Clericalism in the Church: what about the deacons?La Croix
The ministry of following Christ the Servant of all as servants of the People of God
The Catholic Church is going through a crisis in which the term "clericalism" has become a catch-all for a variety of issues as diverse as pedophilia, the exercise of authority and power, the proper place of women and various liturgical disputes.
In his Letter to the People of God of August 2018, Pope Francis hammered home the fact that without the active participation of all its members, the Church will not succeed in creating the dynamics necessary to achieve a healthy and effective transformation.
All its members. That is to say, bishops, priests, lay people, religious . . . and deacons.
Do permanent deacons contribute to feeding into clericalism, or do they help to attenuate it?
Deacons are ordained ministers, therefore clerics. But most are married with professional, family and societal commitments in the heart of the world, which can lessen the appearance of clericalism.
Deacons begin to disappear as early as the 5th century
The theology of this ministry sheds light on this question.
The disappearance of permanent deacons in the West from the fifth century onward is linked to the excessive power of deacons around their bishops.
After 15 centuries of extinction, the Second Vatican Council in 1964 gave episcopal conferences the possibility of restoring the principle of the permanent exercise of the diaconate, and not in an ancient form, as it would have had in the past.
Two major conciliar statements should be recalled. Deacons are ordained "not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service"; and they are "strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word and of charity to the People of God" (Lumen gentium, 29).
The Council did not, however, formulate a complete theology for this ministry, due to opposition from within that led to a certain prudence.
The Magisterium of the Church therefore worked to refine the theology of this ministry, with significant modifications in 1997 and 2009, not unrelated to the question of clericalism.
Initially, several texts of Pope Paul VI, the first editions of the Code of Canon Law (Codex Iuri Canonici 1983) and of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (1992) sought to consolidate the unity of the Sacrament of Holy Orders with its three degrees (bishop, priest, deacon).
These texts affirmed that "sacred ministers [...] are consecrated and deputed to shepherd the People of God, each in accord with his own grade of orders, by fulfilling in the person of Christ the Head the functions of teaching, sanctifying and governing," (CIC § 1008; CCC Church § 1581).
Deacons, called to serve the People of God in the following of Christ
Some theologians have observed that this formulation schematically links the ministry of the deacon to that of the priest, with the related duties, except for the celebration of the sacraments of the Eucharist, anointing of the sick and penance.
Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI then modified the Catechism (§ 875 in the 1997 edition) and the Code of Canon Law (with the 2009 apostolic letter, Omnium in mentem.
They made a major distinction between bishops and priests, who are empowered to act in the name of Christ the Head, as compared to deacons, who are called to serve the People of God in the following of Christ "who made himself the 'deacon' or servant of all" (CCC § 1570 edition of 1997).
To act in the name of Christ the Servant (deacon) and to act in the name of Christ the Head (bishop and priest) are both part of Jesus' mission among his own people, in addition to the Risen Head of the Church as "body of Christ".
Through his ordination, the deacon, although a cleric, comes under the common priesthood of the faithful, and not the ministerial priesthood of bishops and priests (LG, 10).
Is it then an "intermediate order" between laity and priests?
Certainly not, for such an order would accentuate the gap between laity and clerics, a gap that this order would seek to abolish. This is not the theology of the diaconate.
The diaconate, a foundation for ordained ministries?
Should the diaconate not be considered more as a foundation for ordained ministries, based on Christ, the "deacon and servant of all"?
Among the baptized, some are called and ordained deacons to serve and to invite the People of God, to put on the garb of service by exercising a common diaconate in service to the world.
Among the deacons, some are ordained deacons in view of becoming priests and acting in the person of Christ the Head, presiding over communities and the sacraments.
Just as the Church calls priests to become bishops, successors of the apostles.
Thus, priestly ordination and episcopal ordination take nothing away from the sacramental grace received at diaconate ordination.
On the contrary, this grace is at the service of the diaconia of the presbyterate and the diaconia of the episcopate.
Whatever the degree of ordination, the ministry must always be exercised in the name of Christ the servant, even and especially if one acts in the person of Christ the Head.
Many priests and bishops live it this way. For there is only one Christ, servant of all and head of the Church.
Is there not here a way to help all the baptized, ordained or not, to respond more fully to the call of Pope Francis?
Christophe Donnet is a deacon in the Diocese of Saint-Etienne in east-central France.