I had an interesting comment on a post I wrote a while back, “Should Deacons Wear the Roman Collar?”, and as that post is one that continues to garner interest, and his question was really good, I thought I’d take a moment to muse on it.
“…. I think you should ask one other question. Why don’t priests and bishops want Deacons wearing the roman collar? I personally could care less about the wearing of clerical clothing except it seems odd that deacons are most of the time banned from the wearing. I truly think the bigger question is not why does a deacon want to wear the collar, but why is he forbidden to.” -Ken (I abridged and added emphasis to his comment)
Why would a bishop not want his deacons wearing clerical garb? It’s a dang good question, and I think it deserves serious thought. I also don’t think the answer is simple, there is a lot of things to consider here.
The question has a presupposition in it though that I think needs to be addressed first. It assumes that deacons wearing the collar is a good thing and that a bishop should want it to be that way. I think this is a fair assumption. I think it is fair, because in the modern world, it seems natural to want to show regular folks that not everyone buys into the world’s nonsense. Clerical dress, like religious dress, bears witness to a life lived for Christ. It bears witness to the fact that intelligent people can want something more in their lives, and God is calling them to live that out in way that is so concrete, that it is a Sacrament.
A deacon has set his life aside in a very real way, and many assume that should be visibly apparent due to this idea of “witness”. There is more than meets the eye here though, and the bishops treading lightly and carefully is not a bad thing. Now I’m not a bishop, nor am I privileged with their thought processes, but I think I can make a few educated guesses as to why they are being cautious.
First, and I believe foremost, there is the issue of discerning the value and proper place of priests. This is obviously extremely important to the bishops, as transitional deacons, that is deacons who are on the road to priesthood, are required to wear the collar. It is only permanent deacons that we are discussing here. While there is no sacramental difference between permanent and transitional deacons, there is a very different charism and level of involvement between the two. Transitional deacons will be priests, God willing, and the scrutiny that they are under is very real and visible. Visibly marking them that way is clearly important.
Permanent deacons are not headed towards priesthood though, and I think this is where the main issue lies. In a world where priests are in shortage, often devalued, and often under attack, the idea of allowing deacons to have any resemblance to priests could conceivably damage vocations. If a deacon is wearing the same clerical dress as a priest, doesn’t that mean there is some equivalency? I don’t think any bishop wants to risk that idea becoming prevalent.
You see, in the Roman Church, deacons are really a rather new idea. Yes, we had them a long time ago, but in this post Vatican II era, we are still just learning what a deacon is. We are still establishing what this “new” role really is, how it looks, feels and acts. No one, deacons included, wants anyone to think of the deacon as a “mini priest”, and I think that the bishops feel allowing them to wear the collar would do just that.
There is also an issue of authority. The priests are all directly under the immediate authority of the bishop, and the bishop knows each of his priests by name. He knows their proclivities, he gets mail from their parishioners, and speaks to them on a very regular basis. This communication is not nearly as commonplace with deacons. Deacons are also under the direct control of their bishops, but they mainly report to their parish priests, and are off doing their thing to support their parishes. Without the bishop having that deep amount of contact with the deacons, I think they may be uncomfortable with the deacons having such free reign to speak for the Church, especially since they have so much less connection to the bishop and the institutional Church than a priest has. To put it briefly, I would guess they would say to themselves, “I’m not even sure who these guys really are!”
In fairness, they often really don’t know who these guys are. While I’m sure its a minority, I have little doubt that some men have gone through the process to become a deacon for primarily social reasons. All it takes is a few of these guys, and since the bishop has little contact with his deacons, he begins to wonder if they all aren’t like that to some degree. I’ve heard of bishops saying things like, “Men only become deacons so they can marry off their daughters and baptize their grandchildren.” Some probably have, and I’m not surprised that a bishop may feel that way, considering the low amount of communication between bishops and deacons.
I would bet that bishops don’t really see the value in their deacons as well. The parish priest does, I’m sure, but the bishop sees very little of the work a deacon does, as it is done in places and times that the bishop has little relation to. Bishops don’t often visit prisons, hospitals, confirmation programs, children’s religious education classes, marriage prep classes, bereavment groups, etc. I do not fault the bishops for this one iota, they have other important tasks that must be done, and can only be done by them. They are extremely busy men. They sure see their priests often, but they see deacons in action very infrequently in comparison. It’s not their fault, it is rather built that way.
Lastly, a friend of mine once quoted his old bishop as saying, “My deacons all want to wear the collar, and my priests all want to take theirs off.” Let me translate in my own words: priests want to be able to be anonymous, and deacons want to stand out. There can be a very real concern that deacons want to wear the collar for reasons that are not in line with the purposes behind clerical dress. Maybe the bishops are concerned that deacons only want to wear the collar to exalt their own status.
All of this tend to devalue the deacon in the eyes of the episcopacy. So for them to allow deacons to wear clerical dress in their mind, is to put deacons on par with the men they know, who have clearly and visibly dedicated their lives to the Church, for a benefit that they may not really see. In practice, I think bishops tend to see their deacons as unduly exalted laymen rather than their brothers working in the fields. I would bet in some cases, they can very right in this assessment, and that only solidifies that belief.
All that being said, I continue to stand with my position in:
But then, I’m not a bishop!
(As a side note, I have never met a deacon that meets any of the negative descriptions that I have posted above, but sheer statistics command that they must exist. Also, I would like to repeat that I have never spoken to a bishop on this matter, and all of my thoughts as to why they might feel this way are 100% theoretical, and from my own musing on the subject.)