Back to Our Roots

In this column I continue a review of the address given by Pope John Paul II to the plenary assembly of the Congregation for the Clergy, Nov. 30, 1995. The Pope’s address was designed to encourage and assist the members in the presentation of two documents on the formation, ministry and life of permanent deacons. 

Before concluding his address, the Pope offered still another gem for reflection, and one that is not often considered in the normal realities of a diaconate permanently exercised. Specifically, this is the question of celibate (permanent) deacons. 

The simple fact of the matter is this: in the Latin Church, most people assume that the “permanent” diaconate is “the married ministry” while the presbyterate is “the celibate ministry.” This, despite the fact that we have, in the Latin Church, both married presbyters and celibate deacons! 

I once was asked to address the deacons and deacon candidates of a large diocese on the East coast. As I was waiting in the wings to be introduced, one of the candidates approached me and, in a rather confrontational tone, demanded to know if I intended to speak to them about the diaconate as “the married ministry.” I told him I had not planned to do so, and I asked him why he was already upset, before I had even begun! He remarked that he was about to be ordained, and that throughout the years of formation every instructor, every guest speaker, every retreat director had highlighted what a double blessing the diaconate was to the Church, since the deacon brings with him not only the sacramental grace of orders, but the sacramental grace of matrimony as well. Then the candidate dropped his bomb: he was an unmarried candidate, and would be making a promise of celibacy at his ordination. The conclusion that he had reached, after all of his experiences during formation, was that he would always be perceived by many in the Church as a “second class” deacon, since he didn’t have a wife. His reaction is not unusual: I even received phone calls from men interested in the diaconate who felt that they weren’t “eligible” for the diaconate “because I’m not married, and you have to be married to be a deacon.” 

Yes, the vast majority of deacons are married, but being married is not a pre-condition to diaconal ordination! Celibate permanent deacons often encounter their own specific challenges based on faulty theology, bad historical understanding, or plain bad judgment on the part of others. Unmarried candidates are often pressured by the well-intentioned about why, since they’re unmarried, they don’t want to “go all the way” to the priesthood. Widowed permanent deacons are often asked the same thing. Unfortunately, the popular imagination which still informs so many in our Church still sees the presbyterate as the pinnacle against which all other forms of ministry are assessed. But the teaching of the Church, with the renewal of a diaconate permanently exercised, is that is perfectly OK to enter an order of ordained ministry, whether married or unmarried, without having a vocation to another order of ordained ministry. The pope himself makes that clear above when he refers to celibate men who wish to serve in ordained ministry “without entering the priesthood to which they do not feel called.” 

Furthermore, the context of the celibate life for deacons is considerably distinct from that of presbyters. Celibate permanent deacons, like their married confreres, still live, work and minister within secular professions, occupations and structures. This fact also often goes unnoticed during diaconal formation. The bottom line here is that there is a wonderful diversity within the people called to diaconal ministry, and that diversity needs to be appreciated, affirmed, and nurtured. 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, California. He writes and consults extensively on the subject of the diaconate and contemporary ministry.