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How the Order of Deacons Was Restored to the Roman Church

St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, Deacons and Martyrs

St. Stephen and St. Lawrence, Deacons and Martyrs

When the Council Fathers arrived in Rome on October 11, 1962, for the opening of the First Session of the Second Vatican Council called by John XXIII, they had already received a number of schemas, or draft documents, dealing with various topics that had been developed from extensive surveying of the world’s bishops and religious superiors. One of these schemas was called De Ecclesia (On the Church), and the story of its debate tied the two issues of collegiality (the authority of the bishops as individuals and as a group) and the permanent order of deacon together.

Pope John XXIII

Pope John XXIII

It is important to note that the Second Vatican Council was not only the single most important religious event of the 20th Century, that it changed the everyday experience of the world’s largest religion and sent ripples into every other religious tradition, but also that on a merely logistical level it was the largest deliberative meeting of modern times: no other meeting, secular or religious, has ever involved so many individuals from around the globe empowered to debate, edit and vote on such a wide range of issues affecting so many people.

The schema De Ecclesia was presented to the Council Fathers on November 26, 1962 by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the powerful head of the Holy Office (today called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). This document had been prepared well in advance of the Council by the Doctrinal Commission, headed by Ottaviani, but the Council Fathers had only received the draft a week before. By this time it had become apparent that the Council would extend to more than one session, although no one knew how many (It would eventually take four years for the Council to complete its work).

Ottaviani, who was almost totally blind, was an ultraconservative adamantly opposed to the Council. Along with like-minded prelates who had formed a clique called the International Group of Fathers that represented the curial, obstructionist faction, he consistently attempted to derail the Council at every opportunity. One of the most prominent members of this secretive group was Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, then superior general of the Holy Ghost Fathers, who would later be excommunicated for setting up his own schismatic “traditionalist” sect.

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

On this day, as he introduced De Ecclesia, Ottaviani addressed a central criticism of the drafts his committee had prepared: that they were too juridical and limited in their treatment to papal documents of recent popes, especially Pius IX, at the expense of the wider scope of Christian history. Repeatedly the Council Fathers had expressed a desire to speak in a voice that was more evocative of the early Fathers of the Church, more scriptural, more pastoral and, as John XXIII had put it, “speaking rather of mercy than condemnation.”

Ottaviani, alarmed at the direction he saw the Council taking and angry that the Fathers did not bend to his will as head of the Holy Office, fumed as he threw down the gauntlet. First he ridiculed the Fathers’ insistence that the conciliar documents be pastoral, scriptural and accessible rather than juridical and strewn with anathemas. Then he said:

I’ll tell you what I really think. I believe that I and the speaker for the commission are wasting our words because the outcome has already been decided. Those whose constant cry is “Take it away! Take it away! Give us a new schema!” are now ready to open fire. I’ll tell you something you may not know: even before this schema was distributed—Listen to me! Listen to me!—even before it was distributed, an alternative schema had already been produced. [He was talking about drafts that various bishops had been circulating as possible ways to improve upon the juridical document on the Church prepared by Ottaviani and his team.] Yes, even before the merits of this schema have been looked at the jury has rendered its verdict. I have no choice now but to say no more, because as Scripture teaches, when nobody is listening words are a waste of time.

Yves Congar said these words were delivered in a cajoling tone that was at the same time “peevish and aggressive.”

As debate on the schema opened, a number of Fathers said the schema was so grounded in juridicism (a legalistic concept of Church) and anathemas (condemnations) that it was unworkable even as a basis for edits. Cardinal Joseph Ritter, archbishop of St. Louis, who would emerge as the chief spokesperson of the bishops of the United States, called for a totally new draft. Bishop Emile De Smedt of Bruges famously denounced the schema for being written in a pompous style imbued with three “isms”: triumphalism, clericalism and juridicism and smacking of papolatry (pope-worship).

With only a few days left in the first session, it was clear that the schema would have to be entirely redrafted. Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini, the archbishop of Milan, made the case for a new schema December 5: “It is inadequate.” He proposed that the Secretariat for Christian Unity, led by the charismatic German cardinal Augustin Bea, be involved in the redrafting of the schema. Because Montini was widely viewed as papabile (a likely candidate for pope—and rightly so, for he would soon become Paul VI), his proposal was accepted by John XXIII: the schema would be entirely rewritten. The first session ended on December 8.

The draft of De Ecclesia (which would eventually become known as Lumen Gentium, “The Light of the Nations”) underwent a tortuous process of redrafting during the period between the Council sessions. Ottaviani and his team from the Holy Office clashed furiously with the theological experts appointed by John XXIII, who included such renown theologians as Karl Rahner, Jean Danielou, Yves Congar and Gérard Philips, whose draft formed the basis of the new schema. It was at this point that the concept of collegiality was fleshed out in the new schema, and the restoration of the permanent diaconate included—a directive of the Council of Trent (1545-1547) that was never implemented. The new schema added a twist, however: that those ordained to the permanent order of deacon could be married.

When the Second Session of the Council opened on September 29, 1963, there was a new pope, Paul VI. John XXIII had succumbed to an agonizing death from stomach cancer on June 3, Pentecost Sunday.

The Second Vatican Council

The Second Vatican Council

By October 1, it was apparent that the consensus of the Fathers was that the new schema on the Church was a good start. They voted to begin deliberations on it 2,231 to 43. Then began an epic struggle between the majority of the Fathers and a small but manipulative minority allied with the Curia who were determined to do whatever it took to make sure that the new schema never saw the light of day. Collegiality and the restoration of the diaconate were among the most contentious issues in the debates that would follow.

On October 3, Cardinal Ernesto Ruffini, archbishop of Palermo and one of the leaders of the ultra-conservative International Group of Fathers who represented the curial faction, delivered a speech that claimed the Council Fathers had no right to decide whether deacons could be married; such a decision could only be made by the Roman Curia. This was a consistent theme of the curial party: that the bishops were to be subject to the Curia, a viewpoint detested by the majority of the Council Fathers as un-Catholic and juridical.

Still, some Council Fathers opposed the restoration of the diaconate on other grounds. Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, opposed the permanent order of deacon because he felt it was a fancy of liturgists enamored of the early Church, with no understanding of the contemporary situation. Cardinal Antonio Bacci of the Curia, who would loudly protest the introduction of vernacular languages in the liturgy, pleaded against the permanent diaconate on the basis of celibacy: “With trepidation in my soul I beg you, venerable Council Fathers, do not inflict a wound on the sacred law of celibacy!” Responding to the accusation that a married diaconate would be a threat to celibacy, Cardinal Julius Döpfner, archbishop of Munich, saw it as a means of increasing the number of vocations: “We can ordain a married layman to the diaconate.”

Along with the restoration of the diaconate, the idea that bishops held authority that was not given to them by the pope (collegiality) continued to rouse great controversy in the Council. Italians and Spaniards especially felt these were “innovations” (a code word for heresy) introduced by bishops from “across the mountains,” that is, Germany, France and the Benelux countries. But the restoration of the diaconate began to draw support from bishops in missionary territories and also from Central and South America, who were exceptionally organized at the Council.

Cardinal Leo Suenens

Cardinal Leo Suenens

Cardinal Leo Suenens, archbishop of Brussels and one of the greatest leaders of the Council, was a vocal supporter of the diaconate: “The diaconate is part of Scripture and tradition. Since it constitutes a distinct service in the Church, it is fitting that those who fulfill it receive a special sacramental grace.” He insisted that the deacon would allow the Church to appear once again as “a family on the human scale.”

On October 10, the moderators of the Council met with Paul VI. The decision was made to put individual concepts from De Ecclesia to a vote: five concerning the nature of the episcopal order (the office of bishops) and three concerning the order of deacon. The ballots were printed, and on October 15 the Council Fathers were told they would vote on these eight issues.

But that night, people claiming to be acting under the orders of the Secretary of State, Cardinal Amleto Cicognani, stormed the Council offices, seized the ballots and burned them. The real people behind this move are still a mystery.

The next day, when the Council Fathers learned what had happened, chaos ensued in St. Peter’s Basilica. Fathers streamed out of their seats and began shouting that they had been betrayed. Cardinal Ottaviani, the chief suspect, became defensive, saying that such a vote was unauthorized because the Council Fathers could not bind the Dogmatic Commission of the Holy Office. Immediately the various factions made appeals to Paul VI. By October 28, Paul VI sided with the majority: the issues could be put to a vote with an amended ballot. The curial party, including Cardinal Spellman, tried to delay the vote, to no avail. The revised ballot was now five points, one dealing with the restoration of the diaconate, but without mention of celibacy. This last point on the diaconate was approved 2,120 to 525.

On November 8, Cardinal Ottaviani brushed off the results of the vote. The vote had been merely “indicative,” he maintained, it had no real authority and the Holy Office could respond to it as it saw fit. Only the Holy Office had the authority to deal with such issues, not the Council, he insisted with typical curial arrogance.

The Second Session was drawing to a close. The question of the restoration of the diaconate would have to wait for the Third Session.

The redrafting of the schema continued up until the day before the opening of the Third Session of the Council on September 14, 1964. On that day, Paul VI received a letter from 25 cardinals, including James Francis McIntyre of Los Angeles, who declared that the concept of collegiality would deal a death blow to the Church by renouncing a monarchical concept of ecclesiology in favor of the dignity of episcopal ordination. No longer would bishops be considered merely priests who had special authority granted by the pope, but a distinct order established for the local governance of the People of God. To the signers of the letter, this was a “novelty,” which again was used as a code-word for “heresy.” They claimed it would undermine the ministry of the pope. Paul was not convinced. He rejected their arguments.

Pope Paul VI

Pope Paul VI

On September 20, the curial faction tried a new tactic. They sent a letter to Paul warning him of the dangers of the chapter. They again accused its proponents of “novelty.” They accused the majority of infidelity to the pope. They claimed that the proponents of collegiality and the restored diaconate were pressuring the Fathers by claiming that Paul was in favor of these ideas. But they undermined their position by categorically stating in their letter to Paul that no pope could possibly approve of such ideas because it would indicate that the Church had been wrong in previous times. In order to maintain the idea of total papal control, they felt they could dictate to the pope! Needless to say, Paul was not amused.

The debate on the diaconate reached a high point, and the bishops of Latin America swung into action. Cardinal Juan Landázuri-Ricketts, archbishop of Lima, spoke in favor of the restoration of the diaconate in the name of 37 Peruvian and 58 other Latin American bishops. Bishop Manuel Talamás Camandari of Ciudad Juárez spoke in favor of the diaconate on behalf of eight additional Latin American bishops. All were in favor of married deacons. Speaking in the name of 25 more Latin American bishops, Bishop Jorge Kémérer of Posadas, Argentina, insisted: “A man can have an ecclesiastical vocation that does not include celibacy.”

One African bishop, one Slavic bishop and a number of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese bishops were adamantly opposed to the restoration of the order of deacon because they felt it was an attack on celibacy.

On September 22, the Council Fathers voted on the restoration of the diaconate. The proposal passed 1,539 to 702. Paradoxically, 629 voted against ordaining married men as deacons, which seemed to be more controversial. Cardinal Ottaviani and the Doctrinal Commission would now not only have to affirm the collegiality of the bishops and accept the input of the Secretariat for Christian Unity, but would also have to include edits that restored the permanent diaconate to the Western Church. Another vote on September 30 reduced the gap to 1,903 in favor, 242 opposed.

On November 21, 1964, Paul VI solemnly promulgated the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, which restored the fullness of the three-fold orders of bishop, priest and deacon to a Church which had been fixated only on priest and pope with the following words about deacons:

At a lower level of the hierarchy are deacons, upon whom hands are imposed “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.” For strengthened by sacramental grace, in communion with the bishop and his group of priests they serve in the diaconate of the liturgy, of the word, and of charity to the people of God. It is the duty of the deacon, according as it shall have been assigned to him by competent authority, to administer baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read the Sacred Scripture to the faithful, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside over the worship and prayer of the faithful, to administer sacramentals, to officiate at funeral and burial services. Dedicated to duties of charity and of administration, let deacons be mindful of the admonition of Blessed Polycarp: “Be merciful, diligent, walking according to the truth of the Lord, who became the servant of all.”

Since these duties, so very necessary to the life of the Church, can be fulfilled only with difficulty in many regions in accordance with the discipline of the Latin Church as it exists today, the diaconate can in the future be restored as a proper and permanent rank of the hierarchy. It pertains to the competent territorial bodies of bishops, of one kind or another, with the approval of the Supreme Pontiff, to decide whether and where it is opportune for such deacons to be established for the care of souls. With the consent of the Roman Pontiff, this diaconate can, in the future, be conferred upon men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state. It may also be conferred upon suitable young men, for whom the law of celibacy must remain intact.

Ever mindful of the wishes of the Council, Paul VI issued the motu proprio Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem, General Norms for Restoring the Permanent Diaconate in the Latin Church, on June 18, 1967.

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3 Responses to “How the Order of Deacons Was Restored to the Roman Church”

  1. What a fascinating recounting of this time. As you know Eric, I am delighted to read it but I am greatly saddened as well. However, as I read and reflected on my sadness, I was also filled with hope.

    There is no accounting for grace and history reveals many remarkable moments.

  2. On a lighter note – “peevish and aggressive” may become my new catch phrase. Yves!

  3. [...] have always considered this to be a common but still grave error. That is why posts like this one on the restoration of permanent deacons in the Roman Church are very much needed to put things in perspective. This type of essay demonstrates the tremendous [...]

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