Did the Council of Trent restore the permanent diaconate?

I admit plainly and unequivocally: I am no fan of the permanent diaconate (and I will explain this in greater depth in a future post). As I was researching the teaching of the Church concerning the permanent diaconate in order to build my case, I came across the decree Diaconatus permanens (subtitled “Basic norms for the formation of permanent deacons”) [Latin; English] promulgated jointly by Congregation for the Clergy and the Congregation for Catholic Education in 1998. This document first brought to my attention the idea that restoring the permanent diaconate was first ordered not by the Second Vatican Council but by the Council of Trent, the latter of which was largely ignored on this matter.

A few internet searches will reveal that this proposition has, not surprisingly, made its way into many diocesan websites for clerical formation, and has since been received as undisputed fact in many Church circles.

But did the Council of Trent really restore the permanent diaconate? I’d to argue to the contrary.

Based on a reading of the applicable citation from the Council of Trent, I find it difficult to provably claim that the said Ecumenical Council in any way desired the restoration of the permanent diaconate as asserted in the decree Diaconatus permanens.

The joint decree’s opening words immediately assert the claim [my English translation]:

Diaconatus permanens, a Concilio Vaticano II restitutus apteque conveniens cum universa et continua Traditione necnon cum peculiaribus votis Concilii Oecumenici Tridentini, his decenniis proxime praeteritis valida impulsione est promotus…

The permanent diaconate, restored by the Second Vatican Council and aptly in keeping with the universal and constant tradition as well as with the peculiar desire of the Ecumenical Tridentine Council, has been in recent decades been promoted by a strong impulse…

While this opening sentence contains no footnote references, a few paragraphs later, Diaconatus permanens contains the following with a footnote:

Concilium Tridentinum statuit ut diaconatus permanens in pristinum restitueretur sicut temporibus antiquis, secundum propriam naturam, scilicet ut originarium ministerium in Ecclesia.[20] Sed huiusmodi praescriptio in praxim reapse non fuit deducta.

The Council of Trent established that the permanent Diaconate, should be restored according to ancient times, in accord with its proper nature, namely, to its original ministry in the Church.[20] This prescription, however, was not carried into effect.

Footnote #20 to Diaconatus permanens contains the simple citation: Concilium Tridentinum, Sessio XXIII, Decretum de reformatione can. 17.

Since Diaconatus permanens contained no other references connecting Trent and the permanent diaconate, I went diligently to the text of that Council’s twenty-third session, Canon 17 of the Decree on Reformation. I reproduce the aforementioned canon entirely, in Latin [source] and in English [my translation], with my emphases added.

Ut sanctorum ordinum a diaconatu ad ostiariatum functiones ab Apostolorum temporibus in Ecclesia laudabiliter receptae et pluribus in locis aliquamdiu intermissae in usum iuxta sacros canones revocentur nec ab haereticis tamquam otiosae traducantur: illius prisci moris restituendi desiderio flagrans sancta Synodus decernit ut in posterum huiuscemodi ministeria non nisi per constitutos in dictis ordinibus exerceantur; omnes et singulos praelatos Ecclesiarum in Domino hortatur et illis praecipit ut quantum fieri commode poterit in ecclesiis cathedralibus collegiatis et parochialibus suae dioecesis si populus frequens et Ecclesiae proventus id ferre queant huiusmodi functiones curent restituendas et ex aliqua parte redituum aliquorum simplicium beneficiorum vel fabricae Ecclesiae si proventus suppetant aut utriusque illorum eas functiones exercentibus stipendia assignent quibus si negligentes fuerint ordinarii iudicio aut ex parte mulctari aut in totum privari possint. Quodsi ministeriis quatuor minorum ordinum exercendis clerici coelibes praesto non erunt suffici possint etiam coniugati vitae probatae dummodo non bigami ad ea munia obeunda idonei et qui tonsuram et habitum clericalem in Ecclesia gestent.

That the functions of holy orders, from deacon to porter [a diaconatu ad ostiariatum], have been laudably received in the Church since the time of the Apostles, and which in many places have been long interrupted, may be again restored to use according to the sacred canons and that they not be hatefully criticized by heretics [diu intermissae in usum iuxta sacros canones revocentur nec ab haereticis tamquam otiosae traducantur]: the sacred Synod, burning with the desire of restoring the pristine usage [prisci moris restituendi desiderio flagrans], discerns that, henceforth, such functions shall not be exercised except by those who are constituted in the aforementioned orders; and it exhorts in the Lord all and each of the prelates of churches and commands them, that it be their care to restore those functions as much as can be done expediently, in the cathedral, collegiate, and parish churches of their dioceses, where the number of the people and the income of the church can support it; and, to those who exercise those functions, they shall assign salaries out of some part of the revenues of any simple benefices, or those of the donations to the church, if the funds allow, or out of the revenues of both together, of which stipends they may, if negligent, be fined in part, or be wholly deprived, according to the judgment of the Ordinary. And if there are no sufficient unmarried clerics available to exercise the roles of the four minor orders [quattuor minorum ordinem], their place may be filled by married clerics of approved life provided they have not married twice, are competent to discharge the aforementioned duties, and are able to wear the tonsure and clerical attire in Church.

Here it will be helpful to remember the seven-step system of Holy Orders in force in the Roman Church until 1972. In illo tempore, there were three major orders: Subdeacon, Deacon, and Priest (with bishops considered a special set of priests endowed with the fullness of Christ’s high priesthood). Sacramentally speaking, only the diaconate and priesthood (to include bishops) are considered true orders (that is, each imprints an indelible character on the soul). Once a man became a subdeacon and joined major orders, he was at that moment more or less bound perpetually to the clerical state.

Prior to major orders, however, candidates to priesthood had to first be receive the tonsure (the ceremonial cutting of hair signifying entrance into the clerical state) before progressing through the four minor orders: Porter, Lector, Exorcist, Acolyte. These four orders evolved out of ancient liturgical roles. For example, in times of persecution, porters attended to the doors during Mass to enforce the disciplina arcani; exorcists were charged with simple exorcisms (as opposed to the solemn exorcism of spirits) to prepare catechumens for the sacraments. During his time in minor orders, a man was not yet permanently bound to the clerical state.

[Pope Paul VI, in perhaps one of his most un-ecumenical moves (especially in regards to the Eastern Churches), abolished the offices of porter, exorcist, and subdeacon; he also abolished the imposition of tonsure; the roles of lector and acolyte are no longer “minor orders” but “ministries” not reserved to those seeking priesthood; and entrance into the clerical state is now tied to diaconal ordination. These sweeping changes, a summary deformation of venerable Catholic tradition, were imposed by the 1972 Apostolic Letter motu proprio data Ministeria quaedam of 15 August 1972.]

So what is the Council of Trent really saying about orders, and specifically, the diaconate? First it mentions that the roles of the first six orders (porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte, subdeacon, and deacon) are of Apostolic origin but whose proper exercise at the time of Trent was not diligently observed. The Tridentine Council therefore resolved to “restore the pristine usage” in a very specific way, that is, by limiting clerical functions to men who have actually been appointed as clergy. 

The implication is that, for a long time, there existed a widespread abuse of Orders in which some men, who were not duly appointed clerics, were in fact acting in those clerical roles. Trent intended to rectify the abuse by explicitly excluding non-clerics from tasks proper to clergy– thus “restoring the pristine usage”.

Next, Trent raises the possibility of appointing married men to clerical roles, specifically, to the four minor orders. This Council in fact permits married men to be porters, lectors, exorcists, and acolytes, on the condition that there are not enough celibate men available to fill those roles. Note that in this case, the text specifically mentions only the four minor orders explicitly excluding married men from all major orders, including the diaconate.

Nothing in the Tridentine text cited by Diaconatus permanens mentions the permanent diaconate as we know it today. There is mention of “restoring the pristine usage”, but a plain reading of the aforementioned Decretum de Reformatione clearly shows that the phrase refers more to the proper use of actual clerics in clerical roles, rather than the ancient (dare we say antiquarian?) practice of ordaining permanent and/or married deacons. Furthermore, the Tridentine permission to admit married men to clerical functions applies to the minor orders exclusively.

What is even more illuminating is that, in light of the great debates and meticulous theological work that went into preparing the documents of the Second Vatican Council (which amply cited Trent wherever possible), there is no mention of a connection between Trent and the suggestion for restoring the permanent diaconate (see Lumen Gentium 29).

Furthermore, Paul VI’s Apostolic Letter motu proprio data Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (18 June 1967), by which he officially established the permanent diaconate, also fails to note any citation from the Tridentine Council.

The precursor to Diaconatus permanens concerning formation of permanent deacons was a brief, vague, Italian-language circular letter from the Congregation for Catholic Education dated 16 July 1969, known by its Italian incipit Come è a conoscenza. This letter also does not refer to the Council of Trent.

Based on this investigation, it would seem that (at least concerning the claim that Trent decreed a permanent diaconate) some sloppy historical work at the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for Clergy went into the composition of Diaconatus permanens. Perhaps somebody working on the text engaged in a cursory reading of the Tridentine decree, saw the phrase prisci moris restituendi, and then immediately (and wrongly) assumed that this referred to the occurrence of married and/or permanent deacons in ancient times, hence the phrase in pristinam restituetur sicut temporibus antiquis in the 1998 document.

[On a side note, if the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were more directly involved, we might surmise that its erstwhile Prefect (and future pope) might have caught what seems to be an egregious error.]

Why did Diaconatus permanens go out of its way to cite Trent to support the permanent diaconate? We can only guess, and what follows is my humble personal opinion. John Paul II’s pontificate was marked by a vigorous attempt to correctly interpret the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council after the chaotic times incited by Paul VI’s reign. As a result, there was a renewed emphasis on the fact that, as John XXIII explicitly stated at his Council’s opening, Vatican II is in total continuity with Trent and Vatican I. Some of the big names who worked in John Paul’s Curia (Arinze, Castrillon Hoyos, Laghi, Medina Estevez, Ratzinger) strove to make this continuity ever more apparent, and in an attempt to bolster justification for the permanent diaconate– one of the biggest post-Conciliar reforms– the Congregations for Catholic Education and Clergy reached a little too far.

Sadly, I do not have the means to conduct an exhaustive historical examination of this matter, and I remain open to correction regarding my reading of the Tridentine text. What seems clear, however, are the following:

  • Paul VI, who established the modern permanent diaconate, did not cite the Council of Trent when justifying his decision (cf. Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem).
  • The Second Vatican Council did not cite Trent when it suggested the permanent diaconate’s restoration (cf. Lumen Gentium 29).
  • The first letter from Rome concerning formation of permanent deacons (Come è a conoscenza) does not cite Trent.
  • The 1998 joint decree Diaconatus permanens seems to contain the earliest reference to Trent vis-a-vis the permanent diaconate.

In any case, this little historical curiosity, however interesting, can ultimately be of penultimate importance. Tridentine support or none, the Roman Church now has a permanent diaconate, and we must humbly accept this institution for what it is: a genuine Vatican II project, not a product of the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

Whether or not this institution produces quality clerics is a subject for another time.

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