Theology of the Diaconate

FROM THE DIAKONIA OF CHRIST TO THE DIAKONIA OF THE APOSTLES. An Historico-Theological Document of the International Theological Commission (Hillenbrand Books, 1000 East Maple, Mundelein, IL 60060, 2004), 124 pp. PB $14.00.

This is an official treatise on the diaconate, and especially on the permanent diaconate. It contains all the information one needs to have about this subject, in clear language and in a brief format. The evidence of the Scriptures, of Church history down to our own times, of the writings of the Fathers of the Church, and especially of the documents of Church Councils and popes, is presented with precision and backed up with references.

By about the tenth century the diaconate had ceased to exist as a significant clerical entity and was reduced to simply a stage on the pathway to the priesthood; the permanent deaconate had disappeared. The deaconesses also had ceased to be what they had been and the title, with no corresponding ministry, was given to women who were instituted as widows or abbesses.

The permanent deaconate was restored by the Second Vatican Council. Some reasons given for this restoration were: “(1) It would resolve some of the pastoral problems caused by the shortage of priests in mission countries and in areas subject to persecution; (2) The encouragement of vocations to the diaconate could give greater prominence to the priesthood; (3) It could help to improve the ecumenical relations of the Latin Church with the other Churches which have preserved the permanent diaconate; (4) Men who wanted to commit themselves more deeply to the apostolate, or those who were already engaged in a certain form of ministry, could belong to the hierarchy; (5) The admission of married men to the diaconate could mean that the celibacy of priests shone out more clearly as a charism embraced in a spirit of freedom.”

The Church’s teaching on the history of the diaconate, on its practice, and on its theology, has been to some extent uniform through the centuries, but there are some historical facts, controversial applications, and conflicting theories that have to be brought to light and have judgment passed on them. There are two problems in particular which have to be solved. One is a question of language. There are many equivalents of diakonia in Scripture and Church documents, ranging from any kind of service to the service of an ordained cleric. Even the word “ordained” was sometimes replaced by “instituted,” which seems to suggest that a deacon may not have been considered a cleric but rather another kind of specially‑approved Church official.

And the second problem is that, though there are many Church teachings about the diaconate, there are few, if any, definitive, de fide, ones. We can let this book list some of the points of view, which require clarification and decision:

“The doctrinal position in favor of the sacramentality of the diaconate is, broadly speaking, the majority opinion of theologians from the twelfth century to the present day and it is taken for granted in the practice of the Church and in most documents of the Magisterium; it is upheld by those who affirm the permanent diaconate (for celibate or married people) and constitutes an element that includes a large number of the propositions in favor of the diaconate for women . . . Despite everything, this doctrinal position faces questions that need to be clarified more fully. . . Among the questions requiring deeper or more fully developed theology are the following: (a) the normative status of the sacramentality of the diaconate…; (b) the “unity” and “oneness” of the

Sacrament of Orders in its diverse grades; (c) the exact scope of the distinction “non ad sacerdotium, sed ad ministerium (episcopi); (d) the doctrine of the character of the diaconate and its specificity as a configuration with Christ; (e) the “powers” conferred by the diaconate as a sacrament.”

This book deals only to an extent with the question of the ordination of women to the diaconate. It does however make two important points: “(1) The deaconesses mentioned in the tradition of the ancient church—as evidenced by the rite of institution and the functions they exercised—were not purely and simply equivalent to the deacons; (2) The unity of the sacrament of Holy Orders, in the clear distinction between the ministries of the Bishops and the Priests on the one hand and the Diaconal ministry on the other, is strongly underlined by ecclesial tradition, especially in the teaching of the magisterium.”

A very good book on this subject.

Rev. Leonard A. Kennedy, C.S.B.
Academy of Our Lady Seat of Wisdom
Barry’s Bay, ON, Canada

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