The decision by the Roman Catholic bishops to seek permission from the Pope to introduce ordained deacons into the life of the Church in this State is one of several grave problems besetting the Catholic Church today. The fact is that so few men are coming forward for ordination that many parishes face the early prospect of having no priest to administer religious rites to the faithful. A church without priests would have been unthinkable a decade ago: today it is a looming possibility.
The ministry, known as the diaconate, originated in apostolic times and is well established in other countries where Catholicism is practised. But it would be a new development in this State and it is just one way the Church might encourage a fresh intake of men into an organisation whose clergy are in danger of being seen increasingly as elderly and out of touch. Deacons will be able to preach, perform baptisms, attend marriages and funerals, and give Communion to the sick but not celebrate the Eucharist or hear confession.
It is to be regretted that the only people who will be able to become permanent deacons are men. In the case of single men, they must be over 25 years old and they must, like priests, take a vow of celibacy. But married men may also become deacons (so long as they have the permission of their wives), although they must be over 35 years of age. There are many who would argue that the Church would be vastly better served if it had more married men (and women) in its ministries, people with a better understanding of family life and the stresses and strains it can produce. A church more in touch with family life might have avoided some of the tangled mess of recent years, with the resultant loss of faith, both institutional and religious.
While the idea of married deacons is to be welcomed, the development does serve also to underline some of the contradictions within the Church on the question of celibacy and women. Such contradictions emerged starkly in Britain several years ago when the Church of England decided to ordain women priests. In reaction, several disgruntled Anglican conservatives resigned their ministries and "defected" to the Roman Catholic Church - wives in tow. As a result, there are now a number of Catholic parishes in the UK which have priests who are married and have families but who are working alongside celibate colleagues, some of whom at least must, as a result, question the validity of their abstinence.
In would seem, therefore, only a matter of time before unmarried (and celibate) deacons administer pastoral care in the church in Ireland, side by side with colleagues who lead more conventional married family lives. What effects this will have in the long term can only be surmised but it is reasonable to assume that the contrast will not necessarily bolster support for celibacy, which would be better in any case were it a matter of individual choice. And the existence of married male deacons will surely also sharpen the debate within the Church about the role of women. Already, a Vatican commission is examining the question of women deacons. How much longer before the Church has to allow free and open discussion within its own ranks on the question of women priests?