Wednesday, May 01, 2002

Quis custodies?

Amy Welborn has asked an important question today: "One of the most frightening things about this moment is that in every other time of crisis in the Church's history, there's one force that has rescued it, and it hasn't been the hierarchy, not even, for the most part, popes. It's been religious orders...What's the modern equivalent?"

There's a group that has largely gone unheard from in recent days, but it seems to me to offer a potential solution to the problem: the Permanent Diaconate. Since the American Church reestablished this holy order in 1968, following Vatican II, the role of deacons has been one of sacrament and service. “Word, Liturgy and Charity” are the triune obligations of deacons.

There are some 13,000 deacons in the American Church, more than in the rest of the world combined. Neither entirely lay people nor fully clerics, the role of the diaconate is nevertheless sacramental, and principally focused on spreading the Word. Though many parishes use deacons seemingly exclusively to read the Gospel and assist with Communion, many other deacons are out in the front lines of Catholic interaction with the world. They run soup kitchens and rehab programs, publish newspapers, work as bankers and police officers. In short, they do everything a good Christian can do, and then they help run the Church on Sunday. Important to note is that 97% are or have been married (only 3% are divorced, compared to 12% of Catholic men over 35 as a whole).

It has been my contention for some time (even before the scandal) that the diaconate offers a solution to the shortage of vocations in the American Church. Deacons are empowered to perform all sacraments save Reconciliation and the Eucharist. A handful of deacons in every parish could greatly increase the outreach and effectiveness of even a small number of priests, placing the fate of the parish much more firmly in the hands of the parishioners. And because the deacons are canonically ordained, it will give lay members a voice outside the usually liberalizing bounds so common in the lay ministries (at least the ones I have encountered).

There are several potential difficulties with the diaconate, but none seem insurmountable. First, there is a deep-seated ambivalence about it within the clergy. Conservatives don't like deacons because deacons are not celibate. Liberals dislike them for the same reason. To the conservative set, it threatens to undermine celibacy. To the liberals, it threatens to weaken the case for liberalizing. Oddly enough, both cases are enhanced by a quirk of the ordination. Though a married man may be ordained a deacon, he may not remarry, should his spouse pre-decease him. (This strikes me as bizarre in the extreme, by the way. Such an attitude really does seem to me based in the "fear of sex" that so many anti-celibacy activists accuse Rome of. Perhaps there is a good theological argument for it; I have not heard it.) Additionally, at least in the case of my own diocese, there exists a bias against younger deacons. I meet the minimum age (albeit barely) for the diaconate, but this fall was strongly discouraged from applying until I am older (I am 32, and would be 35 at the time of ordination). If I don’t join the next class in two years, my life is likely to demand that I put it off until my late 40s or 50s.

Nevertheless, Deacons have historically been significant sources of strength and power within the Church. One of the most remarkable results of Vatican II was to revive the Permanent Diaconate, but its potential has yet to be realized. Perhaps this is the moment. If Bishops can be persuaded to expand the opportunity and training for deacons, they would have a new reservoir of people at a time when they need all the help they can get. By including Deacons in the plans for addressing sexual abuse by clergy, they increase the participation of parishioners substantially, while still maintaining some control over the situation. The fact that most deacons are married and parents cannot but help to improve the system of accountability. And the fact that deacons are required to maintain a life and a profession outside their ministerial duties means an expanded diaconate would moderate the problem of clericalism.

There are no doubt thousands of men like myself in the church right now who felt called both to the priesthood and parenthood, and chose the latter. It is time to call on them to help resolve this crisis. As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops itself has noted, “The diaconate is still a ministry in development, with a new identity emerging over time and in practice.”

For an overview of the Diaconate, with some good links, click here. To find out about joining in your diocese, click here.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home