Clerical Celibacy

The author of this blog recently witnessed two ordinations at a Catholic cathedral, administered by the diocesan bishop.  Both candidates were ordained deacon.  They were ordained as transitory, rather than permanent, deacons, i.e in the hope that they will shortly be ordained to the priesthood.

One of the new deacons was a diocesan seminarist.  The other was a married Anglican vicar (or former vicar) who had joined the Anglican Ordinariate which is formally entitled the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham.

According to the order of service, the seminarist was required to take a vow of celibacy before the bishop ordained him.  This was in accordance with the Code of Canon Law 1983, which requires a candidate for ordination to undertake the obligation of celibacy publicly, unless he has already taken a monastic vow or is a married man destined for the permanent diaconate (canon 1037).  This is apparently a recent requirement of canon law, and reflects the Church’s concern over defections from the priesthood in the years following the second Vatican Council (cf. The Code of Canon Law. A Text and Commentary eds Coriden, Green and Heintschel, 1985, Paulist Press, New York, p.728).

Thus the obligation of celibacy precedes ordination.  The obligation does not result from, nor is it effected by, ordination.  Celibacy is a precondition, not a consequence, of ordination. 

This means that, if a deacon or priest wishes to leave the clerical state, he will remain bound by his vow of celibacy even if a decree of laicisation is granted.  A laicised cleric who wishes to marry must obtain a separate dispensation from the Pope, to release him from this vow (cf canon 291).

Canon 277 provides that the bishop may make detailed rules concerning the observance of celibacy by his clergy.  Clergy are required ‘to behave with due prudence’ towards any person who might endanger their celibate state or set tongues wagging.  Celibacy, like justice, must not only be done but be seen to be done.

The married former vicar was not, of course, in a position to take the vow of celibacy required by the 1983 Code.  Marriage constitutes a ‘simple impediment’ to ordination (canon 1042).  However, all impediments to ordination may be dispensed from (canon 1047).  A papal dispensation was therefore obtained.  The dispensation was not expressly referred to in the ordination service (perhaps it was thought indelicate to refer to it, the vicar’s wife and children being present).  However, the order of service made clear that the ordination was ‘with the permission of the Holy See’.

The Anglican Ordinariate is primarily regulated by the papal constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus (2009) and by certain ‘complementary norms’ made thereunder.  Even in the Ordinariate the general rule is that only celibate men will be ordained.  However, papal dispensations permitting the ordination of married men are envisaged ‘on a case by case basis’ (Anglicanorum Coetibus, Article 6(2)).

The request for a dispensation is made by the Ordinary (i.e the Head of the Ordinariate), not by the candidate himself.  The request itself must be based on ‘objective criteria and the needs of the Ordinariate’ (norms, 6(1)).  The ‘objective criteria’ which govern any request for a dispensation must themselves be approved by the Holy See.

Even when the dispensation has been granted, the diocesan bishop is not obliged to ordain the candidate. In this case there was no papal mandate to the bishop to ordain the former vicar, merely a permission to do so.

Dispensation from celibacy is only ever granted for ordination as a deacon or priest, not as a bishop.  All bishops are required to be celibate.  A commentary appended to the complementary norms explains that ‘Given the entire Catholic Latin tradition, and the tradition of the Oriental Catholic Churches, including Orthodox tradition, the admission of married men to the episcopate is absolutely excluded’ (Father Gianfranco Ghirlanda SJ, para 4).

The present Head, or Ordinary, of the Anglican Ordinariate is himself a married man, and so can only be a priest, not a bishop.  Thus he cannot ordain his own priests, but has to request local diocesan bishops to do so instead.  However, out of respect to his former status as a bishop of the Church of England, the Ordinary is permitted to wear the bishop’s mitre and pectoral cross (cf. norms, 11(4)).  

In the Latin Church, a married man may be ordained to the permanent diaconate, without a special dispensation being necessary, but not until he is at least 35 years old, a much higher minimum age than for celibate clergy (canon 1031.2).  His wife’s consent to the ordination must be obtained in writing (canon 1050).  An unmarried permanent deacon must remain celibate (canon 1037).

Clerical celibacy has never been universal in the Church, and canon law recognises this.  The Code of Canons of the Eastern Catholic Churches, promulgated in 1990, acknowledges that married men may be ordained priest (1990 Code, canon 758.3).  However, clerical marriage in the Eastern Churches is by no means as widespread and general as it is in the Anglican Communion.  It is subject to the laws of the particular Church, and to any special rules issued by the Holy See.  As the commentary cited above makes clear, marriage is only for lesser clergy, not bishops. 

The diversity of practice between the Latin and Eastern Churches is explained thus: ‘Clerical celibacy … [is] supported by the tradition of the whole Church’, while ‘the hallowed practice of married clerics [obtained] in the primitive Church and in the tradition of the Eastern Churches’ (1990 Code, canon 373).  Thus clerical marriage has a place in the Church’s tradition, but only a limited place.  Clerical celibacy, by contrast, is a universal tradition.  The practice of clerical celibacy existed in the primitive Church and has always existed in the Eastern Church, alongside the practice of clerical marriage.

It is well known that compulsory clerical celibacy was abolished in the Church of England at the Reformation.  (Hence the need for papal dispensations for married former vicars.)  However, the language of the Clergy Marriage Act 1548 permitting clerical marriage is surprisingly grudging.  There is no positive affirmation of the value of married clergy, just a weary recognition that celibacy had become unenforceable.  Article 32, promulgated later in the 16th century, is a little more positive, providing that ‘it is lawful for [clergy] as for all other Christian men, to marry at their own discretion, as they shall judge [marriage] to serve better to godliness’.

Only as recently as 1964 was any restriction placed on the ‘discretion’ confirmed by Article 32.  In that year, evidently worried by the rising divorce rate and the laxity of the secular divorce law, the Church of England approved the Clergy (Ordination and Miscellaneous Provisions) Measure.  S.9 of the 1964 Measure, entitled ‘Certain Impediments to Order’, provided that ‘no person shall be admitted into Holy Orders’ if divorced and remarried, or married to a divorced person, if a former spouse was still alive.

This rule was mitigated by the Clergy (Ordination) Measure 1990, which enables a bishop to obtain a faculty (i.e a dispensation) from the Archbishop to permit the ordination of a divorced and remarried person, or the spouse of such a person.  (See canon C4(3) and (3A) of the Canons of the Church of England.)  By contrast, Anglicanorum Coetibus makes no such concessions, providing firmly that ‘Anglican clergy who are in irregular marriage situations may not be accepted for Holy Orders in the Ordinariate’ (norms, 6(3)). 

The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 effectively forbids the solemnisation of homosexual ‘marriages’ in church (at least for the time being).  However, there is no impediment in that Act, or elsewhere in English law, to forbid the ordination of a person who is in a same sex marriage, or to forbid clergy from entering same sex marriages.