By: Protodeacon David Kennedy
Section 17 of Orientalium ecclesiarum, (November 21, 1964) can be outlined in the following manner:
- There is a “desire or a wish” on the part of the holy council/synod that the permanent diaconate be restored in the Eastern Catholic Churches.
- The reason for this restoration is that the “ancient discipline/legislation concerning the sacrament of orders in the Eastern Churches may regain its force/flourish once more”.
- There is a recognition that the permanent diaconate “has fallen into disuse”.
Let us parse each of these points in order to obtain a clear understanding of the context of section 17. Point 3 is where this commentary will begin. When the council mentions that the permanent diaconate “has fallen into disuse” what is it referring to? While in the Western Catholic Church it was not possible canonically to serve in the diaconate without the explicit intention of receiving ordination to the presbyterate, thus there was only a transitional diaconate, such was not the case in the Eastern Catholic Churches. The canonical tradition had not eradicated the diaconate as a permanent order in the East as it had in the West. One of the Titles of Eastern Catholic canonical legislation, namely, Cleri sanctitati, which governed the Eastern Catholic Churches until the promulgation of the Codex Canonum Ecclesiarum Orientalium, in Canons 60-77 sets forth explicitly the obligations of clerics, which includes reference to deacons who will remain in the diaconate for their life. Thus, at least in theory the diaconate remained a permanent order in the Eastern Catholic Churches as it also has with the Orthodox.
It can also be noted that the Latin word sacerdos found in these canons refers to all three degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders, namely episcopate, presbyterate and diaconate. This is certainly not the current language of the West where the diaconate is not considered part of the priesthood, yet the Orthodox Church still sees it as such. (Cf. John Chryssavgis. Remembering and Reclaiming Diakonia: The Diaconate Yesterday and Today. Brookline: Massachusetts. Holy Cross Orthodox Press. 2009; Boris Bobrinskoy. The Mystery of the Church: A Course in Orthodox Dogmatic Theology. Translated by Michael Breck. Yonkers: New York. St Vladimir’s Seminary Press. 2012. 213-216.)
The liturgical tradition in the Byzantine rite of the Catholic Church bears witness to this understanding also for we read in the Order for Setting Apart of a Reader or Cantor, “Son, the first degree of the priesthood is that of reader.” (Archieratikon, Rome. 1974. 229.) Thus, this is another interesting difference in the theology and practice of the Eastern Churches, and the current Roman Catholic understanding of the diaconate.
Robert Clément, S.J. writing in 1966 shortly after the promulgation of Orientalium ecclesiarum addresses the situation of the diaconate in both the Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Churches. (Cf. “Situation Présente du Diaconate en Orient” in P Winninger et Y. Congar. Le Diacre Dans L’Eglise et Le Monde D’aujourd’hui. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf. 1966. 63-70.) He states that among the Chaldean Catholics there are 5 deacons and 3 for the Syrians. He mentions that among the Maronites deacons can be found in the monasteries but he gives no numbers. He mentions that in the Orthodox Church in Russia in 1914 there were 15,210 deacons, 50,150 presbyters and 149 bishops for 100 million faithful in 67 dioceses. Yet in the Orthodox Church in Greece, Clément tells us that it is rare to find deacons who will serve permanently in that order. There, deacons are awaiting ordination to the presbyterate or are found on the staff of bishops where they frequently go on to the episcopate itself; sometimes only a day or two after presbyteral ordination. We can easily see that among the Eastern Catholics and among some of the Orthodox that the diaconate as a permanent order “had fallen into disuse”.
Why was this the case? There seems to be a number of reasons.
- When there is no remuneration for deacons as there is for presbyters, the diaconate as a permanent rank declines. The Russian Orthodox Church paid the deacons not only for their liturgical services but also had them employed as teachers of religion in the schools. In the Eastern Catholic Churches as in the Orthodox Church in Greece it was often difficult to find funding for priests let alone deacons.
- The Eastern Catholic Churches adopted an educational paradigm for their clergy that was closely modeled after the Post-Tridentine practice as found in the Latin West. In this case the minor orders and the diaconate were conceived of and practiced solely as transitional steps to the real goal of the presbyterate.
- Why be a deacon if you can be a priest? This mindset develops from number 2 above. The minor orders and the diaconate are seen as only canonical requirements for ordination to the presbyterate, and the canonical practice is no longer reflecting a period when the cursus honorum meant a real training period of many years in each of the minor orders and the diaconate. For example a man was not to be ordained a deacon before 25 years of age and not a presbyter before 30 years of age. Therefore, he would have at least 5 years of real diaconal service and training before ordination to the presbyterate. The cursus honorum existed as a functional training ground for clergy before the seminary system that followed the Council of Trent. But following Trent the training was shifted to the seminary and the cursus honorum lost its original raison d’être. This being the case, a man often spent very little time in the diaconate or any of the minor orders. The requirements became little more than legalistic that had little to do with real ecclesial life.
- Number 3 above leads to a mindset of “he who can do more can do less”. Thus, the priest can do everything a deacon can do and more. When there is no deacon present at liturgical services, the diaconal functions are assumed either by the priest or lay servers, or lay readers. At more solemn services among the Eastern Catholics it was not uncommon for a priest to vest as a deacon and serve as such. This was the common practice in the Latin West also, for there is an understanding in Western theology that the priest is still a deacon after ordination to the presbyterate. (This matter is still to be addressed fully in Catholic theology and liturgical practice. This is not only a sacramental matter but also one that goes to the heart of the apostolic ministerial practice, pneumatology and ecclesiology.)
Thus, we can see that a number of diverse factors and historical contingencies led to the reality of the diaconate as a permanent order in the Eastern Catholic Churches as well as some of the Orthodox Churches being little more than a vestige. What was established by the Apostles as part of the apostolic ministry had atrophied in most local Churches into little more than a transitional period for the purpose of fulfilling a canonical obligation. The liturgical tradition as exemplified in the texts bore witness to an active diaconate but the reality was something quite different. This certainly raises serious questions about the self-consciousness of the Church. It seems that the bishops of Vatican II were acutely aware of the need to address this matter and as we will see their reasons were rooted in the patristic witness to the apostolic Church.