Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Renewed Diaconate at Vatican II: Gift of the Holy Spirit

It is fairly well known that it was the decision of the 2600 bishops assembled as the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that it would be possible again to permit the exercise of the diaconate as a permanent order of ministry.  They expressed this decision in paragraph #29 of the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (known by its Latin incipit, Lumen gentium).  Pope Paul VI would then implement this decision after the Council ended; he promulgated Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem  ("The Holy Order of the Diaconate") in 1967, changing existing law to permit bishops to ordain men as deacons without the intention of later ordaining them to the priesthood, as well as changing the law in order to permit married candidates to be ordained.

However, what is often not discussed are the actual conversations, speeches and writings related to the question that took place before and during the Council itself.  I thought it might be interesting to review some of that background.  It gives us a valuable insight as to why the bishops felt this was such an important decision to make. 

I will present three Cardinals to you.  At the time of the debate on the diaconate, Cardinal Leo-Josef Suenens of Belgium was 59, and a highly-respected leader during and following the Council.  He was a close friend to both Pope John XXIII and Pope Paul VI, and his intellectual brilliance and pastoral heart were deeply felt on a wide variety of issues at the Council: the renewal of religious life, the diaconate, the processes involved in the governance of dioceses, and even his support of the charismatic renewal movement. Cardinal Juan Landazuri Ricketts, only 50 years of age at the time of the debate, was a Franciscan friar serving as Archbishop of Peru,  Cardinal Julius Doepfner of Munich-Freising was another young (50 at the time of the debate), well-respected and pastorally-experienced leader at the Council.  These three young cardinals articulated extremely valuable points which apparently echoed the desires of the vast majority of the Council fathers with regard to the diaconate.

The principal conciliar debate on the subject of renewing the diaconate as a "proper and permanent" order in the Latin Church occurred during the 41st to the 49th general assemblies (4 - 16 October 1963).  In reviewing the interventions, the climax of the debate occurred on 8 October, with the intervention of Cardinal Suenens. 

Cardinal Doepfner
The first speaker in favor of renewal was Cardinal Doepfner.  He strongly urged acceptance of the draft, and ad­dressed some of the concerns already raised.  He supported the inclusion of the diaconate in a dogmatic document because the issue of the orders of the hierarchy of the Church is a dogmatic issue, a part of the divine law and therefore an essential part of the nature of the Church.  He pointed out that the diaconate, ever since Trent, had been seen as part of the sacra­mental priesthood.  Looking to the present situation in many parts of the world, Doepfner pointed to the fact that there are many persons, many of them married, who are serving the Church in diaconal roles.  He asked, “Why should these people be denied the grace of the sacrament?”  The law of celibacy is sacred, he said, but it should not become an obstacle for the evolution of beneficial ways to serve which may be necessary in our times.
Cardinal Landazuri-Ricketts
Cardinal Landazuri Ricketts, speaking for himself and 95 other Latin American Fathers, spoke to the benefits of a renewed diaco­nate.  While many functions (which he does not articulate) of the diaconate were already done by laypersons, there were still others that the deacon would carry out as an ordained member of the hierarchy.  The restoration of the diacon­ate was not to lessen the role of the laity, but to increase it, and that the lay apostolate, while most important, is not an end in itself.  The Latin American Fathers he represented urged the adoption of the proposal.

Cardinal Suenens
It was at this point that Cardinal Suenens presented what is arguably the strongest and most coherent argument for the diaco­nate evident in the documents.  He began by outlining the theo­logical principles upon which the diaconate is based.  Citing the authority of scripture, the apostolic Fathers, constant tradi­tion, and the liturgical books of East and West, he spoke of the many charisms evident throughout the Church, distinct from the priest­hood, which were set up to provide direct assistance to the bishop in the care of the poor and the nurturing of the communi­ty.  To say that these tasks can be given to lay persons does not mean that the diaconate is not needed.  These tasks should only be given to persons (whether ordained or not) who have the neces­sary graces.  The Church has the right to the benefit of all the graces given to it by God, including the graces of the diaconate.

Suenens then turned to the situation in the contemporary world.  He urged the Fathers not to make a universal decision for or against the diaconate.  Rather, they should decide if there was any area or situation that might benefit from it, and then phrase its decision in such a way as to enable it to take effect in those regions in which the bishops decided it was appropriate.  In other words, the Council should not close off universally any means by which the grace of God may flow into the Church.  Therefore (quoting from the draft), “where episcopal conferences judge the restoration of a permanent diaconate opportune, they should be free to introduce it.”

Even in this brief snapshot, we can see how the Council worked: What tools were needed to assist people in the contemporary world.  Expressed more theologically, what gifts had been given by the Spirit to the Church to render such assistance?  The diaconate was presented as one of those many gifts of the Spirit.


  1. Bill

    I was in a Senior Theology Seminar as an undergraduate in Spring 1965 at the University of Dayton. There were a total of 18 in the class and all of us were hand-picked by the Department Chair. Nine were genuine lay-folks working on assorted liberal arts majors; the other nine were Marianist Brothers working on their Theology degrees.

    Since the topic of my seminar paper was Cardinal Suenens, your post is bringing back some fascinating memories. I do not, however, recall finding in my research anything specific about his interest in the diaconate. Your post clarifies a great deal of that whole line of thinking.

    NOW a question of sorts: wasn't Cardinal Doepfner the official "sponsor" of Fr. Josef Ratzinger's being selected to a Council position as a "peritus" ?

    Keep up the good work!

    Deacon Norb in Ohio

  2. Thanks, Norb.

    Actually, Cardinal Frings of Cologne was Fr. Ratzinger's sponsor and mentor.

    God bless,


    PS I have a lot more about Suenens and the diaconate in my dissertation, if you're interested in it.

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  4. Deacon Ditewig, I'd be very interested in more about Cardinal Suenens and the diaconate. Where might I find that information?

  5. Two sources in English: You can read his own autobiography, "Memories and Hopes" which was published, I believe, in 1992; I also give a lot more detail about him and the Council in my book, "The Emerging Diaconate: Servant Leaders in a Servant Church" (Paulist Press). My sources were the actual Latin documentation for the Council, including the Antepraeparatoria Series; the Praeparatoria Series, and the Acta Synodalia.


    God bless,

    Deacon Bill

  6. Awesome
    The ministry of the permanent Deacon seems to be coming back in the Orthodox Church also.

    Very good article
    Subdeacon Lazarus