The 48-page document, entitled "Fundamental Norms for the Formation of Permanent Deacons," is accompanied by a 63-page "directory" for the ministry. The documents were presented to the press in Rome today by Cardinals Pio Laghi and Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the prefects respectively of the Congregations for Catholic Education and the Clergy.
The diaconate is one of the three ordained ministries within the Catholic Church, along with the priesthood and the episcopacy. The permanent diaconate, restored to active use in the Roman Church by Vatican II, has attracted nearly 23,000 men to the clerical state. Of those 23,000 permanent deacons, roughly 90 percent are married men, and roughly two-thirds live in North America-- predominantly in the United States.
The new Vatican document suggests that the permanent diaconate envisioned by Vatican II has now reached a sort of "maturity" after a period of 30 years. For that reason the Holy See has published this guide to the three essential functions of the deacon: the proclamation of the Gospel, the service of the liturgy, and administration of charitable works.
"We now need to set out universal norms" for deacons, Cardinal Laghi explained, pointing out that different episcopal conferences have developed widely different usages. He said that the example of the United States, with 15,000 permanent deacons, had helped to guide an international dialogue.
Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos observed that there have been no widespread concerns about abuses of the deacon's role. Rather, he said, the new effort is a matter of "stimulating this sacramental and spiritual force, which gives life to the Church." Indeed the two documents contain no striking new teaching or discipline regarding the role of the permanent deacon.
However, the documents do lay to rest one argument which has been raised frequently by proponents of priestly ordination for women. The text makes it clear that the ordination of women as permanent deacons is not a possibility. Msgr. Jose Savaira Martins, the secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education, explained: "While 'deaconesses' indubitably did exist in the early days of the Church, they were not ordained as priests were; they simply received a blessing, which was not a sacrament."
If women cannot be ordained to the clergy, reporters asked, would it be possible to revive the ancient practice in which some women received a blessing to work as deacons without being ordained? Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos responded: "In editing this text we wished precisely to avoid any new confusion on the idea of the diaconate. To go back to such a practice in the Church would cause confusion in the language."