|ROME, 14 FEB. 2006 (ZENIT)
Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the
Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: I would like to know the position of the Church on the ordination of
men whose parents do not have a Church-blessed marriage or where the
parents could have been wed in the Church but the marriage has since
been interrupted by either divorce, separation or has become polygamous.
The fathers in the Synod of Bishops last October expressed concern over
the shortage of young men joining priesthood. I personally went through
the minor seminary in Uganda but could not continue to the major
seminary because my daddy was stuck to his second wife and there was a
constant threat that I would not be ordained if the marriage remained
E.K., Tororo, Uganda
A: The pastoral challenge of a tradition of polygamous marriages is
prevalently found in Africa. There especially the Church must surmount
great hurdles in order to bring home the fullness of Christ's teaching
regarding the sanctity and beauty of the perpetual union of one man and
In general, if a polygamist asks for baptism he knows that only one of
the women may remain as his wife, not necessarily the one he first
married (Canon 1148). Of course he must provide for the upkeep of the
other women, especially if age or other cultural elements prevent their
remarrying, as well as for any children, all of whom are considered
Unlike earlier times, the present Code of Canon Law (Canons 1140-1049)
contains no specific impediment to the possible priestly ordination of a
son of an unmarried mother. Nor, for that matter, is there any canonical
obstacle to the children of separated, divorced or polygamous
However, canon law is not the only element that has to be brought to
bear in considering a candidate's possibilities of entering ministry.
Even when there was a canonical impediment of illegitimacy, it was
always understood that this impediment was not absolute.
Nor did it imply a moral evaluation regarding the candidate but was
rather a prudential judgment insofar as the social stigma attached to
and the need to defend the Christian ideal of matrimony
could hamper a priest's pastoral effectiveness.
In some cases however, the superiors also have to consider whether being
brought up in irregular circumstances could affect the candidate's
personal balance and capacity for interpersonal relationships
important traits for a priest's mission.
These, among other considerations, quite possibly form the reasoning
behind the seminary superiors' decision not to allow the child of a
polygamous father to proceed in his priestly formation.
Because polygamy is such a pressing pastoral problem in the country it
would be difficult for a priest to defend and uphold Catholic doctrine
if it were widely known that his own parent contradicted it by his way
It might even have been a cause of difficulty to some if it were known
that he was studying in the seminary, as it is not infrequent for
seminarians in these countries to engage in active pastoral work on
Sundays by directing Communion services for Catholics at outstations
where Mass is not celebrated.
This is, of course, no reflection on the intrinsic worth and even
sanctity of the prospective seminarian, who is in no way responsible for
a parent's foibles.
It appears to be a sad consequence of pastoral reality in a concrete
situation which may be extremely hard to fathom and comprehend for those
of us who live in a different reality.
Since such things as social stigmas vary with time and place, in some
cases it might be possible for a candidate to pursue a vocation in a
different cultural environment.
History provides several examples of how the stigma associated with
illegitimacy varied over the centuries and how consequently the
canonical norms were enforced with more or less rigor.
In some periods illegitimate children were easily accepted as part of
the family, often regularized through adoption or other legal tactics,
and not infrequently entered Church service.
The 16th century, for example, saw a Pope (Clement VII 1523-34), a
brilliant military commander (John of Austria), and a great artist
(Leonardo da Vinci) accepted at the pinnacle of society
in spite of being born out of wedlock. ZE06021422
* * *
Follow-up: Polygamy, Sons and the Priesthood [02-28-2006]
Several correspondents wrote in reply to our Feb. 14 column about a man
excluded from the seminary in Uganda because his father was involved in
a polygamous marriage.
A Ugandan priest wrote: "In your treatment of the topic of polygamy,
sons and priesthood, you rightly pointed out the nonexistence of
impediments to sacred orders in current canon law, arising from the
irregular condition of one's parents' marriage, unlike in the past. You
also pointed out that even in the past, this impediment was not
absolute. It was dependent on the particular situation of the particular
candidate, considering factors such as the social stigma attached to
illegitimate children and the negative effect on the pastoral
effectiveness of such candidates as well as their personal and
"On the whole, however, your answer weighed toward the continued
exclusion of such candidates today. Based on my lived experience in
Uganda, I think we should be moving in the other direction, for the two
main reasons you mentioned: the absence or rather the revocation of such
an impediment by the legislator of universal canon law (cf. Canon 6) and
the need for dealing with such situations on a case-by-case basis.
Moreover, because of the widespread nature of irregular marriages among
baptized Catholics even in Uganda, the social stigma attached to such
families is no longer as great, nor does the situation have any notable
effect on the pastoral effectiveness or personal balance of potential
candidates. After all, the communal nature of raising children in
African families ensures that there are always good examples of
Christian marriage among other members of extended family."
Another priest, writing from Cameroon, made a similar point, although
the concrete social situation in that country may differ somewhat from
In my former piece I specifically mentioned that judging such situations
from outside was very difficult and thus I tried to take a neutral
Although I suggested a possible motivation for the exclusion of
candidates, my intention was to explain and offer neither a defense nor
a critique of the seminary superior's decision.
In this sense I agree with my Ugandan correspondent who quoted an
address by Pope John Paul II to a group of American bishops asserting
that diocesan guidelines for the administration of the sacraments should
not be more restrictive than norms issued by the Holy See (L'Osservatore
Romano, June 16, 1993).
He cited Canon 18 of the code: "Laws which establish a penalty, restrict
the free exercise of rights, or contain an exception from the law are
subject to strict interpretation." It is also pertinent to this argument
although, strictly speaking, nobody has a right to priestly ordination.
I further agree with the Ugandan correspondent that all questions
regarding vocations should be decided on a case-by-case basis and not
subject to a restrictive general law at the local level.
Another correspondent, from the United States, asked about impediment
due to age.
He writes: "In the U.S. there is a constant call for men to the vocation
of priesthood because of the shortage that is being seen. Why then, are
some bishops putting age limits on those they will even consider for
priesthood if that person has a call to that vocation? Instead they
discourage them. Our diocese's vocation director says there is a need
for more men to enter the priesthood but I know that at times he has
discouraged men, even refusing to interview them. One young man
eventually left for another diocese who accepted him with open arms and
this young man will soon be ordained a priest for this other diocese. I
myself was seeking to enter seminary studies after graduation from
college with my degree in theology, with emphasis on pastoral ministry.
I was allowed to take the pre-seminary evaluation and did well on it,
but due to my age, my bishop said no, too old. At that time I was 53
years of age with a strong desire to serve God as one of his shepherds."
Many factors may be involved in vocational discernment or acceptance,
and age plays a role.
That said, while canon law sets the minimum age for ordination at 25,
there is no universal canonical maximum age and many recent vocations to
the priesthood are from the ranks of older men.
There is even a seminary in Rome and at least one in the United States
that specifically cater to such vocations as older men often find it
difficult to fit into seminary programs designed for men in their early
Some religious congregations do have an upper age limit for admittance
as experience has taught them that older people may be too set in their
ways to adapt to the particular demands of certain forms of religious
I have no idea why this particular diocese would not wish to accept
older vocations. The reasons probably concern the diocese's concrete
pastoral situation, the makeup of faithful and the clergy, the seminary
formators' experience (or lack thereof) in guiding older vocations, and
many other factors that may have nothing to do with the candidate's
If, for serious reasons, a diocese considers that it cannot undertake
the formation of older vocations, it should be willing to recommend a
worthwhile candidate to another diocese that has this need or