Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Clothes make the . . . deacon?

So, as my friend Deacon Greg Kandra likes to note, whenever the topic turns to "Roman collars" it invariably progresses to "deacons in collars" and everyone seems to have an opinion about that!  During my days at the USCCB, I had occasion to hear each and every argument pro and con on this matter -- repeatedly.  I think it's helpful to have some historical perspective on all of this.

1) What is "clerical attire"?  Here we are limiting ourselves to NON-LITURGICAL dress, not the various liturgical vestments we wear.

2) Where and when did the idea of a distinctive dress for Christian clergy come about?  Obviously, early Christians, like St. Peter or St. Paul, or Phoebe, wore no distinctive attire that identified them as "clergy" or even as someone serving others in some kind of ministry.  Consider this quotation from Pope Celestine in 428 AD to some bishops in Gaul.  After he takes them to task for wearing clothing which made them conspicuous, he writes that "we should be distinguished from the common people by our learning, not by our clothes, by our conduct, not by our dress, by cleanness of mind, not by the care we spend upon our person (Mansi, "Concilia", IV, 465).  I would point out that this letter was written after the church had emerged from persecution and, in fact, more than 40 years after the church had become the official and exclusive religion of the empire.  It will only be after the adoption of newer clothing styles influenced by the arrival of the Germanic peoples, that bishops decided that clergy should retain the "older" styles, including longer gowns (togas) rather than the shorter "doublets" and "trousers" coming into fashion.  The various letters and decrees we see from this time seem to be concerned that clergy dress in a subdued and appropriate manner -- again, without the notion of setting them apart -- that would simply reflect the seriousness of their purpose.  We also see the practice of the wearing of "liturgical vestments" (chasubles, dalmatics, e.g.,) as street wear.  Finally, even in the later Middle Ages, the concerns of bishops seem to be with the wearing of "closed" capes and full length, somber vesture.  This was to counter the practice of many clerics of all clerical ranks to dress more like nobles, with colorful and costly clothes.

In the late 1880's in the United States, the bishops required that their priests wear long, dark frock coats, simple in design.  The "collar" we now identify so much with Catholic clergy, was European in origin, and was used in some places more by Lutheran clergy than Catholic clergy!

This brings up an important point: UNIVERSAL church law says very, very little about the SPECIFICS of what clergy should wear, simply that they should wear something distinctive as determined by the bishops' Conference and/or their own bishops.  I mean, in theory, the USCCB could easily say that ALL clergy were to start wearing brown suits with white shirts and red ties.  Clerical attire has been so varied in both specific clothing and practice, that perhaps it is useful to remember that what we see now has not always been the case, and it need to be the case in the future.

3) Who wears clerical attire?  As the name indicates, "clergy" wear the clothing of clergy.  So, how is it that seminarians wear clerical attire when they're not yet clergy?  We need to remember that UNTIL 1972, a person became a CLERIC through the rite of TONSURE, long before they were ordained to anything.  In the seminary, seminarians "received the soutane" [started to wear the cassock] at about the same time they were tonsured, which took place at sometime between the last 4-6 years of seminary formation.  For those not familiar with the "cursus honorum", this means that a young man became a cleric with tonsure; then, he would later be ordained porter, then lector, the exorcist, then acolyte (the minor orders).  Then, about a year or so before ordination to the presbyterate, he would be ordained a subdeacon, and eventually, a deacon.  So, my point is this: Until 1972, SEMINARIANS IN MAJOR SEMINARY WERE CLERGY, even though they weren't yet presbyters, so it was most appropriate that they be in clergy attire.

4) Since 1972, of course, this is no longer the case, and seminaries have adopted different policies, with some having seminarians in clericals, and in others, only deacons wear them.  This is adding a LOT to the current confusion.

SHOULD deacons wear clericals?  In my opinion, this is a decision best left to the deacon in question.  The reason that the OBLIGATION to wear clerical attire is waived for permanent deacons (canon 288) is because there could be a conflict with the deacon's secular employment.  I, for example, was a career Navy officer.  Without canon 288, I would have had an obligation to wear clerical attire as well as an obligation to wear my Navy uniform.  This is the rationale behind c. 288, not to deny deacons the ability to wear clerical attire in appropriate venues.  The policy of the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, is, in my opinion, the best-stated policy I've seen: "If, in the professional judgment of the deacon, the wearing of clerical attire will enhance his ministry, he may do so."  This puts the emphasis where it should be: It is not a question of a deacon exercising a "right" to wear something (which could border on clericalism), but rather, a deacon wearing attire that will make him more accessible to the people he serves.  For example, I was once taking communion to some folks in a retirement/health facility.  I noticed that when I made my rounds wearing "civvies" one woman would never receive communion.  She was struggling with senile dementia, and she would look up and when she saw a collar, she'd receive; if she didn't see a collar, she'd refuse.  This was not the time for a long doctoral dissertation on why she should receive, regardless of the minister!  The poor lady just looked for a simple sign, and from that point on, I wore a collar when visiting that facility.

Hope this is helpful.  Comments? Disagreements? Questions?


  1. I agree with you that it should be left to the discretion of the individual deacon. If we are found mature and worthy enough to be ordained, we shoould also be mature enough to know when and when not to wear clercial attire.

    I guess I begin to take issue when a bishop sets forth the "you may onyl wear the collar when..." regulations but makes no such restrictions or stipulations upon the presbyters. I take it as an unjust double standard.

    BTW I do not think claiming one'canonical right borders on or hints at clericalism as you seem to indicate. A right is a matter of justice and one should not be put down for asking that a legal or canonical right granted him be respected.

  2. I volunteer with a local hospice organization. For this hospice, I've covered four counties that spread over two dioceses.
    On five occasions I've been called and told that the family of an actively dying person wants someone to pray with them, but the hospice chaplain is out on a call or otherwise unavailable, and could I, as clergy, step in. The family is typically not Catholic - or they'd call for a priest.

    If I show up with a deacon cross, they'll not know what that means. If I show up with a crucifix, they're likely to recoil from the corpus. I'm beginning to think that I need to make the argument that "you may only wear the collar when..." applies in this case. So has anyone made such an argument successfully?

  3. Lacustrine Lectio - I would think it depends on what diocese you are in and what its regulations might be. I think that even in the most stringent of dioceses your case would be a prime example of when to wear a collar. I know that in some dioceses you simply need to send a letter to the bishop or perhaps his vicar for clergy or the director of the diaconate laying the case before them. In my diocese the individual deacon simply says to himself "Yup , better put on my collar for this one." Its at our discretion.

    BTW I agree that while the Deacon Cross (as pendant or pin)is a good reminder to us of our vocation it really is an unintelligble sign to most of the people. I mean, so many people wear crosses of various designs these days that most just see it as a piece of jewelry not a clerical sign of service. I will say that I prefer the clerical collar shirts that have the Deacon Cross embroidered on them. You might want to look into this as a nice way to combine both the general clerical dress and the particular vocation as deacon.

  4. It seems counterproductive to argue the canon law aspect of this since in fact, Canon Law, perhaps purposefully, has left this subject open to interpretation, and therefore ultimately the bishops will decide clerical dress policy for clergy in their diocese. However, there seems no ambiguity whatsoever in the 3nd Plenary Baltimore Conference statement that mandates that clerics must wear clerical garb. Perhaps repealed by CIC 1917, but that too is open debate (Maybe that is another discussion). Clearly, CIC 1983 C.288 relieved permanent deacons from the obligation, but not the right to wear clerical dress.

    Having said that, I'd like to toss in my 2¢ on other aspects of this debate.

    Any reason for a priest or seminarian to wear clerical garb is an equally valid and compelling argument for a deacon, too.

    I have read and heard many substantive and substantial ministerial reasons given in favor of a deacon wearing clerical dress, especially in situations that would warrant that type of dress (no need for me to discuss those situations since they are many, varied, and well substantiated both here and in other places). The flip side is that I have yet to hear ANY compelling argument for why the right to clerical dress is denied to deacons.

    I have heard the "confusing the laity" argument. That argument leaks like a sieve considering that seminarians (and other non-ordained) wear clerical dress. Not to mention that many Protestant ministers wear collars. I have heard the "bishops have the right to decide for their diocese" argument, which I will agree is a substantive impediment to a deacon wearing a collar, but it's certainly not a "substantive and substantial reason" for not allowing deacons to wear "the collar" in an appropriate ministerial setting. I have heard the "deacons should look like the people they serve" argument. Then why shouldn't priests look like the people they serve also? One might say that priests are full-time where permanent deacons are part-time, but presumably then, permanent deacons who work full time in the church should be allowed to wear clerical garb all the time too? I have heard the "it makes the deacon less approachable" argument, which ironically, I think is reversed. Also, I think it ill advised to hide those most able to minister, from those needing to be ministered to.

    Over and above the "ministerial" reasons for a deacon to wear a collar, I can think of several non-ministerial reasons as well. First, I think this will go a long way in the priest vs deacon mentality that is sadly evident in both orders. Is this thinking not the same that led to cursus honorarium in the first place?

    Second, and I guess ultimately this is a ministerial reason, but a "secular ministerial" reason, is that the more the church can have ministers who are highly visible, normal, reasonable, well connected to the community, respected, etc. (all things that one would suspect a deacon is), the more we can combat the negative stereotypes that the press wants to foist upon their audience, which sadly the audience is buying into. Somehow I just don't see how it makes good sense to "hide" our clergy.

    It would seem to me if the bishops are as aware of this debate as this and other threads have indicated, would it not be wise for bishops to give substantive reasons why they are choosing to not allow deacons to dress as clergy in their diocese? I don't think anyone is arguing their "right" or "authority" to make the decision (at least I am not), but it would seem inexpedient to the purpose of unity of clergy to not give some substantive reason. It would almost seem that this is the ecclesial equivalent of a parent saying "because I said so" when asked "why" by their child.

    I hope this is clear as I typed this out pretty quickly and did not have time to proof it adequately.

  5. The decision should be left up to the individual deacon, but also his bishop. The one point that seems to be left out is that the wearing of distinctual garb, that is the roman collar, is a visual encouragement to future vocations.

  6. Ed,

    The bishops ARE aware of the issues, but there are two things that they insist upon:

    1) They want each diocesan bishop to make his own decision in each diocese; they do not want a national policy or even a regional policy that would tie individual diocesan bishops' hands. We tried on several occasions, without success.

    2) The bishops are, by and large, frightened of a "creeping clericalism" within the diaconate that would give an impression of "deacons-wanting-to-be-priests", and right now, everyone is so defensive about the state of the presbyterate that this becomes an uphill battle. I like to remind folks that this is less about the clerical identity of the deacon than it is about the perceived fear of a LOSS of identity within the presbyterate.

    On the other hand, I will say that, as of this writing, MOST of our 196 dioceses permit deacons to wear the collar under certain pastoral conditions. One of the perception problems we have is that deacons in those dioceses that do NOT allow collars sometimes extrapolate from that fact, thinking that it is permitted nowhere!

    In my experience, the majority of bishops will not restrict the use of the collar if deacons can make a convincing pastoral case to him. This is a matter that must be handled diocese by diocese, bishop by bishop.

    God bless,


  7. When it comes to the issue of a bishop’s authority regarding clerical dress he is bound by canon law as well. Now Canon 288 exempts the permanent deacon from the right and obligation of clerical dress BUT it contains a clause: “unless particular law establishes otherwise”.

    In other words, the individual permanent deacon may choose to claim this exemption and not wear clerical dress UNLESS the bishop decrees that it must be worn (not the contrary). This nuance is often misinterpreted to mean that the bishop will decide when his deacons may or may not claim this exemption. Properly understood, and as some canonists I know have concurred, what a bishop CAN legitimately mandate in this regard is the wearing of clerical dress for certain occasions or ministries as an obligation. However, he cannot forbid the wearing of clerical dress EXCEPT as a penalty levied for some serious infraction of canon law and clerical living.

    So Canon 288 allows the bishop to state when the deacons may NOT claim this exemption in dress. This is the particular law referred to in the clause. It is not visa versa.

    I think this is a very important distinction and it in no way seeks to minimize the authority of a bishop or to promote any kind of disobedience or even neglect of diocesan directives. A bishop does indeed have ultimate ecclesial authority in his diocese as its chief shepherd. But it is not unbridled and must be subservient to Church law unless that same law stipulates otherwise on the topic at hand.

  8. I never understood why they don't just have a collar with the Deacon cross imprinted, embroidered, whatever....on the front part of the collar. This would allow for an easy distinction.