Why no diaconate in the South?

Resources »EAPR »East Asian Pastoral Review 1997 »Why No Diaconate In The South

Bp. Fritz Lobinger


Someone who wrote a doctoral thesis on the diaconate told me that it was the votes of the Young Churches, especially from Africa and Asia, that persuaded the Second Vatican Council to restore the diaconate1. The representatives from the Young Churches were the authors of the passage which declared that conferring the diaconate “would help those men who carry out the ministry of a deacon - preaching the word of God as catechists, governing scattered Christian communities in the name of the bishop or parish priest, or exercising charity in the performance of social or charitable work - if they were to be strengthened by the imposition of hands which has come down from the apostles.”2

However, things went exactly the opposite way. Today over 95% of all deacons are to be found on the opposite side of the globe, in North America and Europe, practically none in Africa, Asia or Latin America. Since it is only the countries of the North, which have deacons, the norms of the diaconate recently published by Rome3 are based mainly on the model, which the Old Churches have found suitable for themselves; it is very doubtful that they will be relevant to the Young Churches of the South. The long awaited publication of these norms prompts us to ask why the diaconate developed in such an unexpected way and whether the reaction of the South could still change.

We have to look at the reasons why the Young Churches of the South said NO to the diaconate. Why was it a NO from exactly those parts of the Church, which have a far greater de-facto diaconate, a superior diaconal spirit and a much greater voluntary service in their communities?


One can find only brief and cursorily published references delineating the reasons, which prompted many bishops’ conferences to decide against the diaconate.  Even after so many years, there are no clearly presented, clearly reflected, statements as to why the diaconate was refused. From Africa we hear vaguely formulated conclusions:

It would be difficult to maintain the deacons financially -
The diaconate might slow down or halt vocations to the priesthood -
People would be confused as to the role and function of deacons -
Haven’t we 'deacons’ enough already in our catechists? -
Wouldn’t the conferring of the diaconate clericalise the lay leaders? -
This innovation could be the thin end of the wedge leading to the institution of a married clergy and a depreciation of celibacy -
What we really need is priests.4

From more recent conversations with priests who might be aware of such issues, it is evident that the reasons for African dioceses continuing their policy of not accepting the diaconate are mainly the same as the above: money and authority. It is feared that the diaconate would be a financial burden and that the presence of deacons in the parishes could reduce the unique position of the priests.

Asian Church leaders seem just as reluctant and for the same reasons. Again, it is difficult to get a clear answer why they say NO to the diaconate. A well-informed priest told me: “Our bishops have also been slow to institute this old/new ministry because

  1. They do not see what a deacon does that a catechist cannot do, and
  2. Should something happen to the deacon, they are bound to continue supporting the man and his family.”5

About the Latin American reaction to the diaconate, the Puebla document of CELAM1979 at first gives the impression that those dioceses would take a rather positive stand. The document makes it clear that it does not see the place of the deacon primarily in a diocesan office or as a social-action co-ordinator of a large deanery but rather in the small base communities: “The CEBs (base communities) are the proper environment for nurturing more deacons” (No.119). The Santo Domingo document of 1993 repeats this perception: “The deacon is the only kind of ordained minister who can reach some situations and places, especially isolated rural places and densely populated urban areas” (No. 77). Such statements by bishops, however, sound more like duty exercises than realistic discernment; it is well known that it is exactly the remote communities and the thousands of base communities who have almost unanimously made up their mind not to introduce this ministry. For what reasons - this is our question.

The above often-quoted reason of an added financial burden is surprising. So many still fear that the diaconate would mean increased expenditure for the diocese. Yet it has been proved over thirty years of experience that there is no evidence of this at all. A diocese may have hundreds of deacons all of whom serve as voluntary workers. Subsequent illness or unemployment does not constitute any responsibility on the part of the diocese. One could rather say that deacons reduce the financial outlay. If the real reason were that the diaconate might become a financial burden, then the dioceses would long ago have realised that this is not so. The main reasons must lie somewhere else.

The other very common opinion is also rather strange: “Let lay leaders fulfill these tasks”. In other words - where Church leadership does not require ordination, then let leaders function without it. If catechists or other lay ministers can do most of the tasks involved, let them do so. This means we would have told the Early Church of Acts 6:6: If the service to widows can be done without laying on of hands, then it should be done without this rite. If the Word can be preached without laying on of hands, do it without. Logically this would apply to other sacraments as well: if so many good pagans can enter God’s Kingdom without baptism, let them enter without the sacrament. It would make things easier but it is certainly not good theology and the real reason for rejecting the diaconate must lie somewhere else.

The danger to priestly vocations has been put forward as a possible consequence of the institution of the diaconate in a diocese. But has the existence of married deacons actually reduced the number of vocations to the priesthood? This was feared in the beginning. Meanwhile we have been able to study the development of vocations in neighboring dioceses over the last thirty years, to compare dioceses, which have deacons with others, which have not. The result shows that the existence of the diaconate makes no difference whatsoever to the vocation situation in a diocese.

A further negative stance is that the presence of deacons would reduce the extent of lay involvement. Again, after thirty years, this has not been proved.  The findings are that the diaconate in no way reduces lay involvement; where there are deacons there are just as many lay people actively engaged as elsewhere.

A frequently heard argument is that we are not interested in the diaconate because what we really need is the ordination of local leaders to part-time priesthood, not to the diaconate. However, if we ask whether those who for this reason say NO to the diaconate have come any nearer to realising their aim, the answer surely is that if any group is making progress towards obtaining a possible permission to introduce part-time priesthood it is those who have introduced the diaconate.

The proposition has been put forward that the real but hidden agenda for rejecting the diaconate is the status-consciousness of priests. Priests simply do not want to work with anybody who even remotely resembles their status. It is suspected that most priests reject the diaconate because the presence of ordained deacons in the parishes would diminish their unique and paramount position. Is this true?

Probably it is true to some extent, but not universally. A good number of priests sincerely promote the sharing of ministries as far as possible; yet do not see the value of the diaconate. These priests and bishops must have their own reasons, which differ from the above. It is a pity that they do not verbalise these. Since they, themselves, do not publish the conclusions they have reached on the subject, we have to try and guess how they have been thinking.

In my own diocese the priests discussed the possibility of the diaconate at great length and on several occasions. What finally persuaded them against the diaconate was that they have too many lay leaders. How can they say so? How can having fifty, a hundred, and even more lay leaders in a parish and giving them constant on-going formation be an obstacle to the diaconate?

The present form of diaconate would create an incomprehensible, painful distinction in the leadership group of each parish.  It would mean singling out one leader among so many others, or choosing two or three from a large body of dedicated parishioners.  This would be bearable and acceptable if those selected would have a very distinct task, but if they do almost the same as the others do, the situation must be perceived as extremely hurtful. It cannot be welcome.  The understandable reaction is to avoid the diaconate altogether.

This could explain why it is ironically the active Churches of the South, not those of the North, which reject the diaconate. In the Churches of the South we find that each sub-parish has a large group of active de-facto deacons. In the parishes of the North a different phenomenon is more common - each parish with its few deeply committed, highly educated but isolated Catholics.


If it is true that the Churches of the South show no interest in the diaconate because they have very many lay leaders and because they regard the diaconate in its present form as creating incomprehensible distinctions, then one must ask why they never tried to find alternative forms. As far as I know no such search for alternative forms has ever taken place. This is surprising because we know from Church history that the diaconate has existed in very different forms.

If the Young Churches decide to reflect on possible alternative forms of the diaconate, they should obviously start from their present position. Theirs is one of large parishes, of few priests, of manifold human needs, of few agencies caring for those needs, of numerous local leaders prepared to concern themselves with those needs, of many voluntary workers in each community, of groups of core leaders at each place, of little distinction between liturgical and social affairs, and of much community involvement. It is a situation of abundant de-facto diaconal ministry.

In a parish of five thousand Catholics one will find something like fifty lay leaders plus many other voluntary workers. In the parishes of the city periphery they all live and work in close proximity while in rural parishes there is even a higher number of leaders serving the many distant centers as small leadership teams.

An alternative form of diaconate would be to transform this de-facto nameless diaconate into one, which openly bears its name and receives its sacramental form. In such a parish probably, for various reasons, not all fifty leaders would be ordained as deacons. It is more likely that about ten of them would be, the others being deacon candidates or subdeacons. The deacons and subdeacons would work together at most tasks, the difference between them being kept as small as possible. This stipulation would be important with regard to the issue of women in ministry. Since subdiaconate is officially, for the present, an undefined term it should be possible to include women in this capacity. In many countries the number of deeply committed women who exercise a de-facto diaconate in the communities is higher than that of men.

What would this transformation achieve? How would it affect the present system of inviting hundreds and thousands of local leaders to fulfill the many tasks in the communities under the name of “lay leaders”? They are given regular formation. They attend a paraliturgical ceremony of self-dedication when they are given a solemn blessing as lay leaders. They are entrusted with a wide range of responsibilities far beyond what could be described as lay ministry: they lead the Sunday Service most of the time; they conduct funerals in the name of the Church; they baptise, solemnise marriages, and bring communion to the sick. They care for those in need. They represent the Church in times of conflicts. On each of these occasions they read the Word of God and preach in the name of the Church, not just in their own name. This genre of service cannot be relegated to lay ministry. It goes far beyond it, although at present the Church is reluctant to admit it.

It is precisely this situation that the Second Vatican Council wanted to rectify when it decided to restore the diaconate. But because no thought was given to the special conditions of the South, the form of restoration failed to answer the need of the Young Churches. Their existing large de-facto diaconate cannot be validated by ordaining one or two individuals. It can only be authenticated by a large-group diaconate.

A decisive factor would be the difference in status between the ordained deacons and the deacon candidates or subdeacons. If this difference is highly visible all the time, then the communities and their priests will prefer not to introduce the diaconate at all. They can only be interested in forms of ministry, which support unity and togetherness among that large group which leads and serves the community.

We are aware that at present there would be much opposition to limiting the difference between ordained deacons and subdeacons6. It would be said that minimising this difference would mean a downgrading of ordination and that it would lead to confusion and disorder. We are confident, however, that a way could be found to satisfy both needs, the need for togetherness and the need for clarity. We are convinced that, to be meaningful for the Churches of the South, a diaconate would have to comprise a strong community dimension where each parish has large numbers of deacons and subdeacons and where differences are not emphasised.

The main question is: What would be gained by the daring innovation of a community diaconate? It would be a solution to the confusion that arises when we speak of “lay ministry” but this consequence will not be perceived by many as a worthwhile aim to undertake such great changes. Another result would be the greater importance given to the training and formation of local leaders. This outcome, too, is unlikely to convince a majority of the need to introduce this new form of the diaconate. It would seem that we will have to wait until more serious reasons become apparent to a large section of our people before the Churches of the South find the courage to develop a community diaconate.

Once we become aware of the principle at stake, there are many details, which will have to be clarified. We have not yet reached that stage. For the present the publication of the new documents on the diaconate is challenging us to reflect on our NO to this restored ministry. Why have we shown no interest in it? Are there possible alternatives to the present form of the diaconate, which could one day entice us to reconsider our decision?


On 22 February 1998, thirty years after the official restoration of the diaconate, the relevant Roman Offices published the first complete set of norms on the diaconate, a set of “Basic Norms” (Ratio Fundamentalis) and a “Directory”7.  Will these documents influence the negative attitude of the Young Churches? Very unlikely, but they leave the door open. For us in the Young Churches the publication of these documents should be an occasion to reflect anew on the way in which we shape our ministry structure. Let us briefly see what the documents contain.

The two documents present no major new directives. They only bring together the norms and ideas, which are presently in practice. There is no attempt to settle the major controversy as to whether deacons should be distinctly social and charitable workers or whether their function is to work mainly in the pastoral and liturgical fields. The documents state that there can be different forms of diaconate “whether liturgical or pastoral, charitable or social”.8

The documents represent the diaconate of Europe and the USA. The texts mirror the type of diaconate, which is in use in Europe and in North America and which has not found acceptance in the Young Churches of the whole developing world. The two documents ignore the fact that 95% of the Church find this form of diaconate of no value for them. The introductory Joint Declaration says that “The Permanent Diaconate is an important enrichment ... especially in mission territories” (Joint Decl. No 3) although it is well known that only 3% of all deacons are found in mission territories. It is to be deplored that the documents never refer to this contradiction.

The documents envision a type of deacon who is “analogous to the priest”. The expression “analogous to the priest” is used twice, in Ratio Nos.1 & 88. It also underlies most of the things which are said about the deacon: the many scientific subjects he should study, the time (at least five days) he should spend on retreat before his ordination, the many exhortations, the many quotes from Pastores Dabo Vobis, the unqualified assumption that he is appointed to a parish, that he is coming "into" a parish, that he receives an “initial pastoral assignment” - all is modelled along the lines of the priesthood (Directory, Nos. 8 & 77). Of the twenty thousand existing deacons only one thousand belong to this type of full-time workers, but the document tends towards them, not towards the majority. The document authors were clearly aware that both types exist, the self-supporting and the full-time deacons, but their minds were pre-occupied with the full-timers. When deacons read the text, the majority will feel strangers too much of what they contain. For the Churches of the South, the concept of deacons “analogous to the priest” bears no interest.

We are somewhere between uniformity and pluriformity. The documents reveal the wish to move towards a certain uniformity. They remind us that the Congregations in Rome waited for thirty years to let the form of diaconate evolve and undergo experimentation before writing these texts. They feel that now the time has come to present a definite form.

At the same time the documents still leave room for diversity and adaptation. While the writers do not seem aware of any further developments, they do not close the door to alternative forms if these should appear. At eleven places the RatioFundamentalis refers to this possibility of diversification. Apparently we can conclude that the door to further adaptation and experimentation is still open.


The documents would have been written differently if we in the Young Churches had not remained silent. We did not develop alternative forms of diaconate nor did we clearly say why the existing forms were unsuitable for us. Those who drew up the documents had to rely on what existed and on what was published. All this came from the North while the South remained silent. The result is a set of norms which many in the South will consider irrelevant.

To continue in this way is not helpful for anybody. In my view the first thing to do is to look more closely at each of the reasons why the Churches of the developing world said NO to the diaconate. Giving superficial reasons will not do. The Churches of the South have learnt to analyse social problems carefully by repeating again and again the question “why?”. We should do the same with our ministry structure. Why do we say that the diaconate is expensive when it really isn’t? Why do we say that it reduces community involvement although we know this is not so? Why do we say that we already have our own forms of community ministry? Why...?

There is one closely related issue, which must be considered, as it exists in many areas: Why do many dioceses of the South continue unreflectingly with the catechist-structure? It is well known that the great majority of the so-called “catechists” are in fact unordained pastoral workers. The term is a misnomer, and its misuse clouds our thinking. Neither should these unordained pastors fall under the category of “lay ministry”. We have inherited the term “catechist” from the emergency situations of the early stages of missionary activity. The “catechists” were invented as prolonged arms of the foreign missionary working in an emergency situation. They were not the creation of the community-oriented cultures of the South.  These rich cultures should therefore cease to speak of this model of ministry as originating from them. It was an accidental historical phase, which no longer has any relevance. The cultures of the South should not feel bound to maintain an outdated arrangement with its misleading terminology but should now move ahead and search for more appropriate forms of ministry with the relevant terminology.

The first step is to look at what is happening in our parishes. This will make us aware that it is not correct to base the life of our communities on an unordained ministry. The next step is to search for the forms of ministry, which are possible today and most suited to our situation. Let the publication of the documents on the diaconate be an invitation to share our reflections.


  1. We use the term “diaconate” in the sense of the permanent diaconate. In several countries the clumsy, long term “permanent diaconate” is no longer used because there is no need to continually distinguish it from the transitional diaconate, which is a rare, extraordinary form limited to the seminaries.
  2. Decree on the Church's missionary activity, No. 16.
  3. Congregation for Catholic Education and Congregation for the Clergy, Basic Norms for the formation of Permanent Deacons and Directory for the ministry and life of Permanent Deacons, Vatican City 1998.
  4. Listed in the article by M. Singleton, formerly working with AMECEA, in PRO MUNDI VITA Bulletin No 50 of 1974, also in a report on the AMECEA plenary of Lusaka 1970, published in SHARING Sept 1970, Gaba Publications Kampala Uganda, p.7.
  5. Private correspondence with one of the secretaries of the bishop’s conferences of Asia.
  6. The new Directory wants to see the difference between ordained deacons and lay ministers emphasized, e.g. No 41.
  7. As quoted above.
  8. Introductory “Joint Declaration” No 3.