Saturday, July 12, 2014

Married deacons ≠ married priests

I offer these thoughts on the diaconate with one important caveat - these are my ideas and mine alone. I am not claiming any authority on these matters apart from my own experience, study, and involvement in on-going discussions concerning these matters. So, as with everything on Καθολικός διάκονος, take it for what it's worth.

Observation: A lot of married permanent Roman Catholic deacons seem to be fervent advocates for the Latin Church normatively ordaining married men priests (the Church does now in exceptional cases), thus doing away with what is mistakenly called "mandatory" celibacy (mistaken because celibacy can only be freely chosen, not imposed). At least on the surface, this does not seem too difficult to figure out.

I guess my view, as one who seriously considered a vocation to the priesthood as a much younger man (particularly becoming a Dominican friar), and, only years later, with a lot of encouragement, discerned a vocation to the diaconate, I see being a deacon, serving as a deacon, especially as a married man with a family, as a distinct vocation, not as a consolation prize. Having written that, let me state that it is easy for me to understand that married deacons in the various Eastern Rite Catholic Churches throughout the United States might have a different set of concerns, given the normativity of those churches ordaining married men priests outside the United States, according to the ancient tradition of those Churches. Thankfully, it is becoming more and more common for some Eastern Rite Churches in the U.S. to ordain married men priests. Just as it is important for the various Eastern Churches in communion with Rome to resist "Latinization," we're on shaky ground, it seems to me, when we seek to "orientalize" the Latin Church.

In my view, the diaconate will not succeed in forging a mature ecclesial identity until the issue of the diaconate being a distinct vocation starts to be resolved. To this end, one concrete proposal I believe has a lot of merit, something of which I have long been in favor: doing away with the so-called transitional diaconate and making diaconal ordination part of episcopal ordination. This means doing away with the cursus honorum, which the Latin Church adopted from Roman polity. Cursus honorum literally means "course of offices." I refers to the sequential order of public offices held by aspiring politicians in both the Roman Republic and the early empire.

Applied to holy orders, the cursus honorum means going from deacon, to priest, to bishop. This practice often results in bad theology, which I have heard expressed by a few of my brother deacons along the lines of, "He's been ordained twice and I've only been ordained once." Our current practice does not strike me as all that consistent with the development of these orders in the New Testament and earliest Church. In fact, one can make a pretty good argument that the office of deacon existed prior to the office of priest. This change would also have the effect of bringing into even bolder relief the deacon's unique and, yes, special relationship to his bishop.

In addition to more clearly distinguishing deacons from priests, I believe such a move would the clear the space necessary to have an intelligent and conclusive discussion on women and the diaconate by doing away with slippery slope concerns about women becoming priests, which, for Catholics, is off-the-table. I don't mind saying, for the sake of clarity, that I am okay with the non-ordained office of deaconness, which would be conferred by institution, not ordination. This office would permit women to be of pastoral service primarily to other women.

The issue I am indirectly getting at is addressed in the USCCB's National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons, approved by the Holy See and subsequently issued in 2004:
Underlying the restoration and renewal of the diaconate at the Second Vatican Council was the principle that the diaconate is a stable and permanent rank of ordained ministry. Since the history of the order over the last millennium, however, has been centered on the diaconate as a transitory stage leading to the priesthood, actions that may obfuscate the stability and permanence of the order should be minimized. This would include the ordination of celibate or widowed deacons to the priesthood. "Hence ordination [of a permanent deacon] to the Priesthood . . . must always be a very rare exception, and only for special and grave reasons . . . Given the exceptional nature of such cases, the diocesan bishop should consult the Congregation for Catholic Education with regard to the intellectual and theological preparation of the candidate, and also the Congregation for the Clergy concerning the program of priestly formation and the aptitude of the candidate to the priestly ministry" (par 77)

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