What Can (and Can’t) a Deacon Do?

Q:  We have a permanent deacon at our parish.  Some of us are wondering if the pastor sometimes allows him to do things that he’s not supposed to do… for example, occasionally the deacon preaches a homily at Sunday Mass instead of the priest.  Is that permissible?  What are the limits of what a deacon can do?  —Jay

A:  It’s a good question!  Lay Catholics generally understand that because a deacon is not a priest, there are some sacramental/liturgical actions which he cannot perform.  But occasionally the laity are taken aback when they see a deacon engaged in some sort of ministerial activity which they thought only a priest could do.  Let’s take a look first at what it really means to be a deacon, and then at the ministerial actions which he may rightly perform.  Then we’ll be able to see whether the deacon whom Jay describes was doing anything improper by preaching at Mass.

First and foremost, it’s important to realize that a deacon is a cleric (c. 266.1).  This is true whether he’s a permanent deacon, or a seminarian who’s preparing eventually to be ordained a priest (known as a transitional deacon).  Becoming a deacon isn’t comparable to becoming an altar-server or a lector.  People who agree to assume these latter two roles may sometimes be “commissioned” in some sort of ceremony in church, but a deacon must actually be ordained by a bishop!  An altar-server or lector might later relinquish his responsibilities, but once a man becomes a deacon, there’s no going back to the lay state.  Ordination brings with it an ontological change in the person, which cannot be undone.  (See “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?” for more on this issue.)

As a cleric, a deacon is incardinated into a diocese or religious institute, a concept that was addressed in greater detail in “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I.”  If he’s a transitional deacon, who will ultimately be ordained a priest, he normally returns to his studies at the seminary after his diaconal ordination.  If he’s a permanent deacon, he is bound to minister where the diocesan bishop assigns him, most commonly in a parish, assisting the pastor in ministering to the parishioners.

On a purely practical level, the average lay Catholic will notice that a deacon does many—but not all!—of the same things a priest can do.  This is because some sacramental/ministerial actions are the purview of all clerics, while others specifically require priestly ordination.  Let’s look at the sacraments one by one, in the order in which they are addressed in the Code of Canon Law, and see which actions a deacon has the ability to perform:

1. Baptism.  As has been discussed so many times before in this space, anybody can baptize, as ordination is not required for the valid conferral of this sacrament (see “Sacraments and Personal Identity,” and  “Inclusive Language and Baptismal Validity” for more in-depth discussions of this).  It goes without saying, then, that a deacon can baptize too!

In a non-emergency situation, however, a deacon doesn’t merely baptize validly: canon 861.1 notes that he is also an ordinary minister of baptism, as is a priest or bishop.  What does the term ordinary minister mean here?  Since a deacon is a cleric, administering the sacrament of baptism is an action that is proper to him.  In other words, a lay-person should only be administering baptism in extraordinary situations (when an unbaptized person is dying, or perhaps in some war-torn region where there are no clergy available to do it); but a deacon lawfully baptizes in ordinary, non-emergency circumstances, just like any other member of the clergy.  Thus if (for example) a permanent deacon baptizes a baby in his parish, with the knowledge and approval of the pastor, he does so both validly and licitly.  (See “Are They Really Catholic? Part II” for a more in-depth explanation of the terms validity and liceity.)

2. Holy Eucharist.  The average Catholic understands that a deacon cannot celebrate Mass, as he is unable to consecrate the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ.  As canon 900.1 states bluntly, the only minister who can do this is a validly ordained priest.  This is reinforced by canon 907, which notes that at Mass, neither deacons nor the laity are permitted either to say those prayers (particularly the eucharistic prayer) or to perform those actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.

But with regard to the distribution of Holy Communion to the faithful, canon 910.1 states that the ordinary minister of this sacrament is a bishop, priest, or deacon.  As we just saw above with regard to baptism, the term ordinary minister means that these persons may confer this sacrament under typical, non-emergency circumstances.  The laity are allowed to distribute the Eucharist too , as was discussed in “Questions about Eucharistic Ministers,” but only in situations that are outside the norm—which is why such persons are properly termed extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist (c. 910.2).

3. Confirmation.  Once again, the term ordinary minister is used with regard to this sacrament, as canon 882 asserts that the ordinary minister of confirmation is a bishop.  But as was seen in “Can a Priest Administer the Sacrament of Confirmation?” a priest can also administer confirmation by law, when he baptizes an adult or receives an already baptized adult into the Catholic Church, and also in danger of death (c. 883 nn. 2 and 3).  A deacon, however, cannot administer the sacrament of confirmation under any circumstances—if he were to attempt to do so, the confirmation would be invalid.

4. Penance.  The law regarding this sacrament is unequivocal: only a priest can administer the sacrament of penance (c. 965).  There are no circumstances under which a deacon can hear a confession!  Note that it is quite possible for a deacon to counsel a person pastorally; but if, in the course of that counseling, that person decides that he wants to confess his sins, the deacon will have to get a priest to  do this. 

5. Holy Orders.  There is no surprise here: only a bishop can confer the sacrament of ordination (c. 1012).  Since even a priest isn’t able to ordain, it follows logically that a deacon cannot do so either.

6. Anointing of the Sick.  Canon 1003. specifically notes that only a priest can validly administer the anointing of the sick.  If a person is gravely ill, a deacon might very well pay a pastoral visit to him and his family; but a deacon cannot actually anoint anyone.

7. Marriage.  In “Can a Catholic Ever Get Married in a Non-Catholic Church?” we saw that Catholics who wish to marry are bound to observe the canonical form for marriage.  Among other things, this means that the wedding must be celebrated in the presence of either the bishop, or the pastor of the parish, or a priest or deacon delegated by either of them (c. 1108.1).  It follows, then, that a deacon can validly officiate at a Catholic marriage ceremony, so long as he has been delegated to do so by the pastor.

Apart from the seven sacraments, there are of course other ministerial actions which Catholic clergy have the power to perform.  For example, deacons have the power to impart many (but not all) types of blessings, in accord with the liturgical books (c. 1169.1).  A deacon can also expose the Blessed Sacrament for Eucharistic adoration, and bless the people with the monstrance (c. 943).

And a deacon is permitted to preach.  Canon 764 states that in general, priests and deacons have the faculty to preach everywhere, unless a particular bishop or religious superior has restricted that right.  As was seen in “Who May Preach?” this includes preaching the homily at Mass, on Sunday or any other day.  Thus there is nothing improper about the permanent deacon at Jay’s parish preaching at Sunday Mass in lieu of the celebrating priest.  Both are able to preach, although only the priest can actually celebrate Mass.

It’s reasonable for Catholics to be wary of abuses, but this is not one of them.  Jay and his fellow parishioners can rest easy, because by preaching, the permanent deacon assigned to their parish is carrying out a ministerial function that as a cleric, he has the right and ability to do.

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