The Deacon as Moral Watchman

The Church ought not to overlook the ministry of the diaconate as a ministry of protection toward the vulnerable.

Fra Angelico, “Saint Peter Consecrates Saint Stephen, with the Seven Deacons,” c. 1448
Fra Angelico, “Saint Peter Consecrates Saint Stephen, with the Seven Deacons,” c. 1448 (photo: Public Domain)

In my previous article, I tried to provide a framework for a more robust integration of the diaconate into the governance of the Church. By no means do I believe that an influx of deacons into key curial roles will somehow magically solve the current abuse crisis. However, my hope is that the wider Church will see how the role of the deacon has become so diminished that its traditional influence in the life of the Church has caused an imbalance. This imbalance has led to a top-heavy hierarchy and created an environment wherein abuse and cover-up has run rampant. An avenue worth exploring as a remedy is to truly implement the diaconate across all levels of Church governance and to restore the deacon to his proper role in the hierarchy. One facet of this implementation is to consider, as part of the charism of the diaconate, the role of the deacon as “moral watchman.”

The role of the deacon arose out of a moral need. In Acts 6, the Greek-speaking Christians complained to the Apostles about the neglect of their widows. In response to this moral need, the Apostles ordained the first seven deacons to minister to those most vulnerable in their community. This ministry of service not only included caring for the material needs of the vulnerable but also preaching the Word of God (see Acts 8:26-40). We also know from the early tradition that deacons had a special role to care for the sick and poor and were called on to report the needs of the disadvantaged to the bishop (see Apostolic Constitutions., III, xix, and xxxi, xxxii). We also see in the Apostolic Constitutions (dated c. A.D. 375-380) that the deacons kept order in Church, we read, “And let the children stand at the reading-desk; and let another deacon stand by them, that they may not be disorderly. And let other deacons walk about and watch the men and women, that no tumult may be made, and that no one nod, or whisper, or slumber; and let the deacons stand at the doors of the men …” (Apo. Cons., VIII, XI). So, both at Liturgy and outside in acts of service, there appears to be an ancient connection between the deacon and the keeping of moral order. St. John Chrysostom said, “… if anyone misbehave let the deacon be summoned" (Hom. xxiv, in Act. Apost.). I believe it is clear from the Scriptural roots of the diaconate through to the development of the diaconate in the period of the Church Fathers, that the deacon had a special commission of service to watch over the congregation with a special eye to protect the moral order (especially of the vulnerable).

This special connection between the diaconate and a watchful eye over the defenseless is an important connection to reemphasize in the face of our modern crisis. I would go so far to say that this dimension of diaconal ministry is an oft-forgotten charism of the diaconate. It is essential to rediscover this charism, as it runs directly to the roots of diaconal ministry. Charisms, the Catechism reminds us, “are graces of the Holy Spirit which directly or indirectly benefit the Church, ordered as they are to her building up, to the good of men, and to the needs of the world” (CCC 799). It would seem that the raison d'etre for the diaconate in Acts 6 certainly fits within this definition.

It is important to clarify that the grace of diaconal ordination and the charisms that flow from ordination put the deacon’s acts of service to the vulnerable on a different level than acts of social service performed by any person of goodwill. Just as a priestly act cannot be usurped by a non-ordained person, so too a diaconal act of service cannot be collapsed into less than a transcendent image of the Diakonia of Christ. This being the case, the Church ought not to overlook the ministry of the diaconate as a ministry of protection toward the vulnerable — as this charism flows directly from the origins of the diaconate and is essential to understanding its foundation. It is also important to note that any charisms attached to ordained ministry are not automatic and autonomous; rather, they depend on the cooperation (synergy, as is said in the Christian East) with the Holy Spirit for fruition.

To summarize: The origins of the diaconate are rooted in service to the vulnerable. That service expanded to the sick, the poor, and general maintenance of Church order. As this service is rooted in, “… building up, to the good of man, and to the needs of the world” (CCC 799), it can rightly be called a charism. This charism within diaconal ministry places the deacon’s acts of moral alertness over the community into a different category from general charitable acts. Therefore, when acted out in synergy with the Holy Spirit and stemming from the grace of his ordination, diaconal acts can be a powerful means of protecting the vulnerable.

So, what does this mean to the ongoing abuse crisis? I think there needs to be a serious theological discussion on the role of the diaconate in the U.S. The fact that every diocese does not have a program for the permanent diaconate is a scandal. There needs to be an actual implementation of the post-conciliar documents regarding the permanent diaconate and a recognition of the diaconate as a vital part of the hierarchy. There should be a special emphasis, communicated to diaconal candidates, of the charism of watchfulness over the vulnerable as an essential part of diaconal service. The outcome hoped for is a renewed and prayerful appeal to the Holy Spirit to unleash this charism upon the Church for her healing and building up. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t the whole game in terms of solving the crisis, but it is an important piece which no one is talking about.