Can the Bishop Refuse to Ordain Me Because I’m Too Old?

Q: I’m interested in becoming a permanent deacon, but the director of the program in my diocese says the upper age limit, which I have passed, is set by canon law.  He wrote to me, “The upper age limit for entering our formation process is 61.  By Canon Law, deacon candidates must be no older than 65 at the time of ordination.”  So the bishop won’t ordain me.

I thought that this was a guideline set by the Episcopal Conference, and that the local bishop could overrule it if he wished….  Can you help me understand the situation better? –John

A: There’s more confusion in this seemingly straightforward question than meets the eye!  John’s question simultaneously involves issues pertaining to the diaconate, to the contents of the Code of Canon Law, and to the authority of Episcopal Conferences vis-à-vis that of a diocesan bishop.  On top of that, both he and the program director whom he quotes have made factually erroneous statements.  Let’s look at each of these issues one by one, and by the end we’ll see what the Church has to say about ordaining older men.

For starters, if you flip through the code looking for rules regarding age-cutoffs for men who are to be ordained, you’ll only find canon 1031. The first paragraph of this canon tells us that a man who will be ordained a priest must be at least 25 years old, while a transitional deacon—i.e., a deacon who will continue seminary studies and ultimately become a priest—must be no younger than 23 (c. 1031.1).

The next paragraph of this canon addresses the minimum age of permanent deacons, and makes a distinction between men who are already married, and those who aren’t.  (See “Can a Deacon Ever Get Married?” for more on this.)  An unmarried man must be no younger than 25 years old at the time of his ordination to the permanent diaconate, while one who is married must be at least 35 (c. 1031.2).

Canon 1031.3 then tells us that the Conference of Bishops is free to establish an older minimum age for both the priesthood and the permanent diaconate.  As we saw in “Are Catholics Supposed to Abstain From Meat Every Friday?” a Conference of Bishops (a.k.a. an Episcopal Conference) is a permanent institution comprising all the bishops of a country or a particular territory, that as a body exercises certain pastoral functions for the faithful of their territory (c. 447).  As a general rule, Episcopal Conferences do not have the authority to make laws that are binding on their member-bishops—because it is the diocesan bishop himself who has legislative authority within his diocese (cf. c. 391.1).  Conferences of Bishops, in contrast, frequently issue statements that are largely pastoral in nature, and often serve as a single, united voice for all the Catholic bishops of a particular country or region.

But there are a relative handful of places in the Code of Canon Law where the Church gives Episcopal Conferences the right to make laws that bind all the bishops and all the Catholics in their territories—and canon 1031.3 is one of them.  It is possible, therefore, that some or even all of the Conferences of Bishops around the world have established a minimum age for ordination to the priesthood and/or the permanent diaconate that is higher than the age-cutoffs stated in the first two paragraphs of canon 1031.

And as a matter of fact, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has done precisely that, in its National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States.  Since John lives in the U.S., this rule applies to him too:

In accord with Canon Law, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops establishes the minimum age for ordination to the permanent diaconate at thirty-five for all candidates, married or celibate (Chapter 2, para. 87).

We see here a good example of an Episcopal Conference acting in full accord with canon law, to make a rule which all its member-bishops are to follow.  If an unmarried man wishes to become a permanent deacon in the U.S., and is (say) 28 years old, he has to wait seven years before he can be ordained.  This is true because, as per 1031.3, the minimum age established by the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops in this instance “trumps” the minimum age set by canon 1031.2.

That said, the Church’s law on age limits for ordination doesn’t directly address John’s question.  After all, John asked not about the minimum age for becoming a deacon, but about the maximum.  What does the Church have to say about this subject?

John says that the director of the diaconate program in his diocese told him that “By Canon Law, deacon candidates must be no older than 65 at the time of ordination.”  But as we’ve just seen, this is false.  The code only gives us a minimum age-cutoff for ordination to the diaconate and to the priesthood; it says nothing about a maximum age.

In response to this erroneous information, John himself says, “I thought that this was a guideline set by the Episcopal Conference.”  But this statement too is factually inaccurate, because in the U.S., where John lives, the Conference of Bishops has said only the following, in the same document already cited above:

The establishment of a maximum age for ordination is at the discretion of the diocesan bishop, keeping in mind the particular needs and expectations of the diocese regarding diaconal ministry and life. (Ibid.)

In short, in the country where John lives, a man who wishes to become a permanent deacon must be at least 35 years old (as per the rule established by the Episcopal Conference), but there is no maximum age-cutoff for ordination.  The diocesan bishop can decide for himself whether or not he wants to ordain an older man to the permanent diaconate.

There are plenty of good reasons why a bishop would choose to ordain as a permanent deacon a more mature man.  Perhaps the diocese has a dire shortage of clergy; or there are a disproportionate number of clergy who are quite young and thus have little life-experience, meaning that an older cleric would be an asset.  Or the older man might already have an impressive theological background, thus obviating the need for extensive education before his ordination.  Depending on the situation in his diocese, a bishop might conclude that ordaining such a man to the permanent diaconate would be an overall benefit to the faithful, for whom the bishop is spiritually responsible.

Likewise, excellent reasons exist for not wishing to ordain a permanent deacon who is already advanced in years, and one of the most obvious involves diocesan finances.  If a diocese pays for the seminary training of its prospective clergy, this constitutes an investment in a man who will reasonably be expected to “repay” the diocese with many years of ministerial service.  But a man who is older will naturally have far fewer years ahead of him in which he’ll be able to do this—thus making him a much less attractive candidate, for practical reasons.

This line of reasoning isn’t unique to the permanent diaconate, either!  It’s not at all uncommon for a man or woman seeking to enter a religious institute to find that it has an official maximum age limit, which is often as young as 40.  Like dioceses, a convent, monastery or other religious house expects to be able to put its members to work—and a new sister, brother, or priest who has just joined its ranks should thus be able to work in the institute for decades to come.  After all, when a member of a religious institute becomes elderly and unable to work, the institute will be obliged to care for that member until his/her death.  It therefore makes little sense for an institute to accept as a member someone who is already so advanced in years that the institute will only benefit by his/her membership for a few years, before retirement.  In short, if you want to be a member of a religious institute, you’ll logically be expected to earn your keep!

Note that refusing to ordain an older man is not a violation of the man’s rights.  As was discussed at length in “Can Homosexual Men be Ordained to the Priesthood?” a man may very well feel that he is being called by God to become a member of the clergy … but a bishop is under absolutely no obligation to ordain him.  Rather, the decision to ordain a man (or not) should hinge on the needs of the diocese where he will be expected to minister.

Returning to John’s situation, it appears that his diocesan bishop has himself set a maximum age-limit of 61 for entry into the permanent diaconate program, which takes four years.  This is the bishop’s prerogative, and he can change it at any time, as he sees fit.  For that matter, the bishop is also free to make individual exceptions to the rule—and so he could conceivably decide to disregard the age restriction and allow John to enter the formation program despite his age, if he judges that there is a good reason to do so.

So now John has the answer to his question.  If he can convince the bishop that adequate reasons exist for ordaining him a permanent deacon despite his age, he may be ordained after all.  But if the bishop decides to stick to the rule which he himself has made, John will have to accept that.  Ultimately, it is the bishop’s call.

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