Looking Back and Ahead: The theology behind the permanent diaconate
The Second Vatican Council’s restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order of ordained ministry represents both a retrieval from tradition and an opening up of the church to the world. In the sense that one of the council’s major tasks was to return to the sources of Christian tradition, specifically to the early church with its many diverse ministries, the permanent diaconate is a retrieval. Yet as William Ditewig has observed in The Emerging Diaconate, an indispensable book for anyone wanting to understand the state of the permanent diaconate in the United States, the diaconate envisioned by Vatican II “was never intended to recreate the patristic diaconate.” Rather, it was intended as an authentic updating of the tradition. The restoration of the diaconate marked a step toward a renewed theology of ordained ministry, which had become somewhat distorted and ossified over the four centuries since the Council of Trent.
Like the other major reforms of Vatican II, the initiative behind the restoration began much earlier. As a permanent order, the diaconate had gone into decline in the fourth century; it continued to diminish until the Middle Ages when it was reduced to an exclusively transitional order of ministry on the path to priesthood. The initiative for restoration of the diaconate is rooted in the Council of Trent, which called for a restoration of all orders of ministry, major and minor. While it is a stretch to assert that the bishops at Trent called for a full restoration of the permanent diaconate, they did seek a fuller expression of this ancient ministry. But no restoration took place. Instead, the diaconate remained a transitional order for another 400 years. Then in 1964, during deliberations on the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” (Lumen Gentium), the bishops of Vatican II expressed widespread approval for the restoration of the diaconate as a permanent order.
The modern impetus for the restoration can be traced to conversations among German Catholic clergy incarcerated in the prison camp at Dachau during World War II. They talked about the need to expand the ministry of the church to the whole of society, reaching beyond the walls of the sanctuary, behind which the church had retreated since the political upheavals of the 18th, 19th and nearly half of the 20th centuries. Deacons could help the church surmount anticlericalism and rebuild the church, enabling it to contribute to the rebuilding of European society.
After the war, those priests continued to meet and began including lay people in their meetings, forming what were known as deacon circles. These groups began to multiply rapidly in Germany and in other Western European countries, like France and Italy. The discussions expanded to include concerns like deacons playing a vital role in overcoming the estrangement of many Catholics from the church, especially those put off by an overly professionalized clergy. As catalysts, deacons would extend the church’s ministry, awakening the laity to respond to their own baptismal vocation. To accomplish these goals, they envisioned that most permanent deacons (though not all) would be married men who worked in secular occupations.
By the time Pope John XXIII convoked the Second Vatican Council, the movement had become international and well organized, but remained exclusively Western European. It set up an office in Rome before the council opened and began advocating the restoration of the permanent diaconate, even as the Roman Curia drafted schemas for consideration by council participants. This grassroots organization and effort is what allowed this proposal to receive an overwhelmingly positive response from Catholic bishops.
Celibacy No Longer Required
Two documents briefly tell the story of the restoration. First, a section of the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church” specifically calls for the restoration of the permanent diaconate (No. 29): “At the lower level of the hierarchy are deacons.” It goes on to cite an ancient document that describes the diaconate as sacramental in nature, being conferred “not unto priesthood, but unto a ministry of service,” thus, “strengthened by sacramental grace” deacons serve in the Eucharistic liturgy and in the ministries “of the word, and of charity to the people of God.” The council fathers concluded that “the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy.” With the consent of the pope, wrote the conciliar bishops, married men could be ordained deacons. Second, the “Decree on the Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite” (Orientalium Ecclesiarum, No. 17) calls for the restoration of the permanent diaconate in those churches of the Eastern Rite where it had disappeared.
The brevity of treatment in the council’s documents should not prevent us from recognizing the significance of the restoration of the permanent diaconate, which represents a return to the practice of the early church and the deconstruction of an outdated view of ministry that prevailed since Trent. It does this by no longer requiring celibacy as a condition for receiving holy orders. Although an article in Studia Canonica, published in 2005, opened a discussion about whether the 1983 Code of Canon Law requires married permanent deacons to live in continence, the current discipline of the church does not require deacons to give up having sexual relations with their wives. On the contrary, there is a growing body of literature that makes positive connections between the sacraments of matrimony and holy orders, both of which are sacraments at the service of the church’s communion.
On June 18, 1967, Pope Paul VI authorized the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate by national bishops’ conferences, after they received the approval of the Holy See. Acting on the council’s recommendation, Pope Paul permitted married men to be ordained permanent deacons. With authorization, even in the absence of governing norms, bishops began to establish formation programs for the purpose of preparing men for ordination as permanent deacons. By the mid-1970s, in the United States and in other parts of the world the first groups of permanent deacons were ordained. A vast majority were married men and fathers who made their living by working in secular occupations.
Four developments since Vatican II help to trace the evolution of the permanent diaconate in the United States:
• A new Code of Canon Law, necessitated by the council, was promulgated, given to the church by Pope John Paul II in 1983;
• The Holy See’s Congregation for Catholic Education issued Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons in 1998, 31 years after the restoration and more than 25 years after the first of the permanent deacons were ordained;
• That same year, the Congregation for the Clergy issued its Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons;
• A National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States was issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2005. It is now used by dioceses in this country for initial and ongoing formation of permanent deacons. In seeking to emphasize the unique identity of the permanent deacon, the National Directory states that ordination makes the deacon “a sacred minister and a member of the hierarchy.” Hence, the deacon possesses “a distinct identity and integrity in the Church that marks him as neither a lay person nor a priest; rather, the deacon is a cleric who is ordained to diakonia, namely, a service to God’s People in communion with the bishop and his body of priests” (No. 29).
Snapshot of a Diocese
Events in a diocese like mine are typical of the movement in the United States. The Diocese of Salt Lake City began forming men to be deacons almost immediately after the Holy See approved the request of the national conference of bishops. On Dec. 26, 1976, the feast of St. Stephen, Bishop Joseph Lennox Federal, who attended all the sessions of Vatican II, ordained 11 deacons. Since then, despite the lack of a seminary or even a Catholic college, the diocese has ordained seven additional classes of deacons, with another less than a year away from ordination.
The expectations for the first deacons in my diocese were not very clear. Like diocesan priests, deacons were assigned to parishes and served there, at first on a limited basis. With the tremendous growth in the number of Catholics and the concurrent decline in priestly vocations, the role of deacons began to become clearer. More and more deacons preached, baptized and witnessed marriages, besides preparing people for these sacraments. Our diocese was the first in the country to install a permanent deacon, Silvio Mayo, as diocesan chancellor, a position in which he continues to serve.
But such assignments remain the exception. For the most part, deacons serve in parishes, oftentimes as a kind of part-time associate pastor, a “mini-priest,” a cleric with limited faculties. Many argue that this relatively narrow scope keeps the diaconate from developing its proper ecclesial identity—which should include such ministries as outreach to the poor, to the sick and homebound and working with prisoners, as well as administrative roles in parishes, dioceses and Catholic institutions. In recent years, almost a third of the permanent deacons in the United States work in full-time ministry. This is a large increase over the very few who did so in the early years of the order’s restoration. This is largely a positive trend that is leading to the expansion of diaconal ministry to people who are often underserved.
The establishment of a restored and updated diaconate remains one of the most significant achievements of the Second Vatican Council. Yet more than 40 years after the council, a theology of this order of ministry in its updated form is still being worked out. In seeking to articulate a clearer theology, one must take care not to limit unduly or artificially the ministry of deacons, which by its very nature is dynamic, being rooted in the Spirit-given gifts of each deacon.
Deacon Owen Cummings, responding to Dr. Ditewig’s book, The Emerging Diaconate, wisely observed that “the permanent diaconate cannot make sense in the church until the entire church is diaconal in its life.” It is the task of deacons to bring about this transformation, because we are ordained not only to put our own gifts at the service of the church and the world, but also to foster the Spirit’s many gifts poured out on the people of God. Being configured to Christ in a particular way through ordination to service, the deacon leads by example, showing how service is integral to the baptismal vocation of every Christian.