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Canonical Age

The Catholic Encyclopedia

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The word age, taken in its widest meaning, may be described as "a period of time". The geologist, physiologist, and jurist define it differently, each from his own viewpoint. Jurists define it as "that period of life at which the law allows persons to do acts and discharge functions which, for want of years, they were prohibited from doing or undertaking before" (Bouvier's Law Dict.). They divide the years of a man into seven ages, to wit: infancy, from the day of birth, not baptism (Sacr. Congr. Conc., 4 December, 1627), to the seventh year; childhood, 7-14; puberty, 14-25; majority (young manhood), 25-40; manhood, 40-50 or 60; old age, 60-70; decrepitude, 70-100, or death. The terminal year in each of the above ages must be complete. Canonical age is the year. fixed by the canons, or law of the Church, at which her subjects become capable of incurring certain obligations, enjoying special privileges, embracing special states of life, holding office or dignity, or receiving the sacraments. Each and every one of these, being a human act, requires a development of mind and body proportioned to the free and voluntary acceptance of these gifts and privileges, also an adequate knowledge of, and capability for, the duties and obligations attached. Hence the Church prescribes that age at which one is generally supposed to have the necessary qualifications. It is evident that a lesser development of body and mind is necessary to the reception of baptism than is required for either matrimony or the priesthood, and greater qualifications for the higher than for the lower offices. Hence, the canonical age necessarily varies as do the privileges, offices, dignities, etc. The three states, ecclesiastical, religious, and laic, embrace all the ecclesiastical enactments concerning age.

Ante-Tridentine discipline

Ecclesiastical state

The ancient discipline was neither universal nor fixed, but varied with circumstances of time and locality. The requisite age, according to Gratian, for tonsure and the first three minor orders, i.e. doorkeeper, reader, and exorcist, was seven and for acolyte, twelve years complete. The present age for tonsure is seven full years (Cap. 4, de romp. ordin. in sexto; Benedict XIV, "Inter sollicitos", § 9-1795). Subdeaconship called for the attainment of the twentieth year (Conc. Trullanum, 692; Conc. Rothomag., 1074). Deaconship required the thirtieth year complete, according to Pope Siricius (385 Orig. text C. 3, Dist. 77); twenty-five full years according to various councils, including that of Toulouse (1056); and the twentieth year inchoate according to Clement V (1305-16). For priesthood, although Pope Siricius (lot. cit.) demanded thirty-five years, the general discipline up to the Lateran Council exacted only thirty full years. Dispensations from that age were frequently granted, owing to the great need for priests from the eighth century onward. The aforesaid Lateran Council fixed the necessary age for a parochial rector at the twenty-fifth year inchoate, which Clement V (loc. cit.) finally confirmed. The episcopate was not conferred until the completion of the forty-fifth year, according to Pope Siricius (lot. cit.). Various councils fixed the Episcopal age at thirty years complete.

Tridentine discipline

The Council of Trent (Sess. xxiii, cap. 4, de Reform.) fixed no certain age for tonsure and minor orders; yet the qualifications specified by it for tonsure and minor orders indicate seven years for the former, and a more advanced age than seven for the latter, which, however, may be licitly received before the fourteenth year (ibid., c. 4).

Major orders

The Council of Trent (Sess. xxiii, cap. 12) fixed the age of twenty-two for Subdeaconship, twenty-three for Deaconship, and twenty-five for the Priesthood, The first day of the year prescribed suffices for the reception of the Order. Trent (Sess. vii, c. 1, de reform.) confirmed the Lateran age of thirty full years for the episcopate. The age for cardinals (even ) was fixed by the Council (Sess. xxiv, de reform, cap. 1) at thirty years complete. Sixtus V, however, made the twenty-second year inchoate age sufficient for , provided that within a year he can be, and is, ordained deacon, under penalty of loss of active and passive vote in all consistories, and even in the conclave for the election of a pope.


No certain age is fixed by law for election to the papacy. History records the election of some very young popes. John XI was scarcely twenty-three (Fuga), or twenty-four (according to Berninus), and John XII was not twenty-two. But they were exceptions. The exalted position and important duties attached to the papacy require qualifications greater than those necessary even for the episcopate. Consequently, a mature age is desired.

Dispensation from the canonical, age is a relaxation of the canon law; hence the pope alone can dispense. He rarely does so in the case of age requisite for subdeaconship or deaconship. But on account of recent military laws in certain European countries, he has dispensed with the age prescribed for candidates for Subdeaconship. Though a cleric who has not completed his thirtieth year cannot be elected; he can be postulated for as bishop. The Holy Father ordinarily refuses unless the cleric is fully twenty-seven years old. Bishops in countries subject to the Congregation of Propaganda (e.g. Great Britain, Ireland; the United States, Holland, Germany, Canada,: Australia, India, and the Orient) have fatalities (Formula; I, art. 3) to dispense (a) with twelve months in the case of candidates for priesthood, whether they are yet in: orders or not. This applies to regular as well as secular candidates. (Holy Office, 29 January, 1896); (b) with fourteen months in the case of deacons, also regular and secular candidates for the priesthood (Formula C, art. 3; etc.). The Canadian bishops are empowered: (Formula T, art. 1) to dispense with eighteen months in case of fifteen deacons (regular and secular) about to be ordained priests. These dispensations do not apply to candidates for subdeaconship or deaconship. Though the censures to be incurred by the violators of the canonical ages, according to ancient law and the constitution of Pius II, have been abrogated (see APOSTOLICÆ SEDIS), nevertheless the vindictive punishments, i.e. prohibition to exercise the order received and privation of benefice annexed, still remain in full force (Santi, I, 120, n. 10; Wernz., Jus Decret., II, 148).


No special age was fixed by ancient canons for collation of a simple benefice, i.e. without any cure of souls attached. The Council of Trent required the fourteenth year inchoate, but it said nothing about the age for benefices whose foundation permitted a lesser age. For such seven years sufficed. The same age was sufficient in the case of canons upon whom collectively, not singly, the cure of souls devolved, as also of recipients of cathedral half-portions and pensions arising from benefices. Canons of collegiate churches whose prebend neither by foundations nor by custom demanded Sacred Orders in its incumbent, were required to be fourteen years old. The Council of Trent did not change this law. Dignitaries of cathedral and collegiate churches with cure of souls attached should have attained their twenty-fifth year. (Cone. Trid., Sess. xxiv, cap. 12). The age of twenty-three years complete for parochial benefices, as fixed by the papal decretals (cap. 14, de elect. in sexto), still holds; the Council of Trent made no innovation in this matter. The decretal age of fourteen years for cathedral and collegiate dignitaries without cure of souls was changed to twenty-two years complete, by the Council of Trent (Sess. XXIV, de reform, cap. 12, § ad caeteras). A vicar-general must be twenty-five, and a penitentiary, or diocesan confessor, forty years inchoate. For cathedral canons there was no fixed decretal age. Clement V, however, decreed that canons not having at least subdeaconship should have no vote in the chapter, and those possessing a prebend to which a major order was affixed should receive that order within a year, under forfeiture of half the daily distributions and of a vote in chapter. Trent decreed that every cathedral prebend should have attached to it one of the three major orders, which must be received within a year from election to the office of canon. It advised all bishops to make division of the canonries, so that the one half should be presbyteral and the other half diaconal and subdiaconal. Hence, for a subdiaconal prebend twenty years complete, for a diaconal twenty-one years complete, and for a presbyteral twenty-three years complete sufficed. Where the Tridentine division was not introduced the Clementine law qualifying the fourteen years holds. Collation of a benefice or ecclesiastical office, without papal dispensation, upon a candidate who lacks even one day of the necessary age, is invalid.

Religious state

Generals, provincials, abbots, and other regular prelates having quasi-Episcopal jurisdiction must, according to many, have completed their thirtieth year before election (Ferraris, Wernz, et al.); according to others, the twenty-fifth year inchoate: will suffice (Plat, Vermeersch, and Ferrari). The various orders and congregations, however, have their peculiar rules as to the requisite age for inferior offices and dignities in their respective organizations. The Council of Trent (Sess. xxv, cap. 7, de regular. et monial.) fixed forty years complete and eight years after her profession for an abbess, mother general, or prioress of any religious order of nuns. Could no such one be found in the monastery; then a nun over thirty years old and more than five years a professed, can be elected. An election contrary to these rules is invalid. For clothing with the religious habit or entrance into the novitiate no special age was fixed by decretal law. Clement VIII (Cure ad Regularem, 19 March, 1603) decreed that the constitution of each community should be the guide. He directed, however, that lay brothers and lay sisters should not be admitted before their twentieth year. The Sacred Congregation of the Council (16 July, 1632; 7 April, 1634) forbade the reception of novices until they attained their fifteenth year. The Congregation of Bishops and Regulars (23 May, 1659) prohibited the clothing with the habit before the completion of the fifteenth year. The same Congregation (Normae de Novis Institutis, 28 June, 1901) decreed that no one could be admitted under fifteen, or over thirty, years of age without dispensation from the Holy See. For religious profession the Council of Trent (Sess. xxv, cap. 15) exacted sixteen years complete with one year's novitiate necessarily preceding. The latest enactment, prescribing simple Vows for three continuous years after the novitiate before solemn profession, fixes the age for solemn profession at nineteen years complete. This applies to women (Congr. of Bishops and Regulars, 3 May, 1902) as well as to men. It is forbidden to postpone the solemn profession of men, who have been under simple vows for three, years, beyond the full twenty-fifth year of their age, except in some localities and institutes, e.g. the Society of Jesus, in which the profession of simple vows is continued for a much longer term of years than three.

Ordinary Christian life

No certain age is fixed for baptism; yet the Holy Office (30 July, 1771) forbids the postponement of infant baptism beyond the third day. According to early ecclesiastical discipline confirmation and Holy Communion were administered to infants after baptism.

Today, twelve years is generally recommended for confirmation; but, if urgent reasons exist for not awaiting that age, it is expedient not to confirm before the age of reason, i.e. seven years (Roman Catechism; Holy Office, 11 December, 1850; Second Cone. Balt., V, c. iii, 252). Leo XIII commended Robert, Bishop of Marseilles, for introducing the custom of confirming before Holy Communion (22 June, 1897).

For confession the age is seven years, i.e. the age of reason, when a child is generally supposed to be capable of mortal sin and bound by the law of annual confession [Conc. Lat., c. 21; Second Conc. Balt., tit. ix; First Plenary Conc. of S. America (Rome, 1899), tit. V, cap. 4].

Children should receive Holy Communion when they have attained the age of discretion (Innocent III in Conc. Lat., c. 21). There is much controversy as to what that age precisely is. According to some, it ordinarily occurs between the tenth and fourteenth year (Suarez, quoted by Benedict XIV, "Syn. Dioc., " VII, xii, 3; Raimundi, "Inst. Past., " tit. I, cap. iv, n. 57; Zitelli, Apparatus Jur. Pont. p. 319, no. 4; Second Plen. Conc. Balt., tit. V). Others, e.g. Ferraris (I, 154, n. 39), place it between eleven and twelve years. Children in danger of death, capable of committing and making confession of mortal sin, and of distinguishing the heavenly from the ordinary food, and desiring to receive Holy Communion, must not be denied it, although they may not have reached the minimum year mentioned (Roman Catechism, de Euch., n. 63; Second Plen. Conc. Balt., and First Plen. Conc. of South America, loc. cit.).

Extreme unction is to be administered to a child of seven years or younger, capable of sin.

Children of seven years complete are bound by the laws of abstinence and of hearing Mass. They can also be sponsors in the conferring of baptism and confirmation; but the Roman Ritual (tit. II, n. 24) says that it is more expedient that they should be fourteen years old and also confirmed. The Congregations of Propaganda (4 May, 1774) and the Holy Office (1 July, 1882) forbid children under fourteen years of age to act as sponsors at confirmation. Only those who have completed their twenty-first year are bound to fast.

Betrothals [sponsalia] require seven full years in the contracting parties. The marriageable age is fourteen full years in males and twelve full years in females, under penalty of nullity (unless natural puberty supplies the want of years). Marriages void because of the absence of legal or natural puberty are held as sponsalia, inducing thereby impediment of "public decorum" (Cap. 14, tit. de despon. impub., X, 4, 2). Civil codes generally require a more advanced age than the canonical. Dispensations, however, as to the required ages are expressly granted by France, Italy, Belgium, Holland, Roumania, and Russia.

The marriageable age in France, Italy, Belgium, and Roumania is eighteen for men, and fifteen for women (France requires also, under penalty of nullity, the consent of parents); Holland, Switzerland, Russia (Caucasian Provinces excepted), fifteen and thirteen; and Hungary fixes the age at eighteen and sixteen; Austria, fourteen for both parties; Denmark, twenty and sixteen; Germany, twenty-one (minors set free by parents at eighteen) and sixteen years respectively. Marriages contracted in Germany below the ages aforesaid are valid but illicit. In India natives marry under canonical age. So also in China, where there is a further deviation from canonical age, owing to the Chinese method of reckoning age by lunar rather than solar years (thirteen lunar months make a solar year). The canonical age holds in England, Spain, Portugal, Greece (Ionian Isles excepted, where it is sixteen and fourteen), and as regards Catholics even in Austria. While in some parts of the United States the canonical marriage age of fourteen and twelve still prevails, in others it has been enlarged by statutes. Such statutes, however, as a rule, do not make void marriages contracted by a male and female of fourteen and twelve years respectively, unless the statute expressly forbids them under penalty of nullity.

The English Common Law age of fourteen in males and twelve in females prevails in all the Canadian provinces, with the exception of Ontario and Manitoba. Ontario requires fourteen years, and Manitoba sixteen years, in both parties. Marriages contracted at more youthful ages than these are not irreparably null and void. They can be, and are, ratified by continued cohabitation after the prescribed age. In all the provinces consent of parents or guardians is required where one or both of the parties have not attained a certain age — Ontario, Manitoba, and New Brunswick, eighteen years; in Québec, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, Prince Edward Island, Alberta, and Saskatchewan the age is twenty-one. Except in the case of Québec and Prince Edward Island such consent is only directory, and does not affect the validity of marriage after celebration. Such marriages in the former province are not void, and can only be attacked by parties whose consent is required; in the latter province they are null and void by virtue of a pre-confederation law of 1831.

The marriage law in nearly every part of the United States requires the consent of parents before license is granted to minors. Such statutes are merely directive, and do not render void marriages without the parents' consent ("Am. and Eng. Ency. of Law," art. "Marriage", 1191). Neither in England is a marriage declared void for want of parental consent (Brown, Hast. Matr. Inst., II, 191).


FERRARIS, Bibliotheca, I, s.v. Aetas; WERNZ, Jus Decret. II, de defec. aetatis, 142 sqq.; IDEM., Jus Matrimoniale, IV de imped. aetatis, 457 sqq.; SANTI-LEITNER, I, 119, nn. 8-12: IV, 101 sqq.; OJETTI, Synop. Rer. Mor. et Jur. Pont. Index, s.v. Aetas; GASPARI, De Matrimonio, I, 491-509; De Ordinat. I, 485-533; MOCCHEGIANI, Jurisprudentia Eccles., III, xxv, 9-13; DESHAYES, Manuale Jur. Ecc. Index, s.v. Aetas; VERMEERSCH, De Religiosis, I, 164, 165, 214; FERRARI, De Statu Religioso, Index, s.v. Aetas; PIATO MONTENSIS, Praeclect. Jur. Reg. Index, s.v. Aetas; BENEDICT XIV, De Syn. Dioec., VII; Collectanea Sac. Cong. de Prop. Fid., s.v. Aetatis, Imped.; PUTZER, Comment. in Fac. Apost., 158 (105), 309 (n. 176), 426 (n. 249), and 462 (8); ZITELLI, Apparat. jur. eccl., 380, 412-487; SALAMANTICENSES, De Beneficiis; BISHOP, Marriage, etc.; American and English Encyc. of Law, 1191; HOWARD ELIOTTE BROWN, History of Matrim. Institutions (II, for statutory laws of the different States); NERVEGNA, De Jure practico regularium index, s.v. Aetas; BASTIEN, Directoire canonique, Index, s.v. Aetas; RAIMUNDI, Instructio Pastoralis, 55 (n. 57); and 59, 92, 497 (n. 670).

Bibliography Information
Obstat, Nihil. Lafort, Remy, Censor. Entry for 'Canonical Age'. The Catholic Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​c/canonical-age.html. Robert Appleton Company. New York. 1914.
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