Canonical age

Canonical age

Canonical age is, in Roman Catholic canon law, the age at which a Catholic becomes capable of incurring certain obligations, enjoying special privileges, embracing special states of life, holding office or dignity, or receiving the sacraments.

Each 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. Canonical age necessarily varies as do the privileges, offices, dignities, etc.

WARNING: The information that follows, valid, and only for Latin Rite Catholics, at the time of publication of the Catholic Encyclopedia, from which it is transcribed, ceased in many regards to be true when the 1917 Code of Canon Law came into force (see, for instance, on the canonical age for marriage, canon 1067 of that Code). The 1983 Code of Canon Law made further changes. For canonical age in Eastern Catholic Churches in general, the 1990 Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches should be consulted, while remembering that on some points there may be differences between individual Eastern Catholic Churches.


Baptism can be administered regardless of age.

For confession, the canonical age is seven, the age of reason, when a child is generally supposed to be capable of mortal sin and bound by the law of annual confession.

Children should receive Holy Communion when they have attained the age of discretion. There is much controversy as to what that age precisely is. 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.

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 says that it is more expedient that they should be fourteen years old and also confirmed.

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.

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".

Priesthood, Orders, and Clerical Office

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 Council of Trent 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 confirmed the Lateran age of thirty full years for the episcopate. The age for cardinals (even cardinal-deacons) was fixed by the Council at thirty years complete.

No certain age is fixed by law for election to the papacy.

Generals, provincials, abbots, and other regular prelates having quasi-Episcopal jurisdiction must, according to many, have completed their thirtieth year before election; according to others, the twenty-fifth year inchoate: will suffice. 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.

For religious profession the Council of Trent 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 as well as to men.

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