The Diaconate—History and Present Practice
JAMES MARTIN: Hi. I’m Father Jim Martin. I am editor-at-large at America Media and a Jesuit priest, and I am happy to welcome you to this Web series, “Deacons, Women and the Call to Serve.” It is sponsored by the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and America Media.
The current Vatican Commission that is exploring the possibility of women deacons has raised a number of questions about the role of deacons as ordained ministers who are neither priests nor lay people. Their actual role in parishes where they minister remains somewhat unclear to many Catholics.
So this Web series is going to look at a few questions with some really terrific experts: What are deacons? How has their role changed over history? Could women deacons revolutionize pastoral ministry and even transform the Church? How can the deaconate better meet the changing needs of the faithful today?
I am very happy to be with four distinguished panelists: Nancy Dallavalle, who is a theologian and vice president for mission and identity at Fairfield University in Connecticut; Deacon Greg Kandra, who is a blogger at Aleteia’s “The Deacon’s Bench” and multimedia editor at the Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA); Rita Ferrone is contributing editor at Commonweal magazine and a blogger at “Pray Tell;” George Demacopoulos is a theologian and co-director at the Fordham Orthodox Christian Studies Center.
The first question is an easy one — or maybe not — and I am going to turn it to Deacon Greg Kandra: What are deacons, Greg?
GREG KANDRA: Glad you asked. Well, a lot of people don’t realize that there are three levels of holy orders in the Catholic Church — deacon, priest, and bishop. A lot of people think, “Well, there are also monsignors, there are cardinals, etc.,” but it really just boils down to deacon, priest, and bishop.
The deacon is the lowest level of holy orders, and the deacon is ordained really to serve as a minister of the word. He proclaims the gospel at mass; he also preaches at mass; a minister of the sacrament — he witnesses marriages and does baptisms and occasionally presides at other functions; and he is a minister of charity. In the early days of the Church, in the Acts of the Apostles we hear about men being ordained as deacons to help distribute temporal goods to widows and orphans and to care for people who are challenged in those ways, and the deacon continues that today in the Church.
JAMES MARTIN: What is the history of the deaconate? How did it come to be, and maybe someone can trace it through 2000 years of Church history in a few minutes. Who would like to —
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Who’s going to bite on that one?
RITA FERRONE: Well, I would like to just make an observation to piggyback on what Greg has said. That is that we have always had deacons in the church, but one of the things that is very significant to this whole discussion is that after Vatican II it was decided to restore the permanent deaconate because being a deacon was always a stepping stone — it wasn’t always a stepping stone; it was — pardon me — in our more recent history, several centuries preceding Vatican II, it had become part of a cursus honorum, that you went through these different stages before you were ordained a priest. So we had deacons, but they were always “transitional” deacons as we would call them now.
What is new today is that we have not only transitional deacons but permanent deacons, and this is really related to a bigger question, which is deaconia, or the charisma of service, which is given to people by their baptism.
But in the realm of holy orders, the deaconate has a special place which — as you’ve described it so well — encompasses service and the word in a special way, so the imaging of Christ as servant is always to be present to the Church. But it is now the case that we have a new situation on the ground for us in terms of our recent history, having permanent deacons.
JAMES MARTIN: So there is this restoration of the permanent deaconate after the Second Vatican Council. What about beforehand? What was the history of deacons and what was the role of deacons beforehand? How did they get started and what were they doing up until the Second Vatican Council?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: In the early Church, whether you are talking Christian East or Christian West, you really did have a permanent deaconate. The deacons in the biblical period were very much in charge of service, but once the Church became more institutionalized — after the reign of Constantine where Christianity was legalized — deacons of a variety of forms took on a whole host of administrative roles within the Church: They served as secretaries; they served as property managers, what have you.
In fact, there was a period of time for about 200 years in the city of Rome — from approximately the year 400 until the year 600 — where you had a very sharp dividing line between the order of priests and the order of deacons. The election of a pope for that 200-year period typically alternated between the senior-most deacon and the senior-most priest, and you had a kind of rivalry between the two classes and the ordination.
Deacons had an enormous amount of influence in the Church. They helped to set policy; they would preach on behalf of the bishop or the pope, what have you; and historically they controlled the administration of the Church as well as its philanthropic arm.
JAMES MARTIN: Greg was talking about the liturgical roles of the deacons, but you’re saying that they also were administrators. Were the priests administrators at the time as well? Was there a kind of conflict of interest?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: No, much less so. Typically what would happen is at the time — we’ll get to the women in a minute — when a man was ordained to the deaconate there would be some kind of decision made: Was this person going to be on the administrative track or was this person going to be on the priestly track? If he was going to be on the priestly track, then the ordination to the deaconate would be very short-lived, and he would immediately go to the priestly track, at which point he would have a primarily pastoral and liturgical role.
If he was going to be on the permanent deaconate route, then he would be an administrator of sorts, whether it was the Church’s philanthropy or its administration.
JAMES MARTIN: What are the earliest roots of the deaconate? How early do we see that in the Church?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: We see it in scripture. One of the things is that women are part of this story from the beginning. We have Phoebe in the Letter to the Romans.
What I think is interesting, though, about what you’re saying, George, is that the ministry of the deacon is all over the place in the early Church, and it’s not because it’s confused; it’s simply because there are a number of offices that people are trying to fulfill; there are a number of things that need to be done.
What we see with these very scattered references to women in the early Church is that sometimes these are widows, sometimes these are holy women, sometimes these are actually women deacons, but they are doing a variety of jobs, and it is not a very well developed movement.
So when we turn to look at the past for this and we’re saying, “Were there women deacons?” the answer is, “Yes, there were,” but exactly what were they? What did they do? How did they function? And more importantly to my eyes is, “How are they received in the early Church?”
JAMES MARTIN: Who could describe for me, if you asked a Christian at the time — a Catholic later on — what a deacon does, say in the early Church, in the Middle Ages, in the Renaissance? Did their roles change significantly? Were there stages in the development of what a deacon would do, because certainly the way that Nancy and George are describing the deaconate as administrators and liturgical functions is not the way that we think of them later on. Can someone describe how those roles changed?
RITA FERRONE: The part that gets very complicated for us to look back on is that we can’t really consider what the deacon does without realizing that the role of the bishop has changed dramatically in between.
In the early Church, you would have had bishops doing many of the things that a pastor of a large parish would do today: All the sacraments of initiation; all of the things having to do with the administration of the local church; the local bishop was like the premier pastor. Deacons, being related to the bishop, didn’t mean that they were going around in a diocesan ministry with a hundred parishes. It meant that they were actually hands on, working closely together with the bishop who was pastoring people.
I think when you get to the Middle Ages — you can correct me with a bit more fine historical sense — you got the early Church with these small communities in which the bishop looms large and the deacons are very active, right? And then, in the Middle Ages the deaconate starts to be subsumed into a much more subdued role in the Church because the priesthood has become that much more important and the bishop is a distant character who shows up for confirmation or ordination. So that changes.
Then you institutionalize our sacramental theology in the Middle Ages with defining the seven sacraments at a time far distant from the founding of some of these orders in the clergy. So what you get is sometimes an institutionalized definition of, “Well, holy orders is this,” because that was what they knew at the time, in the 13th century, when they were making up these handbooks and making some determinations about boundaries — especially some of the determinations about what women can and can’t do, to follow up on your point, Nancy.
Then we come to today. We have a very different framework. We have more knowledge of history, but in some ways we are also trying to keep continuity with the past. That gives us the situation where, well, what is a deacon today? In a way, it can’t look the same as it looked in the time of St. John Chrysostom, much less how it looked, you know, for Dun Scotus.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: It helps to say that they don’t look the same today because the Church is not the same today. Sometimes we act as if the Church today has been simply the same throughout the centuries, and that is not true.
There is a way in which it is really important that we do our historical spadework on this question. But there’s going to be no sort of honest broker who stands between us and the past and says, “Here is what happened; here is what we can do; here is what we can’t do,” because we are a historically normative tradition. We are a living tradition and we inhabit this tradition, it seems to me.
GREG KANDRA: What you had to say about the relationship to the bishop is key because I have heard it described that the priest and the deacon are like the two arms of the bishop. Even now, the deacon is considered to be the eyes and ears of the bishop in the local parish. He is supposed to be in touch with the needs and concerns of the people and be able to try to meet those needs and address those needs to the bishop whenever possible.
RITA FERRONE: Is that really happening? Are we taking this off the subject?
JAMES MARTIN: Go ahead. It’s present practice as well, so, yeah.
RITA FERRONE: Okay. Well, you know, do you think that is really happening? My experience with the deaconate is that it has become very parish-based and not so close to the bishop, except in the sense that the bishop ordains and you take an oath of loyalty. But are you really the eyes and ears of the bishop? I should watch more carefully when I talk to my deacon friends so that it won’t get back to the bishop.
GREG KANDRA: The deacon has to reflect that back to his pastor, who serves for the bishop in the local community.
RITA FERRONE: So it is kind of mediated through the pastor?
GREG KANDRA: More so now, yeah.
JAMES MARTIN: Let me ask you something. The role of deacon has changed throughout Church history, as has the role of the priest and the bishop. What happens to the permanent deaconate? Where does that go? Does that get suppressed or does it just sort of fall away, and when did that happen?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: In the Orthodox Church it never went away. It certainly diminished. What has happened in the Orthodox Church is throughout the Middle Ages you certainly had a permanent deaconate that was so large actually that the Roman Emperor Justinian capped the number of deacons assigned to the Church of Hagia Sophia at 150 because they were paid from the imperial treasury and he was tired of paying for them. So you had a huge institution.
In the modern world, what has happened is you have retained a permanent deaconate, but only a very small one. So an archbishop might have two deacons who are career deacons or who might become priests at the time the archbishop resigns or passes away or what have you, but there will be a twenty-year or thirty-year lifespan in the deaconate, or a patriarch or what have you. You no longer have an office staff of fifty permanent deacons; you have an office staff of two or three.
So you have never lost it entirely in the Eastern Church, but it has certainly diminished from the Middle Ages.
JAMES MARTIN: In the West, though, the Latin rite in the Catholic Church, what happened to the deaconate that made it become a transitional role? What happened to make it less of a permanent function? Anyone know?
RITA FERRONE: Well, I have an idea about that, but it can be augmented by others who have studied this in various ways.
It seems to me that there was an abundance of clergy in the Middle Ages and that they were trying to organize things in such a way that it was going to work better for them in their particular situation. So the transitional deaconate — it was in the Middle Ages that the permanent deaconate really died out.
But in the medieval period, you are talking about people — they had so many clergy in so many different roles and so many orders of minor clergy that there would have been deacons around, but they were maybe on their way to being priests.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Actually let me —
RITA FERRONE: Please refine that.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Let me propose that I think, in the same way that we think about the changing nature of the deaconate be tied to his relationship to the bishop, the disappearance of a permanent deaconate is also tied to the changing role of the Church vis-à-vis the state.
In the early Middle Ages, when the state in many places was the Church, you needed administrators; you needed lifelong servants who were committed to the project. As the church’s relationship to the state, particularly in terms of providing social services, diminished with the rise of the nation-state, so too you simply no longer needed the same number of bodies. You still needed the sacraments, but you no longer needed the bodies to run an institution that was simply no longer as large.
JAMES MARTIN: Let’s look at the restoration of the deaconate in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. What happened to bring that to light? Were there arguments for that earlier or did it come upon the Council as a surprise?
GREG KANDRA: The interesting thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that there were discussions going all the way back to the 19th century about restoring the deaconate as a permanent and full and separate order. It really caught fire during World War II in one of the camps at Dachau, Der Priesterblock, where priests had been cloistered. They started having discussions amongst themselves about how to rebuild the world after World War II.
One of the ideas that they proposed and that they talked about was bringing back deacons who would live in the community and be responsive to the needs of the people in the community and be almost like worker-priests.
In the 1950s, someone who had been in the camp, a priest who had then become a bishop, approached Pope Pius with this idea. His response was very telling: He said, “It’s not time yet.” He wanted them to think about this a little bit more.
Lo and behold, the Second Vatican Council came along many years later. These guys who had been in the camps, many of whom had become bishops and leaders in the church, brought this forward, and here we are today. The time was right.
JAMES MARTIN: And how it was received, because for a lot of Catholics this would have been a new thing? Even if they didn’t fully appreciate the role before, it would have been something that was a surprise.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: I think it was of a piece with the liturgical sensibility that came out of the Second Vatican Council. So in some ways I think it made sense to people in terms of the full active conscious participation of the laity. They saw that as an extension of that into the clergy. In some ways I think they accepted it fairly well. People saw many things changing, so there was an openness.
JAMES MARTIN: So how do people think it was received?
RITA FERRONE: I can speak to the liturgical side of this a little bit. The emphasis that was placed on having a variety of ministries in the constitution of the sacred liturgy was actually quite new. It used to be that the priest had to perform or co-perform every action of the mass for validity, and now to say both that lay people and that these different ministries had an office in their own right, that was really firmly put forward at Vatican II. I think it made a lot of sense to people, that it was not simply a delegated aspect of the priest, but that there were differences of ministry and that it all contributes to a sense that we are doing this together; and celebration of the liturgy isn’t just a function of the priest and then maybe some of us help the priest, but that each different role has an integrity and that it is in the kind of symphonic connection of those things that you begin to see the beauty of the people of God gathered in all their array, in all their different offices.
JAMES MARTIN: It has been more than 50 years since Vatican II. How has it been received by people? Is it something that is part of the lived life of Catholics, at least in the West? What do you think, Greg?
GREG KANDRA: I think so. I think it has been received better by the people than by some of the clergy and the hierarchy. There are still some places that are resistant to it for one reason or another. But I think the people welcome the participation of deacons. I think they like having someone — many of us are married and have families — they like hearing that perspective and that point of view from the pulpit. They feel that we are somehow more relatable in many ways. We live among them, we work among them, they see us on the street all the time.
By and large, people have been very receptive and very positive about it. I have people all the time ask me, “How come you’re not a priest?” This is for another roundtable discussion some other time. But I think there is an openness to what we do and who we are.
RITA FERRONE: But I think in that there really lies a conundrum. I think this is a problem in the Church, actually, because we have accepted deacons with a deficient understanding of what and who they are, and that in some people’s minds it’s lovely because they are like junior priests or mini-priests or the surrogate priest — when father can’t come, the deacon does it. This is a problem because it is not a mature understanding of what the deaconate is, and it leads to complications too when we try to really understand it on its own two feet.
GREG KANDRA: One of the biggest misunderstandings people have, I think, is this impression that we have deacons because we don’t have enough priests.
RITA FERRONE: Exactly.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: It’s a stopgap.
RITA FERRONE: Right.
GREG KANDRA: And that deacons were somehow brought in to fill that gap.
RITA FERRONE: A surrogate, yeah.
GREG KANDRA: And it’s not that way at all.
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: Especially when you have a married deaconate and a celibate priesthood. That presumption sort of invites itself.
GREG KANDRA: And also there are some bishops who have this impression that they have enough priestly vocations — “We don’t need deacons” — which is a whole other problem. Again, they do not understand the nature of the vocation and what we are about.
RITA FERRONE: Is it different with the Orthodox Church because you have married clergy and married deacons?
GEORGE DEMACOPOULOS: It certainly is different in the sense that we do have married clergy and the vast majority of our priests are married. The way it works in the Orthodox Church, a deacon or a priest can be married as long as they are married before the ordination to the deaconate. Bishops are selected from the celibate clergy.
I think some of the warm receptivity that you have for the deaconate could be a kind of pastoral thing, where people feel a certain shared livelihood with a married deaconate. And so, in the Orthodox Church we do have that pastoral opportunity, if you want to call it that.
We do not really have a very active deaconate. It is certainly there, but we don’t really have an active one. In the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, they did start a program about ten years ago of a lay deaconate. Typical parishes do not have the resources to employ somebody full-time who is not a priest, so they allowed men to do a certain amount of training, maintain their jobs “in the world,” so to speak, but then take on a kind of deaconal role.
The ones that I have met who have done this I think are absolutely perfect. It is going really well. But it is a kind of slow step.
JAMES MARTIN: Nancy, how do you think the deaconate has been received and understood by the Catholic faithful?
NANCY DALLAVALLE: I think it has been received quite well. I think they really do function in the way that you describe. They are a more outgoing, more relatable aspect of clergy.
One thing that I think is important to keep in mind, though, is they serve the bishop. When we start thinking about women deacons the idea is a very open, “Oh, wow. Let’s consider having women deacons.” When you consider that deacons really are directly related to the bishop — you are there in service of the bishop; so it is a very specific role — and so I wonder if it is going to seem the same. We’ll get into this later I know, but I wonder if it is going to seem the same for the women who might be inclined to do that.
The deacons that I have seen relate very well. They are comfortable. They have their own livelihood. People are aware that they are volunteers in that sense, that they are not being paid, and I think that works pretty well.
GREG KANDRA: One of the interesting details about the ordination rite that is different from an ordination for a priest is that when deacons are ordained the bishop lays hands on them and that’s it. When you are ordained as a priest, other priests also lay hands on you, and that emphasizes and underscores the direct relationship that the deacon has only to the bishop.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: And it is a relationship of obedience, yes?
GREG KANDRA: That is the other thing that I think a lot of people haven’t quite wrapped their arms around —
NANCY DALLAVALLE: It’s not an easy world today, is it?
GREG KANDRA: — is that when you are ordained you do make a promise of obedient to a bishop.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: Yes.
RITA FERRONE: I think it is also worth noticing that there are many different dioceses that have different degrees of investment in the restoration of the deaconate. Some dioceses have a lot of deacons. Others have curtailed the number of deacons because they don’t feel there is the need. So obviously it has been received where it has been done, but I think it is worth noting that it has not been done everywhere.
One of the things that came to my attention through the Statement on Deaconate from the International Theological Commission is that worldwide that is also the case. Some countries where it was thought that they would be very interested in the deaconate — for example, some of the Global South — did not take advantage of it as much as people in the First World or more prosperous lands. So there is uneven implementation around the world.
GREG KANDRA: It is also worth noting that when they restored the deaconate they gave tremendous power to the bishops to determine how they wanted to do it and how they wanted their deacons formed and what kinds of people they wanted — whether or not you had a college degree; some people do require that; some don’t. Some do have strict restrictions on numbers. I know there are some dioceses that do not want to have more deacons than priests, so they keep a lid on it.
NANCY DALLAVALLE: But that is an interesting thing to note globally then. I mean, this really is a phenomenon of the industrial nation-church, yes? It is not that these things do not happen in other Catholic places around the world; it’s just that they might have much more well formed lay people who do this, or at least much more empowered lay people, who bring people together, conduct prayer services, who serve on the ground, as they do in Latin America.
We also have noted that sometimes when we have not had deacons religious orders have filled in. I mean, who is doing these functions has been handed around. This is functioning here now, but it might look different in other places in the world.
JAMES MARTIN: Well, that’s a good preview for our next segment, which will be on women deacons.
I want to thank our four panelists for speaking to us today about the deaconate, its history, and its present practice. For America magazine and for the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture, I want to thank you for joining us, and we will see you at our next segment.
JAMES MARTIN: Well, that is a good preview for our next segment, which will be on women deacons. I want to thank our four distinguished panelists today for talking to us about the deaconate, its history, and its present practice.
For Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture and America Media, I’m Father Jim Martin, and we will see you next time.