Rorate Caeli

Op-ed: "Is the Married Permanent Diaconate a Trojan Horse to attack the sacred priesthood?"

Rev. Deacon Nick Donnelly
Rorate Contributor

The Pan-Amazonian synod has realised the fears of certain Fathers of the Second Vatican Council that the creation of the married permanent diaconate would undermine and eventually abolish the sacred Tradition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church. The Final Document of the Amazonian synod proposes that permanent deacons are ordained priests:

“…we propose to establish criteria and dispositions on the part of the competent authority, in the framework of Lumen Gentium 26, to ordain as priests men who are apt for it and who are recognized by the community, who are fruitful permanent deacons and who receive an adequate formation for the priesthood, even if they have a legitimately constituted and stable family…With regard to this, some wished that the topic be addressed in a universal way.”(Final Document, 111.)

During the voting on the Final Document, 128 synod participants voted to end mandatory celibacy in the Amazon, with the possibility of universal application. (41 voted against). This marks a fundamental attack on the sacred Tradition of mandatory priestly celibacy throughout the Latin Church. (This sacred Tradition had already been weakened by the admission of married Church of England clergy to the priesthood on conversion to the Catholic Faith or through the Personal Ordinariate.)

The Church has valued priestly celibacy since apostolic times, understanding its significance through the Pauline nuptial ecclesiology of Ephesians 5:29 which  describes Christ nourishing and cherishing His Bride, the Church, as a husband nourishes and cherishes his wife.  Pope St John Paul II drew on this nuptial ecclesiology to defend the sacred Tradition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church:

“But the will of the Church finds its ultimate motivation in the link between celibacy and sacred ordination, which configures the priest to Jesus Christ the head and spouse of the Church. The Church, as the spouse of Jesus Christ, wishes to be loved by the priest in the total and exclusive manner in which Jesus Christ her head and spouse loved her. Priestly celibacy, then, is the gift of self in and with Christ to his Church and expresses the priest's service to the Church in and with the Lord.” (Pope St John Paul II, Pastores dabo vobis, 29.)

The abolition of mandatory priestly celibacy in the Latin Church, through elevating married permanent deacons to the priesthood, would be a direct attack on the sacramental manifestation of Christ’s nuptial love for His Church. The question is — in the aftermath of the Amazonian synod — was the end of priestly celibacy always the goal of those who agitated at Vatican II for the introduction of the married permanent diaconate?

The Influence of Karl Rahner SJ

Fr. Karl Rahner SJ spearheaded the campaign to get the permanent diaconate onto the agenda of Vatican II.  During the 1950’s, Rahner collaborated with German social workers in his home town of Freiburg in Breisgau in their development of a proto-diaconal ministry. Later on, he took advantage of his position as a peritus to the Vatican II preparatory Commission de disciplina Sacramentorum to become the driving force behind the inclusion of the permanent diaconate in the schema for Lumen Gentium. To this end, Karl Rahner SJ and Yves Congar OP drew up the Formal Request to Restore the Diaconate as a Permanent Order, presented to the Fathers of Vatican II.

In his 1962 essay, ‘The Theology of the Restoration of the Diaconate’ Rahner acknowledges fears that a married permanent diaconate could undermine priestly celibacy, but dismisses these concerns out of hand:

 “Nor need we be afraid that the position of these married deacons might be used to relax or attack priestly celibacy. If there were any danger of this happening, then the existence of married priests in the Eastern Uniate Churches should also be a danger to the celibacy of the priests in the Latin Church, or serious difficulties should arise from the coexistence of celibate bishops and married priests in the Eastern Churches. Furthermore, none of the faithful in the Latin Church has any difficulty in seeing that celibacy has a special affinity with the priesthood as such, and they certainly distinguish the duty and dignity of deacons so clearly from the duties and dignity of the priest that they neither get the feeling that if deacons married, then priests should also be allowed to marry…”(Karl Rahner SJ, Theological Investigations, vol. 5, p.295.)

In retrospect, fifty-seven years later Rahner’s claim that we need not be afraid that the married permanent diaconate would relax or attack priestly celibacy have been exposed as misguided — the coexistence of married permanent deacons and celibate priests has clearly led to serious difficulties in the minds of the majority of synod participants. They appear to have forgotten the special affinity between celibacy and priesthood, and that the Latin Church’s understanding of the duties and dignity of the priest precludes the married state.

In his 1968 essay, On the Diaconate, Rahner shows a further distortion on his part in distinguishing between the duties and dignity of the presbyterate and the diaconate:

“It is not normal (i.e., legitimate in the ordinary circumstances prevailing in a Christian community) for the deacon to have the power of presiding at the eucharistic liturgy. For while it is true that this does not simply constitute in itself alone the content of the priestly office or the basic theological starting-point for defining its nature, still this power is, after all, proper to the priestly office and will surely remain so in the future…” (Karl Rahner SJ, Theological Investigations. Vol. 12, p. 67.)

This distortion is introduced, by using qualifiers such as ‘not normal’ and ‘ordinary circumstances’. Rahner is tentatively indicating the possibility of exceptions to the reservation of presiding at the eucharist to the priest to include permanent deacons in unusual, extraordinary circumstances. Furthermore, the fact that he doesn’t see the starting point  for defining the nature of the priesthood as the power to consecrate the Eucharist shows that he is already moving away from the traditional Catholic understanding of priesthood, as summarised at Vatican II,

 ‘It is in the Eucharistic cult or in the Eucharistic assembly of the faithful (synaxis) that they exercise in a supreme degree their sacred office; there, acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his mystery…’(CCC 1566; Lumen Gentium, 28.)

Rahner’s 1968 essay is suggestive evidence that in some circles the restoration of the permanent diaconate had already become the occasion for ‘re-thinking’ the sacred priesthood.

In 1970, Fr. Karl Rahner — along with Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, Fr. Walter Kasper, Fr. Karl Lehman, and Fr. Rudolf Schnackenburg among others — signed a declaration addressed to the German bishops calling for the end of mandatory priestly celibacy and the ordination of viri probati:

“If in the face of the ‘most serious reservations’ the pope himself evidently does not reject the idea of the ordination of older married men (‘viri probati’) from the outset and as simply out of the question (it is after all in some cases already practiced), then it is thereby affirmed that new considerations could reassess [überprüfen] the law and practice of celibacy till now.” (Memorandum Regarding the Discussion of Celibacy.)

This Memorandum exhibits the same distortion towards the duties and dignity of the priesthood that Rahner employed in his 1968 essay. The signatories argued that the lack of priests and the missionary imperative led them to question ‘whether the former manner in which priestly life was realized can be and must remain the single form of life in the Latin Church.’ (Joseph Ratzinger later reversed his position, becoming a staunch defender of the theology of priestly celibacy. However, his permission for married Church of England vicars to be ordained priests suggests he retained an openness to the 1970’s model, thereby weakening the Tradition of priestly celibacy all the same.)

Finally, in his last published interview before his death in 1984, Karl Rahner explicitly argued for exceptions to mandatory priestly celibacy:

“It would be a shame if there ever was a Church where heavenly foolishness wouldn’t inspire persons to renounce marriage for the sake of Christ. For that reason it is proper to have and want a celibate clergy. Now this, which after all is a principle, not the principle of the holy Church, has been overextended in an extremely mechanical way. Since there should be a celibate clergy, that doesn’t mean the priest in this mountain village sixteen hundred meters high should be celibate. In the Catholic Church nobody requires, just because we have a celibate clergy, that Eastern Catholics may not have married priests.” (Karl Rahner, Faith in a Wintry Season, p.196.)

In just over twenty years, Karl Rahner went from arguing that no one should fear that married permanent deacons would lead to a relaxation or attack on mandatory priestly celibacy to advocating married priests alongside celibate priests. In 1962 Rahner argued that ‘the coexistence of celibate bishops and married priests in the Eastern Churches’ was proof that married deacons could be introduced alongside celibate priests without any concerns. By 1984, he was using the example of married priests in the Eastern Churches to argue for married priests in the Latin Church.

Council Fathers’ fears about the married Permanent Diaconate

This weakening of the sacred Tradition of priestly celibacy in the Latin Church was exactly what Council Fathers who opposed the restoration of the Permanent Diaconate feared would happen.

Even before the Council convened, concerns emerged about the impact of a married permanent diaconate during the debate about the issue by the Commission de disciplina Sacramentorum.  William Ditewig writes that of the ten bishops who discussed the possibility of including the proposal in the schema, six bishops expressed serious concerns about ordaining married men to the diaconate, ‘most frequently because of the effects they saw this having on the law of priestly celibacy.’ Archbishop Lefebvre also expressed the concern, ‘there is the certain danger of a lessening of vocations to the priesthood in favor of a married diaconate’. (William Ditewig, The Emerging Diaconate, p.108.)

During the actual debate in Council on the restoration of the permanent diaconate (4 to 16 October 1963) it was rejected as a general proposition by a minority of twenty-five speakers who represented a group of eighty-two Fathers, including Cardinal Ottaviani, Cardinal Spellman. Gerard Philips describes the main ground for their opposition as follows:

“Others considered that the creation of married deacons would be an attack on the law of ecclesiastical celibacy which had been in honour in the Latin Church for many centuries. This was the fundamental cause of the disquiet, as was revealed during the debate.” (Gerard Philips in Herbert Vorgrimler (ed), Commentary on the Documents of Vatican II. Vol. 1, p. 118.)

For example, Cardinal Antonio Bacci argued that married deacons were ‘dangerous to priestly celibacy and priestly vocations…He strongly urged the council to delete the notion of a married diaconate.’ When the final vote was taken in 1964 on conferring the diaconate on mature, married men, 1,598 voted for, 629 voted  against. (William Ditewig, Op cit., p.112; 118.)

In conclusion, on a personal note I feel alarm at the Amazonian synod proposing that married permanent deacons be ordained priests. I have served the Church as a married permanent deacon for over fourteen years, including as a diocesan vocations and formation director and the head of diaconal formation for a national college of Theology. That the permanent diaconate is being used by the Amazonian synod to — in the words of Rahner — relax or attack priestly celibacy concerns me greatly. If this proposal is accepted by Francis not only would this inevitably destroy mandatory priestly celibacy throughout the Latin Church, it would also destroy the permanent diaconate, making it a transitory stage towards priestly ordination.

I appeal to my brother deacons not to cooperate in this latest attack against sacred Tradition if this proposal is accepted in the post-synodal apostolic exhortation. Please don’t abandon God’s calling to be one of His deacons, ordained ‘not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service.’ (St. Hippolytus of Rome, Traditio Apostolica, chapter 8 quoted in Lumen 29.)