Monday, November 30, 2020

On the Status of Minor Orders and the Subdiaconate

Roman subdiaconate ordination (post-1973!)
Arising more and more often nowadays is the question: What exactly is the status of the minor orders (porter, lector, exorcist, acolyte) in the Roman rite? We can add to this list the major order of subdeacon. In spite of their immense antiquity, which ought to have gained them the principled support of the liturgical reform — they are, for example, more ancient than the season of Advent — the minor orders were abolished in the form in which they had existed previously (or at least, it seemed to observers that they were abolished) by Paul VI in his Apostolic Letter Ministeria Quaedam of 1973. Yet never since that time have both minor orders and the subdiaconate ceased to be conferred in this or that corner of the vast Catholic world; with increasing frequency thanks to John Paul II’s Ecclesia Dei and Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, these orders are routinely imparted to the many young candidates who flock to traditional orders. It certainly seems like an odd situation.

As far as I can tell, there’s the “conservative” view and the “rad trad” view.

The conservative view, such as one might find it on the faculty of an Opus Dei university, is to say that the minor orders and subdiaconate were in fact abrogated and their functions reassigned, but that, just as the old liturgical tradition continued and was eventually regularized, so, too, the use of the ceremonies for the suppressed orders were regularized in that context, and are efficacious in that context. It’s “praetercanonical.”

The weakness of this position is that it leans too much on canon law. Canon law is not some kind of inerrant or infallible thing; it’s just a compilation of ecclesiastical jurisprudence, and it can be badly done, have omissions, need correction or supplementation, etc. Canon law’s silence on the minor orders and the subdiaconate does not logically preclude the possibility of their continuing existence. Not all things in heaven and on earth are contained in the 1983 Code of Canon Law.

With this, we segue into the rad trad position, which maintains that no pope has the authority to abolish a millennial tradition like the minor orders and the subdiaconate, just as no pope, strain he ever so many a pontifical muscle, could abolish the immemorial Roman Mass codified but not created by St. Pius V in 1570. On this view, Paul VI’s attempt to do both of these things wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. This has already, in a sense, been recognized regarding the Mass by Benedict XVI when he said in Summorum Pontificum that the old missal was never abrogated, even though nearly everyone, except a tiny number of traditionalists, acted as if it had been. Due to craven ultramontanism, however, people went along with the pretense and still act as if the minor orders and the subdiaconate were suppressed. Traditional religious and clerical communities, on the other hand, know better, and continue to follow the settled and venerable Roman tradition.

At very least something like the conservative view has to be true; otherwise, in conferring minor orders today (and most of all, the subdiaconate!), one would be guilty of simulating a conferral that cannot happen — a sort of contraceptive liturgy. It is impossible that the Church could continue to use such rites without their being efficacious in accomplishing what they intend to accomplish. A sacramental theologian of Scotistic subtlety might rejoinder that there is a third possibility: these rites are not efficacious in se — they actually do nothing to the recipients — but their content, being piously edifying, offers an occasion of grace for the devout in their progress toward the diaconate and priesthood. It would be essentially fancy playacting in the sight of God, publicly and solemnly marking stages of formation.

All of these positions seem ecclesiologically unsatisfactory in one way or another. The least problematic, it seems to me, is to maintain that the old rites, when used today, confer the orders they intend to confer, while admitting that how the order is regulated in the Church is governed by the 1983 Code of Canon Law. With the 1983 Code, Ministeria Quaedam became a moot point — of historical interest, no doubt, and offering guidelines for acolytes, etc., but it was superseded. Hence, by the only code currently in force, reception of tonsure does not make one a cleric. A man becomes a cleric with the diaconate. He can freely take upon himself the obligations for the Divine Office that once came with the subdiaconate, but he is not strictly bound by law until he is ordained a deacon.

That is not to say, as mentioned above, that this law is a good one and should not be changed in the future. Not is it to say that the commitment is not serious prior to the diaconate. There is a whole culture that goes with the minor orders: they set a person apart for liturgical offices and activities, preparing a man step by step, through lower forms of ministry, to receive the higher forms of the major orders, by which he is decisively inserted into the exercise of the priesthood of Jesus Christ in the Church.

Catholics were told that they should engage in ecumenism, but the one ecumenism that was forbidden was respecting the traditions we hold in common with the East. The minor orders and the subdiaconate abide in the Eastern churches. It is far more plausible to assume that they abide, and must abide, in the Roman Church as well.

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