QUAERITUR: When does the “clerical state” begin?

I got this question via e-mail:


In societies that use the 1962 Missal, when does a man become a cleric?  The current 1983 Code says they become a cleric at the diaconate.  Do societies like the FSSP and ICK have an indult?  I know they have an indult to continue the subdiaconate, but are the subdeacons clerics?

This is the old question of when the clerical state begins… and we are not talking about being hired out of Madame Ethel’s Secretarial and Finishing Academy… though.. well… best leave that one alone.

For this question, everything depends on the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

Canon 266.1: "A person becomes a cleric through the reception of the diaconate and is incardinated into the particular Church or personal prelature for whose services he has been advanced."

In the old days, under the old 1917 Code, the clerical state began when a man received his First Tonsure.  In fact, the tonsure was the sign of the clerical state and for a very long time all clerics had to maintain the tonsure, in the case of most priests a round spot shaved on the top of their head… assuming they had hair there, of course.  Some of us have pretty dramatic natural tonsures.   Religious would have their heads shaved with a small band, or crown of hair around their heads.

Keep in mind the difference between the "religious" state and the "clerical" state.  Men can be under vows in an order or institute of religious or consecrated life and not be a cleric.  Not all religious are clerics and not all clerics are religious.  "Cleric" refers more to a man who is incardinated, rather than under vows.

Historically, the clerical state was important for matters of jurisdiction in the case of prosecution (in some places clerics could not be tried in secular courts) and also who could have a "benefice", or a grant of the income deriving from property owned by the Church.

Until 1972 the four Minor Orders were clerics states, defined by the Council of Trent.  After a man was tonsured, he would be "ordained" (though these are not sacramental Holy Orders as some medieval theologians thought)

  • Porter or Ostiarius
  • Lector,
  • Exorcist
  • Acolyte

While these were orders for clerics, they did not require a promise or vow of lifelong celibacy.  That started with the next Order, Subdiaconate. 

The Major Orders were:

  • Subdeacon
  • Deacon
  • Priest

Paul VI suppressed the minor orders in 1972, requiring that candidates for the diaconate and priesthood be "installed" in the stable ministries of Lector and Acolyte, the Acolyte subsuming the tasks of the old Acolyte and the Subdeacon.

The traditionalist groups such as the FSSP and the ICK, as well as others, have permission to put their men through the paces of the Minor Orders.  However, none of these old orders makes a man a cleric.  They can cut all the hair they want, but only ordination as a deacon makes a man a cleric, under law.  So, in these traditional groups, we have to distinguish between their own internal customs, what they chose to do within their communities, and how the Church’s law sees the situation.

When the clerical state begins is very important for the Church’s laws.  The clerical state exacts certain duties and there are censures which are applied to clerics.  Also, the clerical state makes it possible to hold some offices in the Church.

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  1. Thanks for the clarity.

  2. Ioannes Andreades says:

    If those in minor orders or who are subdeacons are not clerics, what is their status vis-a-vis wearing of clerical garb, esp. cassock and surplice? I know many seminarians at regular diocesan seminaries wear cassocks, at least while serving at mass.

  3. Ken says:

    “their own internal customs”

    I wonder if the bishops and cardinals ordaining subdeacons at the invitation of the Institute and Fraternity agree that their action is a mere custom.

    And we wonder why the SSPX is suspicious?

  4. Dominic says:

    Dear Father,

    While I’m not contesting the accuracy of your statements, I do think that many traditionally minded groups would not agree to seeing the tonsure and conferring of minor orders as a ceremony without any juridical significance. You have raised, I think, an important topic that will need clarification in the light of Summorum Pontificum. Briefly put, I think that the issue remains very closely linked to the idea of being allowed to live the Church’s traditions in their fullest.

    A related topic / problem: cases of FSSP subdeacons who wished to be reduced to the lay state. There has been at least one case. I was told that Rome wouldn’t do it. Yikes! That means that we had the case of someone who felt he had undertaken a grave obligation of celibacy, and Rome wouldn’t recognize it. Would the answer from Rome today be better?

    If this is inaccurate, please correct me – this is hearsay.

    God bless.

  5. Fr. B. Pedersen says:

    In the Eastern Code of Canon Law in the various sui iuris churches there are indeed clerics in minor orders. So at least in part of the Catholic Church there are still minor clerics. One priest of the Fraternity noted to me that the traditional rites of the minor orders and subdiaconate are not empty rites, as if the Bishop who performs them does not mean what he is saying as he confers these ordinations. Otherwise there is the uncomfortable situation wherein a Bishop uses these rites, and says very many things and yet they have no sacramental meaning. The FSSP priest, Fr. Nolan, noted that the 1983 Code does not envision the current situation of the full law of the Church after Summorum Pontificum. But even prior to that he argued that a further distinction needed to be made between the rites as sacramentals and the rites as acts that establish jurisdiction, meaning both obligations and rights. Thus those who receive the minor orders receive the sacramentals (N.B. there is an important distinction between sacrament and sacramentals) of these rites, though they do not have any juridical framework in which to exercise these sacramentals. From the point of view of law in the history of the code were certain juridical rites to remuneration for clerics. From the point of the 1983 code the Clerical states and its obligations and benefits can only be considered conferred upon the entrance to the diaconate. But if we ask the question is a man who has been ordained a subdeacon a subdeacon, we can say yes, the man has received the grace of the sacramental since the rites of the Church can not be considered to be void in their effects. Now this does not impart in indelible mark, but clearly something must happen. Even a priest who used the former ritual without permission prior to the advent of Summorum Pontificum would still have accomplished a blessing even if in former days it was considered an illicit celebration of the sacramental without proper permission. This is of course no longer the case. Some of this still needs to be worked out, and we hope in such a way that it reestablishes this ancient practice in the Latin Church in its juridical framework as well as sacramental framework.

  6. Dominic: I do think that many traditionally minded groups would not agree to seeing the tonsure and conferring of minor orders as a ceremony without any juridical significance.

    It can have all the juridical significance any group wants it to have insofar as their internal ordering of their group is concerned. That is what I said above.

    For the Universal Church, however, until the Legislator changes the law, they can cut hair and go through minors all they want: they are not clerics in the Latin Church until they are ordained a deacon.

  7. Joe says:

    Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches 325: “by reason of sacred ordination clerics are distinguished as bishops, presbyters, and deacons.” 327: “If besides bishops, presbyters, or deacons, other ministers also, constituted in minor orders and generally called minor clerics, are admitted or instituted for the service of the people of God or to exercise functions of the sacred liturgy, they are governed only by the particular law of the proper Church sui iuris.” Here’s a cutoff point: in the Eastern Catholic Churches, in the Orthodox Churches, and in the Coptic Church, sub-deacons can marry, whereas clerics cannot.
    When Pope Paul VI eliminated the subdiaconate he said in his motu proprio that episcopal conferences could call acolytes sub-deacons if they wished, for pastora reasons etc. It seems that in his mind acolytes and sub-deacons were the same thing; I presume he did not think he was changing any ontological realities.

  8. I don’t understand why the minor orders were supressed, seeing as how there is a pretty long tradition with it, and it is something the Eastern Rites (and Eastern Orthodox) still have.
    I think if the pope were to re-establish them it would be yet another “brick” in uniting the Church and reinforcing the hermaneutic of continuity.
    And just on a psychological level, it would help seminarians having better defined steps in their formation.
    Just my 2 cents.

  9. Jrny says:

    I used to know a man who was a sub-deacon in the SSPX. He was never ordained a feacon, but was laicized per the SSPX’s leadership. Not that the SSPX exercises the proper jurisdiction here,but the fact that they, who would certainly recognize this man’s clerical state under the 1917 Code of Canon Law, granted permission for him to return to the lay state raises an interesting and relevant question vis-a-vis the FSSP sub-deacon’s case mentioned above.

    That being said, this sub-deacon in the SSPX, because he had already taken two vows – 1. Celibacy and 2) the vow to pray the Office daily, had to continue praying the Office and could not marry, both under pain of mortal sin.


  10. David Palm says:

    Dear Fr. Z.,

    So what is your view of the reestablishment of married, “permanent deacons”? What would you say to a family man who said he was called to the deaconate?

    God bless,


  11. Brian in Seattle says:

    My question in all this is a bit of a tangent:
    Can a layman serve as subdeacon in an Extraordinary High Mass? not being installed or ordained or whatever into that role, would his duties or vesture have to be altered in the High Mass?

  12. Brian: This is a tangent. Check this.

  13. Paul Madrid says:

    “Otherwise there is the uncomfortable situation wherein a Bishop uses these rites, and says very many things and yet they have no sacramental meaning.”

    Is it your position that subdiaconal ordination in 1962 was a sacrament? I would check up on that. I think that it was considered a sacramental, not a sacrament. As such, any present-day subdiaconal ordination would have the same meaning as a sacramental (not a sacrament) as it would in 1962; it just would not have the same legal consequences surrounding it. i.e. the man is blessed but canon law no longer grants the rights and obligations of the clerical state to a person so blessed, whereas in the past it would.

    Remember, clerical state is a juridical concept. Persons can be in holy orders and not be clerics (i.e. those who have been ordained and have the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state imposed on them). Similarly, persons have historically been in the clerical state and not been in holy orders (e.g. pre-1972 acolytes and subdeacons).

    David: if you are asking about the juridical significance of married deacons, they’re clerics. If you’re asking about the sacramental significance of deacons, they’re in Holy Orders. Neither depends on whether the deacon in question is married or not.

  14. Charles Collins says:

    As for the SSPX sub-deacon – I think even under the 1917 code, the obligation to recite the office
    was bound to the clerical state. If you were released from the
    clerical state, you were released from the obligation to recite
    the office. Celibacy, it is true, was reserved (and still is)
    to the Holy See for a specific dispensation, so I guess there is
    really nothings a SSPX member can do in that regard! In reality, of
    course, he is not bound to celibacy either, as explained in the
    other comments.

  15. JBD says:

    Fr. Z et al:
    Please note that most religious orders of men have in their constitutions that the member upon reception of the habit or first vows, have the right and privileges of clerics. So while they are not clerics, they may dress like them, and assume the proper obligations. I know this is true with the Congregation of the Oratory and the EBC. (sorry, English Benedictine Congregation)

  16. RBrown says:

    The present understanding of the clerical state is a puzzle to me. The CCC 1538 says that ordination to the clerical state (bishops, priests, deacons) confers a sacred power (sacra potestas). I know what sacred power is given to bishops and priests, but deacons are another matter. What is the sacra potestas given to a deacon?

  17. LCB says:

    Why did Paul VI suppressed the minor orders in 1972?

  18. Fr. B. Pedersen says:


    I included this in my comment: “thus those who receive the minor orders receive the sacramentals (N.B. there is an important distinction between sacrament and sacramentals) of these rites, though they do not have any juridical framework in which to exercise these sacramentals.”

    It would have been more precise for me to also say that the former major order of the sub-diaconate is likewise a sacramental and not a sacrament since there is no laying on of hands. That is at least what I meant to write. It was a quick post as I am in the middle of a transfer of assignments. The distinction in the Latin Church between major and minor orders I believe involved the obligation of celibacy for those in major orders. Thanks for asking me to clarify. If the sub-diaconate were considered an ontological reality upon a man being ordered to subdeaconship then it would hardly be possible even in the old days for any minor cleric to substitute for his role in Solemn Mass. The practice of using a straw subdeacon also brought some ritual difference as minor clerics were not allowed to wipe out the chalice, pour water into the chalice, or wear the maniple when they served as a straw subdeacon. This is because one of the original functions of the subdeacon was to care for the linens used in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Other minor clerics did not have the care of them so even if they substituted in Mass for them they did not wipe the chalice, etc…

  19. As per WDTPRS policy, I deleted a comment posted by “Anonymous”. I don’t allow “anonymous” comments on the blog. I invite him to re-submit his comment sometime.

  20. Dominic says:

    Thanks, Father.

    Do you think it would be a suitable subject of a request to the Holy Father to make the subdeaconate and tonsure a juridical reality once again, in line with the spirit of Summorum Pontificum?

    Otherwise, we will still have the risk of new young subdeacons in our various trad. orders who feel subjectively and gravely bound to celibacy, while Rome says no… Or am I misunderstanding the case?

  21. Paul Madrid says:

    Fr. Pedersen, I missed that in your post. My bad.

  22. Dominic: It is always possible to make a petition. Then we have to be satisfied with the answer.

    Men who are being made subdeacons in their traditional groups make a commitment to celibacy. But that commitment would not be canonically binding on them until they are ordained deacons, when I suppose they would have to make that promise again. Until then, I suppose that were they to quit seminary, before diaconate, they would have to treat that promise of celibacy as they would a “private vow/promise”, according to sound moral theology.

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