QUAERITUR: Wives of deacons aren’t deacons too, are they?

From a reader:

Over Mother’s Day weekend I attended mass at a church I do not usually attend. I noticed their bulletin listed a “Deaconite Couple.” Is that allowed? Women aren’t allowed to be deacons are they? This church is very progressive; they do not even have kneelers, which is why i question the validity of a couple filling the role of a deacon.

Deaconite?  Deaconite?

I know – and I fear – Kryptonite, but I have no knowledge of this ominous Dea-con-ite.  I don’t like the sound of it at all.

Is this stuff that makes my head nearly explode when I hear some permanent deacons preach?   Hmmmm….  I wonder if it comes in different colors.

A good book on women and the diaconate. Click to buy.

No, friend.  On your planet, women cannot now nor ever be in the future ordained deacons.  Not even the strengthening rays of your Earth’s yellow Sun can give Holy Church the power to ordain women.

There are some pretty strange things in some places when it comes to the permanent diaconate, however.  (I suspect the word you were after, friend, was “diaconate”.) I have seen goofiness galore, such as the parading of the permanent deacons’ wives into church during entrance processions and having them sit with the clergy.  Very strange.  A very bad idea.

At different points in history and in various places, the word “deaconess” has been used equivocally to indicate a certain ministry some women served.  They were not ordained as the men who were deacons were and are now ordained.

The diaconate can, under the right circumstances, be conferred also on married men.  On the men.  Couples are not ordained.  The deacons’ wives remain the deacons’ wives, no matter what good support they can give to their reverend husbands as they carry out their ministry.  Any blurring of that boundary is probably done from either a lack of understanding of what Holy Orders are about or perhaps a ideological bent that seeks to shift or avoid the Church’s teachings and disciplines.

All in all, I think a lot of the silliness that surrounded the permanent diaconate is fading out.  Programs of formation (where there are any) are getting better, longer, sounder.  Younger men interested in the permanent diaconate are not carrying aging-hippie baggage.   Fewer and fewer priests they have to work with have screwy notions about liturgy and doctrine.

A final note:

A deacon is a deacon is a deacon.

For those of you out there who send in questions about whether or not a permanent deacon can function as a deacon in a Solemn Mass in the older, Extraordinary Form…. YES.  What part of their being a deacon is not getting through?  They are no less deacons than transitional deacons (though there often can be quite a difference in training, which is understandable).  A permanent deacon is ordained.  A permanent deacon is a cleric.  They are not hobby priests.  A permanent deacon is a deacon and they are to do what deacons do.

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About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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49 Responses to QUAERITUR: Wives of deacons aren’t deacons too, are they?

  1. Bosco says:

    Deaconite? Time to turn off the night light and take flight…from that parish, that is.

  2. billy says:

    My parish had a reception for a deacon and his wife after his ordination, and a mass of thanksgiving in which one the intentions was for his wife….could this be what happened?

  3. Hughie says:

    My brother-in-law, John — a former Fire Brigade Officer — is a permanent Deacon. He is a far better man than many (probably most, but I am naturally biased) priests we have here in Scotland AND is prepared to do far more for far more people on far more occasions at far more inconvenience to himself and my big sister and with far less recognition than just about every priest I know here in the Diocese of Motherwell, Scotland.

  4. Jeannie_C says:

    We are blessed to have a number of Permanent Deacons, many of them married, in our diocese. I know one of the wives, a wonderful woman, who assists her husband in a practical manner, but never represents herself as anything other than his wife and fellow parishoner. In our diocese, wives of deacons go through some of the formation in terms of education and preparation for their husband’s ministry, but never for the role of “deaconess”.

    I have to say, some of our deacons give far better homilies than our priests. For all you priests and deacons out there, don’t assume because your parishoners are glassy-eyed they aren’t listening and taking it all in, unless of course you hear snoring. Breaking open the Word is as important as breaking the Bread.

  5. Jeannie_C says:

    Hughie – I have to admit, this has been our experience, too. With the exception of those who are retired from work, our deacons have weekday jobs in addition to their diocesan responsibilities. After working Monday to Friday, then assisting at an evening Mass, it was the deacon who came to the hospital to sit and pray with a parishoner and his wife in the ICU of our hospital.

  6. Priam1184 says:

    I guess, after reading the comments above, one’s view of the permanent diaconate is colored by one’s own experience and perhaps I should not be commenting on permanent deacons since the permanent deacon at my parish, after receiving the handoff from our pastor, closed the Mass this morning with these words: “This service is ended, let us go in peace”…

  7. Maltese says:

    What about dog-deacons, or male nuns? (:-)

  8. Amerikaner says:

    I think some confusion over permanent deacons and the Extraordinary Form Mass are because some E.F. priests have said discouraged permanent deacons from participating. I have been present at conversations were EF priests gave the strong impression that they only wanted transitional deacons instead of permanent deacons. As Fr. Z said, a deacon is a deacon is a deacon. I always wondered if the discouragement was some form of strange clericalism because the permanent deacons were married.

  9. I had never heard of anything like this, nor of deacons’ wives processing in with the clergy, but this is not surprising. This is the problem of married clergy: exactly how does the wife, who is an equal partner, one flesh, fit in? Take a look at how Protestant ministers wives so often become copastors, and look in the Catholic and Orthodox experience too. The term “Presbytera” is used among the Orthodox for the priests’ wife.

    Also, keep in mind that a married man seeking the diaconate has to gain his wife’s permission.

    Folks! This is why we don’t have married priests! You get a new set of problems for the ones you aim to fix.

  10. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Two quick questions:

    Wasn’t St. Francis of Assisi a deacon?
    There’s a hospital near where I grew up called Deaconess, I think.. Any ideas?

    Blessed Pentecost to all

  11. jbas says:

    I don’t see how the term itself is offensive or confusing, provided the wife is not wearing clerical attire or otherwise presenting herself as being a member of the clergy. I do, however, think more could be done to help not just laymen, but deacons and priests understand the purpose of this sacred order. Reading Lumen Gentium, Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem and later Vatican and national documents on the diaconate is essential.

  12. jbas says:

    Chris Garton-Zavesky,
    Yes; it’s probably of Protestant origin.

  13. Elizabeth D says:

    I have seen reference that shortly after Vatican II deacon candidates’ wives were routinely doing the diaconate courses together with their husbands, and that many fully had the expectation that later on they (the wives) would be ordained too. I would argue that if there is a situation where the wife has any kind of idea of that kind, the husband’s ordination should not go ahead. At the same time though, this is an argument that the wife’s correct theological formation does matter and must include a sound understanding of and ability to explain well to others why women cannot be ordained.

  14. ReginaMarie says:

    Diakonissa is a Greek title of honor used to refer to a deacon’s wife. It is derived from diakonos—the Greek word for deacon (literally, “server”). There does not currently seem to be any standard English equivalent, so most English-speaking Eastern Catholic or Orthodox Christians will use the title most common in the old country churches from which their local family or parish finds its origin.

    As Fr. Z indicated, there were terms used in the ancient church (Diakonissa) for the order of deaconess, a non-clerical(!!) order which saw to the care of women in the community.

    In Arabic, a deacon’s wife is called Shamassy (derived from Shamas, Arabic for “deacon”). Romanians use a derivative from the Greek term, Diaconita, as do Serbians, Djakonitsa. Other Slavic traditions generally use the same word for a deacon’s wife that is used for a priest’s wife, Matushka (Russian), Panimatushka (Ukrainian), etc.

  15. Speravi says:

    I love the “deacon is a deacon is a deacon” comment. Where there are efforts to treat deacons a lay clerics, and thus to create some goofy tertium quid…the reasonable response is to re-clericalize the clerics. It drives me nuts when I see permanent deacons sitting with their wives in lay clothes at Mass…any Mass (and it really irritates me if I see this in a Mass in which extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion are being used). When someone asks the bishop to ordain them and thus to change their state in life…their life should change. If a priest’s mom comes to Mass he doesn’t go dress in lay clothes and sit with her. If we believe permanent deacons are clerics, then they should simply be held to the same standard…otherwise we just create the very confusion that leads both to goofy stuff like treating the deacon’s wife like a clerical co-pilot or the mistake of thinking that permanent deacons are less deacons than transitional deacons.

  16. JabbaPapa says:

    The word “deaconess” has sometimes been used to refer to a deacon’s wife — this is a purely social honorific title, and it has no religious nor ecclesial validity whatsoever (except insofar as it may socially recognise the particular matrimonial vocation of that wife).

    It refers to tea and biscuits after Mass, not bread and wine during.

    It sounds more like some very mistaken use of confusing vocabulary than anything else, and the charitable attitude IMO would be to remember that errare humanum est.

  17. ronconte says:

    In the early Church, a deaconess was not necessarily the wife of a deacon. This was a formal role, non-ordained, in the Church, often given to older widows, to serve the needs of the Christian community. The wife of a deacon is not automatically a (non-ordained) deaconess.

    As to whether or not the Church possesses the authority to ordain women to the diaconate, this is currently an open question. The Magisterium infallibly teaches that Christ did not give His Church the authority to ordain women to the priesthood (or the episcopate, since a Bishop is a type of priest). But the Magisterium has not yet decided the question of women’s ordination to the diaconate.

  18. spencer says:

    As a permanent deacon (and I really tire of using ‘permanent’ for as Fr. Z says, ‘a deacon is a deacon is a deacon’) this kind of situation which leads to confusion amongst laypeople drives me nuts! I guess I’m one of those ‘younger’ deacons without the hippie baggage; in fact I am frequently chided by some priests of my diocese for being too ‘liturgically correct’ (as if that’s a bad thing). It is this type of thing, described by your reader dear Fr. Z, that results in alot of deacons having to explain over, and over, and over what a deacon is, what his sacramental authorities are, what his ministry is all about, and Who he is now configured to. My wife has no illusion as to which of us is ordained, and she has always been incredibly supportive of my vocation. I also am under no illusion that I am somehow superior because I am ordained and married. This is about being ‘set apart’ through a response to God’s call; and ‘set apart’ does not mean ‘better than’ – it simply means ‘different’. Yes there are those who get caught up in this ‘deaconess’ goofiness; but if you listen to their comments, quite often you will hear the words ‘power’ and ‘control’ enter into the conversation quite quickly. My response to God’s call to the diaconate does not represent a failed vocation to the priesthood; it IS a YES, a positive reply to God’s invitation to serve as a ‘new creation’ – as an ordained minister of Holy Mother Church; as a deacon.

  19. Giuseppe says:

    Just as a priest’s wife (those rare priests who have wives) is not a priest, so too a deacon’s wife is not a deacon.

  20. yatzer says:

    My Jewish friends in college referred to the rabbi’s wife as the “rebbetzin”. I expect the derivation is much the same as some of the Christian Orthodox titles, being a feminine form of the official title. It must happen all over, but given the current confusion in many places about who is who I think we would do well to avoid it.

  21. frjim4321 says:

    I’ve seen the “Deacon Couple” a few times.

    To me it’s very unhelpful and unHEALTHful because it implies reality that is not true.

    Even with Pope Francis I don’t see that we’ll be restoring the N.T. practice of women deacons in any of our lifetimes, and pretending that else is true will just lead to frustration for all parties.

  22. robtbrown says:

    spencer says:
    As a permanent deacon (and I really tire of using ‘permanent’

    If a permanent deacon later receives presbyteral orders, was he a permanent deacon.

  23. Muv says:

    Is the pretty half of a Deaconite couple a Deaconette?

  24. Chris Garton-Zavesky,

    Yes, as mentioned above, a hospital called “Deaconess Hospital” certainly Protestant, and most likely Lutheran. My mother was trained as an RN at Lutheran Deaconess Hospital in Chicago. I understand that some hospitals with that name have dropped the “Lutheran” part as they have secularized. In my mother’s day there were real Lutheran deaconesses who ran the hospital they were like a Catholic religious order except that you did not take vows and could leave at will. But while you were a deaconess you did not marry and lived in community under a deaconess superior. My mother almost because a Lutheran deaconess, but on the first evening of the novitiate they had a “chapter of faults” and had to publicly confess their sins. A little too much for my mom. She met a Catholic man while she was an army nurse in WWII and the rest was history . . .

  25. P.S. Celibacy was dropped as a requirement for Lutheran deaconesses in the 1970s, but many are still celibate.

  26. Giuseppe says:

    Boston’s Deaconess Hospital (now merged with Beth Israel) was a Methodist hospital.
    As a rule, any use of the word ‘deaconess’ in the past few hundred years = Protestant.
    And it still doesn’t mean wife of a deacon.
    Dear reader, was that church you don’t normally attend a Catholic one?

  27. Robt Brown:

    I dunno. Am I still a deacon? I think so.

  28. ray from mn says:

    Some time ago, I heard or read that one of the duties of a deaconess in the early years of the Church was to assist with the baptism of women when the sacrament was performed with full immersion, perhaps often naked.

  29. Random Friar says:

    Yes, St. Francis was indeed a deacon. It seems he wished to remain a lay brother, but the Church prevailed upon him that if he were to lead the Friars Minor, he should be a cleric.

    There are (or were) places where the deacons’ wives were, in effect, “ministering couples” and did a lot of their ministry together, save for the liturgical roles. It makes me uneasy to think of them as a “tandem” item, but having a deacon’s wife serve in the parish in whatever way she is capable is a mighty fine example, so long as there is no confusion of the two, or an attempt to clericalize them as a couple.

    But even as a couple, they could still provide valuable service together in marriage and baptism prep, for example, or in CCD, talks, etc.

  30. Hank Igitur says:

    April 1 has already passed by for this year, no?

  31. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    “Deaconite? Deaconite?”

    Must. Resist. Temptation. To. To. To…

    Anyway, for more on Fr. Z’s point, a deacon is a deacon is a deacon, see my article linked here: http://www.canonlaw.info/a_deacons5.htm

  32. Cantor says:

    We are blessed to have two permanent deacons in our parish and will have a third as of Friday. (Six new deacons will be ordained in the diocese.)

    I wonder if the term “Deaconite Couple” might be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the couple, recognizing that the wife’s commitment is every bit as important as the deacon’s. The writer admits to not being a regular at the parish, and nothing is mentioned about the wife performing anything inappropriate to her role in the Church.

    Perhaps somebody once said, “Oh look! It’s Deacon Bubba and all the little Deaconites” and it stuck. I might just try it out on our Deacon Tom next weekend!

  33. ReginaMarie says:

    Fr Martin Fox,
    True, the Church does not permit priests to be married…but the ordination of married men to the priesthood is a long-standing & legitimate tradition in the Eastern Catholic Churches.

  34. Regina:

    I realize that, and I did not mean to call that into question or even say anything against it. I was simply taking this opportunity to point out the difficulties inherent in having married priests. This is useful for those who are in the Roman Rite, and often have conversations about the virtues of allowing married priests.

  35. robtbrown says:

    Mighty, Mighty, Deaconite.

  36. ReginaMarie says:

    Fr. Martin,
    True. Thank you. My prayer is that the Church continue with the venerable & valuable tradition of the celibate priesthood in the West & the venerable & valuable tradition of (some, though not many here ins the US) married priests in the East. Two lungs, East & West…we complement & complete each other. :) Blessed Pentecost!

  37. Hank Igitur says:

    Some EF priests won’t allow married men to serve on the altar at all, even though it was approved by Trent and more recently affirmed by PCED. That would include married deacons and institituted acolytes.

  38. BLB Oregon says:

    Our new archbishop, while he was bishop of Marquette, was very articulate about the nature of the diaconate. http://www.upcatholic.org/WebProject.asp?CodeId=7.6.6.1&BookCode=20110617&SectionIndex=0&PageIndex=2

    Very obviously a man whose life revolves around the charitable work of the Church has to have a wife who is fully on-board with that. Of course a bishop has to ascertain whether it is in the interest of the marriage for a married man to be ordained to the diaconate, and of course the diocese owes a debt of gratitude to a married woman who is generous enough to dedicate the one life she shares with her husband to such a demanding work. And of course, like the Apostles themselves, the priests of our time can fulfill their ministry better if they can share the good works they must see are done on behalf of all the faithful with faithful and dedicated deacons, as the Apostles did. The wives of deacons I know do not see their husbands as priests! (The truth is, some of the strongest opponents of a married priesthood are the wives of the deacons. They all say, “I don’t know how we could do it, if he were the pastor. No, thank you.”

    We have one of the best deacons there are in our parish, he lives what Archbishop Sample has described a deacon ought to do, I have heard other deacons in our diocese say that he is an example of what a deacon ought to be, and if that is what we have to look forward to for the diaconate in this diocese, it can only be a good thing.

  39. Cathy says:

    I do get concerned when deacon’s wives are hired and paid in a professional capacity by the parish in which the deacon is assigned, especially when the assignment is as critical as the religious education of youth. How easy is it to criticize or fire the deacon’s wife? I also don’t understand, why, with the many deacons in my own parish, we still have so many EMHC’s. I thought one of the major reasons for the permanent diaconate was to alleviate the impact of the priest shortage in regards to reasonable time for the distribution of the Holy Eucharist. It just seems to me that the time necessary to have all the EMHC’s receive Holy Communion, and what seems to be a mandated discipline within the parish that the Body and Blood under both Species be offered in every distribution area at every Holy Sacrifice of the Mass reflects something very different than a concern for time restraint. It really seems to reflect something that Pope Francis considers a great harm, the temptation to clericalize the laity. I don’t understand the call for “lay ecclesial ministers”, is this something unique to our country?

  40. William Tighe says:

    St. Francis of Assisi was ordained to the diaconate by Popr Innocent III in or around 1210.

    Note that I used the word “diaconate,” which is the only correct one in English — not, in other words this strange novel “illiterateism” (which I have never seen before now) “deaconite,” but also not the older and more widespread “deaconate” which one sees with greater frwquency.

  41. Dr. Edward Peters says:

    Hanc Igitur:”Some EF priests won’t allow married men to serve on the altar at all…”

    Really?

  42. Cazienza says:

    “Deaconess” hospitals are not invariably those with a Protestant background; in a city where I used to live, a building which housed a hospital run by a Catholic nursing order still has the words “Roman Catholic Deaconess Hospital” in the brickwork.

  43. Hank Igitur says:

    Dr EP

    Yes, only potential candidates for priesthood who are single

  44. Jim R says:

    “A deacon is a deacon is a deacon.”

    Oh my! Are we now mimicking Gertrude Stein on WDTPRS?

    “Rose is a rose is a rose” is probably the most used Stein quote in English. Next thing you know the entire blog will be filled with allusions to Alice B. Toklas. The gay agenda is well hidden and everywhere. LOL

    Reminds me of conservatives using “Two steps forward, one step back” not realizing it comes from Lenin.

  45. Mr. P. says:

    Father, are there specialized training programs for permanent deacons to learn both the theology and liturgical role of a deacon in the TLM? Or would one simply approach the pastor at a parish w/TLM for training/permission?

    I’m at the latter part of my diaconate formation and am repelled by the hippie theology stuff. I find that EVERY time I attend the TLM there is great interior peace in my soul that I cannot explain compared to when I attend the Novus Ordo which is what I grew up with.

    Also, I could be wrong, and I hope I am, but my impression among the TLM community is that they would not be welcoming of permanent deacons at TLM since (a) this was not the intent of St. Pius V or Trent and was a restoration at Vatican II and (b) the TLM culture is that there is an emphasis more on priestly vocations as opposed to recruiting more permanent deacons. Your article/blog, however, caused a shift in my thinking on this impression though.

    Thank you.

  46. Mr. P. says:

    I just saw your permanent deacon tag above and will try to get caught up about what you’ve written about this subject. (I’m a new fan of yours.)

  47. Norah says:

    Jeannie_C said: Breaking open the Word is as important as breaking the Bread.

    Is that correct? If so could someone give a Church document link please.

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