Pope Francis recently indicated that he might form a commission that will perhaps look at the question of women deacons. The remarks of the Holy Father, in an exchange with women religious, will eventually be further clarified.
It may be that the Holy Father wants a thorough examination of the question from scratch, as it were, involving years of theological work. Or it may be that he wants to be updated on the extensive work already done in recent decades.
Yet, while those uncertainties are worked out, the occasion provides an opportunity to think about the diaconate itself. One of the major decisions of the Second Vatican Council was to reinstate the permanent diaconate. Over time, the ordination of deacons had continued, but only as a step towards ordination as a priest. Indeed, by the mid-20th century, it was customary for a man to be ordained a deacon just weeks before his priestly ordination.
The restoration of what we now call the “permanent diaconate” in the 1970s has been uneven. In North America, permanent deacons are quite common; in other parts of the world, the idea has not been widely adopted.
There are, thus, some questions that a commission on the diaconate could usefully take up, independent of the question of women deacons.
The first is the sacramental theology of the diaconate. There was, for some time, a debate about whether deacons received holy orders at all. That’s because deacons cannot do anything that a layman cannot do without special permission — preaching (laypeople can be given special permission in unusual circumstances to preach at Mass, such as where the priest does not speak the language of the congregation in a remote place), administering holy Communion, witnessing marriages, conducting burials and leading a Liturgy of the Word. Most notably, deacons cannot administer the anointing of the sick, as it is tied to the forgiveness of sins. If deacons “only” do by right what laypeople can do by special permission, is their ordination, then, merely a matter of jurisdiction or authority, rather than the reception of a sacramental character which enables a man to act in persona Christi? Do they receive holy orders at all?
That question was definitively answered in 1992, with the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Deacons do receive holy orders, but they are not priests. They are no longer laymen — they are clerics — but they are not priests.
“Catholic doctrine, expressed in the liturgy, the magisterium and the constant practice of the Church, recognizes that there are two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate,” the Catechism teaches. “The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. For this reason, the term sacerdos in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons. Yet Catholic doctrine teaches that the degrees of priestly participation (episcopate and presbyterate) and the degree of service (diaconate) are all three conferred by a sacramental act called ‘ordination,’ that is, by the sacrament of holy orders” (1554).
That would seem to preclude women being admitted to the diaconate, as it would be difficult to see how someone could be eligible to receive holy orders in one degree but not another.
Christian charitable service, for which the diaconate principally exists, is, of course, not limited to clerics. Could there be “deaconesses” who took leadership in charitable service but who were not ordained clerics?
Indeed, the Holy Father speculated that perhaps it is religious sisters who are today, de facto, the “deaconesses” of the Church.
Here, we arrive at one of the curiosities of the diaconate. If one were to ask what a deacon does, it is usually linked to the administration of the sacraments and the liturgy — preaching at Mass, presiding at the Divine Office, taking holy Communion to the sick and preparing couples for marriage and witnessing the vows, as well as burying the dead. The ministry of service in a typical parish is headed up by laypeople, not the deacons.
It would seem, therefore, that the ministry of deacons could be further developed precisely in the order of service. This would correspond to an increasing emphasis on the Church’s charitable service, beginning most explicitly with Pope Benedict XVI’s Deus Caritas Est (God Is Love), where the Church’s diakonia (service of charity) was recognized to be as important as her preaching of the Gospel and her celebration of the liturgy. This emphasis has been given particular brilliance under Pope Francis, who has corrected a tendency to reduce the diakonia to a secondary role.
If the diakonia is secondary, could that not also explain why the diaconate itself lacks a clear identity?
A further question that requires study is that of celibacy in relation to the diaconate. Men who are “transitional deacons” on their way to being ordained priests make their promise of celibacy at their diaconate ordination. It is thereby linked with the clerical state, not the priesthood per se.
Yet the usual practice is that permanent deacons are married — at their ordination, their wives often have a prominent, even liturgical, role. The tradition of celibacy in the Latin Church has been linked to the clerical state, not so much the priestly one. The reality of married permanent deacons makes this less clear.
Perhaps there ought to be a rethinking, then, of celibacy in the diaconate. Yet the almost-automatic response — why not just be a priest? — indicates that our thinking about the diaconate in its own right needs work: Perhaps what’s needed is a commission not restricted to women deacons, but to the diaconate in general.
editor in chief of Convivium magazine.
He has been appointed to serve as a jubilee year
missionary of mercy by the Holy See.