22 July 2015, The Tablet

Deacons aren’t just decaffeinated priests

by Dr Bridie Stringer

I hope that the voices of the retired Bishops Hollis, Crowley and McMahon are not crying in the wilderness with their support for allowing married men to be ordained.

The sacramental deficits which are inevitable as the number of active priests continues to fall could perhaps be addressed by a more imaginative approach to ordained ministry.

Some people have suggested conferring priestly holy orders on married permanent deacons. This might solve some of the problems, since a number of permanent deacons originally tested vocations to the priesthood but found they did not have the “gift of celibacy”.

Deacons ordained Clifton CathedralMy own research in this field in Southwark Province, undertaken in 2007/8, indicates that of 53 respondents, almost 27 per cent had originally felt called to the priesthood and an additional 9 per cent (5 respondents) had felt called to other ministry – two in Anglican Orders before becoming Roman Catholics, and three in non-priestly ministry.

A more extensive survey undertaken with permanent deacons from England, Wales and Scotland by researchers from Ushaw College in 2006, indicated that more than half of their 229 respondents had considered a priestly vocation before the age of 18, 7.4 per cent had attended junior seminary and 13.9 per cent had attended a senior seminary or entered a religious order. So, in effect, had it not been for the requirement of celibacy many of these contemporary deacons may well have found themselves in priestly ministry.

However, a further dilemma is captured in the words of the ordination ceremony for permanent deacons. Those who are unmarried at the time of ordination, including widowers, must vow themselves to celibacy thereafter. In the words of the presiding bishop: “By this consecration you will adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart.” The subtext of this might be read as a suggestion that the married men about to be similarly ordained do have divided hearts. That their family life and marriage are perhaps regarded as somehow second-best.

There is of course the possibility, that, on the decease of his wife, the deacon might consider a vocation to the priesthood but I would hope that bishops would show the utmost compassion and sensitivity in making such an approach to a deacon in mourning. Those who are called to married life and are inspirational and ethical professionals in the commercial world may not be the best candidates for life as presbyters. Deacons bring witness and ministry into the workplace and the public square in a way that priests and bishops cannot. Deacons are the only rank of ordained clergy permitted to have secular professional and civic roles.

So, in effect, rather than trying to squeeze deacons into a traditional presbyteral mould that may not suit their gifts, a deeper appraisal of Holy Orders is called for. Now seems an opportune time to undertake such an exercise, acknowledging the presence of God in marriage, family life, celibacy, the workplace, civic life – in fact, we need to re-evaluate how best to be Christ to the world.

Dr Bridie Stringer is the author of Baptising Babies and Clearing Gutters – A Fresh Appraisal of the Permanent Diaconate (Matthew James Publishing Ltd, 2013)

Above: Bishop Declan Lang ordains two men to the diaconate for the diocese of Clifton. Photo: Mazur/catholicnews.org.uk

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User comments (11)

Comment by: Budget
Posted: 10/08/2015 12:11:15

Is Celibacy A Higher Calling than Marriage?
The Catholic Church teaches, as dogma, that celibacy is "superior" to the married state, and should be preferred, if it is within the capacity and disposition of the soul to do so.

Pope John Paul II , Vita Consecrata, no. 32: “As a way of showing forth the Church's holiness, it is to be recognized that the consecrated life, which mirrors Christ's own way of life, has an objective superiority. Precisely for this reason, it is an especially rich manifestation of Gospel values and a more complete expression of the Church's purpose, which is the sanctification of humanity. The consecrated life proclaims and in a certain way anticipates the future age, when the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven, already present in its first fruits and in mystery,[62] will be achieved and when the children of the resurrection will take neither wife nor husband, but will be like the angels of God (cf. Mt. 22:30)”

Pope Pius XII, Sacra Virginitas, no. 32: “This doctrine of the excellence of virginity and of celibacy and of their superiority over the married state was, as we have already said, revealed by our Divine Redeemer and by the Apostle of the Gentiles; so too, it was solemnly defined as a dogma of divine faith by the holy council of Trent, and explained in the same way by all the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church."

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 03/08/2015 23:05:27

Budgie: Matrimony is a sacrament in the eyes of this church. Celibacy is not.

Are you saying that a non-sacrament is a higher state than a sacrament?


Comment by: Dr Bridie Stringer
Posted: 27/07/2015 11:39:54

As a point of clarification on the ordained status of permanent deacons ...they are indeed men in Holy Orders as per the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium para 29) promulgated in 1964, which restored the permanent diaconate as part of Church hierarchy. This was further clarified in the apostolic letter of Blessed Pope Paul VI Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (June 1967) – General Norms for Restoring the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church. It was canonically confirmed in the 1983 Code of Canon Law which clearly lays out the requirements for those who are eligible for ordination in Holy Orders, including permanent deacons. Those aspiring to the presbyterate who are ordained deacons after 5 years of study in the seminary are frequently referred to as “transitional deacons” since they will eventually be ordained as priests. The following link might be helpful http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P3Q.HTM

Comment by: AlanWhelan
Posted: 25/07/2015 15:06:53

My concern is that the permanent diaconate has become massively clericalised. My first encounter with a permanent deacon was living as a teacher in my first real London parish, Southall, in 1972. The deacon, Michael Jennings, worked on the shop floor in a local company.

I got to know. Michael fairly well as I taught his children. At the same time I was undertaking a Unviersity funded study of Southall parish. Michael's role was not a traditionally clerical role. He organised the Catholic life of his remoter section of the parish with its own Mass centre.

Michael certainly did not wear a clerical collar. He was not a glorified altar server! In fact he only appeared on the sanctuary when he made announcements. A few years later in my role as Chairman of Westminster Adult Education Committee I encounter another deacon, David. Myles-Board, from the Catholic Media Office. He was very different from Micahel in terms of educational attainment and yet he remained a non-clericalised deacon.

Then a few years after Cardinal Hume's arrival in Westminster there was a decline in the diaconate...we were told that the cardinal did not want a new clerical class and that he felt it further emphasized the male power supremacy of our church.

Here in Lourdes with Westminster, I reflect on my more recent experience of diaconate in which deacons undertake the readings and bidding prayers, which were formally lay ministries.

It is all very interesting, especially the celibacy!!!

Comment by: Richard Brooke
Posted: 25/07/2015 10:02:40

Martin is wrong on the question of authority. What is being suggested is that our bishops should examine the question, not that they should make a unilateral decision. Pope Francis is quoted as saying that "regional and national bishops’ conferences should seek and find consensus on reform and .. should then bring up ... suggestions for reform in Rome." What is that if not a clear papal licence and invitation to address the issue of married priests?

Comment by: Budgie
Posted: 25/07/2015 09:08:28

There is no such thing as the permanent diaconate. It is not a holy order. There are, however, deacons who exercise that order permanently. The three holy orders of bishop, priest and deacon remain unchanged.

The Church teaches clearly that, politically incorrect though it may be, the celibate state is superior to the married one. Sorry about that but it's true and was underlined and reiterated by St JPII. To see the wisdom of it requires no explanation.

Comment by: Barry Mellish
Posted: 25/07/2015 07:12:37

I think you will find that they do have the authority to look at the issue and ask the Pope for permission to proceed if that is what they decide is required in England and Wales. The Irish Bishops are examining the issue and it is being discussed in South America:
"Francis has already invited bishops to seek and propose courageously pastoral solutions to address the problem of a shortage of vocations in countries such as Brazil."

Comment by: Chris McDonnell
Posted: 24/07/2015 19:08:05

And yet Martin, after Francis met with +Erwin Krautler and discussed the serious lack of priests in his Brazilian Diocese, he advised him to come up with a solution and present it to Rome, not to wait for the initiative to come the other way. The Brazilian Bishops' Conference have done just that and set up a Commission to examine options.

Our bishops are not 'goto' bodies acting without their own authority. Let's hope they have the courage to begin a courageous conversation.

Comment by: Barry Mellish
Posted: 24/07/2015 18:22:29

They might not have the authority to make the decision to ordain married men to the priesthood, but they do have the authority to examine the issue. This was reported in the Tablet on April 10 2014. It was also recently reported:
"Now a recent conversation between the pope and a bishop from Brazil about the priest shortage may be moving the issue of married clergy onto the pontiff's agenda.

It began when Bishop Erwin Krautler, an Austrian-born bishop who heads a sprawling diocese in the Brazilian rain forest, had a private audience with Francis on April 4 in the Vatican.

During the meeting, Krautler and Francis compared notes on how much the priest shortage affects the church, especially in the Southern Hemisphere. Krautler's diocese, geographically the largest in Brazil, has just 27 priests for 700,000 Catholics, most of whom might attend Mass a couple of times a year.

Francis said he knew of a diocese in Mexico where parishes had a deacon but no priest, and the pope wondered how things could go on that way -- which is when Krautler raised the idea of married priests.

"The pope explained that he could not take everything in hand personally from Rome. We local bishops, who are best acquainted with the needs of our faithful, should be 'corajudos,' that is 'courageous' in Spanish, and make concrete suggestions," the bishop told an Austrian newspaper the next day."

So how do they make suggestions - firstly by examining the issue!

Comment by: Martin
Posted: 24/07/2015 12:30:12

"However our Conference shows no sign of examining this issue, why?"

Because they don't have the authority.

Comment by: Barry Mellish
Posted: 24/07/2015 07:46:08

To me the major question is when will the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales look at the issue of ordaining married men to the priesthood? I am a married deacon and I do not believe that I have a calling to the priesthood. The Ministry of the Permanent Diaconate is quite separate to a Priestly Ministry. There cannot be any theological problem with married clergy as they exist within the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church. Yes there will be practical and financial issues to resolve, but they can be dealt with on a case by case basis. However our Conference shows no sign of examining this issue, why?

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