Cardinal Spellman strongly critical of plan to restore permanent diaconate

41st General Congregation
October 4, 1963

Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York, strongly criticized a proposal to bring back a permanent diaconate to the Catholic Church as the ecumenical council entered discussion on the second chapter of the proposal “On the Nature of the Church.”

Discussion advanced from the first chapter, entitled “On the Mystery of the Church,” to the second chapter entitled “On the Hierarchical Constitution of the Church, and in particular on the episcopate,” as the council ended the first week of the second session.

Cardinal Spellman objected to a provision in the schema which would abolish the present Church law which requires that the diaconate be conferred on no one unless he intends to continue on toward priesthood.

In the sacrament of Holy Orders, there are seven steps: four minor orders (porter, lector, exorcist and acolyte) and three major orders (subdeacon, deacon and priest). In the early Church, the diaconate was an order to which a man could aspire without intending to go on to the priesthood. St. Francis of Assisi, for example, was a deacon but never a priest. But in relatively recent Church legislation, the diaconate has been restricted only to those who intend to be priests.

In recent years, some have asked that the permanent status of diaconate be restored. This has been particularly urged by missionary bishops who want to use the diaconate to help the overworked missionary priests.

In the later half of the council’s 41st general meeting, after discussion on the schema’s first chapter ended and discussion on the second chapter opened, Cardinal Spellman addressed the assembly and expressed surprise that the text should propose establishing the diaconate.

This is a disciplinary measure, he said, first of all, which has no place in a dogmatic constitution. There is even some doubt, he added, as to whether it should be discussed at all. With the passage of time, the diaconate as a stable rank in the hierarchy has become obsolete and for this reason no steps should be taken to restore it to its previous form without careful consideration of the reasons which led to the original change.

The Cardinal noted what he considers practical difficulties which stand in the way of restoring the permanent diaconate. Permanent deacons would need special preparation, and this would mean organizing special houses for training. This necessity could inflict grave hardships in localities where the Church already finds it difficult to maintain seminaries. There is the further thought that vocations to the priesthood might diminish, especially if permanent deacons were not bound by the law of celibacy.

The assembly opened under the presidency of Gregorio Cardinal Agagianian, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. Its first matter of business was to distribute copies of the amendments to the schema on the liturgy to all the council Fathers. They were advised that a vote would be taken on the amendments on Tuesday, Oct. 8. Then discussion on the first chapter of the schema on the Church continued.

Pierre Cardinal Gerlier, Archbishop of Lyons, France, the first to speak, added his support to a proposal made earlier by the African Bishops that the text should make a declaration of solidarity with the poor and suffering of the entire world. “The presence of the poor,” said the Cardinal, “signifies the presence of Christ in our midst.”

Archbishop Antoine Grauls, W.F., of Kitega, Burundi, said that the text should take up explicitly the Church’s note of Catholicity. As for adapting the Church, particularly in the liturgy, to varying cultures, he said, it should show diversity in unity and unity in diversity.

Returning to topics which were touched upon by previous speakers, Archbishop Maurice Baudoux of St. Boniface, Canada, objected that the schema passes over relations of the Church with separated communities and churches among non-Catholic Christians, and Auxiliary Bishop Henri Jenny of Cambrai, France, urged more emphasis on the Person of Christ Who is the Head of the Church.

Bishop Joseph Marling, C.PP.S., of Jefferson City, Mo., complained that the schema fails to reflect the proper ecumenical spirit. No mention is made of our separated brethren even as imperfect members of the Mystical Body of Christ, he said.

Archbishop Salvatore Baldassarri of Ravenna, Italy, pointed out to the assembly that the basis of Church union with dissident Orientals is greater “because of our common patrimony of faith in the Trinity, the acceptance of Sacred Scripture and the ancient traditions of the early Fathers.” He was followed by Archbishop Giuseppe D’Avak of Camerino, Italy, who said that the first chapter of the schema is really a step backward from the doctrine contained in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical on the Mystical Body. Bishop Charles-Marie Himmer of Tournai, Belgium, then echoed Cardinal Gerlier’s insistence that the Church’s essential mission is to the poor and suffering.

This ended discussion on chapter one.

Discussion on particulars of the second chapter was opened by Cardinal Spellman. He was followed by Ernesto Cardinal Ruffini, Archbishop of Palermo, Italy, who said that Scriptural proofs for the collegiality of the bishops are not convincing. Many of the Scriptural citations in other parts of the chapter are used somewhat loosely, he said. He urged that the weakness be corrected.

Antonio Cardinal Bacci of the Vatican administrative staff joined Cardinal Spellman in opposing a permanent diaconate. There is inaccuracy of expression in the schema’s treatment of the matter, he said. He also expressed his fear of dangers in the proposal.

Archbishop Emile Guerry of Cambrai, France, a scholar who has written on the nature of the episcopacy, rose to say that a declaration of the sacramental character of the episcopate is more important than it would seem at first sight. It will determine the relationships between priests and bishops, he said, lifting them above a purely juridical plane.

Archbishop Rafael Garcia y Garcia De Castro of Granada, Spain; Coadjutor Archbishop Pierre Veuillot of Paris and Bishop Carlos Saboia Bandeira de Mello, O.F.M., of Palmas, Brazil, continued with speeches along the same line.

Archbishop Antonio Vuccino, A.A., Titular Archbishop of Apro, made the unusual suggestion that the schema “On Revelation” should be combined with the schema “On the Church.” He made the suggestion on the basis of the close connection between the two, saying that an entry into the Church by Baptism is always preceded by an act of faith in revealed truth.

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2 Responses to Cardinal Spellman strongly critical of plan to restore permanent diaconate

  1. jennyroca says:

    I am in favor of permanent deacon – for married couples it is more comfortable to talk to someone who experiences family life (supposing that the deacon is married).

    • Robert Federle says:

      Jenny, your point is well taken. I am actually just a couple of weeks away from being ordained as a Permanent Deacon. I must point out that, even though priests aren’t married, they are the product of marriage and families, and therefore have a valuable part to play in these discussions!

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