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Canonical age in Roman Catholic canon law is an age one must reach, counting from birth, when one 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 human acts requires a development of mind, body, or spirit appropriate to its free and voluntary acceptance and an adequate knowledge of, and capacity for, the duties and obligations attached. The ages prescribed by canon law differ, as do the privileges, offices, and dignities to which they apply.
Baptism can be validly administered regardless of age.
Christians should receive Holy Communion when they have attained the age of discretion. There is much controversy as to what that age is precisely. Children in danger of death, capable of committing and confessing to mortal sin, and of distinguishing heavenly from ordinary food, when desirous of receiving Holy Communion, must not be denied it, although they may not have achieved the minimum age prescribed.
Extreme unction is to be administered to a child of seven years or younger, who is capable of sin. Children of seven years 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 confirmed.
Twelve years is generally recommended for confirmation, but if there are urgent reasons for not awaiting that age, it is expedient not to confirm before the age of reason, that is, seven years of age.
The marriageable age is fourteen years for males and twelve years for females, under penalty of nullity, unless natural puberty supplies the want of years. Marriages void because of the absence of legal age 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, those of doorkeeper, reader, and exorcist, was seven, and for acolyte, twelve years.
The Council of Trent fixed the ages of 22 for subdeaconship, 23 for deaconship, and 25 for priesthood. The first day of the year in which the canonical age is to be reached is sufficiently timely for the reception of the order. Trent confirmed the Lateran age of thirty years for the episcopate. The age for cardinals (including cardinal-deacons) was fixed by the Council at thirty years of age.
No 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, their 25th year. Various orders and congregations, however, have their own rules for the requisite ages for inferior offices and dignities.
The Council of Trent (Sess. xxv, cap. 7, de regular. et monial.) fixed forty years, and eight years after her profession, for an abbess, mother general, or prioress of a religious order of nuns. Could none such be found in a monastery (convent), then a nun over thirty years old and more than five years professed, can be elected. An election contrary to these rules is invalid.
For clothing with the religious habit or entrance into the novitiate, no age is fixed by decretal law.
For religious profession, the Council of Trent prescribes sixteen years of age, with one year of novitiate. 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 for both men and women.
- Catholic Encyclopedia: Canonical Age (of historical value only)