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.