Back to our Roots

The most influential text of the Second Vatican Council concerning the diaconate, the text that actually renewed the order for the contemporary Church, is paragraph 29 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. Lumen Gentium went through four major drafts, and a study of the drafts is a wonderful way to examine the ways in which the bishops were developing their own understanding of the Church. 

In the original draft of the Constitution, which consisted of 11 chapters and an appendix on Mary, the third chapter (“On the Episcopate as the Highest Grade of Order and on the Priesthood”) was a mere two paragraphs, with, as the chapter title suggests, no mention of the diaconate. But there were far greater problems with the document. Various speakers cited a lack of cohesion between the chapters, which reflected a much deeper issue; namely, the document presented no coherent vision of the Church. After considerable rewriting following the first session of the Council, a second draft was presented at the 37th General Assembly, Monday, Sept. 30, 1963. This draft includes a comment that in the future it will be possible to establish the diaconate as a proper and permanent level of the hierarchy. 

The principal conciliar debate on the subject of restoring the permanent diaconate in the Latin Church occurred from Oct. 4–16, 1963. During the debate, largely influenced by the interventions of Cardinals Doepfner and Suenens, the Council fathers moved overwhelmingly to renew the diaconate as a much more immediate response. The bishops acknowledged that there were already many persons serving the Church in diaconal roles. Cardinal Doepfner asked, “Why should these people be denied the grace of the sacrament?” 

Cardinal Suenens outlined the theological principles upon which the diaconate is based. Citing the authority of Scripture, the apostolic Fathers, constant tradition, and the liturgical books of East and West, he spoke of the many charisms evident throughout the Church, distinct from the priesthood, which were set up to provide direct assistance to the bishop in the care of the poor and the nurturing of the community. To say that these tasks can be given to lay persons does not mean that the diaconate is not needed. The Church has the right to the benefit of all the graces given to it by God, including the graces of the diaconate. 

Suenens was also eminently practical and pastoral. He urged the Fathers not to make a universal decision for or against the diaconate. Rather, they should decide if there was any area or situation that might benefit from it, and then phrase its decision in such a way as to enable it to take effect in those regions in which the bishops decided it was appropriate. 

Suenens’ intervention signaled a milestone in the debate, for his articulation of a theology of the diaconate helped focus for the Fathers the essential elements of the issue, and not just on the functional dimension of the diaconate. The record indicates that a total of 45 bishops, speaking on behalf of 795 Fathers, spoke in favor of restoration. Twenty-five speakers, representing only 82 Fathers, rejected the idea. 

The final text is in two parts and greatly expanded over the previous draft. The first part deals with the office of deacon in general, and some of the functions of the deacon in particular. The diaconate is described as a “lower order of the hierarchy,” in which deacons are “strengthened by sacramental grace.” The ancient three-fold ministry of the deacon is stressed more strongly than in the second draft. The deacon’s ministry is described as “a service of liturgy, word and charity to the People of God,” which he exercises in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate. 

The 10 functions listed in the text are clearly illustrative and not meant to be exhaustive, expanding on the theme of diaconia in liturgy, the Word, and charity. What marks this list is the fact that, whereas earlier drafts spoke of deacons functioning as extraordinary ministers in many cases, now they are listed as ordinary ministers. The deacon’s functions are summarized by saying that deacons are dedicated to works of charity and administration. The text observes that all of the tasks of the diaconate are “of the highest importance to the life of the Church,” and that is, ultimately, the reason for renewing a permanent diaconate. 

Next month, we will look more closely at the impact of this paragraph in the development of today’s diaconate. TP