On permanent deacons: problems and suggestions for reform

Previously, we considered whether the restoration of the permanent diaconate was in fact ordered by the Council of Trent but not implemented. We concluded to the contrary (please read that article before reading this one).

We concluded that article by saying

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.

I’d now like to share some of my observations concerning the permanent diaconate as established after Second Vatican Council.

Gap in quality

According to the Code of Canon Law (canon 1032, ยง1) and the USCCB Program for Priestly Formation (par. 285), a man seeking the priesthood must have studied philosophy and theology for five years before ordination to the diaconate. These studies occur in the full-time context of a seminary. Indeed, most American seminaries– regardless of denomination– require their graduating ministers to earn at least a Master of Divinity. In American Catholic seminaries, all priests earn the M.Div or its ecclesiastical equivalent, the STB (Sacrae Theologiae Baccalaureus— despite its name, this is a graduate-level degree). Furthermore, it is usually the norm that American seminaries require (or at least offer the opportunity for) a second graduate degree, namely, either a Master of Arts or a Licentiate in Sacred Theology (STL) in a specialized area of the sacred sciences (systematic, biblical, moral, liturgical, historical, canonical). At the Pontifical North American College in Rome, for example, it is normal that new deacons have already earned the STB and the STL, while at St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia, the MA is required in addition to the M.Div.

Let’s compare that to the formation of permanent deacons in these USA. The National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States (par. 205), in accordance with Diaconatus permanens, envisions a formation period of three years. Furthermore, the National Directory presumes that this formation occurs part-time in order to accommodate those men with with careers and families. No degree in theology is ever attained or acquired. Now, I know of a few examples of permanent deacons who indeed have
advanced degrees (even doctorates) in the sacred sciences, but their
number is dwarfed by those without formal academic degrees.

Full-time for five years versus part-time for three years— such a large gap in formation can only lead to a large gap in quality of deacons. Furthermore, programs of formation vary greatly from diocese to diocese. While I have noted only the gap in intellectual (academic) formation, the same could be said of the other three pillars of formation: human, pastoral, and spiritual. In my experience, in all the Novus Ordo parishes I have frequented all over the world, transitional deacons are, on the whole, indisputably and qualitatively superior to their permanent counterparts.

I will illustrate these by way of a prominent example. There is the case of permanent deacon Sandy Sites of Good Shepherd Catholic Church, Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. Admittedly, this parish is not a shining example of a proper Catholic community: there is no parish priest, and “Deacon Sandy” acts as “parish director” (whatever that means). Deacon Sandy gained notoriety when several of his videotaped homilies hit the mainstream Catholic blog circuit. In these videos, one sees Deacon Sandy repeating the tropes of postmodern liberal felt-banner American Catholicism; words like “worship space” replace “church” or “chapel, there are exhortations to “more activity” and external “participation”, and anything remotely resembling traditional liturgy is met with hostility. He does a terrible job of explaining basic tenets of Catholic doctrine, and in many cases what he preaches is patently non-Catholic. He often makes use of PowerPoint slideshows during his homilies.

Deacon Sandy unleashed the ire of Catholic bloggers when, in one of his homilies, he venomously mocked Pope Benedict XVI’s choice of papal attire (to the laughter of his sparsely-populated church). After the initial firestorm, he claimed that he was not mocking the pope but merely criticizing certain people obsessed with fashion. Of course, the photos in his homiletic PowerPoint clearly depicted Benedict’s papal regalia, especially the traditional red papal shoes (which even John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI, and John XXIII wore). The Catholic blogosphere called out “Deacon Sandy” on his equivocation, and the subsequent backlash was even more severe. Succumbing to the negative publicity, he deleted all footage of his homilies, but not before twenty-five of them were preserved as evidence by Ben Yanke on Youtube.

The case of Deacon Sandy is an extreme one, but he is emblematic of problem I have observed in varying degrees among permanent deacons, namely, that there a severe poverty of knowledge and appreciation of what the Catholic Church actually teaches and instructs, be it in matters of doctrine, liturgy, or Christian praxis. In my Thanksgiving rant of 2014, I mentioned what happened in the parish of my youth during Thanksgiving Day Mass– the pastor (who himself was ordained very late in life) decided not to give a homily, and instead gave two wireless microphones to the two permanent deacons, who went up and down the length of the church, prompting people to say aloud “what they are thankful for”. Of course, some questionable things were said (see that post for details). While the responsibility for such an egregious abuse of the faculty to preach lies primarily with the pastor (who in my opinion should have never been ordained), the fact that the deacons went along happily with the pastor’s plan as if nothing were wrong speaks volumes about the poor quality of their formation.

The parish of my youth, like many parishes in the area, has been home to many liturgical abuses over the years. Pastors (some good, some not-so-good) have come and gone, but the two permanent deacons have remained. As a teen, I wrote to them several times, asking why Masses continued to be celebrated in unwarranted fashion, replete with proper documentation and references to the Church’s liturgical directives. At other times, I took issue with the content of their preaching and theological articulation: often, doctrinal points were sloppily delivered at best, and phrased incorrectly at worst (i.e., tending toward the heretical). In every instance, I was ignored, and the liturgical abuses/weak preaching continued (and still continue today).

As the number of priests formed in the mold of John Paul II and Benedict XVI increase, the Church is beginning to enjoy a new generation of young clerics who boast of a vigorous spiritual, intellectual, pastoral, and human formation. They are not illiterate when it comes to knowledge of the Church’s historical, doctrinal, and theological tradition, and as a result, their preaching is solidly orthodox, logically coherent, and doctrinally sound. They understand that clerics are servants of the sacred liturgy, not masters of it, and thus they respect Vatican II’s stern reminder that “nobody, even if he be a priest, can add, remove, or change anything in the sacred liturgy on his own authority” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 22). More and more, today’s transitional deacons are capable of abiding by the directive of Vatican II and the Code of Canon Law that clerics should pray the Liturgy of the Hours in Latin. One will be hard pressed to find any Deacon Sandys among today’s transitional deacons.

Clerics should live and act as clerics

Another consequence of the permanent deacons’ generally poor formation is the fact that, despite having sacramental ordination, they aren’t doing many of the tasks proper to them. Yes, we may see them at Masses, weddings, and funerals and they may even preach the homily, but the tasks of deacons do not end with the liturgy. Lumen Gentium 29 states:

It is the duty of the deacon… to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services.

I want to highlight the second task: “to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist” (Eucharistiam servare et distribuere). As a truly ordained cleric, a deacon has the right and indeed the obligation to distribute the Eucharist; by virtue of his ordination, he is an ordinary minister of Holy Communion. Despite this, in many parishes with permanent deacons, these ordinary ministers fulfill that duty only during Mass. It’s bad enough that during Masses, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion have become all too ordinary and common, violating the explicit directives of the Church. At least during Mass, the deacons are usually there assisting. But when it comes to distributing Communion to the sick, this task is relegated to laypersons.

This is a grave dereliction of duty, a dereliction intimately linked to the habitual use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion (which the Church has expressly condemned; see Article 8 of this instruction). Week after week, many permanent deacons give up their task to visit the sick and distribute Communion. I cannot think of any valid reason why these ordained ministers (including priests!) must habitually forgo this solemn task “to be custodian and dispenser” and leave it to laypersons instead. A custodian– a guard– fails his duty if he leaves it to somebody else who is not a guard.

In many ways, those too ill to attend Mass are in special need of an ordained minister to give them the blessing of Christ which flows from Holy Orders; despite this, it seems that as soon as Mass is over, too many permanent deacons turn off the clergy switch and revert to layperson mode. They will happily linger after Mass for coffee and donuts, but God forbid that they should drive to somebody’s house to administer Communion to the sick! Deacons and priests who do as much make me question how seriously they take their ordination. Any excuse for a deacon to continuously neglect distribution of Communion to the sick boils down to the fact that it’s a burden for the deacon– and yet, this burden is a little Cross that he should happily carry. It is the essence of his ministry. In light of the shortage of priests that has afflicted the Church in the last few decades, deacons should all the more be at the forefront of the Church’s ministry to the sick and homebound, especially when it comes to distributing the Eucharist.

Ironically, this practice (using laity instead of clergy to distribute Communion to the sick) falls under the type of abuses (laymen acting in clerical roles) that the Council of Trent addressed in Canon 17 of the 23rd Session’s Decree on Reformation– the very same text that was cited in 1998 to incorrectly claim that Trent desired a permanent diaconate! (More on that in the previous article on the permanent diaconate.)

Another manner in which many permanent deacons are not acting or living as clerics concerns those deacons who are married. As the distinguished canonist Ed Peters has consistently, cogently, and coherently argued, canon 277 of the Code of Canon Law requires all clerics of the Roman Catholic Church to live in perpetual and perfect continence, without making an exception for married clergy (to include permanent deacons and married priests who were accepted into the Catholic Church from other denominations). In other words, Canon Law requires all clerics, even married Latin Rite deacons and priests, to abstain from sexual relations. Even Diaconatus permanens speaks of continence.

Of course, as Peters notes, the fact that many deacons and wives are not informed of this little-known requirement means that they enjoy the favor of the law (in this case, they cannot be held to an obligation of which they were unaware at the time of ordination). The failure of bishops to inform these deacons notwithstanding, the obligation of continence has always characterized the clerical state and has been well-attested in every century of the Christian era by many notable Church Fathers (Augustine, Jerome, among others) and even the Council of Nicaea. Married men who later received ordination have always been expected to live continently. The status quo of so many married deacons who are unaware of this obligation is emblematic of a severe rift with tradition, a tragic confusion of roles, and what John Paul II condemned as “clericalization of the laity and laicization of the clergy”.

Reforming the permanent diaconate

The current state of the permanent diaconate is not ideal. I’d like to give a few suggestions for its reform and renewal. Firstly, we should remember that nobody has a right to ordination. On
the contrary, the Church has the duty to choose the most worthy men to
be her ministers; and if the men are truly to be worthy, the standards must be raised.

In principle, a deacon is a deacon. Ontologically and sacramentally, there is no difference between a transitional and permanent deacon– and that’s how it should be in practice. Practical experience, despite what theology tells us, reveals something different. There is a gap in quality between the two types, and it needs to be closed as soon as possible. The formation of permanent deacons should therefore be far more rigorous and intensive than it is at present, comparable in greater degree to the requirements for transitional deacons. Three years part-time is nowhere near comparable to five years of full-time study. A graduate-level degree in one of the sacred sciences from the local seminary should be an attainable goal for someone who sincerely believes in a vocation to the clerical state, especially when that vocation requires preaching, teaching, defending, and articulating the faith effectively.

Next, the Church should seek more single men for the permanent diaconate. All too often, dioceses look almost exclusively to married men to join the permanent diaconate, leading to a perception (which I have witnessed) that only older, married men should be permanent deacons. On the contrary, both Lumen Gentium 29 and Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem foresaw younger celibate men as much as married men in the permanent diaconate. In the case of celibate deacons, the Church also envisioned some of them as pertaining completely to the Church– that is, they have no other job outside the diaconate, and thus are supported completely by their diocese or religious order. An increase in single men in the permanent diaconate would be far more consonant with the Church’s ancient tradition of clerical celibacy, chastity, and continence– reaffirming that deacons, as a proper sacramental Order, are distinguished from the rest of the world by their state of life and dedicated service to the Church.

Conversely, a lower proportion of married men in the diaconate would affirm the married life as a true sacramental vocation in itself, which, like Holy Orders, requires the absolute commitment of those who enter it. As the Lord said, “no man can serve two masters” (Matthew 6:24, et al.); unfortunately, a man who enters both vocational sacraments will be compelled to juggle three separate obligations, at which he will not always be successful: sometimes, he will choose a clerical obligation over his family; at others, he will choose his family over ecclesial ministry; in both cases, the demands of his career outside the Church weigh heavily on his ability to tend to his family and minister to the Church. An unmarried deacon, on the other hand, will be more available to carry out those tasks that many priests and married deacons have been leaving to laypeople (e.g., distributing Communion to the sick). Perhaps the Roman Church was right to have bound all its clerics to the centuries-old tradition of celibacy and continence, even unto the present (although this obligation is nowadays largely ignored by married Latin rite clergy). As Peter, who was married before Christ called him, said to Jesus, “We left everything we had and followed you!” (Matthew 19:27, et al.); would that today’s clergy manifest that same total abandonment to Christ!

Fortunately, God has already given the Church the example of a perfect permanent deacon (whose status as a permanent deacon was nevertheless an exception in his era). He is a far cry from his modern counterpart who largely sees
the bulk of his tasks solely within the context of Mass, who lets others
take the Eucharist to the sick, who is not available for ministry
during weekday work hours, who must balance being a husband and a cleric. Instead, our model permanent deacon was a man who lived his ministry in total chastity, celibacy, and continence; who left his father’s house and worked for no family of his own (except the “brothers” of his order); and who took no other job but to preach Christ crucified and bring Him to all men. Tirelessly, he ministered to the Church and to God’s people, bringing them the sacraments, preaching and catechizing them, establishing churches and chapels, giving alms to the poor, endeavoring to convert hostile non-Christians, admonishing lukewarm and negligent clergy, defending the sacred liturgy from profanation, and giving glory to God through all his deeds.

This perfect permanent deacon is none other than Saint Francis of Assisi. Through his intercession, may all deacons, permanent and transitional, be infused with an unquenchable vigor for ministry that permeates all aspects of their lives; and through the intercession of Saint Stephen, deacon and protomartyr, may all deacons happily bear all the burdens and crosses of their ministry, so that at the hour of death, they might worthily gaze upon the vision that caused the martyr to exclaim, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

2 Comments on On permanent deacons: problems and suggestions for reform

  1. The use of the N.O. Permanent Deacon has filtered into the EF Mass at our parish. The Deacon sits in the choir like a bump. He doesn’t know if he should be doing anything like kneeling. He doesn’t serve in any way. He approaches communion after the servers have received and stands for reception. His only role is to give the Homily. I say this because I am very confused. I was always told that there was no role for a Permanent Deacon in the TLM, only the Transitional Deacon. I am worried that this is the slow march to the hybrid mass we all feared would be the ultimate outcome of the Motu Proprio, as bishops who do not have any desire to make the TLM available allow a sloppy mass to happen just to generate complaints or run us off. They can then say, “See, nobody wants to come to this Mass.”, “All they do is criticize it and create division in the parish.” They may then in good conscience discontinue it.

    • Jay: a deacon is a deacon is a deacon, so in principle, there should be no objection to a permanent deacon assisting at the TLM, provided that he assists in the manner proper to the TLM (according to the rubrics and without mixing of rites). If he is not properly trained and familiar with the older rite as demanded by Summorum Pontificum, however, he should not participate.

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