ASK FATHER: Should I be a permanent deacon?

From a reader…

QUAERITUR:

Dear Father,

I am in my early/mid 30s, married with two children. I am considering the permanent diaconate- Our diocese is one where priests are overworked; at my grandmother’s funeral, no priest was available for the cemetery, but we were able to contact a deacon who, thankfully, was available. I believe I could be useful as a deacon, but hesitate because my wife and I are are still interested in future children and Ed Peters has a good argument for a continent diaconate (though the semi-official Vatican reply seems to reject this). Orthodox advice on this point is hard to come by and I wonder if I could trouble you for yours, even in brief.

Here is the response of my friend Fr. Tim Ferguson:

Should you pursue the permanent diaconate? Hmm, I suppose it really depends on one question: is God calling you to the diaconate? Of course, that’s a question that can only, truly be answered through discernment – both by you and by the bishop who may ordain you.
But, since you asked me, I suppose that laying out some ideas by way of advice is warranted.

Dr. Peters does indeed provide solid canonical reasoning supporting the tradition that all clerics are obliged to observe perpetual continence – and that the law currently in force does not exempt married deacons or priests from that obligation. While many in the hierarchy have chosen to ignore his arguments and look the other way, there has not been a serious counter-argument launched. The reply from Cardinal Coccopalmerio given in 2011 contains several points which have handily responded to by the selfsame Dr. Peters (HERE). Barring some further clarification, it seems clear to me that married clerics are still indeed bound by the obligation to observe perfect and perpetual continence.
Memorandum on Abp. Coccopalmerio’s second letter on Canon … HERE

If were in your shoes, and more children were being contemplated, I would delay pursuing the idea of the diaconate until such time as I could commit myself to a life of perfect and perpetual continence – and I would make sure that my wife was in agreement with this plan.

In the meantime, I would certainly pray for priestly vocations, so that the situation you describe with your grandmother’s funeral is not repeated. Deacons are not substitutes for priests – deacons have their own worth and dignity. Perhaps, if your pursuit of the diaconate is out of consideration, at least for the next several years, there are other ways you could help. Getting involved in the parish, offering what skills and talents (helping out in the office, unlocking/locking the church, visiting the sick and homebound, pulling weeds in the garden, sanding and staining the pews, manning the barricades, cleaning and sorting the parish arsenal, installing the priest hole and escape hatch – oh wait, the election turned out slightly differently than expected, didn’t it?) you have to the priest can perhaps alleviate many of his administrative burdens and allow him to spend more time and energy on those sacramental and pastoral areas where he, in virtue of his ordination, is uniquely capable.

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26 Responses to ASK FATHER: Should I be a permanent deacon?

  1. bsjy says:

    Father,
    Setting aside the continence point because I think the custom now is chastity to celibacy in the event of a wife’s early death (our permanent deacons do not make a vow of chastity at their ordination unless unmarried), I would suggest to the young man he inquire about the formation program in his diocese. I am in my last year of our diocese’s 5-year formation program and heading toward possible ordination early next year. Having children younger than high-school age is something to consider seriously, as the formation program demands most of your non-work time. One priest said of his own discernment process he was called to the seminary where he would discover whether or not he was called to the priesthood. I think that same graduation applies to the permanent diaconate.

  2. jhayes says:

    Dr Peters pointed out that no existing Permanent Deacons (and presumably Ordinariate or Anglican Indult priests) are bound to continence because they were never notified of such an obligation and accepted it when they were ordained. Presumably that would apply to clerics ordained in the future who are not notified of such an obligation and accept it. .

    Strictly speaking, no one argues that married permanent deacons “are” bound by perfect and perpetual continence; rather, the question is whether canon law obliges all Western clerics, even those married, to perfect and perpetual continence. I grant that the distinction is subtle, but it is very important.
    Even if, as Canon 277 expressly states, and as I and others argue, all clerics in the West are canonically bound to perfect and perpetual continence, precisely insofar as the obligation of continence imposed by canon law is canonical, it binds married clerics and their wives only in accord with canon law.
    Now, because virtually no married permanent deacons or their wives were ever informed of the obligations (that I and others argue are) imposed by Canon 277, they could not have consented to the surrender their marital rights; therefore, in accord with natural law and canonical equity, married deacons and their wives are not bound to observe perfect and perpetual continence—at this time, certainly, and (depending on some others factors) perhaps ever. It’s a point I’ve made a several times, but which is routinely missed particularly in the uncontrolled milieu of the internet.

    http://www.canonlaw.info/PDF-Coccopalmerio%202.pdf

  3. jhayes says:

    “are bound” in line 2 should have been “are not bound”

  4. Moro says:

    Although, I’m single, I’m about the questioner’s age and have also considered the permanent diaconate. I think Fr. Finigan’s [?!?] advice is very sound. Getting involved in tasks in the parish is key to determine if you might be called to the diaconate. Some parishioners are wonderful amazing people to deal with, others are a royal pain in the neck and you have to see where you fit. Also, depending upon your diocese, parish needs, and secular job your ministry may be more weekend sacraments and preaching rather than parish administration. You could also end up in your chancery. It depends upon a lot of things and the more you get a sense of what you are good at or are capable of doing in your parish, the more fruitful your discernment.

  5. Fr. Timothy Ferguson says:

    I’ve been promoted! To be confused with the eminent Fr. Finigan is high praise indeed!

  6. mharden says:

    I was ordained as a permanent deacon in 2014. The initial advice from Fr Ferguson was spot on: “Hmm, I suppose it really depends on one question: is God calling you to the diaconate?” Discernment is not “do I want to be a deacon?” but rather “does God want me to become a deacon?” and that discernment is not only by yourself, but by the church.

    Practically speaking, having young children at home is an issue. In our archdiocese, the wives were expected to attend along with us, every class and every weekend retreat (two per month). If there are no babysitting alternatives, that’s an issue. In fact, for awhile, they would not accept anyone with children below 15 years of age (since relaxed on an exception basis). But make sure your wife is on board, because you guys will be a team, not just during formation but in your vocation after ordination.

  7. Fr. Kelly says:

    Fr. Gary Selin of Denver has written a good study of this in a book entitled _Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations_ (It is available at Amazon here: http://www.amazon.com/Priestly-Celibacy-Theological-Gary-Selin-ebook/dp/B01G4GBW64/ref=sr_1_9?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1478728225&sr=1-9&keywords=selin)

    While he is specifically addressing priestly celibacy, His argument applies to all the ordained. Essentially it is that all clerics are bound to Perfect continence and perpetual continence is a necessary consequence.

    Judging from the reasons cited, it seems that this readers reasons for wanting to be a deacon are not specifically those which would call for ordination to the diaconate. Much of the work typically done by permanent deacons, including that of presiding at a graveside service, can be done — with the appropriate permission — by an acolyte. And an acolyte is not bound to continence or celibacy.

    If your diocese does not have a program in place for the institution of permanent acolytes, (and very few do) you could approach your bishop about starting up such a program. Paul VI’s document _Ministeria Quaedam_ defines and governs the reception in a permanent and stable way of ministries of lector and acolyte as well as of the order of deacon.

    In my own diocese, where we have many small rural parishes, we have found that the men who have been installed into the ministries of acolyte and lector in a permanent way are an invaluable help in the administration of our parishes. I cannot say enough in gratitude to our permanent acolytes and lectors.

  8. Cincinnati Priest says:

    From the perspective of a pastor: one important question in addition to the question of permanent continence, is availability.

    I have known several pastors in the diocese who are frustrated with the availability of permanent deacons as they try to balance their obligations to the family and to the parish where they are serving.
    Just hypothetical examples — “sorry, Fr., I can’t do Communion Calls this week because my son (grandson) has an important soccer game or my mother is celebrating her 80th birthday. You’re on your own this time.”

    If you don’t think that you would be *regularly* available to help the pastor of your parish (or bishop) then it is probably not worth his investment in training and working with you.

    That is one of the problems with living as non-celibate life as clergy: these conflicts will be almost inevitable, and you will be divided between these commitments.

    If you think that you will be helpful and can balance these successfully, that is a positive sign.

    But you have to remember, the call is not for *you* it is for the good of the Church.

    Having said that, a permanent deacon willing to make sacrifices from his family life can be very helpful. Almost goes without saying that your wife would have to be fully on board with your frequent absence from family life to serve the Church in order to make it happen.

  9. Supertradmum says:

    Several points….first, thank you, Father Z for this posting. The subject of permanent deacons has been a “sore point” in my experience owing to several problems…1) the acceptance of men and their wives who have chosen this call as a nice way to be more Catholic and not as a true vocation; 2) the abysmal theological and philosophical training, if at all, causing a plethora of deacons (and their wives who also take some of the classes) holding heretical ideas and speaking such from the pulpit (the deacons, of course); three, the lack of decorum among some, including the use of expletives, coarse language, lack of professionalism and gentility– sorry, but this is true; 4) the lack of understanding of what a deacon actually should be doing, that is, serving the parish, serving the priest, serving the poor, the widow, the congregation, etc. and not merely being administrators–the holiest deacon I know worked for years in the food bank, and was a loving witness to God in a humble manner; 5) the teaching that women priests and contraception are OK…yes, have heard this from the mouth of deacons and their wives; 6) the support of ssm–I know this sounds unbelievable, but sadly true; 7) no discernment process, as noted above, but the acceptance of those who come forward being accepted carte blanche.

    I suppose this varies diocese to diocese and bishop to bishop.

  10. Michael_Thoma says:

    Supertradmum,
    I agree that no one who holds those views should be ordained. However, these issues are most persistent among the professed celibate priests, those formed in liberal seminaries and with liberal professors.

    As an Easterner, I’ve interacted with both married and celibate clergy. In my estimation the celibates are much more of a mixed bag. The married clergy I know are well rounded, ferociously Traditional, raise (for the most part) serious future leader children, and have exceptional spouses that are involved to help.

  11. Lucas Whittaker says:

    The question of continence in the married life, including for permanent deacons, is an important one. I spoke about this subject with my spiritual director a few years ago. His reply was simple and straightforward: “Many married couples are called to ‘that’ life.” The primary goal of marriage is to help your spouse get to heaven, of which the conjugal act is only a pale foretaste. If a person is interested in pondering this question, I recommend Dr. Peter Brown’s “The Body And Society”. Peter Brown (a fellow Catholic, classicist, and erudite historian of late antique Mediterranean civilization) brings together translations of widely-scattered and recondite texts in order to give a “due measure of warm, red blood” to ideas (i.e.: virginity, celibacy, and continence) that “have come to carry with them icy overtones” (quotes are from the book itself). Peter Brown is a respected Catholic author. Often known for his biography of St. Augustine. I believe that his book could be useful as you (and your wife) discern God’s calling for your life: especially since not only the subject matter of the book, but also–importantly–the diaconate, essentially require the support and cooperation of both spouses. Dominus sit in corde tuo.

  12. a catechist says:

    Well, with all due respect to Dr. Peters, no bishop has endorsed his position to make that interpretation binding in his diocese. Nor, to my knowledge, has any bishop or group of bishops petitioned to have the law changed to clearly express Dr. Peters’ opinion. And the Ordinary of your diocese, to whom every deacon promises obedience, is the interpreter of canon law in his own diocese. So it bears considering very carefully whether you should accept the interpretation of a canonist over the interpretation of your own bishop, should he call you to ordination.

  13. TrueDevotions says:

    I believe that the active promotion of the ‘non continent’ permanent diaconate, as a measure to tackle the shortage of priestly vocations is a mistake. In the same way that allowing altar girls has resulted in a shortage of altar boys, I believe that increasing numbers of non continent deacons, will result in a reduction of men choosing to live the continent life of priesthood. Human nature is fallen and as a result we have a tendency towards choosing the easier option. The shortage of priestly vocations is due to the lowering of respect for virginity and an ignoring of Church teaching that the state of consecrated virginity is far higher than the married state. Ironically this also negatively affects marriage. If you want to promote marriage then you must begin by defending and promoting virginity. One of those lovely paradoxes so beloved by Our Lord.

  14. robtbrown says:

    a catechist,

    It didn’t seem to me that the prospective deacon was asking whether celibacy would be binding, but rather whether it was a good that he should embrace.

    When the philosopher Jacques and Raissa Maritain decided they should be celibate, they asked their Dominican advisor Fr Clerissac. His reply was that he would not tell them to be celibate, nor would he tell them not to be celibate.

    IMHO, it is not a good idea that a man in his early 30’s with young become a permanent deacon unless he has so much money that he does not need to work. The demands of a profession combined with the needs of a young family is already a sizable load.

  15. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Even if a discipline is not currently being imposed on deacons and their wives, it is probably beneficial for the historical discipline to be known by deacons and their wives (and it would probably be meritorious for that discipline to be adopted, even in part). But at least they should have the idea in their heads, so they can know where they are.

    And actually, it would be good for most married Catholics to know more about the historical norms of matrimonial continence. I’ve heard people say extremely silly things about NFP, because they are under the impression that the Church teaches that all married people must have sex all the time. They are stunned to find out that historically and both in East and West, the Church often obliged married couples to be continent during all the fasting seasons and days of the year, as well as on certain days of the week. I don’t know why the discipline changed in the West, or whether it happened at the end of the Middle Ages or the beginning of modern times. But just knowing that times of continence were once part of fasting for married couples is something that explains a lot to people (like why you don’t get married in Lent or Advent, those being fasting seasons).

    So similarly, I bet there are lots of diaconate things that make more sense in the light of historical married-clergy continence, or at least married-clergy continence before helping out with Mass.

  16. Matthias1 says:

    Father Ferguson and Fr. Z,

    Thank you for taking my question and offering advice on the issue. Re: a couple commentators who have speculated on my reasons and observed that one “discerns a vocation” rather than “decides to be” a deacon, I’d just like to point out that I was deliberately very brief in asking the question and so sacrificed some detail and precision for brevity. (FYI, the alternate to the permanent deacon was to have the lay female parish “Outreach Director” come to the graveside, lead the service, and “bless” the grave- deus avertit).

    My main question was the best assessment of where things stand on the question of whether permanent deacons are bound to perpetual continence. One commentator observes that no bishop has ever made this binding, but my concern is what the law requires, not whether or not it has been treated with laxity.

    Theologically, one thing I have wondered is if there is a difference between priests and permanent deacons on the grounds that a priest stands in the place of Christ, the bridegroom in relation to the Church and so priests almost have to be celibate, but a deacon does not stand in the place of Christ A priest is, sort of, married to the Church, a deacon isn’t (?). Even if this were true, though, the Church would still have the authority, under the law, to require continence. A legal question is that 277.2 holds that clerics should behave with prudence towards persons “whose company can endanger their obligation to observe continence or give rise to scandal among the faithful.” This seems more like it is meant to apply to those vowed to celibacy- ie, priest avoid scandal. But applied to deacons would it imply that a deacon is obligated to avoid or limit the company of his wife? If so, that would be implausible, and might imply that the text was written with priests and transitional deacons in mind.

    At any rate, my intention is to take Fr. Ferguson’s advice: the plain text of 277 seems to support that view and I’d need much more certainty to put that aside. So, again, thank you very much for taking the time to offer some insight on this question.

  17. Suburbanbanshee says:

    Actually, I just did find out something about my lay matrimonial rabbit hole. It was a discipline during the Middle Ages, it got softened in the West over the course of the Middle Ages, but it was still common devotional practice even in the 1600’s. And then the Jansenists started preaching that it was required by divine law, which of course was a theological error. Since nobody wanted to look like a Jansenist if they weren’t, priests and laypeople in affected areas stopped talking about it as a praiseworthy or ancient practice.

    But there was a guy who did a study of baptismal records in France, and he found out that even the Huguenots and the mothers of illegitimate children had a dramatic drop in babies born nine months after Lent. So it was a thing until quite recently in Catholic history.

  18. Deacon RobertB says:

    Deacons are not priests or mini-priests, nor should we wish to be. It is a different vocation and a different ministry with which the Church herself still struggles to define in many ways. The reception of one Sacrament does not negate, suppress, nor supersede another. My call first to the Sacrament of Matrimony with the decree to fecundity is not negated by my receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders as a permanent deacon. While it is true permanent deacons who have the obligation to support their family will need to balance family life, in most cases secular employment to support their family, and their ministry. This is why it is so important to work with the ordinary and pastor to have a letter of agreement as to the expectations in relation to each so misunderstandings and miscommunication can be dealt with in charity.

  19. cl00bie says:

    This “continence thing” seems to be brought up every time the permanent diaconate is mentioned. I wonder if it is a subtle (or not so subtle) attempt to discourage married men from becoming deacons.

    I will ask my Canon Law instructor his opinion on whether we are bound by continence either in the eastern canons or the western canons when I attend formation classes in December.

  20. Lucas Whittaker says:

    Matthias1, When spouses choose to live a continent life together it is not a matter of ethics or legality but, rather, to seek the heroic perfection to which we are called. Shown warmth and affection can even grow in such situations. St. Paul wrote about the perfection of saving yourself for the Lord. If married persons feel called to do this, then how great a thing it is that they can help one another. Theologically speaking, the foundational reasons for choosing such a life are based on Union with God (daily meditation or contemplative prayer assumed here), and also the reception of the Holy Eucharist at Mass. St. Jerome recommended, in his commentary on one of the Psalms (I would need to look back to find just which Psalm) that married persons should refrain from relations at least on days that they receive the Eucharist–as he put it, if they understand what it means to receive our Lord in this way. We are all called to spiritual marriage with Christ. And contemplative prayer and the union of our will with God’s will are actually connected to the union that happens when we receive Jesus under the accident of the bread of the Eucharist.

    Regarding deacons, if you and your wife are done growing your family, then consider that you would become a spiritual father to the many whom you will baptize. In the case of married persons who, after consummating the marriage, choose to refrain from such relations in order to grow closer to the Lord, they become a helpful support (the ideal spiritual friend, if you will), as opposed to hindering one another in any way. Speaking momentarily to remaining true to the vocation of marriage, the continence would continue only as long as both spouses agree to that relationship.

  21. Lucas Whittaker says:

    For the sake of those who might be interested, I went back through my three volumes of St. Jerome and discovered that my source for his comment is from his Homily 91, On The Exodus, [for] The Vigil of Easter (The Homilies of Saint Jerome, Volume 2, CUA Press, 1965).

  22. Supertradmum says:

    May I add that no man should be ordained a deacon if his own kids are not “in order”–that is not practicing Catholics. I know parents are not always to blame for the falling away of adult children, but this has brought scandal to one deacon I knew in the past, who had a daughter in an open “lesbian marriage” and a son who was a practicing homosexual. Seems that such problems in a family need to be tended to before a person puts himself forward for ordination.

  23. Ave Crux says:

    I have always been taught that anything that conflicts with our primary vocation is the very first indication that we are departing from the express and signal Will of God, and that following such a line of action is to fall prey to a temptation and error.

    For young men in their 30’s who are already married, their primary vocation would be — obviously — to bring many children into the world and raise them in the love and fear of God so that they may spend an eternity with Him by not having been denied their very existence to begin with, deprived of an immortal existence forever.

    I was once struck powerfully by that….parents have the ability to say “Yes” or “No” to bringing immortal beings into existence who are destined to enjoy God forever.

    Thus, parents have the ability to *give* “someone” an eternity with God, or to deprive them of that eternal existence by refusing to bring them into the world to begin with (!!!!). This is THE primary vocation of married individuals.

    There is also the obligation not to deny one’s spouse their marital rights permanently, lest the other be subject to temptation.

    It doesn’t take any discernment to see this is clear immediately for married young men. The Will of God in such cases is very concrete and very obvious. Don’t make it the object of a complicated discernment. It’s not.

    Further — as others have pointed out — once having completed the daily duties of bread winning in order to support his family, a father should then be free to use his remaining time to form the character of his children by spending time with them in various activities so that their emotional, physical and spiritual needs are fully satisfied by his fatherly presence and interventions.

    A Father’s firm hand is needed now more than ever….and those younger childhood years when bonds of love and trust are formed will forge a relationship that hopefully will be strong enough to guide those young children through adolescence and young adulthood in making the right decisions for their lives and avoiding mistakes that could destroy them early on in life.

    This is NO SMALL OBLIGATION. It is rather a simple matter biologically to give someone their physical existence…it is quite another to build and form their characters…to fashion their souls in the image and likeness of God…Wow!

    In fact, this was the very penance prescribed by Our Lord in conjunction with the Message of Fatima. Our Lord told Sister Lucia that “The penance I now seek and require is fidelity to the duties of ones state in life….”

    CONCLUSION: Reason thus suggests that any consideration for such an intensive spiritual commitment as the Permanent Diaconate should be reserved for those men without the obligations of procreation and child-rearing, so that young married men be not deluded and neglect their first and primary obligations before God.

    It is for similar reasons as well that it is so important that our PRIESTS remain celibate!

  24. Imrahil says:

    Dear Supertradmum,

    that would, on the one hand, virtually close (in this day) the deaconate for all married candidates apart from those burdened with involuntary childness. This is a hyperbole but only a slight one. There are Catholics crying over the non-practicing of their children (who may still identify as “somewhat Catholic”), and there are converts and those cradle-Catholics that converted to a practice not in use in their family (but maybe by their grandparents, grand-aunts, etc.); but the family that practices their Catholicism through all the generations, where is it?

    (I mean the “fulfilling all the Church commandments, except for sometimes failing due to negligence; never failing to do so on purpose” sort of practicing. If the treshold is lower, such as “identifying as a Catholic and going to Church sometimes and for each Christmas”, then the numbers would be higher.)

    On the other hand, and this without any hyperbole, it would specifically disfavor those who have had lots and lots of children, whom we however (don’t we?) generally consider pretty exceptionally good Catholics. But the greater the number of men equipped with, after all, free-will, the greater the possibility that some of them will ill-use it, no matter how good the education was.

    —–

    Generally, the chief point seems to be deaconal continence: and here we should not confuse what Dr Peters can claim – which is that the Church when opening the deaconate to practicingly married men failed to follow proper legal procedure by overlooking and that an official clarification from the responsible offices is still a thing waited for – with an idea that the Church still demands deaconal continence. Her intention was obviously to lift it. If not, then knowing how the action would be understood they would have needed to be more precise. Qui tacet, ubi loqui debuit ac potuit, consentire videatur.

    So, no, whether or not the Church should reintroduce deaconal continence (either as it once was, or in a seasonal Eastern-style form), in any case she does not demand it now.

  25. Ave Crux says:

    @Imrahil: Actually, I don’t think the chief point is deaconal continence, but rather first and foremost of it being a conflict with one’s primary vocation before God of bringing children into the world and using one’s available time as a parent to be fully present and available to participate extensively in their spiritual, moral and physical formation, without leaving a great deal of the responsibility for home and child rearing as a burden to be shouldered by the wife and mother because the father wants to pursue the diaconate. This is also why celibacy is so important for our priests.

    Please see my comments above on the fact that parents have the power to say either “yes” or “no” to giving life to souls who will then have an opportunity to spend eternity with God.

    Parents should not say “No” to this power to give life – or to limit it – because of other interests outside of their primary vocation as Parents and givers of life.

  26. Imrahil says:

    Dear Ave Crux,

    with “chief point” I meant “obviously the chief point for the questioner”. Whether we’d consider other grounds to hold him off, or urge him to, the deaconate is another thing.

    That said, if the deacon is he who does diakonía (as do all Christians) in a special manner and by virtue of his ordinational character, then it would follow naturally that for such a father that parenting is just his primary way of deaconing, once he is a deacon. How much the Church is going to spend on his education, or even as payment for his services, is another matter.