One of the things I think has been missing from most of this week's fracas about Canon 277 is the recognition that continence is, first and foremost, a virtue, a response of the heart touched by the grace of Christ, before it is an external, legal obligation. But then, of course, married clergy, just like all followers of Christ, are not exempted from it -- even if, as married men, they are not obliged (or at least have not been held to the obligation) to observe the same "perfect and perpetual continence" as unmarried clergy. So then, what manner of pursuing this virtue is desirable for married clergy?
As a virtue, continence is oriented to chastity (the universal virtue of "right use of the sexual faculty," from which no one is exempted). Right use of the sexual faculty means not using it in the wrong ways (e.g., it must be open to life), or at the wrong times (i.e., not outside of marriage, and even within marriage not when e.g., it fails in respect or self-gift to the spouse, or would give scandal), or for the wrong ends (e.g., separating in any of a number of ways the procreative and unitive dimensions). Continence supports chastity, by allowing us to choose not to use the sexual faculty when it would be wrong to do so. Marital chastity means that periodic continence is necessary.
The Christian marriage of all married clergy, then, ought already to include some measure of practical, periodic continence, by the time of ordination. But as clerics, married clergy are called to some manner of more effective leadership, or witness, or demonstration, of the possibilities of Christian virtue. There are two aspects of clerical continence for married clergy that we might consider. The first is "doing more;" the second is joy.
Doing more with respect to clerical continence means responding more generously, in our interior life, to the grace which perfects our virtue. We have already the habit of practical, periodic continence. This habit could be strengthened by a more intentional practice of the same choices, by which, within the realm of our shared spiritual life in marriage, the sacrifice of the periodic continence is more deliberately made an act of spiritual union with Christ. A whole range of possible devotional and spiritual connections will suggest themselves here.
This habit could also be strengthened in another direction, through our clerical service to Jesus Christ (diaconal or sacerdotal). This is, in effect, the "Levitical" continence which is the tradition of both Eastern Catholic and Orthodox married clergy. By deliberately subordinating our chastity (and our practical continence by which we grow more chaste) to our conformity to Christ, we submit, together with our wives, more fully to Him. This would eventually entail growing into a certain uniformity of ecclesial practice in what, exactly, that means for our service to the Holy Mass. The Latin Church has no existing tradition of this form of continence, but perhaps our experience, now and in the coming handful of generations, will be a gift to the Church.
The visible aspect of our steeping ourselves in Christ-like virtue in these ways ought to be joy. We grow in joy by growing in obedience, in the freedom to love more whole-heartedly, which is the best and deepest fruit of grace and virtue. And of course, continence and chastity are about precisely that freedom, for married Christians, just as celibacy is about that same freedom, in a different way.
Continence, whether merely periodic, intentional, Levitical, or perfect-and-perpetual, is part of our Christian lives. I hope we can do a better job of using it well, to grow in chastity, and therefore in freedom and joy, so that we can better serve our Lord Jesus Christ, in every vocation, for the salvation of many souls.