish can play an important role in various parish matters, they never run the show. Both pastoral councils and finance councils are intended to cooperate with the pastor by giving advice, but not by directly telling him what to do.  At the same time, by consulting the pastoral council and/or finance council in his parish, the pastor is expected to listen to expert opinions and advice from those with backgrounds very different from his own, in order to make the most informed decisions he can.  The relationship between council members and the pastor is intended to be a productive one—so as to enable the pastor to make the right choices about matters affecting the parish.  In this way, both the pastor and the parishioners work together for the spiritual well-being of them all.

Posted in Parish Life | Tagged , , , ,

Tithing and Excommunication

Q: I am a graduate theology student, and in class we covered the reforms of the Council of Trent. I came across this passage from Chapter 12 of the Decree on Reformation of Session 25: “The holy synod therefore enjoins on all, of what rank and condition soever they be, to whom the payment of tithes belongs, that they henceforth pay in full the tithes, to which they are bound in law, to the cathedral church, or to what other churches… they are lawfully due. And they who either withhold them, or hinder them [from being paid], shall be excommunicated…”

As a young graduate student, my income is very limited and my giving to the Church has been small. I have only given to a parish occasionally, and from the small amounts of cash in my wallet. In light of the text from Trent above, has my lack of giving to a parish caused me to be excommunicated?  If so, does this discipline still apply in light of the current code of canon law saying nothing of the sort? Any help would be much appreciated! –Anthony Continue reading

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What Does the Church Say About Usury?

Q1: There is no canon in the current Code of Canon Law relating to usury.  The 1917 Code contained an explicit provision, canon 1543.  What is the Church’s latest position on usury? –David

Q2: I am a lay Catholic in need of answers to the question of usury in the Church.  The Catholic Encyclopedia is ambiguous, to say the least: the Third Lateran Council (1179) and the Second Council of Lyons (1274) condemn usurers, but then the Fifth Lateran Council (1517) said usurers “ought not to be condemned in any way.”  What does the Church define usury as?  When (if at all) is it permitted? –Thomas

A: David is absolutely correct that the current Code of Canon Law is silent on the subject of usury.  Over the course of previous centuries, however, there have been countless church regulations and declarations on the subject—which, as Thomas notes, often contradicted each other.  Let’s take a look at how the term “usury” is defined, and at past church pronouncements about it.  Then we might be able to draw some conclusions as to why the code says nothing about usury today—and what current Catholic teaching on the subject really is. Continue reading

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Can a Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?

Q: My teenager wanted to go to confession after Mass, so he went to the sacristy to ask the priest.  Inside, Father was just hanging around, laughing and joking with the altar servers.  When my son asked for confession, he was told to come back at the time when confessions are heard, and that he should check the schedule if he doesn’t know when that is!

Don’t we Catholics have the right to receive the sacraments from our priests?  How could the priest violate my son’s rights like this?  What should we do? –Francesca

A:   In “When Can a Priest Refuse to Absolve a Penitent in the Confessional?” we looked at a case in which a person went into the confessional and confessed his sins, but the priest wouldn’t grant absolution.  The situation described by Francesca is certainly related, but it’s not identical: in her son’s case, the priest wouldn’t even hear the confession to begin with.  Can a priest do that? Continue reading

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