Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

reeseHeadshotWebJesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting time.  As the apostolic Commission prepares to assemble to discuss the question of the history of women in diaconal ministry, it is good for all to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum.  IF women are eventually ordained as deacons in the contemporary Church, then they will be joining an Order of ministry that has developed much over the last fifty years.  Consider one simple fact: In January 1967 there were zero (0) “permanent” deacons in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church (the last two lived and died in the 19th Century).  Today there are well over 40,000 deacons serving worldwide.  By any numerical measure, this has to be seen as one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.  Over the last fifty years, then, the Church has learned much about the nature of this renewed order, its exercise, formation, assignment and utilization.  The current question, therefore, rests upon a foundation of considerable depth, while admitting that much more needs to be done.

However, Father Reese’s column rests on some commonly-held misperceptions and errors of fact regarding the renewal of the diaconate.  Since these errors are often repeated without challenge or correction, I think we need to make sure this foundation is solid lest we build a building that is doomed to fall down.  So, I will address some of these fault lines in the order presented:

  1.  The“Disappearance” of Male Deacons  

exsultet1Father states that “[Women deacons] disappeared in the West around the same time as male deacons.”  On the contrary, male deacons remained a distinct order of ministry (and one not automatically destined for the presbyterate) until at least the 9th Century in the West.  This is attested to by a variety of sources.  Certainly, throughout these centuries, many deacons — the prime assistants to bishops — were elected to succeed their bishops.  Later in this period, as the Roman cursus honorum took hold more definitively, deacons were often ordained to the presbyterate, leading to what is incorrectly referred to as the “transitional” diaconate.  However, both in a “permanent” sense and a “transitional” sense, male deacons never disappeared.

  1.  The Renewal of Diaconate as Third World Proposal

1115_p12b500Father Tom writes that his hesitancy concerning the diaconate itself “is not with women deacons, but with the whole idea of deacons as currently practiced in the United States.” (I would suggest that this narrow focus misses the richness of the diaconate worldwide.)  He then turns to the Council to provide a foundation for what follows.  He writes, “The renewal of the diaconate was proposed at the Second Vatican Council as a solution to the shortage of native priests in missionary territories. In fact, the bishops of Africa said, no thank you. They preferred to use lay catechists rather than deacons.”  This statement simply is not true and does not reflect the history leading up to the Council or the discussions that took place during the Council on the question of the diaconate.

LocalsRebuildDresdenAs I and others have written extensively, the origins of the contemporary diaconate lie in the early 19th Century, especially in Germany and France.  In fact there is considerable linkage between the early liturgical movement (such as the Benedictine liturgical reforms at Solesmes) and the early discussions about a renewed diaconate: both stemmed from a desire to increase participation of the faithful in the life of the Church, both at liturgy and in life.  In Germany, frequent allusion was made to the gulf that existed between priests and bishops and their people.  Deacons were discussed as early as 1840 as a possible way to reconnect people with their pastoral leadership.  This discussion continued throughout the 19th Century and into the 20th.  It became a common topic of the Deutschercaritasberband (the German Caritas organization) before and during the early years of the Nazi regime, and it would recur in the conversations held by priest-prisoners in Dachau.  Following the war, these survivors wrote articles and books on the need for a renewed diaconate — NOT because of a priest shortage, but because of a desire to present a more complete image of Christ to the world: not only Christ the High Priest, but the kenotic Christ the Servant as well.  As Father Joseph Komonchak famously quipped, “Vatican II did not restore the diaconate because of a shortage of priests but because of a shortage of deacons.”

Vatican IICertainly, there was some modest interest in this question by missionary bishops before the Council.  But it remained largely a European proposal.  Consider some statistics.  During the antepreparatory stage leading up to the Council (1960-1961), during which time close to 9,000 proposals were presented from the world’s bishops, deans of schools of theology, and heads of men’s religious congregations, 101 proposals concerned the possible renewal of the diaconate.  Eleven of these proposals were against the idea of having the diaconate (either as a transitional or as a permanent order), while 90 were in favor of a renewed, stable (“permanent”) diaconate.  Nearly 500 bishops from around the world supported some form of these 90 proposals, with only about 100 of them from Latin America and Africa.  Nearly 400 bishops, almost entirely from both Western and Eastern Europe, were the principal proponents of a renewed diaconate (by the way, the bishops of the United States, who had not had the benefit of the century-long conversation about the diaconate, were largely silent on the matter, and the handful who spoke were generally against the idea).  Notice how these statistics relate to Father Tom’s observation.  First, the renewed diaconate was largely a European proposal, not surprising given the history I’ve outlined above.  Second, notice that despite this fact, it is also wrong to say that “the African bishops said no thank you” to the idea.  Large numbers of them wanted a renewed diaconate, and even today, the diaconate has been renewed in a growing number of African dioceses.

One other observation on this point needs to be made.  No bishop whose diocese is suffering from a shortage of priests would suggest that deacons would be a suitable strategy.  After all, as we all know, deacons do not celebrate Mass, hear confessions or anoint the sick.  If a diocese needed more priests, they would not have turned to the diaconate.  Yes, there was some discussion at the Council that deacons could be of assistance to priests, but the presumption was that there were already priests to hand.

In short, the myth that “the diaconate was a third world initiative due to a shortage of priests” simply has never held up, despite its longstanding popularity.

  1.  Deacons as Part-Time Ministers

Father cites national statistics that point out that deacons are largely unpaid, “most of whom make a living doing secular work.”  “Why,” he asks, “are we ordaining part-time ministers and not full-time ministers?”

shutterstock_137696915-660x350Let’s break this down.  First, there never has been, nor will there ever be, a “part-time deacon.”  We’re all full-time ministers.  Here’s the problem: Because the Catholic Church did not have the advantage of the extensive conversation on diaconate that was held in other parts of the world, we have not fully accepted the notion that ministry extends BEYOND the boundaries of the institutional church itself.  Some of the rationale behind the renewal of the diaconate in the 19th Century and forward has been to place the Church’s sacred ministers in places where the clergy had previously not been able to go!  Consider the “worker-priest” movement in France.  This was based on a similar desire to extend the reach of the Church’s official ministry outside of the parish and outside of the sanctuary.  However, if we can only envision “ministry” as something that takes place within the sanctuary or within the parish, then we miss a huge point of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council and, I would suggest, the papal magisterium of Pope Francis.  The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present.  That means that no matter what the deacon is doing, no matter where the deacon is working or serving, the deacon is ministering to those around him.

We seem to understand this when we speak about priests, but not about deacons.  When a priest is serving in some specialized work such as president of a university, or teaching history or social studies or science at a high school, we would never suggest that he is a “part-time” minister.  Rather, we would correctly say that it is ALL ministry.  Deacons take that even further, ministering in our various workplaces and professions.  It was exactly this kind of societal and cultural leavening that the Council desired with regard to the laity and to the ordained ministry of the deacon.  The bottom line is that we have to expand our view of what we mean by the term “ministry”!

  1.  “Laypersons can do everything a deacon can do

Father writes, “But the truth is that a layperson can do everything that a deacon can do.”  He then offers some examples.  Not so fast.

ANSA-John23Hospital-255x318Not unlike the previous point, this is a common misperception.  However, it is only made if one reduces “being a deacon” to the functions one performs.  Let’s ponder that a moment.  We live in a sacramental Church.  This means that there’s more to things than outward appearances.  Consider the sacrament of matrimony.  Those of us who are married know that there is much, much more to “being married” than simply the sum of the functions associated with marriage.  Those who are priests or bishops know that there is more to who they are as priests and bishops than simply the sum of what they do.  So, why can’t they see that about deacons?  There is more to “being deacon” than simply the sum of what we do.  And, frankly, do we want priests to stop visiting the sick in hospitals or the incarcerated in prisons simply because a lay person can (and should!) be doing that?  Shall we have Father stop being a college professor because now we have lay people who can do that?  Shall we simply reduce Father to the sacraments over which he presides?  What a sacramentally arid Church we would become!

The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person.  Thomas Aquinas observed that an ordained person acts in persona Christi et in nomine Ecclesiae — in the person of Christ and in the name of the Church.  There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church.  We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.

  1.  “We have deacons. . . because they get more respect”

francis-washing-feetWith all respect to a man I deeply admire, I expect that most deacons who read this part of the column are still chuckling.  Yes, I have been treated with great respect by most of the people with whom I’ve served, including laity, religious, priests and bishops.  On the other hand, the experience of most deacons does not sustain Father’s observation.  The fact is, most people, especially if they’re not used to the ministry of deacons, don’t associate deacons with ordination.  I can’t tell the number of times that I’ve been asked by someone, “When will you be ordained?” — meaning ordination to the priesthood.  They know I am a deacon, but, as some people will say, “but that one really doesn’t count, does it?”  I had another priest once tell me, “Being a deacon isn’t a real vocation like the priesthood.”  If it’s respect a person is after “beyond their competence” (to quote Father Reese), then it’s best to avoid the diaconate.

No, the truth is that we have deacons because the Church herself is called to be deacon to the world (cf. Paul VI).  Just as we are a priestly people who nonetheless have ministerial priests to help us actualize our priestly identity, so too we have ministerial deacons to help us actualize our ecclesial identity as servants to and in the world.  To suggest that we have deacons simply because of issues of “respect” simply misses the point of 150 years of theological and pastoral reflection on the nature of the Church and on the diaconate.

In all sincerity, I thank Father Reese for his column on the diaconate, and I look forward to the ongoing conversation about this exciting renewed order of ministry of our Church.




32 comments on “Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions

  1. Juliana Boerio-Goates says:

    “The fact is, there IS a difference when a person does something as an ordained person…. There is a public and permanent dimension to all ordained ministry that provides the sacramental foundation for all that we try to do in the name of the Church. We are more than the sum of our parts, we are more than the sum of our functions.” I agree whole heartedly. I believe that is one of the strongest arguments for ordaining women to the diaconate. Allow them to be part of the public and permanent sacramental foundation, with the attendant grace that becomes available with the sacrament. Many women are already as fully functional in diaconal service as canon law and local clerics will allow but lack the sacramental presence.

  2. cgermak says:

    Thanks Deacon Bill.  Very well said.  I agree about respect.  I serve more woman in diocesan rolls that get more respect, rightfully so, since they have authority and a broader mission.   Blessings! Chris Deacon Chris Germak 330-936-8232

    From: Deacons Today: Servants in a Servant Church To: Sent: Friday, August 12, 2016 2:13 PM Subject: [New post] Deacons: Myths and Misperceptions #yiv6362502965 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv6362502965 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv6362502965 a.yiv6362502965primaryactionlink:link, #yiv6362502965 a.yiv6362502965primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv6362502965 a.yiv6362502965primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv6362502965 a.yiv6362502965primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv6362502965 | Deacon William T. Ditewig, Ph.D. posted: “Jesuit Father Thomas Reese has published an interesting piece over at NCRonline entitled “Women Deacons? Yes.  Deacons?  Maybe.”  I have a lot of respect for Fr. Tom, and I thank him for taking the time to highlight the diaconate at this most interesting ” | |

  3. Deacon Bob Davis says:

    Nice job, Bill. We can always count on you for a clear, cogent explanation of diaconal ministry.

  4. John Donaghy says:

    A great response, as expected.

    As a recently ordained (permanent) deacon in a diocese in Honduras, exactly a month ago, I also found Father Reese’s article problematic.

    But I think there is one point that he made that is legitimate to consider – the danger of clericalism. This may be more a problem here where the priests are often raised up on a pedestal, emphasizing the hierarchical nature of the church – but hierarchy of power rather than a hierarchy (holy leadership) of service.

    For me, his article sees the diaconate in functional terms, as you note. I think this reaction may be due to the need for a more profound theology of sacred orders as well as a deeper and broader ecclesiology. That’s another article!

    Again, thanks for this very helpful response.

  5. Paul says:

    There will never be “ordained” deaconettes. They may resurrect the minor order, but for dubious reasons, but women will never be ordained as deacons in the same manner as men. This is clear. Zagano has already lost.

  6. Deaconettes? Such a term appears nowhere in our Catholic Tradition, so I must conclude you’re using this neologism in a derogatory manner. This site operates with respect for others, even in disagreement. So take this as a warning. I take no position on the women Deacon question in the article and focus on the diaconate in general. I suggest, if you wish to comment here, that you do the same.

  7. Paul says:

    That is fine, Deacon Ditewig. I was necessarily trying to be derogatory, so much as being light with a subject of pure fantasy. Like same-sex “marriage,” “women deacons” is pure mythology. It is a phantasm. I call such unreal ideas as “women deacons” “deaconettes” because, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. They do not exist. I was not referring to the minor order of deaconess, which certainly existed, and could again, though it was not, and will never be, the same as the male, ordained via Holy Orders, diaconate. My main problem with Dr. Zagano and her supporters is how much she dismisses and diminishes the diaconate in order to make women’s entry into it more plausible. I am confident her opinions will be overruled on the commission, and certainly by the CDF and the Holy Father. Cheers, Paul.

  8. Paul says:

    That should have read “wasn’t trying to be derogatory”

  9. Why would you have respect for a priest of the Catholic Church who has done and continues to do does a lot of damage by statements like these?:

    just as I would argue for ordaining women priests. – Fr. Reese’s NCR article

  10. Easy. Because he is a child of God, first of all, and one who has done much good for the church.

  11. And, for the record, respect does not mean agreement on every point.

  12. I would love to see you and Father Reese on a stage; discussing the Permanent Diaconate, and the papal study commission. I think it could be an enlightening and entertaining discussion.

  13. I would love that, too! Invite us!

  14. Del Guidot says:

    “If” women are ordained deacons? Impossible. A woman cannot be ordained. Holy Orders is and always will be male only. If the Church ever attempts to ordain women it will be eternally invalid. Pray Pope Francis doesn’t fall into this trap.

  15. Ryan LeBlanc says:

    Hi Deacon William
    In my discernment, your concise phrase “The point of the diaconate is to extend the reach of the bishop into places the bishop can’t normally be present,” really helps. As does the sacramental role of deacon calling and empowering the church to serve.

    We’ve “imported” permanent deacons, but we will be ordaining our first in about 4 years, minimum. What do you think is most important for a North American diocese (Saskatoon, Canada) forming and receiving permanent deacons for the first time?

  16. I don’t know if you are married and with children. Perhaps you are. If not, go back to the family you came from. If a person attacked your family, and did grevious harm to them killing some of them, would respect such a person?

  17. As we used to say in my Navy career, such decisions are above my pay grade — and it’s also not the point of my post.

  18. Yes, we’ve been married for over 45 years, have 4 kids and 14 grandkids. I also served for 22 years an active duty in the Navy. But I don’t get the point you’re trying to make. No one here is discussing abortion, war or anything like them. Help me understand what you’re trying to say.

  19. To my Canadian brother: Please contact me at my diocesan office and we can talk in more detail about some “best practices” for setting up a formation process. Best e-mail would be

    Glad to help in any way I can.

    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

  20. Chardin says:

    In diaconate formation right now…a very interesting position to be in as motives and agendas of vastly different people come into view without any prompting at all. All of the men in my cohort are not what you’d consider more on the progressive side, to say the least. Not one. They’re not militant confrontationalists either, but lets just say that Mother Angelica has played at least some role in most guys hearing the call of our Lord to discern this vocation.

    This sets up a kind of ‘love/hate’ context in that the diocesan powers that be, while wanting to emphasize the role of the deacon at the parish level, are a bit flummoxed at the type of men that vocation is attracting. A point, I presume, not lost on Fr. Reese. The good new is that the diocesan staff is coming around to see the merits of a less “progressive” more orthodox diaconate, with the help of our fantastic bishop. That may sound a little polarizing and even a little divisive, but it has been a game changer in our diocese, in my opinion.

    My 0.02

  21. Blessings on the road of discernment. What Diocese?

  22. deacongill says:

    I’m a diocesan deacon of 25 years’ standing in the Church of England, and I always read your blog with interest and respect, and I am always rewarded with calm, cogent thinking. I know that many people, including priests in our own church, cannot accept women priests for different reasons, and I respect that too. I can only say that the Holy Spirit called me to be a deacon, much against my will, and that the church has confirmed that call. Being a deacon is not just about ‘what I do’ but ‘who I am’, and I honour my spiritual ancestors in the faith, most notably Phoebe. This is not just about rules and opinions, but needs openness to the Holy Spirit and his movements in all our churches.

  23. God bless you and yours and his work at your hands.
    The Angelic Doctor: “The goodness of the grace of one person is greater than the goodness of the nature of the whole universe.” Fr. Reese has wrecked a lot of havoc within the Church [cf. my first comment].

  24. William Krueger says:

    We have been ordained almost 44 years, first class in Chicago. My wife & I have served in the Church in Chicago & in Tucson & find all these comments of growth over all my years. I am 82 years old & still active at a slower pace. The Holy Spirit will guide us to another plateau & provide growth. We await the answers from the Holy Spirit for the good of all the Lord’s people.
    Deacon Bill

  25. John Baier says:

    Deacon Bill,
    Thanks for the excellent article. On issues like the ordination of women, I try to keep an open mind to see in what direction(s) the Spirit is moving the Church. But with regard to the bigger picture, I am glad that you reminded all of us that the diaconate not about what we do but rather about who we are. We are deacons 24/7/365.
    Again thanks.
    John Baier

  26. Gary Long says:


  27. wineinthewater says:

    Paul and Del,

    The Church has not spoken authoritatively on this issue so I think it is rash for you to do so. Personally, I go back and forth on the question, but the people who just make pronouncements about how it should be one way or the other instead of providing reasons why the Church should go one way or the other aren’t really contributing anything.

  28. Joanna says:

    Thank you, Deacon Bill Ditewig, for another excellent and insightful perspective on the diaconate. I realize the article addresses a different slant, but with so much commentary devoted here to the ordination of women, to the priesthood or to the diaconate, I felt inspired to offer my personal experience and perspective.

    First my experience. For seven years I traveled the same road as four men in my diocese, participating in the same exact formation process, university graduate courses, pastoral work. Step by step, an outwardly identical journey. At the end of our formation, the four were ordained to the permanent diaconate, vested, and assigned to work in parishes, assist at baptisms and liturgies. Meanwhile, I returned to doing what I had always done, but with greater humility, compassion, and wisdom… I returned to building homes for the poorest of the poor in Mexico, visiting the incarcerated in jail, visiting the sick and dying in hospitals, ministering to the homeless, advocating for refugees and migrants.

    Today, in Richard Rohr’s daily meditation (, he discusses “the third way”. He writes, “The interplay of two polarities calls forth a third, which is the “mediating” or “reconciling” principle between them. In contrast to a binary system, which finds stability in the balance of opposites, the ternary system stipulates a third force that emerges as the necessary mediation of these opposites and that in turn (and this is the really crucial point) generates a synthesis at a whole new level.” He gives this example… “Jesus brings third force to the situation of the woman caught in adultery. When presented with the polarities of stoning the woman or freeing her, Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).”

    So now returning to the question of women. So far, that has remained a dualistic question – “to ordain or not to ordain.” To see “the third way”, let us ponder the following…

    Jesus sees a woman pleading, her heart ablaze with fire to serve the Church as permanent deacon or priest. When presented with the polarities of ordaining the woman or dismissing her, Jesus says, “Let the one among you – who has felt your heart burning thus within you – be the first to dismiss her”.

  29. Chris Creo says:

    It is just sad when you hear some priests say something about the diaconate that clearly show they do NOT know much but are truly convinced they’re right. I was in a lunch with clergy when one of the priests said deacons are not ordained! Good thing I don’t have to say anything because the rest of the priests present corrected him–to his embarrassment–by saying: “What are talking about? They are ordained! They’re part of the clergy!”

  30. Chuck Schneider says:

    Sometimes our uber educated Jesuit brothers cannot see the forest through the trees and take stands and make judgements on matters they have not properly studied. The old adage to put the brain in gear before driving an idea home could apply here.

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