What Do You Do With the Deacon Who Refuses to be Ordained a Priest?

Q1: We have a seminarian in our diocese, who spent a summer in my parish.  He was expecting to become a priest several years ago, but the bishop declined to ordain him.  Nobody knows why.  Today he’s just a deacon and is working in the diocesan office, doing administrative work that any layperson can do.

Does this sound strange to you?  People are wondering if there’s some problem with him, otherwise why wouldn’t he be a priest already?  A couple of us asked our pastors about him, and they were evasive…. If he’s a problem, why not just let him go altogether?  Unemployment is high here and we laypeople question why we’re paying this man a salary, instead of hiring someone who really needs a job to feed his or her family. –Erika

Q2:  In our diocese we have a deacon who was ordained for the priestly ordination. Some months after his diaconate ordination, he began to have a fear of receiving the priestly ordination. He is now a deacon without doing his ministry. What does the Code of Canon Law say about this? What is the responsibility of the Bishop for him? –Father B.

A:  These questions come from opposite sides of the globe, and you could say they are mirror-images of each other.  The first one involves a deacon who evidently wants to be ordained a priest, but his bishop appears to have decided against it.  The other regards a deacon whose bishop intended to ordain him a priest, but the deacon has changed his mind and no longer wants it.  In such situations, what’s a bishop to do?

Before delving into our discussion, it’s important to note that there’s a distinction between what are known as transitional deacons, referring to those who are preparing for priestly ordination; and permanent deacons, who will remain in the diaconate and not be ordained as priests.  Both of the above questions concern transitional deacons, since both men were/are studying in the seminary with the ultimate goal of becoming priests.  In each case, therefore, ordination to the diaconate was not intended to be the final stage in the process.

As was discussed in “What Can (And Can’t) a Deacon Do?” deacons are clerics (c. 1009).  A seminarian who is planning to be ordained a priest is always ordained to the diaconate first.  The reasons for this are historical—the practice of ordaining deacons actually goes all the way back to the earliest years of Christianity (Acts 6 ff).  In fact, for centuries a Catholic seminarian invariably received a whole series of  different orders, in addition to the diaconate, in the run-up to his priestly ordination.  The system was greatly simplified by Pope Paul VI in 1972, when he eliminated most of these orders, leaving the diaconate (see “Who Can Conduct an Exorcism?” for a thorough discussion of this).

This is all of direct relevance to Erika’s question, because she indicates that the seminarian in question has already been ordained a deacon.  Thus he is now a member of the clergy, and has been incardinated into the diocese (see “Clerical Incardination: Priests for Life, Part I” for more on what incardination is).  Erika is right that it’s rather unusual that this deacon hasn’t been ordained for “several years” already.  It is fairly routine to ordain new priests a year or so after their ordination to the diaconate, although this can definitely vary.  Canon 1031.1 requires that there be at least six months between a seminarian’s ordination to the diaconate, and his ordination to the priesthood—but that’s the minimum interval, and there is no maximum.  Instead, canon 1032.2 is open-ended, asserting that before being ordained as a priest, a deacon is to spend “an appropriate amount of time” in pastoral ministry.  What’s “appropriate” is left up to the judgment of the bishop.

We don’t know why this former seminarian has not been ordained yet by the bishop, but there are countless possible reasons, many of them entirely innocent.  It could be, for example, that some personal issue has arisen—maybe there’s a serious health problem, or an elderly family member now needs a relative’s care—and the man has requested and obtained some time to settle matters first, before being ordained a priest and sent to minister full-time in a parish.  If his ordination has been deferred for this sort of reason, the bishop may have agreed to give the future priest a more routine job in the interim, until the problems have been ironed out and he’s in a position to dedicate himself completely to priestly ministry.  The decision on how to handle such a situation is the bishop’s.

On the other hand, it’s also possible that the bishop has become cognizant of some issue regarding this man, which has led the bishop to refrain from ordaining him a priest.  Perhaps some past scandal was brought to the bishop’s attention only after the man was ordained to the diaconate.  Maybe the deacon began making heterodox statements about Catholic theology, that alarmed the bishop and understandably led him to conclude that it was better to sort this out before ordaining him to the priesthood.  There are hundreds of conceivable reasons why the bishop might have decided that this deacon should not become a priest (at least for now).  But it’s important to keep in mind, before jumping to any negative conclusions about this deacon, that there is nothing in this scenario which necessarily points in this direction!

If the deacon’s ordination to the priesthood has merely been deferred until some personal/family issue has been ironed out, he’ll be ordained eventually—and in the meantime the bishop has evidently given him a task which, in his judgment, enables the deacon to contribute in some way to the work of the diocese.  Once he becomes a priest, he’ll most likely be assigned to ministry in a parish, and his job in the diocesan office will then have to be given to someone else.

But if the bishop has discovered some reason why he does not want this man to become a priest of the diocese, this makes the situation extremely awkward.  That’s because the bishop cannot merely dismiss this man from the diocese, on the grounds that he does not have a vocation or is otherwise unsuitable for the priesthood.  He cannot do this, because the man has already been ordained a deacon.

It is very common for men to enter the seminary to “try their vocation.”  They begin studying for the priesthood, and along the way they may still be in the process of discerning whether this is really what God is calling them to do.  Meanwhile, the rector and staff of the seminary are doing some simultaneous discerning of their own: they’re trying to decide whether each seminarian truly does seem to be called to become a priest, or not.  If they conclude for whatever reason that a seminarian does not have a vocation, or is otherwise not a good “fit” for the diocese, they’ll confer with the seminarian and let him know (and of course the bishop will want to know as well).  This is nothing to be ashamed of!  Many fine Catholic husbands/fathers entered the seminary at an earlier age, only to determine that God was calling them to a different state of life.

But it’s critical that this process of discernment take place in the years before a seminarian reaches the point of ordination to the diaconate.  That’s because the minute a seminarian has been ordained a deacon, he becomes a cleric who is incardinated in the diocese, and nobody can simply show him the door and ask/tell him to leave.  On the contrary, as he has attained the clerical state, the transitional deacon en route to the priesthood technically has the right to appropriate remuneration, and financial support in case of illness or in old age (c. 281.1 and .2).  Thus tossing a problematic deacon out of the diocese is not an option!

It could be—although once again, we have no way of knowing for sure—that Erika’s bishop realized too late that for whatever reason, he doesn’t want this deacon to become a priest in his diocese.  If that’s the case, then he’s caught!  True, there are a couple of possible arrangements that might be made: if, for example, the bishop is willing to accept this man as a permanent deacon instead of a transitional one, and if the deacon himself agrees to this, then maybe the deacon could be assigned to parish ministry in this capacity.  Depending on the country, this could mean that the deacon would have to find full-time employment elsewhere, and minister only on a part-time basis.  But remember that this is not what the man originally wanted—and if he refuses to accept this (perhaps insisting that he still wants to become a priest), the bishop can’t really force him.

If the deacon himself wishes to leave and live as a layman again, he can petition to be laicized (a concept discussed in detail in “Can a Priest Ever Return to the Lay State?”).  But if he wants to remain a cleric in the diocese, there’s relatively little that a bishop can do.  There are indeed situations in which a cleric can be forcibly laicized, as discussed in the above article; but they involve commission of a crime, for which laicization is the ultimate punishment.  So long as the deacon has not committed any such crime, he cannot be laicized against his will.

If readers are thinking by this point that this might be a really sticky situation, the scenario described by Father B could be even more so.  A seminarian studying for the priesthood was ordained to the diaconate by the bishop, with the assumption that he would subsequently be ordained a priest—but now the deacon is having second thoughts.  In this case, the bishop has no objections to ordaining the man; it’s the man himself who’s now objecting.  What’s the bishop to do?

Theologically, it makes no sense to confer the sacrament of Holy Orders on a man who doesn’t want to receive it.  Thus it’s no surprise that canon law asserts this too, noting in canon 1026 that in order to be ordained, a man must have the necessary freedom to make this choice.  But the canon goes even farther than that: it adds that it is absolutely wrong in any way, or for any reason, to compel a man to be ordained.

The Latin wording of this statement includes the phrase nefas est.  It’s an expression that’s very hard to translate into English, but it basically means “don’t even think about doing it!”  We’ve run into this strongly worded phrase before: in “Can a Priest Ever Reveal What is Said in Confession?” we saw it used in canon 983.1, which says a priest is absolutely forbidden to reveal what a penitent told him in confession.  And we saw in “Canon Law and Consecrating the Eucharist” that consecrating the Host without then consecrating the Chalice as well (or vice versa) is utterly unthinkable and must never, ever be done (c. 927).  The Latin language can’t get any stronger than this—and so we can see that forcing a man to be ordained a priest if he doesn’t want to is simply out of the question.

To ensure that a candidate for Holy Orders is seeking the sacrament of his own free will, canon 1036 requires him to write a declaration by hand, attesting that he wishes to be ordained of his own accord and is not being compelled in any way.  This declaration must be made before being ordained to the diaconate, and again later on when the transitional deacon is to be ordained a priest.

Clearly, then, the deacon described by Father B. must have made this attestation before being ordained a deacon.  But now he appears to be having scruples (“fear”) of some sort.  Maybe he’s completely overwhelmed with awe at the idea of becoming a priest, a feeling that could indicate that he takes the sacrament very seriously—which in itself is hardly a problem!  Technically, every man on earth can be said to be unworthy of priestly ordination; but we know that Christ instituted the priesthood nonetheless, and the Church couldn’t survive without it.  If this deacon is afraid of the immense responsibility that St Francis, Cimabuecomes with priestly ordination, he’s in good company: Saint Francis of Assisi felt himself too unworthy to become a priest, and in fact died a deacon, having never received priestly ordination.  He actually consented to ordination to the diaconate solely in order to be allowed to preach, something which he could not do as a layman (see “Who May Preach?” for more on this topic).

But the difference between Saint Francis and the deacon in question is that the deacon entered the seminary specifically in order to become a priest, and his bishop was/is expecting to ordain him to minister as a priest in the diocese.  The bishop and the diocese need him, and thus it’s pretty safe to say that this deacon is letting them down.

Experienced spiritual directors and confessors are usually familiar with the spiritual phenomenon of scrupulosity, and there are ways to try to help a scrupulous person overcome his fears.  Since the bishop of this diocese is undoubtedly concerned in general about the spiritual wellbeing of all his clergy, we can hope that he is taking steps to aid this fearful deacon to conquer his scruples and consent to become a priest.  If he doesn’t, then once again the bishop is caught: he cannot ordain this man to the priesthood against his will.

Saint Josemaría di Escrivá once wrote that “the priestly vocation is invested with a dignity and greatness which has no equal on earth.”  That’s why when ordaining the clergy, the Church naturally has always sought to select the finest candidates it can find.  At the same time, we all know that our priests are human beings, with normal quirks and foibles like anyone else—and occasionally the human fallibility of our priests-in-training can lead to tricky situations like these.  In such cases canon law has no silver bullet; sometimes it can only try to find the best middle-ground between the natural frailty of a man, and the grandeur of the priesthood.

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