I have been thumbing through Dr. Adam DeVille’s book Everything Hidden Shall be Revealed about his proposed reforms for the Church in the face of the current abuse crisis. My perusal, and my recent experience at the Byzantine Catholic Seminary of Sts. Cyril and Methodius as a deacon formation student, has led me to see the vital importance for the Latin Church to quickly and thoroughly expand its understanding of the role of the diaconate in the hierarchy.
The recent resurfacing of the problem of clerical sexual abuse has two main elements — predatory abuse committed by priests and bishops and the failure of bishops to expose and eradicate such sinful conduct. In the midst of this disastrous formula, we need to consider the role of the deacon as an important “check and balance” within the Church’s hierarchy.
The West, if I may paint in broad strokes, has lost its bearings as to the role of the deacon in the Church. Many view his ministry as superfluous liturgically, as he has only a few functions at Mass. As such, he is a kind of glorified altar boy. Many parishes see a deacon only when one is assigned there temporarily on his way to the priesthood. Subsequently, the diaconate is seen as a “steppingstone” to the more exalted priesthood. The deacon in the West is assigned tasks that he historically never fulfilled, such as witnessing at weddings outside of the Mass and conducting baptisms. Such a view of the role of the deacon has led to many orthodox-minded priests and bishops to question if we need deacons at all. But the role of the deacon, handed down to us from Scripture and Apostolic tradition, is absolutely vital to the governance of the Church.
The New Testament saw the ministry of the deacon as vital to the growth of the Church (see Acts 6). The first to witness to the faith with his blood was the deacon St. Stephen. The deacons were given over to protect and guard the treasures of the Church and to engage in acts of charity (see the life of St. Lawrence). Deacons were often sent by the bishop as an emissary and played major roles at Ecumenical Councils and in the formulation of Trinitarian and Christological dogmas (ex. St. Athanasius’ role at the Council of Nicaea).
The Church Fathers always spoke very highly of the role of the deacon. In his Letter to the Trallians, St. Ignatius of Antioch states:
It is fitting also that the deacons, as being [the ministers] of the mysteries of Jesus Christ, should in every respect be pleasing to all. For they are not ministers of meat and drink, but servants of the Church of God … In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as a commandment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the Sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church (my emphasis).
So, for Ignatius, the deacon is not a social worker. He is essential to the life of the local Church, for he represents an essential revelation, “a commandment” of Jesus Christ. The contribution of the diaconate to the building up of the early Christian Church is without question. Consequently, what role could the deacon play today to quell this present crisis?
In our contemporary crisis, the deacon ought to take up his mantle of emissary again. An emissary is a “go-between,” a link between two parties. The deacon is the link between the bishop and the parish priest. A deacon, assigned to a parish by the bishop, enjoys a unique and advantageous perspective that can be key to overcoming the sin of abuse. The deacon ought to serve as the “eyes” of the bishop for the parish, with a keen eye to report any financial or sexual abuses. He also ought to hold the bishop accountable for any reports of abuse. He can facilitate this “emissary role” because the deacon is not financially dependent on his parish nor the diocese. As a man with a “day job,” he has no financial ties to the Church. As such, he does not have to defend his position for selfish reasons.
Additionally, our deacons often come from professional backgrounds (lawyers, accountants, business, etc.) as such they are equipped with the skillset to approach situations of impropriety with the professionalism inherent to their secular careers. Finally, many of our deacons are family men with wives and children and as such, they have eyes trained to protect the vulnerable. The experience of the domestic Church is a powerful spiritual and biological training-ground for the creation of safe environments. For these reasons, the diaconate can be the perfect watchdog for the right governance of the Church.
Let me go a step further. I believe that the deacon, with his professional background, family experience and Christ-given call as “herald of the Gospel,” is the perfect candidate to step into many roles at the diocesan level. A deacon could be a chancellor, a CFO, a tribunal judge, the Vicar for Clergy, a vocation director or a parish administrator. In fact a deacon could fill almost any high-ranking position in the diocesan curia. He could also fulfill these roles at the Metropolitan level, the national level, and even in the Roman Curia. Not only are many deacons professionally qualified for such leadership roles but they also would bring the sacramental grace of their ordinations into their curial ministry.
Would we be seeing the corruption at the local and universal level if we had more deacons in key positions? I venture to speculate that much of the abuse crisis would have been thwarted if we had kept the balance of the traditional hierarchy of the Church intact, as St. Ignatius of Antioch had exhorted. It is time for the West to seriously reconsider the role of the deacon in the contemporary Church and admit that a full and robust restoration of the diaconate might just be a remedy to help in healing the current crisis.