What are deacons really for?

dalmaticIt seems these days that I am writing fairly often about matters concerning deacons.

I was alerted to a post on the blog of the learnéd Anglican Fr. Hunwicke‘s site.

My emphases and comments:

I recently heard a immensely depressing sermon … I had better not say where or when, or friends will be cross with me … on what ‘diaconate’ means. Depressing: because (culpamus) it was woefully ignorant of current scholarly opinion; and because (ascendendo) it was equally ignorant of the Tradition of the Western Church; and, finally (laetamur), because, as happens more and more often nowadays, these two standards of which it was ignorant are convergent and, even, consistent.

In 1990, Mr John N. Collins published his DIAKONIA Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources (OUP). You can probably fiddle around with Google and discover that its conclusions, more than two decades later, have not been disturbed. If you have queries about details in what I am about to write, a reading of Collins will probably answer them; I am not going to summarise him at any greater length than one paragraph.

Collins began by identifying a particular understanding of diakonia which became fashionable in Protestant circles in the middle of the twentieth century; and then infected the Latin Church too. [Pay attention…] It saw diakonia as meaning self-giving service to the poor and needy. Based on a misreading of Acts 6, it appealed to Christians at a time when ecclesial structures were losing power and prestige. “OK”, it cheerfully claimed, “if you’ve lost your power and status you can still surreptitiously claw it back by asserting the moral high ground of humble service”. Collins demonstrated, from examination of profane and sacred Greek usage, that the word diakonia, and its cognates, have a quite different root sense: that of one person’s commissioned service to another person.

So the essence of the concept is not the following of Christ who came to ‘serve rather than to be served’. [NB:] The Deacon’s basic purpose is not to be washing the feet of the lowest of the low (just as the nature of the Church is not, as we have so frequently been told, to be the Servant Church). Such things may be worthy in themselves … may, indeed, be the charism of particular holy people. But they are not what diakonia is fundamentally all about.

What is it about? In its essence it is about serving, being commissioned to serve, the Bishop, the Eucharistic celebrant; about serving him in the administration of the Lord’s Body and Blood; serving him in the proclamation of the Holy Gospel. Not a philanthropic service but a cultic, liturgical service. In as far as their duties may extend in the direction of philanthropy, it is instructive to observe the role they have in ‘Hippolytus’: the deacons are to attend the Bishop and report to him who are sick so that he, if it seem good to him, may visit them. [!] Their ministry is to the Bishop, not to the needy. This role survives in the Anglican Ordinal: the deacons are “to search for the sick, poor, and impotent … to intimate their estates, names … unto the Curate”.

Of course, it is possible for offices to develop a bit over the centuries as we come to understand them more deeply.

More what Fr. Hunwicke wrote is certainly a good corrective.  And I am sure it will not be welcome in many circles.

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  1. Sandy says:

    This seems to me to be a good analysis of an overall problem in the Church – the horizontal vs. the vertical. For example, do you notice the “prayer of the faithful” petitions? I could gag when I hear some of them! Can’t we be reminded that the mission of the Church is to save souls, not create utopia on earth?! Why is everything about “peace and justice”? (Pardon the rant.)

  2. SonofMonica says:

    More what Fr. Hunwicke wrote is certainly a good corrective. And I am sure it will not be welcome in many circles.

    Understatement of the year. Much less welcome would be what Dr. Peters, canon lawyer, wrote (summary by his son): http://www.catholicvote.org/discuss/index.php?p=12987

    Can you imagine the uproar if the Western Church actually required permanent deacons to observe sexual continence with their wives, wear their dalmatics, and give cultic (as opposed to social) service to the Church? I think it would go beyond being simply unwelcome in some circles. I think the Church’s mainstream would go into meltdown.

  3. Fr. Basil says:

    \\Not a philanthropic service but a cultic, liturgical service.\\

    Is there any intrinsic conflict between these two parts of a Deacon’s ministry?

    The proclamation of the Gospel, giving the petitions for the faithful’s prayers (Eastern use), and assisting with the distribution of the Eucharist are the liturgical expressions of Deacon’s ministry to the sick, poor, and otherwise being the “eyes and ears of the Episkopos”.

  4. isnowhere says:

    SonofMonica said: “Can you imagine the uproar …. I think the Church’s mainstream would go into meltdown.”

    We would certainly have far fewer deacons!

  5. Katherine says:

    I agree with Father Basil. Maybe Fr. Hunwicke is itching for a fight, but I expect (and, in fact, have already experienced) the response to be a big ywan followed by an “okay, that’s interesting.

    Dr. Peters is another matter. He is setting himself for a major backfire. These deacons were all explicitedly called, formed and ordained with the knowledge and understanding that they were normal married men. And their wives were part of that formation. Dr. Peters is doing nothing other than creating a case of custom trumping the letter of canon law. I don’t think he wants to go there.

    But almost silly was the statement: There are not “two ways” of being a cleric in the Roman Catholic Church, instead, one sacrament unites them all, and carries the same obligations for all who are ordained as clerics.

    Deacon, guess what? There are not two ways, so expect to be invited to move into the rectory, come under the clergy health insurance plan and have the right to a benefice!

  6. Archicantor says:

    How nice to see the doughty Fr. Hunwicke quoted here!

    Dr. Peters does indeed make an interesting case. But if he persuades the right people, I suspect that the response will be to revise the CIC (or to issue a dispensation non obstante statuto) rather than to start enforcing his interpretation. Analogies with Eastern practice (which have been explicitly invoked in the application of Anglicanorum coetibus, namely in its refusal to countenance married bishops) would make Peters’s position practical nonsense, even if he is talking canonical sense. To my layman’s eye, his emphasis on the ideoque of Canon 277 (that all clerics are bound to continence and are therefore also required to be celibate, i.e. unmarried) is a two-edged sword. It seems to me that Canon 277 could just as easily have been phrased as follows: “The married state excludes perfect continence, therefore a cleric may not marry, since clerics are bound to continence.” If Peters is right, it may be a case of lazy legal language rather than lazy enforcement.

  7. dakota says:

    Katherine, I didn’t quite understand your post. Would you please elaborate on your statement, “Dr. Peters is doing nothing other than creating a case of custom trumping the letter of canon law?”

    It’s been my impression that both tradition and the CIC were in harmony on the point of diaconal continence.

  8. Seraphic Spouse says:

    I, for one, welcome an honest take on the diaconate. And I would love to know what percentage of deacons become priests if they outlive their wives, and what percentage apply for laicization under the same circumstances.

  9. frjim4321 says:

    I don’t think permanent deacons, if their wives die, are able to be ordained to the priesthood without a special indult. I do not think the indult is easily procured.

  10. worm says:

    I for one greatly appreciate Dr. Peter’s trying to bring this to light. I am no lawyer nor historian, but I don’t see that the text of the canon itself lends itself to any other “interpretation.” The letter of the law and the practice of the law are not in agreement and something should be done to fix that. My reading of his arguments from the history of clerical continence and celibacy are that he brings these up to support the idea that the intention of the words coincides with their literal meaning and that this was the intent of the writers of the law when written.

  11. Supertradmum says:

    The deacons in our diocese, which is horribly socialistic in its Social Justice Department and has been for years, even to the point of passing out pro-dem pamphlets at the last presidential election in the backs of churches and removing ones from Priests For Life against abortion, etc., are not involved with the poor. We lost our Catholic Charities office years ago and the state of the poor here and the position of those in the church, are to support socialistic governmental plans, rather than local charity. One deacon has been involved in a food pantry, which closed down owing to lack of donations. He worked with Protestant groups on this.

    I think the liturgical emphasis is excellent, but the deacons must be taught how to be involved in such liturgical rites. We have one deacon who is very good in this area and has helped some of the other deacons smarten up sloppy liturgical actions. However, no offense, the older deacons are very difficult to move to the right and the newer ones coming in are all liberals. I cannot imagine they are being asked to consider continence, as the teaching they receive is from a very radically liberal university. The entire formation of deacons needs to be reviewed and changed. It would be nice if their formation were more formalized across the United States and if they all had the same training-such as at one seminary, like St. Mary’s College, or Kenrick, for example.

  12. Oneros says:

    I have to totally agree with Fr Basil. The “two” roles of a deacon are not separable, proclaiming the Gospel, reading the prayers of the faithful, and ministering to the chalice at Mass…are the liturgical expression OF his “service” role in the world, where he evangelizes/catechizes, sees to the needs of the faithful, and brings the eucharist to the sick.

    The deacon is the servant of the bishop both inside and outside liturgy, but frankly history shows that the “outside” came first and was only later expressed in the liturgical role. Deacons are there to handle the practical and administrative needs of bishops so that bishops could concentrate on the purely spiritual. This is true in the world and in the liturgy.

    If priests (presbyters and bishops) are Icons of Christ the priest, then in some sense a deacon is the icon of the Church standing at the foot of the cross (hence his mediation between the people and the sanctuary, especially in Eastern liturgies, etc).

    This includes both his liturgical roles (I am reminded especially, by the deacon’s special connection to the chalice, of medieval images of Ecclesia holding the chalice and catching the Precious Blood at the foot of the cross) and the actual roles in the world. “Proclaiming the Gospel” in the liturgy is symbolic of proclaiming it in the world.

  13. Katherine says:

    Katherine, I didn’t quite understand your post. Would you please elaborate on your statement, “Dr. Peters is doing nothing other than creating a case of custom trumping the letter of canon law?”

    It’s been my impression that both tradition and the CIC were in harmony on the point of diaconal continence
    Yes, I used the term “custom” rather than “tradition.” If the plain words of a canon seem to conflict with, say, 500 years of consistent practice without objection from Pope or prelate, I think many of even the more “strict constructionist” canonist would accept a 500 year tradition/custom.

    From day one since the restoration of the diaconate as a stable ministry, it has been understood by candidates, their wives, and those responsible for their formation and ordination, that they are called to this ministry while living normal married lives. Even the Holy Father himself has joyously greeted children of deacons born after their father’s ordination.

    Dr. Peters is creating a set-up to have a practice of less than 40 years declared a “custom.” I rather not have that precedent, and I don’t think he would either.

  14. robtbrown says:

    frjim4321 says:

    I don’t think permanent deacons, if their wives die, are able to be ordained to the priesthood without a special indult. I do not think the indult is easily procured.

    I’m not sure that “indult” is the word you want. My understanding is that a transitional deacon has the right to priestly ordination unless the ordinary has good reason against it. A permanent deacon does not have the same right, but the ordinary can nevertheless decide to ordain him a priest, assuming certain criteria.

  15. Precentrix says:

    @FrJim –

    This is just head-scratching, but if a widower can be ordained a priest, why should his having previously been ordained to the diaconate count against him? Though it shouldn’t be considered ‘automatic’ as in the case of transitional deacons (despite knowing some who never went on to receive priestly ordiation) , why on earth would it be a problem?

  16. Mrs. M says:

    Seraphic Spouse,

    The priesthood and the diaconite are two different vocations. Men who are called to be deacons are not wanna be priests or men who would have become priests had they been single. My experience is that it is rare that a permanent deacon would become a priest upon the death of his wife. It happens, but not that often.

  17. Fr Deacon Daniel says:

    I actually think that the points in Father Hunwicke‘s article are well made. The problem as I see it is, as Father Basil alludes to and Oneros builds upon, with the perceived division between the philanthropic and the liturgical dimensions of ordained ministry. Such a divide does not exist in biblical, liturgical and patristic sources, in fact the opposite is assumed. And the charitable dimension of the diaconate is as well established as its liturgical dimension.

    As to the whole celibacy of deacons in the West question, Thomas Peters’ comment on the objection “But if Deacons can’t have sex they’ll all leave!” is fascinating:

    He writes: “We must recall that the Church is not in the numbers game.”

    Yes, and what is all this discussion for the past several decades regarding the shortage of priests about then? Is it only a numbers game when we discuss the presbyterate? Do numbers not matter at all when the diaconate is discussed?

    While I generally admire the work of both Thomas and his father, I can only scratch my head and wonder what they hope to accomplish by promoting this very provocative article by a well known and respected canonist especially as the Holy Father’s Anglican Ordinariate now seems to be gaining traction and building momentum.

    So to my mind it is not a matter of the substance of his argument per se, but of the prudential judgment exercised in deciding to publish and promote it so widely.

    If this in fact is such a pressing question, why not seek clarification discreetly through official channels? What could possibly be the motivation to publish far and wide this particular point at this auspicious moment, interjecting doubts which will unnecessarily plague the consciences of some and discourage the noble efforts of others?

    It is beyond any reasonable doubt that should the Latin Church attempt to enforce such a canon, it will effectively destroy the presence of the permanent diaconate within this particular sui juris Church and I would venture to say even the Holy Father’s initiative with the Anglican Ordinariate. If anything is to be learned from certain fiascos of Rome in the early 20th century and its attempt in North America to impose celibacy on Eastern Catholic Churches who have a longstanding tradition of married and not continent priests and deacons, people will vote with their feet and the Western Orthodox and continuing Anglican jurisdictions will experience large-scale growth as people jump Canterbury’s sinking ship. We have only to look at the OCA and ACROD to see the contemporary fruit of such nonsense.

    And I should also mention that the Orthodox Churches are watching as well to see how the West will treat its married clergy. Thus far, its treatment of Eastern Catholic clergy outside of traditional jurisdictions has been tragically instructive and unfortunately predictable.

    The effective destruction of the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church and the grinding halt of the AO movement are hardly concordant with the images of covenant renewal Dr. Peters attempts to evoke in his comparison of the “rediscovery” of this canonical mandate to continence in the Latin West and the rediscovery of divinely revealed law by King Josiah. And I can only hope by referencing it he is not attempting to make a ridiculous comparison between the sexual and idolatrous decadence of Israel and the need to somehow assuage God’s divine anger for the exercise of marital relations by married clergy and their wives, although his references to “sacrilege” seem to hint at this. Such a deliberate comparison would be offensive to the other sui juris Churches who have maintained the venerable, ancient, hallowed practices of married, non-continent clergy since the time of the primitive Church, as affirmed explicitly by the Council Fathers of Vatican II.

  18. Mrs. M says:

    This discussion is forgetting one, very important, factor – the wives. Being ordained a deacon doesn’t just affect the man, it also affects his wife. Deacon’s wives are asked to give up time with their husbands so that he can serve the Church, they aren’t asked to sacrifice and destroy their marriages.

    For continence to be possible the husband and wife would have to avoid all physical intimacy, even something as simple as snuggling on the coach, least it lead to something more. The only way to ensure continence is to have the couple live apart or rarely see each other. Few marriages could survive that.

    Is that what we want, a bunch of deacons with failed marriages? What kind of message would that send to the world about the importance of marriage?

  19. Seraphic Spouse says:

    Ah, yes. The WIVES. I think it nonsensical to tell deacons to stop sleeping with their wives, although I would be very interested to see the underpinnings of post 1962 thought on the diaconate. In what historical realities is the permanent diaconate of today rooted? What do they have in common with the permanent deacons of centuries long past? Certainly many married Christians of the early centuries agreed to continue their marriage in continence.

    Meanwhile, I have come across deacon’s wives with a sense of entitlement. One woman, who had taken the training courses alongside her husband for some unknown reason, demanded of me why, if her husband could be a deacon, SHE could not? And I once saw an astonishing liturgy on youtube when all the deacons of a diocese processed up the aisle with their wives right beside them. It was like an advertisment for “Married Clergy Now!” I felt very badly for the poor deacon at the end of the Noah’s Ark-like procession–no wife in sight. Was she ill? Was he a widower? Was he…. He certainly stood out. The average Roman Catholic might be forgiven for thinking marriage is a diaconate prequisite.

    It is my impression that in those Christian traditions that have long been familiar with married clergymen that the wives keep modestly with the rest of the congregation. I have never seen, for example, the wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury in any cultic function, or at all. At the ecumenical service in Westminster Abbey Benedict XVI recently attended, I watched it from beginning to end, and not once did a camera linger on the Mrs. Archbishop of Canterbury or any other Mrs. Clergyman.

    I applaud the fact that wives must give permission for their husbands to become deacons. (However, I know a woman who refused to do so, not because it might hurt her marriage, but because her sister could not become a priest.) Wives also must give permission for their husbands to abandon them completely to join religious orders. (Yes, this still happens today.) But what I wonder is why candidates for the deaconate are invited to take their wives with them to theology/ministry classes and why, in processions like the one I mentioned above, their wives are given what looks like a cultic role?

    As we live in times where there is a certain clericalism amongst liberals that says “Only clergy are first class Catholics; until women are allowed to be priests, they remain second-class”, it is onerous to see laypeople grasping at clerical “status” without an understanding of what the deaconate really is and making up a semi-demi-hemi clerical status for “deacons’ wives”.

    No offense meant towards perfectly decent permanent deacons and women married to deacons.

  20. Mrs. M says:

    Seraphic Spouse,

    Golly gee, maybe wives are invited to class so that they can have some idea of what the diaconite is all about and so that they can learn more about – if they are interested – Church teachings, scripture, and the other things that their husbands are learning.

    As for the u tube video that you mentioned, I’ve seen it too. Check the diocese that happened it. That should explain it. For you to dismiss the wives because of a stupid u tube video from a diocese that is known for liturgical abuses is a gross insult to every deacon wife and says more about you than it does about the wives. Your simple comment of “no offence is meant” isn’t good enough. Offence was taken.

  21. Katherine says:

    My understanding is that a transitional deacon has the right to priestly ordination

    NO ONE has a RIGHT to priestly ordination.

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