There has been a lot of buzz over this topic over the past few years. I think it is an interesting question. The way I see it, there are three major thoughts that need to be worked out, and in a specific order.
1) Can a deacon wear the collar?
2) Is the deacon allowed to wear the collar?
3) Why does the deacon want to wear the collar?
Can a deacon wear the collar?
This one is a bit tricky. The code of Canon Law is pretty clear on the issue.
“Can. 284 Clerics are to wear suitable ecclesiastical garb according to the norms issued by the conference of bishops and according to legitimate local customs.
Can. 288 The prescripts of cann. 284, …….do not bind permanent deacons unless particular law establishes otherwise.” (abbreviated)
So we are called to wear “clerical garb”, but are not obligated to do so. Hmm. What is “”clerical garb”? Is that the collar? Wearing the collar would certainly be the local custom I think, after all, transitional deacons,(that is men ordained as deacons before they become priests) are required to wear the collar. That would satisfy as local custom, right? So the way I see this, permanent deacons are encouraged, but not bound to wear the collar. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has not set any mandate out of desire to let the local bishop decide what is best.
Is the deacon allowed to wear the collar?
This for me is the first really important question. It’s easy to start spouting laws and rights, but if we don’t try to get to the spirit of things first, we are seriously missing the point.
A deacon is called to obedience. A deacon, first and foremost, should be his “bishop’s man”. It is our primary call, as it is him that we are called to serve.
So to me the question is not just does your bishop allow you to wear the collar, but does he want you to wear the collar? Does he only want you wearing the collar when you are acting as minister, or would he prefer you to wear it all the time as a testament to your clerical state?
I think we get so caught up in laws, we can miss the point.
Ask, and Obey!
Why does the deacon want to wear the collar?
If a deacon wants to wear the collar because he thinks he looks dashing in one, or because he wants to be deffered to, then he’s missing the point. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t happen, but that is hardly the norm by any stretch, so I’m not going to go into it at any length.
Let’s be honest here. In any parish, almost everyone knows who the deacons are. Heck, we know who the deacons of all the neighboring parishes are. Yes, you may have the odd guest, or the parishioner who still calls the deacon Father, but for the most part, within their parishes, they are easily identified. But then, so is the priest. If the priest put on a red hat and a pink tutu, everyone would still know who he was.
So it’s not about identification by the parishioner. Then it must be about the identification by the non-parishioner.
An ordained man was not ordained for his own benefit. He was given gifts by God to share with other people. A priest should be marked, so that if those gifts are required, he can be found easily. I am going out on a limb here, but I feel the same way about deacons. Imagine you are in the library, and someone is really interested in knowing more about the Church. Any priest knows this happens all the time, because those people feel safe coming up to ask questions, his collar has marked him as a cleric. Would we really want our deacons to keep the gifts given at their ordination to themselves? Do we not want to be open to help those who need the consolation that only the Church can give? A deacon’s cross is simply not effective for this kind of outreach, only clerical dress can do that.
I am often frustrated by nuns and monks for the same thing. I feel that without distinctive dress to let people know that they are dedicated to the service of their fellow man that they cannot live out their vocations fully. They are to be holy, set aside. I would think deacons should be the same way by virtue of the Holy Orders they have received in trust for us.
I’ll be honest, I don’t expect this to be settled in my lifetime, but I look forward to the day when there is a standard dress marking a deacon as a deacon. I’m liking how some dioceses are asking their deacon to wear grey clerical only, I think that’s right on. I certainly would rather not be confused with a priest.
Edit: I have written further commentary on this topic at: