Possibilities for deacons in Religious Institutes (RI)

Rev. Assoc. Prof. Anthony Gooley

At our Feast of St Phoebe Webinar, Deacon Anthony noted one of the unanswered questions and kindly offered this blog post in response. It also relates directly to the recent blog about Sr Helen. Thanks, Anthony!

I was asked by a member of a women’s Religious Institute (RI) of pontifical right about the possibility for women deacons within her RI if the Church authorized the reestablishment of the diaconate for women. There are a number of issues to consider and these are, the constitution of the RI, incardination and the relationship to diocesan bishops.

A pontifical right RI is one whose constitution/rule is approved by the Holy See (Bishop of Rome) and therefore the RI is ultimately subject to the Holy See as the authority which is responsible for its establishment. The first issue is that the RI would need to seek to have their constitution amended to include clerical and lay members. Some RI for men are clerical because all or almost all members are clerics, some entirely of lay members (i.e., Brothers). An RI of women (e.g., Sisters and Nuns) is currently constituted only by lay members.

A RI whose members are lay men, i.e., Brothers, if they wished to permit members to be ordained as deacons or presbyters, would have to petition to have their constitution amended if it did not already provide for admission of clerics. The constitutional amendment has nothing to do with being male or female, only the canonical status of the members.

Incardination is a really important part of the Catholic understanding of ordination. There is no universal ordination in the Catholic Church. The ordained are tied to a community. This tie is called incardination. It is a juridical, spiritual and sacramental bond with a particular group, either a diocese or a RI. There are two types of clerics, secular and religious.

Secular clergy, deacons and presbyters, are ordained for and incardinated into a local Church, also called a diocese. They are authorized by the diocesan bishop to carry out their ministry within the boundaries of the diocese. Some aspects of their ministry they exercise by virtue of ordination and some from a specific delegation or permission of the bishop. This is included in a letter from the diocesan bishop providing them with faculties for various ministries. They can only minister in this diocese, the one for which they have been ordained and to which they are now tied through incardination. They cannot minister in another diocese without the specific permission of the diocesan bishop, who may grant temporary faculties or a permission. This might happen, for example, when a relative living in another diocese wants the deacon or presbyter to preside at a baptism or wedding for their child.

A clerical religious institute may incardinate a cleric, deacon or presbyter, into the RI itself. Because a RI is not a diocese and the Catholic Church only exists in and from a communion of local Churches (dioceses) the RI cleric will still require from the diocesan bishop the faculties required to minister in a diocese. He will also require the permission of the diocesan bishop to minister in the diocese. His RI may appoint him to a ministry or parish of theirs but he still requires acceptance and permissions and some faculties from the diocesan bishop to minister.

If the Church were to restore the ministry of women deacons, as we used to have in the first millennium, a woman member of an RI would be waiting for her institute to petition the Holy See for a change to their constitution to include lay and clerical member and to incardinate clerics. She would also be subject to the local bishop as to the exercise of her ministry, as far as faculties and permissions go, just as are male clerics. She would be subject to the superiors of her Institute in regards her appointment and life.

I hope that answers the question that the Sister raised.

6 September 2022

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