Essays, Theology

The Deacon’s Wife: Exploring Her Role in the Catholic Church

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“How wonderful the bond . . . one in hope, one in desire, one in discipline, one in the same service!” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], §1642)

The identity of the wife of the permanent deacon exists in a uniquely uncharacterized, uncategorized reality. Examining both universal and national declarations and norms only validates the difficulty of finding any substantive (certainly, any consistent) theological understanding of this most particular relationship between Marriage and Holy Orders, wife and husband.[1] Indeed, while this most relevant dynamic has been addressed in part, it remains a lacuna within the theological tradition of the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church. Whereas the husband in this marriage is ontologically changed by the sacrament of Holy Orders, which confers upon him “an imprint that cannot be removed and configures [him] to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all” (CCC §1570), the wife in this marriage does not in any capacity participate in this particular sacramental characterization. Even as husband and wife “are no longer two, but one flesh,” (Mt 19:6, NRSV) there clearly remains, by means of the husband’s ontological change and specifically ordered diakonia as a cleric whose service is “of the liturgy, the Gospel, and works of charity,” a distinction—a demarcation—that exists within this otherwise unified bond, this one dignified state of sacramental Marriage (cf. CCC §§1588, 1638). This distinction, according to past and contemporary norms, is not to be overlooked or confused according to ecclesial norms concerning the permanent diaconate.[2] Consequently, there need be further examination of this theological lacuna in terms of its historical underdevelopment and doctrinal obscurity, in order to express a more substantive and authentic ecclesial definition of the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon.

I. The development of ecclesial norms pertaining to the wife of the permanent deacon

a. Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (1967) and rudimentary Universal norms

 

Paul VI’s restoration of the permanent diaconate in the Roman Catholic Church in 1967 by his apostolic letter Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (SDO) introduced rudimentary norms—many of these presented in terms of appealing to the directive jurisdiction of episcopal conferences authorized by the Apostolic See—for the formation and functionary identity of the permanent deacon. One of the directives for consideration espoused by SDO is that of the required (or acceptable) states of life of candidates that render them acceptable to the conferring of the diaconate. SDO, citing the question initially proposed Lumen Gentium (§29), states:

The manner will have to be indicated in which the new discipline will be implemented, that is to say, whether it is a matter of conferring the diaconate on ‘suitable young men for whom the law of celibacy must remain intact, or on men of more mature age, even upon those living in the married state,’ or on both kinds of candidates. (SDO, §I.2)

SDO reverses the ordering of the listed states of life and places young, single men who would remain celibate before older men, whether single or married.[3] By this adaptation, it can be interpreted that married men have been relegated insofar as their state of life as one admissible to the conferral of the diaconate. It is important to note the degressive construction of Paul VI’s adaptation of Lumen Gentium no. 29 (which will be explicitly reemphasized in Ad Pascendum in 1972).[4] The same ordering, once again contrary to that of LG, takes place in sections II–III which prescribe the norms concerning admittance to the formation program of and ordination to the permanent diaconate in regard to one’s state of life; all of Section II (§§4–10) is devoted to “young men called to the diaconate,” and Section III (§§11–17) concerns “older men, whether single or married.”

This ordering is likely connected with one of the stated motivations for restoring the permanent diaconate, i.e., in recognizing the “functions of deacons” that laymen, particularly in missionary countries, were already performing. In desiring to strengthen these men “who perform a truly diaconal ministry,” SDO states that the Apostolic See desires to order these laymen by the imposition hands (Holy Orders) “so that they may more effectively carry out their ministry through the sacramental grace of the diaconate” (SDO, §4).[5] While it is not clear from the text as to whether these “laymen” performing this type of ministry are necessarily, or uniquely, living in the single state, the subsequent norms do prioritize young, single men (in terms of ordering acceptable states of life) as those upon whom the diaconate is to be conferred.

What is significant in regard to this ordering for the purposes of the thesis concerning the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon is a hypothesis concerning the explicit ecclesial intentions of restoring the permanent diaconate in relationship to an implicit diaconal theology. Since the restoration of the permanent diaconate was directed in part by means of assessing contemporary ministerial services performed by laymen, and because the rudimentary norms for the permanent diaconate are ordered primarily around single men, the implicit diaconal theology is one developed within the ecclesial prioritization of the single-celibate state. As such, this diaconal theology, at least in its foundational origins, cannot articulate with much depth the unique sacramental reality of the married deacon, much less the role and identity of his wife in terms of ecclesial norms and sacramental life. Indeed, the only norms in SDO pertaining solely to married deacons concern 1) the restrictions that his wife and family might impose upon his being conferred the diaconate (cf. SDO §III.13) and 2) the need to further articulate how the given episcopal conference might provide “proper sustenance” to the married permanent deacon and his family (cf. SDO §IV.20). Of the wife in particular, certainty not only of her consent in regard to her husband’s admission to diaconal formation and ordination, but also certainty “about her blameless Christian life and those qualities which will neither impede nor bring dishonor upon her husband’s ministry” is required by means of a prescriptive characterization of her identity (SDO, §III.11).

b. The institution of the permanent diaconate in the United States and its development towards more explicit ecclesial norms and sacramental articulation of the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon (1971–1995)

On May 2, 1968, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, following Paul VI’s directive (cf. SDO, §I.1), requested that the permanent diaconate be restored in the United States.[6] In 1971, the Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate (introduced in November 1968 after the restoration of the permanent diaconate in the United States three months prior) published Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry. The document served as an articulation of proposed norms concerning the identity and formation of the permanent deacon in the United States. The contents of the document are not as prescriptive as those in SDO; rather, they are reflective in terms of the desires of the Committee to assess the permanent diaconate in light of contemporary study and initial practice.[7] The Committee’s substantial reflection on the contemporary reality of the permanent diaconate, as well as its future-oriented outlook, allows for proposed norms concerning the spiritual, theological, and pastoral formation of the deacon candidate, as well as proper procedures in establishing formation programs. As the permanent diaconate in 1971 had only been established for three years in the U.S., this is a substantial development in diaconal theology which builds upon the rudimentary foundation of SDO.

However, the reality of married clergy—both theological and practical—remained a tangential question. The Committee, in its establishment of norms concerning the spiritual formation of the candidate, does include a vague understanding of the wife’s role and identity in regard to the permanent diaconate; it is primarily a consideration in terms of psychology and contemporary socio-economic developments in lieu of an ecclesial or sacramental approach:

Wives can be included in spiritual activities such as retreats and small group Masses, but they must not be required to participate. Especially in equalitarian marriages, the wives can take the opportunity to grow spiritually along with their husbands if they wish to. Getting together with wives of other deacon candidates seems to help a wife understand the new dimension in her marriage.[8] 

There remains in Guidelines (1971) a formal separation between the deacon candidate and his wife: he is being formed as a unique witness of “the Servant Christ,”[9] but his wife, with whom he shares his “thoroughly lay”[10] life as one flesh, need not be required to participate in a process of growth in the Christian life that will eventually effect the “new dimension” in their marriage, i.e., the ontological transformation conferred to her husband in his being ordained a cleric. There is an emphasis on communication between the wife and the diocesan diaconate office regarding her proper understanding of how her husband’s diaconate will change their marriage and family dynamic by means of programming for wives structured around personal and intellectual growth related to the diaconate. The consent of the wife in regard to her husband’s diaconal formation is emphasized according to SDO and adapted according to the formation program proposed.[11]

Thirteen years later the Committee, in conjunction with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (and thus obtaining canonical normativity),[12] revised and issued Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry: 1984 Revision. The 1984 Revision was issued in response to the dramatic growth of the permanent diaconate in the United States since the 1971 document.[13] The document continues the Committee’s emphasis on the formation programmatic of candidates and further adapts it based on a decade of experience of the restored diaconal order. The document focuses on a developed theology of ministry and ministries as well as what defines the ministry of the permanent deacon. The deacon’s ministry, effecting him as “a sign of the Servant-Christ who redeemed us as at once Prophet, Priest, and King,” is likewise threefold: the ministry of Love and Justice, the ministry of the Word of God, and the ministry of the Liturgy.[14]

The document also contains eight paragraphs devoted entirely to married deacons, and subsequently, their wives. The chapter containing these norms begins as follows:

For centuries, the Latin Church has had the experience of only celibate ordained ministers. Experience of ordained ministers who are married is recent. Special attention, catechesis, and direction must be given to this aspect of ministry, particularly to the mutual relationship between the sacrament of marriage and the sacrament of orders. Self-giving love is common to both sacraments. During this formation, as well as after ordination, the candidates and their wives need to appreciate this potential for an integrated spirituality that relates the two sacraments.[15]

The opening paragraph states clearly both the questions present related to ecclesial norms as well as directives towards an important development of a theology of married clergy that would be both an ecclesial norm (in regard to the formation of permanent deacons and their wives) and sacramental in regard to the spiritual integration of Holy Orders and Marriage. The two sacramental roles of the married deacon are prioritized according to sacramental sequence: “the sacrament of matrimony preceded the sacrament of orders and thus established a practical priority in the deacon’s life.”[16] The roles are interconnected in light of the spiritual enrichment that one offers to the other: “The marriage bond should be enriched by the sacrament of orders, just as public ministry is enriched by married ordained ministers of the Gospel.”[17]

The sacrament of matrimony preceded the sacrament of orders and thus established a practical priority in the deacon’s life.

As for the participation of the wife in the formation of her husband as a diaconal candidate, the chapter strongly recommends her participation “in the entire program of formation.”[18] By this participation, the wife moves towards attaining informed consent for her husband’s ordination, required by the revised Code of Canon Law (CIC 1050:3), through “courses, social gatherings, and retreats”[19] with her husband, the community of candidates, and candidates’ wives. The mutual participation in the formation process of husband and wife is encouraged due to the life of sacrificial love which they shared sacramentally prior to diaconal formation and will continue to share after the husband’s ordination.

Newly ordained deacons pose with their wives and families. Photo: George Martell, Boston Catholic Development Services; Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

Newly ordained deacons pose with their wives and families. Photo: George Martell, Boston Catholic Development Services; Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

As for the role and identity unique to the wife in this dynamic relationship, the couple whose marriage has been transformed by Holy Orders “[has] to be aware that the nurturing and deepening of their mutual sacrificial love will be the most important way that [the wife] will be involved in her husband’s public ministry in the Church.”[20] In this, the wife of the permanent deacon is given the responsibility of forming the marital covenant towards greater agape. Her role has been further articulated; it is by her substantial participation in the sacramental life of her uniquely ordered marriage that she is identified.

Here is encouraged the discipline of spiritual direction for both the wife and husband as the appropriate means of “understanding and appreciating this truth.”[21] The role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon, even while expressed most significantly within the domestic church, may spring forward into the local Church due to the ecclesial and sacramental role and identity of her husband as well as her own spiritual and pastoral formation and/or prior ministerial service:

The wife of the deacon may become involved in a type of team ministry with her deacon husband. On the other hand, she may already be involved in a distinct ministry apart from the diaconal ministry of her husband. Having experienced the formation process of her husband, she may now wish to consider a type of ministry she had not foreseen but for which she is now significantly qualified. The local Church should recognize the rich ministerial potential that may be present in the wives of ordained deacons who have participated in the full formation process, and should they choose to offer themselves in ministry, facilitate the utilization of this potential.[22]

While it is clear that “the wife is not to be ordained,” her identity and role both in the domestic church and local Church is necessarily and uniquely configured as an effect of her cooperation in her husband’s ordination by her canonically required consent.[23] The document further develops upon the norms concerning the important relationship between the married deacon’s family and the diocese articulated in Guidelines (1971), both in terms of financial sustenance and ongoing formation.[24]

The wife of the permanent deacon is given the responsibility of forming the marital covenant towards greater agape.

The development of ecclesial norms concerning married deacons in the 1984 Revision is intricately connected to the demographic of permanent deacons in the United States at the time. While the document states that “most candidates are married men,”[25] a more robust and statistical analysis of the demographic is contained in A National Study of the Permanent Diaconate in the United States, published in 1981 by the United States Catholic Conference. According to the National Study (1981), 1351 of 1506 ordained permanent deacons in the U.S. were married (89.7%) and only 104 were single (6.9%).[26] Ecclesial norms concerning the permanent diaconate in the U.S. shifted in regard to the degressive ordering found in SDO of the states of life for those to whom the diaconate can be conferred; the 1984 Revision states, “It [the restored diaconate] can be assumed by married men, by celibates, or by those men in consecrated life.”[27] As examined above, this reverses once more the ordering of states of life and in so doing returns to the ordering found in LG §29.

The National Study (1981) also contributed to the 1984 Revision’s chapter on married deacons by its particular examination of the wives of permanent deacons. “Recognizing the central role of wives and family in the lives of a majority of permanent deacons,” the study focuses one section exclusively on “the wife and her perceptions of diaconal ministry.”[28] A total of 1,282 surveys composed of both multiple choice and open response questions were distributed, and 54.3% of these were returned. The National Study (1981) provides wives’ responses to questions concerning socio-economic demographics, the effects of the diaconate on the family, as well as spiritual and marital growth of both the spouses together and the wife in particular.[29] A selection of responses of wives of permanent deacons relevant to the 1984 Revision’s norms concerning married deacons are supplied below:[30]

  • Participation in diaconal formation {Table 2.3}
    • Yes 91.0%
    • No 9.0%
  • Type of formation involvement {Table 2.3}
    • Attended all or almost all sessions 40.1%
    • Attended some sessions 39.9%
    • Attended sessions designed for wives 71.8%
  • Degree of involvement in husband’s ministry {Table 2.3}
    • Quite involved 21.5%
    • Involved 41.6%
  • [Type of involvement (of wives ‘quite involved’ or ‘involved’)] {Table 2.9}
    • Co-teacher 23.7%
    • Co-pastoral work 22.7%
    • Moral support by being present with husband 21.6%
  • What has being the wife of a deacon meant for you? {Table 2.12}
    • Deeper sense of personal faith and spirituality 29.4%
    • Closer to husband and more pride in him 26.4%
    • Deeper sense of Church and its pastoral role 21.4%
  • [Perception of love between husband and wife since ordination] {Table 2.15}
    • Deepened love because of closer relationships, more sharing 25.3%
    • Deepened love because of deeper spiritual understanding 21.3%
    • Increase in more love (unqualified response) 19.0%

The United States Catholic Conference would continue its particular examination of the wives of permanent deacons by another study published in 1996. A National Study on the Permanent Diaconate of the Catholic Church in the United States: 1994–1995 includes a 90-item survey entitled “A Study of Wives of Permanent Deacons by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.” The response rate for surveys distributed was 64% (1,194 out of 1,850),[31] and the results, similar to the National Study (1981) and likely influenced by the norms particular to married deacons and their wives developed by the 1984 Revision, are summarized in part as follows:

The great majority of the wives felt involved in their husband’s training and continued to feel part of his ministry. Indeed, most of the wives said that they had their own parish ministries. Many noted in their write-in comments that during their formation programs, the deacons were taught ‘family first, job second, diaconate third.’ . . . The write-in comments show that as a result of being a part of the diaconate, the couple had more enriching experiences, met more people and on deeper levels, and had more to share and talk about. Both said the diaconate has brought them human and spiritual growth. [32]

According to the National Study 1994–1995, only 3% of permanent deacons were never married, a decrease from the 7% published in the National Study (1981).[33] It is clear from both the National Study (1981), the National Study 1994–1995, and, most recently, A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: 2014–2015,[34] that the predominant state of life for permanent deacons in the U.S. is and has always been the married state.

Current ecclesial norms and diaconal theology of the Catholic Church:

Contemporary development and digression concerning the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon

It would be both logical and theologically appropriate for the Church in the United States and throughout the world to have continued developing appropriate and authentic ecclesial norms concerning married deacons, as well as a genuine articulation of the sacramental dynamic that exists for married clergy and their spouses in the Roman Rite. This, as a proper and dignifying consequence, would establish a more robust understanding of the role and identity of the wife of the married deacon. However, even as the ecclesial reality of the married deacon became more and more normalized after the restoration of the permanent diaconate in 1967 (especially in the United States), the development and articulation of ecclesial norms and a deepening of the expression of the sacramental dynamic of married deacons and their wives would develop only in part while digressing considerably.

In 1998 the Apostolic See issued a joint document developed by the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, Ratio fundamentalis institutionis diaconorum permanentium, intending it “as a response to a widely felt need to clarify and regulate the diversity of approaches adopted in experiments conducted up to now . . . In this way it will be possible to ensure a certain stability of approach which takes account of legitimate plurality. . . .”[35] The joint document lays out a very descriptive and normative plan for diaconal formation and identity; this development in relation to SDO is tremendous. However, the reality of the married deacon resumes its place in the degressive ordering that SDO first introduced. In regard to norms concerning states of life, both the Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons (BNFPD) and the Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (DMLPD) order “unmarried” or “celibate” before “married” even while the introduction to the Ratio cites the ordering of LG §29 (“even upon married men . . . and also upon suitable young men for whom, however, the law of celibacy must remain in force”).[36] The DMLPD states explicitly, following SDO in reversing the order of LG §29 regarding states of life (citing LG §29 not in quotations but in paraphrasing), that celibate men are, “in the first place,” those to be admitted to the permanent diaconate, followed by widowers, and lastly, “men who live in the Sacrament of Matrimony.”[37] This prioritization recognizes “the gift of celibacy which God gives to some of [the Church’s] members and, in different ways, both in East and West, [the Church] has linked it to the ordained ministry with which it is always particularly consonant.”[38] This reflects the same diaconal theology articulated in Ad Pascendum, which emphasized the fundamental joining of celibacy and the diaconate.[39] Norms particular to the married deacon are developed in the DMLPD in reference to SDO, and attention is paid to the sacramental dynamic present:

In marriage, love becomes an interpersonal giving of self, a mutual fidelity, a source of new life, a support in times of joy and sorrow: in short, love becomes service. When lived in faith, this family service is for the rest of the faithful an example of the love of Christ. The married deacon must use it as a stimulus of his diaconia in the Church.[40]

The role and identity of the wife of the deacon is logically and appropriately given a theological—especially sacramental—emphasis. This articulation continues in the DMLPD where it recalls Guidelines: 1984 Revision’s chapter on married deacons:

The nurturing and deepening of mutual, sacrificial love between husband and wife constitutes perhaps the most significant involvement of a deacon’s wife in her husband’s public ministry in the Church.[41]

Two wives present the offerings of bread and wine during the Mass of their husbands' ordination to the permanent diaconate. Photo: George Martell, Boston Catholic Development Services; Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

Two wives present the offerings of bread and wine during the Mass of their husbands’ ordination to the permanent diaconate. Photo: George Martell, Boston Catholic Development Services; Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston; CC-BY-ND-2.0.

This potentially unique diaconal theology is followed by ecclesial norms concerning the appropriate relationship of roles and identities within this sacramental dynamic, or rather, to digress from the development of theological language, the canonical statuses present. The sacraments of Matrimony and Holy Orders—at least the “various elements”[42] they contain—should be unified and integrated, rather than one taking precedence over the other. The primary and ongoing formation of the married deacon should involve, where appropriate, his wife and family. However, “they must always be careful to maintain the essential distinction of roles and the clear independence of the ministry.”[43] A confusion presents itself as to what unity or integration is actually to take place in this dynamic as well as to how a marriage and family should function “as a stimulus of his diaconia in the Church” only when appropriate and never at the cost of sharing in his diaconal ministry. This confusion is due to the coupling of ecclesial norms stemming from the ordering of the celibate state of life in the first place[44] in terms of the conferring of the diaconate, with the reality of the permanent diaconate in the Catholic Church in the United States as one consistently experienced by married men, that is, in the context of marriage in which the man shares a life as one flesh with his lay wife and serves according to his diaconal ordering as a member of the ecclesial hierarchy. There still remains a lack of any normative theology regarding married clergy in the Roman Rite; as a result, the confusion persists. The following question stands out as an interpretation of the apparent contradiction of norms previously stated: does the spouse of the permanent deacon, by her sacramental identity shared with her husband in marriage, share (“involvement”) in his role and identity according to his diaconal ordering and ministry or not?[45]

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops produced the first set of norms since the 1984 Revision when it issued the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States in 2005 as its particular rationes institutionis diaconorum permanentium proposed to the Holy See.[46] The National Directory maintains the ecclesial norms proposed by the 1998 Ratio concerning married deacons; however, it does retain from Guidelines: 1984 Revision the understanding of marriage as the predominant state of life for permanent deacons in the United States, and this is reflected in its ordering of states of life in the additions concerning the unique identity of married deacons and their wives, and its description of what this dynamic contributes to the local Church.[47] Concerning the witness that the husband and wife offer together, the National Directory expands greatly upon the norms issued in the Ratio fundamentalis:

The majority of deacons in the United States are married. These men bring to the Sacrament of Holy Orders the gifts already received and still being nurtured through their participation in the Sacrament of Matrimony. This sacrament sanctifies the love of husbands and wives, making that love an efficacious sign of the love of Christ for his Church. Marriage requires an “interpersonal giving of self, a mutual fidelity, a source of [and openness to] new life, [and] a support in times of joy and sorrow” [DMLPD, §61]. Lived in faith, this ministry within the domestic Church is a sign to the entire Church of the love of Christ. It forms the basis of the married deacon’s unique   gift within the Church.[48]

The marriage of the deacon “forms the basis” of his “unique gift within the Church.” By the sacramental nature of marriage, the wife of the deacon necessarily cooperates in this donation by her participation in effecting this basis. She ministers, or serves, in this domestic church, as well as—according to the witness of this uniquely characterized marriage—the local Church:

A married deacon, with his wife and family, gives witness to the sanctity of marriage. The more they grow in mutual love, conforming their lives to the Church’s teaching on marriage and sexuality, the more they give to the Christian community a model of Christ-like love, compassion, and self-sacrifice. The married deacon must always remember that through his sacramental participation in both vocational sacraments, first in Matrimony and again in Holy Orders, he is challenged to be faithful to both. With integrity he must live out both sacraments in harmony and balance. . . . A deacon and his wife, both as a spiritual man and woman and as a couple, have much to share with the bishop and his priests about the Sacrament of Matrimony. A diaconal family also brings a unique presence and understanding of the domestic family. “By facing in a spirit of faith the challenges of married life and the demands of daily living, [the married deacon and his family] strengthen the family life not only of the Church community but of the whole of society.”[49]

While the norms of the Ratio fundamentalis concern the distinction of husband and wife in regard to the husband’s unique participation in orders, as well as the wife’s appropriate participation in his formation only where appropriate, the National Directory establishes a greater sacramental understanding surrounding the purpose for her participation in any formation in relationship to the permanent diaconate. By the marital covenant, she participates, in some measure—in terms of ecclesial norms and sacramental life—in her husband’s diaconal ministry, that is, her uniquely characterized diakonia.[50] This understanding, at least in part, helps to reconcile the confusion present in the Ratio fundamentalis and also returns to the norms issued by Guidelines: 1984 Revision.[51]

Possibly the most important theological statement made concerning the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon has been disintegrated.

In comparing the use of Guidelines: 1984 Revision’s statement concerning the unique role and identity of the wives of deacons by both the Ratio fundamentalis and the National Directory, a confusion similar to the one proposed above enters. The Ratio retains nearly the exact wording and essential meaning of the original statement concerning the mutual effect that husband and wife will have one another, as well as the Church, while referencing the wife in a particularly significant way: “They have to be aware that the nurturing and deepening of their mutual sacrificial love will be the most important way that she will be involved in her husband’s public ministry in the Church.”[52] The National Directory alters the statement substantially both in word choice and essential meaning: “The enrichment and deepening of the reciprocal and sacrificial love between husband and wife constitutes perhaps the most meaningful way the wife of the aspirant is involved in the discernment of her husband’s vocation.”[53] While the section in which the statement has been used concerns aspirancy of the deacon candidate, the original statement is not used anywhere else in the document. Thus, possibly the most important theological statement made concerning the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon has been disintegrated. This alteration is difficult to correlate with the development noted above concerning the unique ecclesial and sacramental participation of the wife in her husband’s diaconal role and identity. Therefore, the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon in terms of ecclesial norms and sacramentology remains underdeveloped in both the Ratio fundamentalis and the National Directory.

Conclusion: Proposing further articulation in regard to cooperation and effectivity

Examination of the lacuna concerning the role and identity of the wife of the permanent deacon does showcase some elements of a developing diaconal theology in terms of the dynamic relationship between Matrimony and Holy Orders. Positively, the explicit norms and sacramentology concerning both the permanent diaconate and marriage contained within the documents comprise foundational elements for this much needed articulation. The aforementioned underdevelopment and obscurities pertaining to ecclesial norms and sacramental life need not disintegrate outright either the role or identity of the wife of the permanent deacon; rather, the distinguished state of the wife of the permanent deacon can positively express a role and identity that is both cooperative and effective. Her role and identity are cooperative and effective in terms of her canonical consent as spouse to her husband’s diaconal formation and eventual ordination, as well as in regard to the permanent deacon’s identifying role with his wife as one witness to the sanctity of marriage, as one model of “Christ-like love, compassion, and self-sacrifice.”[54] In this way, the wife stands at the foot of the Cross, ministering in a particular way with her husband who has been uniquely ordered according to Christ the servant.[55] This examination, while entirely rudimentary in providing a mere glance into the history and contemporary reality of the restored permanent diaconate in regard to the wives of married deacons, is meant to promote further inquiry towards an explicit and authentic articulation of the diakonissa[56] (to borrow and adapt a dignifying term from the Orthodox Church), who is distinguished positively by her role and identity ordered intrinsically—bodily and spiritually—according to her marriage as a unique participation in diakonia.[57]

Featured Photo: George Martell, Boston Catholic Development Services (Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston); CC-BY-ND-2.0.

[1] While the permanent diaconate may be conferred to both married and single men within the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, the scope of this thesis limits its view to the current situation, as pertaining to ecclesial norms and sacramental life, of married permanent deacons and the wives of married permanent deacons in the United States.

[2] Catholic Church and Congregation for the Clergy, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1998), 81. Here, “according to past and contemporary norms” concerns universal and national declarations on the restored permanent diaconate, beginning with Sacrum Diaconatus Ordinem (1967) through today.

[3] LG §29 reads: “. . . hic diaconatus viris maturioris aetatis etiam in matrimonio viventibus conferri poterit, necnon iuvenibus idoneis, pro quibus tamen lex coelibatus firma remanere debet”; compare to SDO §I.2: “. . . utrum videlicet agatur de diaconatu conferendo iuvenibus idoneis, pro quibus . . . lex caelibatus firma remanere debet; an viris maturioris aetatis, etiam in matrimonio viventibus, an utrique candidatorum generi” [emphases mine].

[4] “Degressive” is used here as descriptive of the prioritization of ordering of states of life, from celibate young men to older men (ordered first as single and second as married) present in SDO. See also Ad Pascendum (§6) in which Paul VI emphasizes that celibacy is joined to the diaconate: “Consecratio propria caelibatus, propter Regnum caelorum servati, huiusque obligatio pro candidatas ad Sacerdotium et pro candidatas non uxoratis ad Diaconatum reapse conectuntur cum Diaconatu” [emphasis mine]; in fact, Ad Pascendum, promulgated in 1972 as an Apostolic Letter containing revised norms for the diaconate, only speaks of the married deacon once in reference to the prohibition of his contracting a new marriage after the death of his wife (§6).

[5] John Paul II, in his Audience of October 5, 1993 (“Deacons Serve the Kingdom of God”) would reaffirm this as one of the two reasons (the other being the shortage of priests) for restoring the permanent diaconate: “First of all, it was considered fitting that certain charitable services, guaranteed in a stable way by laymen conscious of being called to the Church’s Gospel mission, should be concretely expressed in a form recognized by virtue of an official consecration. . . . Some saw the permanent diaconate as a sort of bridge between the pastors and the faithful” (§5).

[6] The rationale and reasons for this request, specific to the Catholic Church in the United States, can be found in 1984 Revision of Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry, pp. 1–2.

[7] Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington D.C.: 1971).
The guidelines, or “general lines of direction” (p.2), were established by assessment of and consultation with the first thirteen diocesan formation programs of the permanent diaconate in the United States. Having encountered the lived reality of the restored order in the Catholic Church and the new questions and possibilities it offered to the American Church, the Bishops’ Committee’s recommendations were developed not only “within the framework of existing church [sic] law” but also in regard to “various broader suggestions for the future,” including “Current Suggestions for Change in Church Discipline Regarding Diaconate” (separate from the primary text as an epilogue entitled “New Directions,” these suggestions are enumerated as a continuation of the preceding guidelines).

[8] Ibid., §79.

[9] Ibid., §3.

[10] Ibid., §72.

[11] Ibid., §§119, 127.

[12] David R. Perkin, “A Comparative Analysis of the 1971 and 1981 Editions of Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry” (J.C.L. diss., Catholic University of America, 1987), 43–44.

[13] Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry: 1984 Revision (National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington D.C.: 1984). It is important to note that when Guidelines (1971) was written, no candidate had yet been ordained to the permanent diaconate. The stated growth is summarized on pp. 2–3 of the 1984 Revision: “In 1971, there were 58 deacons and 529 candidates. . . . According to the latest figures (1984), there are 7,102 deacons and 2,114 candidates.”

[14] Ibid., §43. For the various dimensions of the ministry of the deacon, and of the practical applications of this ministry in its threefold reality, see §§18–48. While the theology of ministry and ministries (stemming from Lumen Gentium) that the document includes is significant for the development of the role and identity of the deacon—as well as the wife—it will not be explored in great detail due to the brief scope of this thesis. Note that the document changes the ministry of “charity” (LG §29) to “Love and Justice” and also switches it with “Liturgy” in the ordering of diaconal ministry. This is a point of interest in regard to other documents pertaining to these ecclesial norms (and an implicit diaconal theology) that should be further explored. Another important variation on LG §29 is noted above (§11).

[15] Ibid., §106.

[16] Ibid., §107.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., §108. It is helpful to compare this positive and prescriptive understanding of participation of the wife in her husband’s diaconal formation to that of Guidelines (1971) §79 which defrays from any necessary formation on the part of the wife. Clearly, as the restored permanent diaconate in the United States became more centralized around preexistent married life, the desire for the vocation of the permanent deacon to be more integrated with his marriage (and for the participation of the wife of the permanent deacon to be necessarily elevated) followed this movement.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., §110.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., §111.

[23] Ibid., §110. The question pertaining to women’s ordination to the diaconate, as addressed in the epilogue (“New Directions,” §168) of Guidelines (1971), is not explored in the 1984 Revision nor is it to be connected with the scope of this thesis, which pertains to the role and identity of the lay wife of the permanent deacon. The wife’s consent is not authoritative in terms of authorizing the husband for ordination in the Roman Catholic Church; this authority is solely that of the local bishop. However, the authority inherent in her required consent (stemming from her co-operating the sacrament of marriage with her husband by their mutual consent) should be articulated with dignity and respect.

[24] Ibid., §§54, 58, 72, 119.

[25] Ibid., §94.

[26] Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, A National Study of the Permanent Diaconate in the United States (United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C.: 1981), 55 [Table 1.1].

[27] Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry: 1984 Revision, §46; emphasis mine.

[28] A National Study of the Permanent Diaconate in the United States., 26.

[29] Ibid. See 72–91 [Table 2.1–Table 2.22].

[30] Ibid. [Type of involvement (of wives ‘quite involved’ or ‘involved’)] is modified from “If you consider yourself to be ‘quite involved’ or ‘involved’ in your husband’s ministry, how would you describe this involvement?”; [Perception of love between husband and wife since ordination] is modified from “Since your husband became a deacon, do you find that there exists more or less love between the two of you?”

[31] Bishops’ Committee on the Permanent Diaconate, A National Study on the Permanent Diaconate in the United States: 1994–1995 (United States Catholic Conference, Washington, D.C.: 1996), 31.

[32] Ibid., 3. The summary stated takes into account the survey results of the survey distributed to married deacons (“A National Study of the Permanent Diaconate Conducted by the NCCB Committee for the Permanent Diaconate”; 60% return rate: 5,369 out of 9,000).

[33] Ibid., 2.

[34] M. Gautier and T. Gaunt, A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: 2014–2015 (Washington, D.C.: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, 2015). According to the CARA study, “Ninety-three percent of active deacons are currently married. Four percent are widowers, and 3 percent have never been married” (2). This represents a very similar demographic to both the National Study (1981) and National Study 1994–1995 as shown above. A preceding CARA study reveals a nearly identical demographic: 92% married, 4% widowers, and 2% never married (A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: 2009–2010).

[35] Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, Basic Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons, Directory for the Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons [hereafter BNFPD/DMLPD], (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1998). The role of Episcopal Conferences in regard to the regulatory nature of BNFPD/DMLPD is discussed in Introduction, §§13–15; the Ratio is the fundamental reference point for any diaconal programmatic.

[36] Ibid., Introduction, II.2. See also BNFPD §§36, 68 and DMLPD §§8, 17.

[37] Ibid., DMLPD §59.

[38] Ibid., DMLPD §60.

[39] See note 13 above.

[40] Ibid., DMLPD §61.

[41] Ibid [emphasis mine]. The document uses John Paul II’s paraphrasing of the rich statement concerning diaconal theology in his 1987 “Allocution to the permanent deacons of the U.S.A. in Detroit.”

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid., §81.

[44] See the hypothesis established above concerning the restoration of the permanent diaconate (I.a).

[45] Ibid., §61.

[46] National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States (Washington. D.C.: USCCB, 2005). The National Directory received a renewed recognitio for a further quinquennium in 2014.

[47] See, e.g., §§30, 47, 56, 72, 87. See also the descriptions of norms specific to states of life (§§66–71) in which the married state is ordered before the celibate state.

[48] Ibid., §66. See DMLPD §61 for comparison.

[49] Ibid., §§66, 68. The National Directory quotes John Paul II’s “Allocution to the permanent deacons of the U.S.A. in Detroit” (1987).

[50] Diakonia does not necessarily imply the conferral of holy orders; see National Directory §64.

[51] See note 36.

[52] Permanent Deacons in the United States: Guidelines on Their Formation and Ministry: 1984 Revision., §110. For the use of the statement in the Ratio, see §54 above.

[53] National Directory for the Formation, Ministry, and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States., §192; emphasis mine.

[54] Ibid., §68.

[55] This imagery and language are adapted from John Paul II’s reflection on the women ministering at the cross (Mt 27:55) in his Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem (1988), §15.

[56] The term is to be distinguished as the dignifying title of a deacon’s wife rather than that given to a woman ordained as a ‘deaconess’ as practiced in some ecclesial communities.

[57] By this “unique participation in diakonia” is meant her distinguished role and identity in relationship to the ecclesial community en bloc as well as to her husband’s sacramentally ordered identity (by means of Holy Orders) as a cleric who serves according to the liturgy, the Gospel, and works of charity. Her diakonia (“service”) is not a participation in Holy Orders in terms of her having been conferred the ontological character of the sacrament.

Christopher Gattis

Chris Gattis is a Master of Divinity candidate at the University of Notre Dame; his academic and pastoral interests include the intersection of narrative, imagination, and catechesis in terms of the New Evangelization.