Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological, and Sociological Foundations

Understanding the Diaconate: Historical, Theological, and Sociological Foundations


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What is a deacon? More than fifty years since the restoration of the permanent diaconate by the Second Vatican Council, the office of deacon is still in need of greater specificity about its purpose and place within the mission and organizational structure of the Church. While the Church is more than a social reality, the Church nonetheless has a social reality. Our understanding of the diaconate therefore benefits from a theological discussion of the divine element of the Church and a sociological examination of the human element. Understanding the Diaconate adds the resources of sociology and anthropology to the theological sources of scripture, liturgy, patristic era texts, theologians, and magisterial teachings to conclude that the deacon can be understood as "social intermediary and symbol of communitas" who serves the participation of the laity in the life and mission of the Church. This research proposes the deacon as a servant of the bond of communion within the Church (facilitating the relationship between the bishop/priest and his people), and between the People of God and the individual in need. Thus authentic diaconal ministry includes a vast array of many concrete contexts of pastoral importance where one does more than simply serve at Mass. Understanding the Diaconate will undoubtedly be useful in the formation of permanent deacon candidates. But by shedding light on the unique ministry of deacons, the book also reveals how every member of the Church can be better supported and understood. Transitional deacons will come to understand the service-identity that lays the foundation for their future presbyteral character; the laity will appreciate their own vocational call in the world when they find a cleric accompanying them into the temporal sphere; the bishop will have the means to extend and enhance his care for his flock; and a world that is sick unto death will find the Church's healing arm reaching out to it in word, liturgy, and charity. In these ways, W. Shawn McKnight makes clear the uniqueness of the deacon.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813230351
Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
Publication date: 06/05/2018
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 867,518
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

W. Shawn McKnight is Bishop of the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo.

David W. Fagerberg is the author of On Liturgical Asceticism (CUA Press).

Read an Excerpt


Biblical Diakonia

In order to articulate as clearly as possible a theology of the diaconate, a proper understanding of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the deacon is indispensable. It was the Second Vatican Council that called for the restoration of the permanent diaconate, and the Council's Magisterial teachings are the most authoritative in recent times to speak about the deacon. So, to grasp what the church intends when she uses the words "deacon" or "diaconal ministry," we have to concentrate on the Council's dogmatic teaching. However, we should keep in mind that the mentions of the ministry of the deacon are brief, and so we cannot expect a full theological description of the nature of the diaconate. What the Council did supply was a theological foundation from which a developed articulation of the nature and ministry of the deacon could be fashioned. In light of this foundation, the authorities within the church have made concrete decisions in their process of reestablishing the permanent diaconate in the years since Vatican II. In the post-conciliar documents we sometimes see a more concrete and detailed description of the deacon than in the conciliar decrees themselves. One can therefore rightfully speak of a general development in the theology of the deacon over the last fifty years in these later texts, but this cannot be supposed in every case.

Three passages of Council documents concern the reestablishment of the diaconate as a permanent state. First, in the decree on the Eastern Catholic churches, Ecclesia Orientalium, the Council stated its ardent desire for the restoration of the diaconate in the East, "so that the ancient discipline of the sacrament of orders may flourish again in the eastern churches." Second, in the decree on the missions, Ad Gentes (no. 16), the Council gave its mandate to restore the permanent diaconate in the West, teaching that men who already perform diaconal functions would be strengthened by the sacrament of orders and bound more closely to the altar. The third and most significant teaching of the Council on the diaconate is found in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium (hereafter LG).

The theological kernel of the conciliar teaching on the diaconate is found in just two concise sentences in LG 29, the Council's initial mandate for the reestablishment of the diaconate as a permanent state in the Latin West: "At a lower degree of the hierarchy stand the deacons, on whom hands are imposed 'not for the priesthood [sacerdotium], but for the ministry [ministerium].' For strengthened by sacramental grace, they are at the service of the people of God in the ministry of liturgy, the word and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterium." This text captures quite succinctly the theological "fundamentals" of the Latin rite diaconate. In this passage, the Council describes the diaconate as follows: (1) as a rank of the ordained ministry intended for service; (2) which is exercised in the three areas of liturgy, word, and charity; (3) in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate; (4) for the benefit of the people of God. A thorough investigation of the phrase "not for the priesthood, but for the ministry" is worthwhile. My analysis of this phrase will lead to the consideration of a more ancient and complete formula found in the Apostolic Tradition attributed to Hippolytus. The nuance between sacerdotium and ministerium needs to be brought out clearly, for it is within these words that the distinction between deacon and presbyter lies. A study of the phrase can also help us see how the deacon's service is "in communion with the bishop and his presbyters" toward the people of God.

Yet, before we begin a study of the phrase that has roots going back to the third century, we should ask why the Council used the words diaconi and diaconia in describing the deacon and his ministry. It is not as obvious as it may seem. These are the Latinized forms of the Greek words [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Why did the Council use these loan-words instead of the Latin equivalents ministri and ministerium? The Council fathers evidently wanted to root the renewed diaconate in the biblical witness. We see a similar move in LG 24, where the fathers made this direct connection in their statement referring to the office of the bishop: "This office which the Lord entrusted to the shepherds of his people is a true service, and in holy scripture it is significantly called 'diaconia' or ministry."

The use of the biblical word diaconia is often repeated in the post-conciliar documents on the permanent diaconate, most especially in the joint publication by the Congregation of Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy. I shall therefore turn my attention firstly to a study of the use of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (diakonia) and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] (diakonos) in the New Testament so that we may then arrive at a nuanced understanding of the phrase "in the ministry of liturgy, the word, and charity."

Diakonia in the New Testament

There is a direct link between the English word "deacon" and the Greek title diakonos. The cognate words of the Greek noun, in contrast, did not become part of English by transliteration. The verb diakonein did not become "to deacon" but "to minister," from the Latin ministrare. We see the difference most clearly in 1 Timothy 3:13, where we read of those "who minister as deacons": here both "minister" and "deacons" are diakon-words in Greek. There has always been a need for a special title for the deacon lest his diaconate be confused with other types of ministry or service designated in the Christian scriptures as [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]. Given this intimate historical and linguistic link, the definition commonly accepted of these Greek words will naturally bear upon the assessment that is made of the deacon and his office today.

A Paradigm Shift: From "Waiter" to "Go-Between"

Diakonia and other members of the diakon-word group in Greek are commonly read as "humble service," a meaning that can be traced back to early twentieth-century German scholars Wilhelm Brandt and Herman Beyer. In Beyer's estimation the sphere of meaning that the ancient Greeks attributed to the diakon-word group involved: (1) something to do with waiting or attending on a person; (2) service that was common, ordinary — that is, there was nothing special about it; and (3) that the service involved menial tasks. These characteristics can be summarized in the image of a "waiter." This meaning, according to Beyer, was then transformed by Christ's act of sacrificial love to leading, preaching, caring for the sick and poor, or organizing projects. This "humble service" understanding of deacon has had a profound influence on how Christian ministry in general has been conceived since the Second Vatican Council. To cite an influential (although controversial) theologian, Hans Küng described diakonia as "a completely ordinary, non-religious word with a somewhat humble flavor that suggests no connotations of officialdom, authority, domination, positions of dignity or power."

But this long-held view has been rejected by a 1990 study of John Neil Collins, Diakonia: Re-interpreting the Ancient Sources, that exhaustively reexamines the Hellenic background of the diakon-word group in Greek non-Christian sources. Collins finds that the primary meaning of diakonos in those sources is technically a "go-between," one who acts at his master's bidding to convey messages and to perform tasks that require immediate attention, mobility, and speed. Often this was in association with the service of a god. The Greek god Hermes was himself known as a diakonos, or "herald of the gods." The service rendered by the diakonos could be on behalf of an individual or a group. Thus the term could also signify an emissary or representative between various groupings of individuals.

While menial table service has commonly been accepted as the diakon-word group's sphere of reference, Collins finds that the term is never restricted to, and does not even normally designate, waiters at table. Even when used in the context of a meal, the title diakonos is usually an attendant at a cultic banquet, rather than the modern notion of a waiter in a restaurant. When it is used of a waiter during a cultic meal, it connotes not attention and solicitude toward the guests, but the swiftness and efficiency of one who quickly passes back and forth between kitchen and dining room. Thus diakonos denotes a servant who is "on the move." The term diakonos also acquires connotations of officialdom when it is used for an ambassador or diplomat. A diakonos would not normally signify "one who performs a menial task," but rather describe someone of an elevated status. Diakonia calls to mind the service rendered, either in the delivery of a message or in actions, between the authority who gives the mission or mandate and the person or group of persons to whom the service is rendered.

Collins's study, which has generally been well-received among those scripture scholars who have discussed it, does preserve some portions of the older understanding of diakonia as "humble service." Both recognize the personal nature of the service it signifies. Both also recognize that the content of the service can be either the spoken word (in the case of a messenger) or deeds (serving as an intermediary between kitchen and table). However, the new understanding adjusts the older one in a variety of respects that have implications for our contemporary ministry of the diaconate. First, the sense "to serve at table" has been replaced by the "go-between," which does not necessarily involve the idea of "humble activity." Secondly, diakonia does not mean a service of "inferior value," but rather something special, even dignified. The notion of a "service of love" is confirmed, but also specified by the idea of "mission" or "mandate." Third, the biblical notion of diakonia is largely the same as that of the ancient Greek world: the service performed by one who is commissioned by another for a particular, often mediating responsibility. The diakonos was not principally a servant at table, but an intermediary: one entrusted with a message or commission by another. Consequently, the fourth change of perspective centers on who performs diakonia. If the root meaning is the service rendered by a "go-between," then only those individuals with a mandate or commission perform diakonia. The implications of this last point of difference are important for our understanding of Christian ministry today: does diakonia as any "service of love" apply to all the baptized, or does it only refer to those with a mandate to perform a particular mission within the church?

Of course, the Council did not have the benefit of Collins's later scholarship when they used the terms diaconia and diaconi. Hence, it would be anachronistic to ascribe this "emissary" understanding to the Council fathers. On the other hand, it seems dubious to posit that the Council fathers would have recommended adhering to any particular biblical interpretation against a more thorough and accurate understanding of the diaconate in the Bible. Rather, by rooting the new diaconate in the Bible, they left the door open for a greater understanding of the biblical texts to illuminate the contemporary ministry of the deacon. With these considerations in mind, I will start with one of the central claims of the older "waiter" understanding of diakonia; that the diakon words underwent a change in meaning under the shadow of the cross. I shall therefore consider first the passages that reveal the Christological character of the diakon-word group. Next, I will look to the use of diakonia in the Pauline corpus to understand its pneumatological and ecclesial natures. Having considered those three characters — Christological, pneumatological, and ecclesial — I will then focus on two passages in the Pauline corpus and one in the Book of Acts that have been commonly associated with the particular "office" of deacon. Working through the careful details of the biblical texts, we will see that the New Testament does provide a foundation for understanding the contemporary ministry of the deacon, but not with all of the clarity that we may want the texts to provide.

The Christological Character of New Testament Diakonia

In the image of Jesus in the New Testament, and his teachings about service, it is apparent that the Christian life entails a "service of love." One of the key features of the New Testament understanding of Jesus is the manner in which the various intermediary functions occurring in the Old Testament are synthesized in Jesus — "Son of Man," messiah, prophet, servant. Of these, none is more basic and interpretative of the others than is that of the Suffering Servant, which is quite clearly used in reference to the servant hymns of the Book of Isaiah. Jesus's ministry was viewed by the early church as service, a service which realized the expectations expressed in the Old Testament servant ideal.

The context of Jesus's mission is portrayed poetically in Paul's letter to the Philippians. In this letter Paul incorporated a Christological hymn that expresses quite beautifully the humble way of Jesus for us. Paul wrote (2:5–8):

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
The Christ hymn presents the incarnation in terms of servanthood. The way of Jesus Christ is the way of kenosis, self-emptying. Through his kenosis Jesus became doulos (a slave) for us. This is the course Jesus would continue to follow throughout his earthly life and ministry.

Jesus made a deliberate choice at the very beginning of his earthly ministry about what kind of messiah he would be. The temptation stories are commonly read in this light. The devil tempted Jesus, first to be a messiah who would satisfy his own physical hunger; second, to be a miracle-working messiah; and third, to be a political messiah (Mt 4:1–11, Lk 4:1–13). Jesus rejected these temptations of domination, choosing to accept the role suggested by the divine commission at his baptism (Mt 3:13–17, Mk 1:10–11, Lk 4:21–22). As Jesus came out of the water, "a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased'" (Mk 1:11). These words of the Father reflect the servant's commissioning in Isaiah 42:1. In remaining faithful to his mission, Jesus sought to fulfill the needs of others rather than his own. Not only did Jesus remain faithful to the will of the Father, he also commanded his disciples to be faithful to their call. The fidelity of Jesus in his humble service becomes the new standard to live by, a standard contrary to the way of the world.

John's Gospel incorporates a parable-in-action of Jesus at the Last Supper. In order to demonstrate what service means, Jesus "got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him" (Jn 13:4–5). Jesus assumed the role of a slave (doulos) by undressing and washing the feet of his disciples. Jesus goes on to say: "If I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you" (Jn 13:14–15). In no uncertain terms Jesus taught that faithful service is an essential, a sine qua non, of the Christian life. Those who were to be apostles were to recognize their life as a mission to provide service to others.

The synoptic Gospels show that the apostles were slow to develop this mindset, as they are depicted as bickering over who was greatest. Jesus's response is recorded in three related passages; Matthew and Mark place this saying of Jesus during the ascent of him and the Twelve to Jerusalem, while Luke places the saying during the Last Supper:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant [diakonos], and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served [diakonethenai] but to serve [diakonesai], and to give his life a ransom for many.


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Table of Contents

Foreword David W. Fagerberg ix

Acknowledgments xv

List of Abbreviations xvii

Part 1 Theological Foundations of the Diaconate

1 Biblical Diakonia 3

2 The Theology of the Deacon in Lumen Gentium 29

Part 2 The Diaconate as medius ordo

3 Social Mediation 67

4 Social Mediation and the People of God 87

Part 3 The Witness of History

5 Precedents for the Deacon as Social Intermediary 109

6 The Transformation and Decline of the Diaconate 145

Part 4 The Deacon Today

7 The Deacon in the Liturgy: An Epiphany of Service 175

8 Evaluating the Structure of Diaconal Ministry Today 203

9 Restructuring the Diaconate as an Intermediate Institution 235

Conclusion 253

Bibliography 273

Index 303

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