Thursday, October 28, 2010

Gone, but not forgotten

At the right is a picture of the system of Catholic ordinations from about 1000 AD until it was radically changed in 1972.  This system is often referred to by its Latin name, the cursus honorum, or "course of honors."  It basically reflected the same kind of "coming up through the ranks" system that was being used in civil society as well.

Prior to this system coming into favor in some parts of the church as early as the 3rd or 4th century, ordinations took place only to a specific order, as the needs of the community dictated.  This was known as "absolute" ordination.  So, if a community needed someone to serve as a presbyter, they ordained a lay person to the presbyterate; if they needed a deacon, they ordained a lay person to the diaconate, and so on.

With the "new" system (the cursus honorum), things were much more rigorously controlled.  A lay man became a cleric, a member of the clergy, through a ceremony (NOT an ordination) called tonsure.  This was a rite in which the new cleric's hair was cut as a sign of humility and service.  A good example would be how we see "Friar Tuck" depicted in all those Robin Hood movies: Friar Tuck was just bald; he had been tonsured.  Under canon law, a tonsured person was no longer a lay person, and was now eligible and able to receive ordination.

Next come the four "minor" orders: these were ordinations, but they were not permanent sacraments.  Porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte were all received in turn, with men serving in each order for some length of time before being ordained to the next one. 

Then come the three "major" orders: these were ordinations, and it was at ordination as a subdeacon that a cleric made his promise of celibacy.  Then came deacon, which was (and remains) a sacramental ordination, and presbyter.  Notice that under this system, the bishop is not included in this depiction of Holy Orders.  That's because bishops were not seen as part of this system; they were simply PRIESTS who had been given greater administrative responsibilities.  As well, bishops were seen as above this whole system, since it was the bishop who ordained people to all of these orders.  For this reason, the ceremonies involved with all of these orders were called "ordinations" while the ceremony by which a priest became a bishop was called a "consecration."

All of this changed with the Second Vatican Council.  First, the bishops declared that bishops ARE a part of the sacrament of Holy Orders.  They also decided that, at least in the Latin church, tonsure, the four minor orders, and the major order of subdiaconate were no longer needed, and they were "suppressed."  What had been called the "orders" of lector and acolyte were retained, but now as lay ministries, not ordinations.  So, the new system was: deacon (it is through ordination as a deacon now that a person becomes a cleric, since tonsure is no more), presbyter, and bishop.

The reason I bring this up is simple: Since this older system was around for so long, it is what most people have in their imaginations: everything "ends" in priesthood, and everything else is subordinate to it.  This is still the way many people act.  So, deacons get asked all the time: "When will be ordained a REAL priest?"  My wife was once asked, "When you die, will Bill become a REAL priest?" 

Imagination is a powerful thing, and until people's imaginations are changed about how the church now views ordination, bishops and deacons are going to struggle with "identity" issues.  Notice that the Second Vatican Council spent a lot of time talking about the sacramental identity of the laity, the episcopate and the diaconate: things CHANGED, but imaginations change more slowly.


  1. The cursus honorum, or "course of honors, is still with us in this regard: seminarians where clerics , but have not been ordained. Does this refer back to the now non existant tonsure?

    You are opening up the discussion about deacons and clerics, clerical dress, yes / no , black or grey etc etc....

    What does that say to the people who we serve? In an incresingly non secular environment symbols of dress have a great meaning......
    Any ideas
    Diakonos DC

  2. Good points Diakonos DC. It's odd that deacons are cautioned about how wearing the collar might confuse the faithful and misidentify us as priests. YET seminarians in theoogy on up wear the collar (even cassock) and many or most of them will not even ever make it to the actual clerical state. Personally, I think the collar issue is also a turf issue, otherwise sems would not be wearing it either.

    Other question just popped into my head: in seminaries of the Traditional Latin people (e.g., Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter. etc.) do they still do the "course of honors" system since everything else if pre-Vatican II? If so doesn't this cause serious theological problems since they are not a distinct Rite (like the Byzantines) but simply an aspect of the one Roman Rite?

    Any answers?
    The OTHER Diakonos

  3. I have often taught that the clerical layering that we saw in the Middle Ages was nothing more than the already existing Medieval secular layering of Apprentice/ Journeyman/ Master that was already existing in the secular realm. It was simply, then, translated into the clerical order.

    --Bishop was the Master:
    --Priest was the Journeyman:
    --Deacon was the Apprentice.

    Can someone prove me wrong?

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  4. Norb,

    I wouldn't say you were wrong, just incomplete. The apprentices were more equivalent to the minor orders than to the diaconate, especially in the earlier middle ages.


  5. Dear Diakonoi (both of you!),

    You're presuming that (permanent) deacons don't wear clerical attire! While that's true in some dioceses, it's not true in all of them.

    Our policy in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC is (or at least it was the last time I checked): "If, in the professional judgment of the deacon, the wearing of clerical attire will enhance his ministry, he may do so."

    I have often been asked why the USCCB wouldn't just establish a national policy on this; the answer is simple: the individual bishops don't want a national policy. They want the ability to make their own decision based on their location and need. There's no national policy, for example, on what priests should wear, either.

    I agree that the practice of automatically having seminarians wear clerical garb even before they're ordained is more confusing than anything a permanent deacon might do! That's another one of my reasons for hoping to eliminate the transitional diaconate. All of that: transitional diaconate, seminarians as pseudo-clerics (holding onto, as you point out, the old tradition of tonsure and the "cursus honorum").


  6. PS to my last:

    The reason that c.288 relieves permanent deacons of the obligation of wearing clericals, by the way, has to do with the expectation that deacons are still working in the secular community. If there were an obligation under canon law for us to wear clericals, we could be in big trouble. I was in the Navy, for example, so how would I wear clericals while serving as a line officer? So the law relieves us of the possible conflict.

    That does not mean that we are not, under the universal law, FORBIDDEN to wear clericals. That remains something left to the legislators of particular law (either the USCCB or individual diocesan bishops). The USCCB has not issued such particular law, so it all depends on individual diocesan bishops.

  7. Thanks, Deacon Bill. Appreciate the reply. My reading of the canon seems to imply that the caveat given the local ordinary regarding dress is that he might require it not forbid it at any time. But it seems that the opposite is the case in some (many) dioceses. My archdiocese is like yours regarding dress. However, it seems that under the standard application of canon law a deacon (or priest) may never be forbidden to wear clerical garb EXCEPT as a penalty. Thus it seems that in no case can a bishop forbid as normal course what it given as a right to the deacons.

    As you might guess I m a huge proponent of clerical garb for deacons but with common sense (i.e., not at secular work for example). My reason is actually considered by some to be liberal and not conservative: how can the people ever really absorb the reality of married clergy and of deacons as ordained ministers if they do not experientailly SEE us in this symbol of ministerial ordination? The collar i such a powerful symbol to all Americans even if unchurched. To see a Catholic minister in collar with wife (and kids), to see a deacon in collar as he ministers...I can't help but thinkthat this more than anything would contribute to the faithful finally getting a clue as to who we are. I think deacdes of emphasizing our commonality with laity has hurt this public awareness.

    Even though vocations are beginning to climb in seminiaries the lag time will be significant until we see these men ordianed and I think deacons will have to step up to the plate. The collar can tell people who do no know us that they can come to us, that we are "official", etc.