The Church, like the State, fixes certain ages at which her subjects become capable of incurring special obligations, enjoying special privileges, of entering on special states of life, or of holding office and dignity. The following is a summary of the principal determinations regarding age, so far as they affect (1) the ordinary life of a Christian, (2) the ecclesiastical and religious state. It must be observed that the canonical age is reckoned from the day of birth, not from that of baptism.
With regard to ordinary Christians. The age of reason is generally supposed to begin about the seventh year, though of course it may come earlier in some cases, later in others. At that time a child becomes capable of mortal sin, and so of receiving the sacraments of penance and extreme unction, which are the remedies for post-baptismal sin. The Holy Eucharist and Confirmation, according to the discipline of the Church, are usually given some time after the use of reason has been attained, when the child has received some instruction in Christian doctrine, and is able to understand the nature of these sacraments. Further, at seven years of age, a child becomes subject to the law of the Church (e. g. with regard to abstinence, Sunday Mass, etc.), and can contract an engagement of marriage.
The age of puberty begins in the case of males at fourteen, in that of females at twelve. Marriages contracted by persons under these ages is null and void. Till the age of puberty is reached, no one can be required to take an oath.
At twenty-one, the obligation of fasting begins; it ceases, according to the common opinion, at sixty.
With regard to religious and ecclesiastics. At seven, a person may be tonsured. No special age is named in the canon law for the reception of minor orders. A subdeacon must have completed his twenty-first, a deacon his twenty-second, a priest his twenty-fourth, and a bishop his thirtieth year. A cleric cannot hold a simple benefice before entering on his fourteenth year; an ecclesiastical dignity – e.g. a eanonry in a cathedral church – till he has completed his twenty second year; a benefice with cure of souls attached to it, before he has begun his twenty-fifth year; a diocese, till he has completed his thirtieth year.
A religious cannot make his profession till he is at least sixteen years old, and has passed a year in the noviciate. He must be thirty years of age before he can hold a prelacy which involves quasi-episcopal jurisdiction. A girl must be over twelve years of age before she assumes the religious habit. A woman under forty cannot be chosen religious superior of a convent, unless it is impossible to find in the order a religious of the age required, and otherwise suitable. In this case, a religious thirty years old may be chosen with the consent of the bishop or other superior.
- Father James J McGovern. “Canonical Age”. . CatholicSaints.Info. 15 January 2016. Web. 7 December 2016. <>