Scrapping the diaconate completely may seem a strange idea to Catholics. It was only ten years ago that the Second Vatican Council decreed the restoration of the diaconate as an ,independent ministry in its own right. But the idea that the diaconate should be discontinued is persuasively argued by an Anglican report on "Deacons in the Church's published this week—and argued on grounds that lie at the heart of Catholic efforts to make sense of a ministry so recently restored to the Latin Church.
At present the main reason for the existence of the Catholic diaconate is that it is the only ordained ministry normally open to married men. In this way its restoration was a by-product of the continued insistence on the necessity of priestly celibacy.
Clearly this could well Mean the restored diaconate being merely a temporary expedient, destined to lapse into disuse for very much the same reasons that led to the original decay of the diaconate in the early Middle Ages—if, that is, the Church at some future date should decide that celibacy is no longer to be a normal condition for ordination to the priesthood.
But this is not how the diaconate is seen by, for example, the report on "The Church 2000". There it is seen as essentially a ministry of service, a way of embodying and focusing the whole Church's task of carrying on Christ's mission of service. The deacons' task would be "to 'actualise,' to animate, to bring into effect, and to organise this servant character of the whole Church.'
This is the concept of the diaconate that the Anglican report considers and discards. Like "The Church 2000," it is concerned that the Church should be a servant church. Like "The Church 2000," it is concerned that every Christian should live out his or her own individual ministry of service to others.
Where the two reports part company is over the question whether the diaconate would help or hinder this process. "The Church 2000" sees the diaconate as a way of declericalising the Church's service and showing that the Church "demands no privilege and does not wish to dominate."
The Anglican report on the contrary fears that a diaconate revived or enlarged along these lines would obscure the diaconal role and function of the whole church. The danger would be of the various ministries of service now being carried out by ordinary lay people becoming clericalised, and of the laity being encouraged to a kind of sloth that would leave this vital aspect of Christian life and witness more and more to the professionals.
Clearly the argument of this Anglican report is one that will appeal to many Catholics. It is thus something that the joint working party of priests and bishops should take into account when considering reactions to "The Church 2000," even though they may well decline to follow it.
For the argument seems to rest on too pessimistic a notion of the effect of the Church as institution on its members and on too restricted a notion of officially recognised ministry in the Church.