Back to Our Roots

Last month we examined the major text of the Second Vatican Council concerning the diaconate, section 29 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium. Following the conciliar debates on the diaconate, which took place from Oct. 4–16, 1963, the bishops voted on five aspects of section 29. The votes give some insights into the details the bishops wished to ensure were clearly expressed in the final text. 

On October 28, the bishops voted on the question of the order of deacon; specifically, the question asked if the bishops felt there was a continuing need for the order of deacon in the contemporary Church. It is important to remember that many bishops had already raised the concern that some of the orders within the sacrament Holy Orders were no longer necessary. In particular, were the minor orders (porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte), as well as the major order of subdeacon, of ongoing pastoral use? Pope Paul VI would later address all of this in Ministeria Quaedam in 1972, in which the Pope suppressed the rite of tonsure, the minor orders of porter and exorcist, and the subdiaconate. At the same time, lector and acolyte were redefined as ministries open to lay men. Theoretically, the bishops might well have decided to recommend the suppression of the diaconate as well. Instead, they found that, in the words of section 29, the functions of the diaconate are “of the highest importance to the life of the Church,” and they voted overwhelmingly (2,055 placet to 94 non placet) to maintain the diaconate as a major order within the sacramental system of the Church. 

Notice that this question did not address specifically the exercise of the diaconate as a permanent order; this vote could simply have applied to the “transitional” diaconate with no further impact. It was the next question which addressed this aspect, reversing the practice of nearly a millennium: by a vote of 1,903 placet to 242 non placet, the bishops decided that this diaconate could again be exercised on a permanent and stable basis. 

The next day the bishops addressed the more challenging questions related to such a renewed permanent diaconate. The third question asked whether the specific permission of the Holy Father was going to be required when a bishops’ conference wanted to renew a permanent diaconate in their dioceses. The bishops voted (1,523 to 702) that such permission would be necessary. 

The fourth and fifth questions addressed the issue requiring the greatest clarity and precision: whether married men could be admitted to the diaconate. With a vote of 1,598 to 629 the bishops decided that the diaco­nate could be conferred on mature married men 35 years of age and older. The fifth and final vote asked whether “younger non-celibate men” should be ordained, and this was rejected by a vote of 1,364 to 839. (It is interesting to note, how­ever, that over 800 bishops had no objection to ordaining younger men deacons without the obligation of celibacy.) 

As this review of the diaconate as seen through the documents of Vatican II comes to a close, we find that many reasons led to the decision of the Council to renew the diaconate. For many of the bishops, the sacramental diaconate became a way to recognize the lessons learned so tragically through the wars and devastation of the first half of the 20th century, and expressed by many of the priest–survivors of the Dachau concentration camp. In particular: that the Church herself was Christ’s servant in and for the world, and that there was a need for a sacramental expression of that diaconal nature. At the very end of the Council, Pope Paul VI reflected on the work of the Council and what it meant to the Church. 

We stress that the teaching of the Council is channeled in one direction: the service of humankind, of every condition, in every weakness and need.  

The Church has declared herself a servant of humanity at the very time when her teaching role and her pastoral government have, by reason of this Church solemnity, assumed greater splendor and vigor. However, the idea of service has been central. — Paul VI, Hodie Concilium, AAS 58 (1966), 57-64. 

This vision of the Church-as-Servant finds concrete sacramental expression within the renewed diaconate. Over the last 50 years much has been done and learned about the diaconate throughout the world. Nonetheless, we have only begun to scratch the surface. The conciliar decision to renew a permanent diaconate was, as we have seen, not a simple one. TP 

Deacon Ditewig, Ph.D., former executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate at the USCCB, now teaches and ministers in the Diocese of Monterey, Calif. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.