Friday, October 22, 2010

Deacons with Wives (and Without)

I can still remember how shocked I was.  My wife and I were at a small dinner party with several other deacons and their wives.  We had just moved to the area and we were still getting to know our new colleagues and friends.  While we were chatting and sharing our stories, one of the wives made the comment, "We were ordained in May."  WE were; not "HE was ordained"; "WE were ordained."  That took me aback.  I didn't say anything, of course, but I've thought about it ever since.  Of course I knew what she was saying: They had journeyed together throughout the formation process, and both of them had to make firm commitments involving diaconal ministry.  Furthermore, our theology of matrimony, which holds that "two become one flesh" enters into this equation at some point as well.  Still, only the husband had been ordained, albeit with her full participation and support.

As my own experience with the diaconate has grown over the years, including service at the national and international levels, I have heard this kind of comment repeatedly, although not nearly so much as I did in the past.  This expression, "we were ordained" seems to have peaked with those ordained in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  As more than one person has observed, "Even though a couple is married, one spouse may still celebrate a sacrament without that sacrament having effect on the other spouse."  Consider two unbaptized persons who are married.  Should one of them be baptized, we wouldn't expect to hear the other spouse say, "WE were baptized."

Another expression that still has traction is that of "deacon couples"; we often hear this, especially in terms of  social or church events: "All deacon couples are invited."  Again, the intent here is clear enough.  Deacons and their spouses (for those who are married, of course) are invited.  However, the precision of the expression is lacking.  Only one of the two is an ordained deacon, and that does not extend to the couple.  I made a career in the Navy, and retired as a Commander.  We would not be invited to things as a "Commander couple" or even as an "officer couple."  The same precision applies here.  So, most places have stopped using that expression in favor of something more precise.

As long as we're looking at terminology, here's another.  For a long time, it was pretty common to hear about "deacons' wives", as in, "There is a deacons' wives' group in the diocese."  Now, for a while that didn't seem to be problematic.  However, some of the wives began to get their backs up.  They began to realize that their identity was being determined and described by their husband's role as deacon.  "I'm a deacon's wife" often ignored the fact that this woman has an identity, often an official ministerial identity, quite distinct from her husband's.  One wife told me bluntly: "I have a doctorate in ministry, and have been active in ministry for years before my husband even thought about the diaconate; now people simply think of me and my role as his wife, and disregard or minimize my own professional expertise and experience."  Even more fundamental, of course, is the very sacramental identity we each have, individually, through baptism.  My Christian identity and dignity is established through initiation, not through association with someone else.  So, another term has emerged as a preferred expression: "the wife of a deacon."  I should point out that this distinction is usually made by the wives themselves as they reflect on their own sacramental identities.  Some ladies are perfectly comfortable with "deacon's wife"; others are not.

I realize that perhaps much of this may seem like hairsplitting, but it reveals important developments as the renewed diaconate continues to gain in maturity and experience.  What worked to describe the reality of the diaconate and diaconal life early in the renewal is giving way to more nuanced and reflective expressions, and I hope it will continue to do so.  The diaconate, especially in the US, began with an infancy and it has now grown into adolescence and is seeking its maturity.  This gets reflected in the language we choose to use to describe all of this.

Finally, one last handful of sand to throw into the gears.  While the majority of deacons serve as married men, it is important to remember that we have a signficant number of  deacons who are celibate, either because they were unmarried at the time of ordination or because their wives have passed away after ordination.  We must always avoid the temptation to think of the diaconate simply and collectively as "the married ministry".  I actually had people call me when I was on the USCCB staff and say that, although they felt a call to diaconate ministry, they couldn't pursue it because they weren't married!  At the Second Vatican Council, one bishop actually cited this as a concern he had with the diaconate: he didn't want to create a "two-tiered" system of ordained ministry consisting of celibate priests and married deacons.  The reality is, of course, that in the Catholic Church we have married priests and celibate deacons, as well as celibate priests and married deacons.  We have to keep our perspective on ordained ministry quite broad to take in the reality of things!



  1. The struggle to find the right language for the wife of a deacon involves an attempt to recognize the particularly “diaconal” or “kenotic” generosity that is exhibited in the sacrifices made by the wives and families of deacons. In effect, how should we recognize and honor the tremendous sacrifices of the wives of deacons without relegating them to some sadly anonymous second class status within their marriages. While the wife of a deacon is not ordained, she may be every bit as diaconal as he based upon her baptism and personal charism. Pope Benedict XVI in Deus Caritas Est stated that the entire Church by its very nature is diaconal – that is called to kenotic service. Who more than the wife of a deacon can witness this diakonia in a way that reflects baptismal discipleship and marriage not ordination? It should be clear to every married deacon, our pastors and the Church as a whole that the greater sacrifice of diaconal ministry is made not by the married deacon but by the wife who denies herself, her expectations and in some sense the intimacy of marriage so that her husband may serve the Church and those in need in this public ministry. While clearly avoiding the confusion of roles, whatever word, title, or phrasing that we develop, let us always hold the spouses of deacons in the highest esteem for the witness of their faith and the martyr-like laying down of their lives and marriages in a non-ordained but true spirit of diakonia.

  2. Dear Larry,

    I agree! I would just point out that the diaconal character of the entire church was made explicit long before Benedict: Paul VI, during his closing address to the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, said that the main purpose of the entire Council was to declare herself to be servant to the world, rather than its master. He states that the whole idea of "diakonia" has been central to the teaching of the Council.

    Then he (Paul VI) and all the popes following him (except John Paul I, who didn't serve long enough) talked about deacons' being the "animators" of the diakonia of the whole church.

    A good friend and mentor of mine, when greeting a new class of deacon aspirants, would tell the group that he was about to introduce them to the best deacon they would ever meet. As the guys began to look around to see who was coming in, George would smile and say, "Gentlemen, turn and look at the woman who came with you tonight -- your wife is the best deacon you'll ever know."

    George, by the way, was an unmarried deacon. Shortly before his death, he was ordained to the presbyterate. He told me once that, while he was honored to serve as a priest, he remained at heart, a deacon.

    God bless, brother,


  3. Okay, Bill, no more well-written and insightful posts on the diaconate and matrimony until I finish my thesis! Well done, indeed and some good stuff to ponder and run through the mill.


  4. Well, written. I thought I remember reading somewhere that the ordinary is for a deacon to be celibate and allowing married men to be deacons was the extra-ordinary. However, I have scoured some of the Vatican documents and cannot find this. But, I know I read it, I just can't remember where.

  5. Just one deacon husband was an enlisted man in the Navy for the first ten years of our marriage...and I often catch myself, when referring to those years, as saying, "When WE were in the Navy...". My life in those years was very affected by my husband's submarine service.

    While I never use the phrase, "When WE were ordained...", I can see how one might slip into doing so. Being married to a deacon affects one's life almost as profoundly as being married to a military man. You (as well as he) must give in to having major aspects of your life determined for you.

  6. The saying "WE were ordained" is about as accurate as saying "WE are pregnant." It's inaccurate and impossible and very annoying. I totally agree with you.

  7. David,

    You won't find such a distinction in any of the Roman or national documents. There is no "norm" or "extraordinary" form of the diaconate. In fact, there is but ONE diaconate, whether the deacon in question is going to ordained later as a priest (the so-called "transitional" deacon), a "permanent" deacon, a married deacon or a celibate deacon.

  8. I don't know that it is accurate to state outright and unequivocally that there is but one diaconate, that is, the idea that the transitional diaconate and the permanent diaconate constitute one order. I suppose it depends on how you view it. In the general sacramental sense, well, okay. But canonically and practically they seem quite distinct to me.

  9. Dear Scott,

    I wouldn't minimize the "general sacramental sense"; the canonical is not theologically despositive, since it is derivative from the theological. The late great canonist Jim Provost wrote once that he hoped that in the next revision of canon law, the diaconate would be dealt with properly and systematically, and not simply as adjustments (such as c. 288) to the ministry of the priest. Certainly experientially, we experience two modes of diaconate, and we will until praxis catches up with the paradigmatic theological shift caused by the renewal of a diaconate permanently exercised.

    To me, and to many others, the "transitional" diaconate is one last vestige of the medieval cursus honorum which since 1972 (and really, since 1967) has been supplanted by a new theology of orders brought about by the Second Vatican Council. The vocation being discerned in the seminary is the vocation to presbyterate, not to diaconate, and we no longer need an "on-the-job training" order for the presbyterate. A priest-friend of mine (actually, he's now a bishop) once said that was the only reason for a transitional diaconate; I responded that if that was the case, we should bring back to the subdiaconate for deacon candidates so that they too could have a "training order." I was, of course, not being serious here!

    But I am serious that the church can now safely move away from the cursus honorum and do away with the transitional diaconate. That is, of course, if we truly believe in "lex orandi, lex credendi".


  10. Dc Bill:

    If you do away with the transitional diaconate, do you lose the connection of bishop, priest, and deacon? You would be creating a separate form of Holy Orders for that of the deacon, wouldn't you? Or would you be creating a move towards "Lay Deacons" who are not part of the hierarchy or Holy Orders because they truly are not ordained in the same sacrament as bishops and priests.

    When we hear the story of Pope Paul VI at the Council when he asked to enthrone the Book of the Gospel and he is told that the deacon must do it, his reply expresses the connection we all have in Holy Orders. His reply was "I am a deacon too." Look at the picture of Benedict XVI washing feet at Holy Thursday's Mass while wearing his dalmatic and you see the connection we have to the three levels of Holy Orders.

    Take the progression from deacon, to priest, to bishop away and I believe we start even further down the slippery slope towards the lay diaconate.


  11. Dear Patrick,

    No, I don't that would be case at all. In fact, for about a millennium, and longer in certain parts of the church, there WAS no absolute progression from one order to another. Instead, the church employed what was known as "absolute" ordination. In other words, a person was ordained to the order needed by the church. If that church needed a bishop, a suitable candidate was ordained a bishop, for example.

    At least 38 deacons of Rome were ordained the bishop of Rome (the Pope) directly from the diaconate; similar examples from other dioceses are too numerous to list.

    And, no one would ever have suggested that deacons were not ordained.

    In short, there's no theological reason whatsoever for a person to be ordained to one order before being ordained to another. Even if one holds that diaconal ordination grounds the sacrament of orders in servanthood, and that's a very good claim to make, that again would be a novelty in the Tradition and history of the church. From about the 12th century, one entered the clerical state with a rite known as tonsure, followed by ordinations to the minor orders (porter, lector, acolyte and exorcist), and then the three major orders of subdeacon, deacon and priest.

    Vatican II referred to the ENTIRE episcopal ministry of Word, Sacrament, and Charity as a "diakonia"; priests and deacons participate, in subordinate ways, in that general sacrament of diakonia given fully to the bishop. In other words, ALL ordained ministry is about diakonia. When a presbyter is ordained, he is ordained to service; when a bishop is ordained, he is ordained to service; when a deacon is ordained, he is ordained to service.

    Absolute ordination, the longstanding practice of the church, underscores that fact.

    I know this seems like a daring idea, because we haven't seen this done in quite a while; but there's no reason why it couldn't or shouldn't be done. In fact, most of us have noted in our research that during the so-called "Golden Age" of the diaconate back in the second and third centuries, ordinations were absolute; the "cursus honorum" (coming up through the ranks) had not started yet! So, for each order to be fully exercised in its own right, we should consider going back to that approach, before we moved into what Jim Barnett refers to the age of the "omnivorous priesthood".

    Just some reflections. What do you think?

    God bless,


  12. Bill:

    I hope this doesn't come off as negative so please bear with me.

    I understand the "omnivorous priesthood" mentality because it is very much a part of reality. If a male is not a priest/bishop, then they have no purpose and no meaning in the eyes of many. In other words, the priest is it.

    You hear the questions like "What do deacons really do that I can't do?" and, "deacons just take away from the ministry of the priest." This is a opinion found not only in the laity but in the order of the presbyter too.

    Then there are those from the order of presbyter that state, "in a matter of time, when the need of priests becomes dire, the permanent deacons will be made priests to fill in the gap (maybe a junior level subserviant to the celebate priesthood)." I have heard this from priests.

    I am not saying that is not the case either because without the priesthood, the sacramental church would be hard pressed to exist. Something has to happen to keep the church functioning in the future. The influx of foreign priest is not the answer because they are alienating the laity because they may be hard to understand and their points of view are vastly different than the American culture in which they must now assimulate.

    I read an article that list the top ten diocese with pastor-less/priest-less parishes (by percentage). I was amazed by the numbers - Rapid City,SD (71% of their parishes without a pastor/resident priest); Debuque IA (55%); Springfield, IL (51%); Superior, WI (59%); and the list goes on and on. The crisis is upon our Church and is gaining speed with the number of priests reaching retirement age in the next 5 to 10 years. One archdiocese, Baltimore I believe, could lose up to half of its priests in the next 15 years.

    All this leads to finding a solution to this very serious problem and insuring that the idea of the omnivorous priesthood syndrome eating up all the deacons does not happen. Diaconal identity and function is the only way to combat these issues. In my opinion, the church is afraid to define this because they fear that it will alienate more priests

    Just my two cents. Great thread.

  13. You say that it is not true that the diaconate is the "married order" while the priesthood is the "celibate order". You say, on the contrary, that we have both married priests and celibate deacons.

    True. But 98 percent of deacons are married and not celibate, while 98 percent of priests are celibate and not married.

    So "practically speaking", the confused laypeople are not all that confused - they have indeed observed that this is the case, and so that is how they experience both of these orders.

    By the way, I would like to ask Deacon Dodge and Deacon Ditewig this question because I have long been curious: if you were the Magisterium and could choose to uphold mandatory priestly celibacy or open the priesthood up to married men, which would you choose? Both of you seem to favour the latter, but I can't tell because you seem careful about coming out and saying it (unlike Deacon Keith Fournier, who states his opinion unequivocally). Also, would you be priests instead of deacons if the Church allowed you to? Or did you choose the diaconate because that was the only ministry opened to married men (which makes you wonder if it is indeed perhaps best referred to as "the married order").

  14. Dear Wade,

    I can't and won't answer for Deacon Scott, so I hope he sees your questions.

    1) The concern over seeing the diaconate as "the married order" and the presbyterate as "the celibate order" was not original with me. It was raised by several bishops during the discussions on the diaconate in October 1963. THEY (not me) were the ones who expressed concern precisely because "we have married priests and we will have celibate deacons." Regardless of popular misperception, and perhaps precisely because of it, I will continue to agree with this concern when catechizing about the diaconate.

    2) "If I were the Magisterium" is a strange way to phrase the question. If what you're asking is, "If I were in a position to influence the development of the law" on the question of sacerdotal celibacy, what would I do, that's a different thing. Since we Catholics already have a tradition of married clergy, there's not much more I need to say. No one I know has any problem with celibacy for those who are called to it, whether they are lay persons, religious, deacons or priests. I DO have a problem REQUIRING celibacy for certain ministers. Celibacy, according to Catholic theology, is defined as a GIFT, a CHARISM -- and you can't "mandate" a gift. This is not a particularly radical idea. Seminarians are often told that celibacy is not something that they should "put up with" or "endure" in order to attain to the presbyterate; rather, they are to discern whether or not they have been given the gift of celibacy.

    3) I spent eight years discerning a vocation to the presbyterate, and determined that I did not. I later discerned a vocation to the diaconate. It is a distinct vocation, and I did NOT become a deacon because I could do so as a married man. I know of no deacon who did such a dishonest thing. IF the discipline (it's not a doctrine and it could change) were to change, most deacons have already responded that they had no interest in becoming presbyters. Still, it would be best to ask them if/when the discipline changes. Some might later decide that should discern whether they have a vocation to the presbyterate.

    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

  15. Also, it seems as though deacons whose wives have died young or relatively young react in one of three ways:

    1. ask for a dispensation to remarry (which the Vatican says should be an extremely rare exception).

    2. apply for the priesthood (which the Vatican says should be an extremely rare exception).

    3. apply for laicization (so they can remarry) (which the Vatican says should be an extremely rare exception).

    What is most rare is that the younger / middle aged deacon joyfully embraces his celibacy and continues to minister as a DEACON.

  16. Hmmm, my first reply didn't post. I think it's lost for good :(

  17. Dear Wade,

    Is this the one you were concerned didn't show up? It showed up in my e-mail: Here it is:

    Deacon Ditewig,

    1. We can have a perfect catechesis on marriage and celibacy as it relates to the priesthood and diaconate, and we will still have 98 percent married deacons and 98 percent celibate priests, just as in the East, 90+ percent of priests are married. The same would happen in the West if the priesthood was opened to married men. Why do we think it would be different?

    2. You seem to want to avoid coming out and giving a direct answer to this question, so I will respect that and not press it further.

    3. But did you discern you did not have a vocation to the priesthood BECAUSE you believed you were called to marry instead? In which case, I would not be so sure that perhaps you discerned the diaconate because you could do so as a married man. But I will take you at your word - even if, in some cases, that is probably what happens. In which case, I would say there is a problem.

    "IF the discipline (it's not a doctrine and it could change) were to change, most deacons have already responded that they had no interest in becoming presbyters."

    And yet, according to Fr. Longenecker, many would ( [second last paragraph]).

    And please see this comment from a newly-ordained (at the time - 1991) deacon from Georgia: "Deacon Kevin Lyday toyed with the idea of a religious vocation as a 19-year-old and spent time in a Franciscan monastery searching for direction. Now at 35, married and the father of three children, he believes ordination as a permanent deacon is a 'wonderful opportunity to have your cake and eat it too.'" (

    To "have your cake and eat it too?" I know that many will say this an extremely rare example. But I would say deep down, many who pursue the diaconate have that motivation, even if they are not so aware or would be so upfront about it.

  18. Yes, that was the one, Deacon Ditewig. Thank you!

  19. And here's my response to it:

    1) Since I think I've already answered this concern I guess there's nothing more to be said on it. The Council Fathers raised the concern, and I simply reported it. What more are you looking for here?

    2) Straight answer? I gave a straight answer: I said that I support celibacy (including clerical celibacy) when it is something freely gifted, and therefore, not mandated. If the church wishes to have only celibate priests throughout the church, then it can declare the celibate state to be an INHERENT and INDISPENSIBLE part of the priesthood and let all married clergy die off, in East and West. I also clearly said that gifts are freely given and received. What is it you're looking for here? Do you want me to say that I think the Latin church should move away from a mandated clerical celibacy for the priesthood? I think she already has; it certainly is not an absolute or inherent requirement.

    3)Not that my personal vocational choices are any of your business, but I discerned that I did not have a vocation to the presbyterate BEFORE I discerned a vocation to Matrimony. Does that help you? It sounds like you're going to believe what you want on this anyway, regardless of the experience of the vast majority of deacons. But, you asked for my own case, and there it is.

    4)I have no clue who Fr. Longnecker is or what his qualifications to make such an observation are. I can only speak for the basis of my own comment on the matter, which is formed from more than 21 years as a deacon, and more than 25 years of studying the formal research ON the diaconate, which has included this very question! Overwhelmingly, over all those years and in all that documented research, deacons have responded as I have indicated.

    Does this help?


  20. Thank you for the response, Rev. Dr. Ditewig.

    2. You clarified things enough that it sounds like your position is similar to that of Deacon Fournier: he would prefer if the Latin Church would open up the priesthood to ALL celibate and married Catholics so we would have both celibate and married priests and not just those coming in from the pastoral provision.

    Now, Paul VI said that the pastoral provision (and the permanent diaconate) was supposed to be brought in in such a way that it did not undercut the discipline of mandatory priestly (i.e. lead people to see in the married ministry something that they believed could or even should be applied to the priesthood, thus leading people to agree with changing the rule for mandatory celibacy). And this is precisely what has happened. That is my concern. People (including deacons) say, "marriage and ministry work fine together. In fact, it has some benefits. Thus, it might be a good thing for the Church to allow and encourage both married and celibate men to be priests". If you read the Vatican documents concerning the use or expansion of the pastoral provision, that is precisely what they wanted to avoid.

    3. Do you care to comment on what Deacon Lyday stated? Do you think what he said was problematic?

    4. Fr. Longenecker is a married Catholic priest (former Anglican priest) and has written a number of books.

    By the way, can you refer me to the statistics wheren it says that the majority of deacons whose wives die before the age of 55 remain active celibate deacons rather than (a) applying for permission to remarry, (b) applying for the priesthood, or (c) applying for laicization?