Monday, August 15, 2022

50 Years Ago Today: Paul VI’s (Attempted) Abolition of the Subdiaconate and Minor Orders

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of one of the most tragic of the ruptures introduced into the Church by Paul VI: the abolition and distorted reconfiguration of the minor orders and subdiaconate by means of the apostolic letter Ministeria Quaedam released on this date in 1972, and bearing no relationship whatsoever to anything that had been said in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Or, we should say, the attempted abolition, for the minor ordines and subdiaconate, which have belonged to the heritage of the Church for at least 1,700 years (their actual origin, like that of many other ancient things, remains hidden to our eyes), have never ceased to be used in the liturgy of the Latin rite, even after Paul VI’s document. Archbishop Lefebvre continued to confer them in the 1970s and beyond, and all communities that took their origin from him or allied with him did the same. The Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest, and the Institute of the Good Shepherd have done and do likewise. There have even been occasional diocesan ordinaries who have conferred these minor orders on diocesan seminarians and clergy, especially under the beneficent influence of Summorum Pontificum.

The liturgical ministries of the minor orders and the subdiaconate are not rooted simply in baptism (as some have speciously claimed) but rather in are extensions or distributions of the servanthood of the diaconate, as Bishop Athanasius Schneider demonstrates so well (here and here). [1] In the absence of the traditional sacramental-liturgical account, the ministries of lector and acolyte cease to have any rationale other than providing jobs for the unemployed, avenues of “active participation” that instantly divide the congregation into gold stars and silver stars and bronze stars and black dots.

Ordination of acolytes
It may well be believed that a pope has no authority to abolish a bimillennial approved and received tradition. This had already been recognized regarding the venerable Roman Mass when Benedict XVI stated in Summorum Pontificum and Con Grande Fiducia that the old missal was never abrogated — even though nearly everyone, except a tiny number of traditionalists, acted as if it had been. In light of the perennial doctrinal principles declared in the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum and its accompanying letter, the subdiaconate and minor orders have no more been abolished than has the ancient usage of the Roman Rite itself, nor could they be. The old rites, when used today, confer the minor orders and the subdiaconate that they intend to confer.

Catholics have long been told that they should engage in ecumenism, but the one ecumenism that was oddly forbidden was respecting the traditions we hold in common with the Eastern Churches. The lectorate and the subdiaconate still abide in the East. Rather than thinking they have somehow vanished into thin air, it is far more plausible to assume that they abide — and must abide — in the Roman Church as well, albeit in a condition of widespread underappreciation and underuse.

Blessing of a reader in the Eastern rite
A beautiful culture and highly practical asceticism goes with the minor orders: they set their recipient apart for liturgical offices and activities and prepare a man step by step, through lower forms of ministry, to receive the higher forms of the major orders (subdiaconate, diaconate, and priesthood), by which he is decisively inserted into the servanthood and priesthood of Jesus Christ.

The conferral of the minor orders is more than a mere delegation but less than a sacramental ordination in the full sense, which inscribes an indelible mark or character on the soul. If (as in the most common theological opinion) the minor orders do not confer a character and are not part of the sacrament of order but are instituted by the Church, they should be classified as sacramentals. [2] This seems in keeping with the definition of sacramentals given in the 1917 Code: “things or actions which the Church uses in a certain imitation of the sacraments, in order, in virtue of her prayers, to achieve effects, above all of a spiritual nature.” [3]

Specifically, the ceremonies are constitutive blessings that permanently depute persons to divine service by imparting to them some sacred identity, by which they assume a new and distinct spiritual relationship. These blessings entitle their recipients to actual graces for the performance of their ministries, much like the sacramental graces associated with the reception of the sacraments, and similar to the blessing of an abbot. [4] This makes the men in minor orders to be sacramentalia permanentia — blessed and consecrated objects of a sort! For instance, the blessing of a rosary is a sacramental; the blessed rosary itself is a sacramental; the use of the blessed rosary is a sacramental. Likewise, we can say that the ceremonies conferring the minor orders are sacramentals, those in minor orders are sacramentals, and the exercises of their offices are sacramentals.

Wijding van mensen binnen de rooms-katholieke kerk, Bernard Picart (atelier van), 1722 [Note that "porter" is called here "sacristan"]
So the ceremonies of the minor orders and of the subdiaconate confer both the right to perform the ministries and also the promise of actual graces in carrying them out. [5] If we humbly allow ourselves to be guided by the traditional rites of the Pontifical, we can see that there is a solemn imparting of new responsibilities and the assurance of graces to fulfill them worthily. The Church has always endeavored to follow the exhortation of St. Paul: “Let all things [in public worship] be done to edification. . . . Let all things be done decently, and according to order.” [6]

Following apostolic and ancient discipline in regard to the ordines or ranked ministers of the Church ought to matter to us. To hold it as a thing of no worth would be an imperfection, even a vice, for we must never treat longstanding ecclesiastical tradition as deserving of contempt or rejection. As St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the thirteenth century, a time when minor orders would already have seemed extremely ancient: “The various customs of the Church in the divine worship are in no way contrary to the truth: wherefore we must observe them, and to disregard them is unlawful.” [7]

In a magnificent passage from the Summa theologiae, the Angelic Doctor holds forth on the appropriateness of the Church’s manifesting an orderly diversity of offices and ways of life, as she did throughout her history and well into modern times, and as she will continue to do, wherever sound theology prevails. The vision presented here is at the furthest possible remove from the democratic egalitarianism, traffic of interchangeable functionaries, and lack of architectural and ministerial boundaries characteristic of the postconciliar era. Thomas writes that the differences of states and duties in the Church regards three things:

In the first place, it regards the perfection of the Church. For even as in the order of natural things, perfection, which in God is simple and uniform, is not to be found in the created universe except in a multiform and manifold manner, so too, the fullness of grace, which is centered in Christ as head, flows forth to His members in various ways, for the perfecting of the body of the Church. This is the meaning of the Apostle’s words (Eph. 4:11–12): “He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors for the perfecting of the saints.”
          Secondly, it regards the need of those actions which are necessary in the Church. For a diversity of actions requires a diversity of men appointed to them, in order that all things may be accomplished without delay or confusion; and this is indicated by the Apostle (Rom. 12:4–5), “As in one body we have many members, but all the members have not the same office, so we being many are one body in Christ.”
          Thirdly, this belongs to the dignity and beauty of the Church, which consist in a certain order; wherefore it is written (1 Kings 10:4–5) that “when the queen of Saba saw all the wisdom of Solomon . . . and the apartments of his servants, and the order of his ministers . . . she had no longer any spirit in her.” Hence the Apostle says (2 Tim. 2:20) that “in a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth.”[8]
The beauty of hierarchical order

In an objection that might have been penned in 1970, St. Thomas initially argues against his own position by saying that “the faithful of Christ are called to unity,” and, since distinction is opposed to unity, therefore no distinction of states and duties should be found in the Church.

In his reply, St. Thomas notes that, on the contrary, it is precisely a diversification of ranks and roles that allows for the entire body of the Church to achieve its optimal condition, as each part contributes something different and necessary to the whole:
The distinction of states and duties is not an obstacle to the unity of the Church, for this results from the unity of faith, charity, and mutual service, according to the saying of the Apostle (Eph. 4:16): “From whom the whole body being compacted,” namely by faith, “and fitly joined together,” namely by charity, “by what every joint supplieth,” namely by one man serving another.[9]
This age-old wisdom — already anticipated in the hierarchy of ancient Israel — is represented still more vividly and put into daily practice by the four minor orders of porter, exorcist, lector, and acolyte, the three major orders of subdeacon, deacon, and priest, and the episcopacy in its unbroken succession from the apostles. It finds rich expression in a multitude of religious orders and communities for consecrated men and women and in a proliferation of third orders, confraternities, oblateships, and lay movements. It renews itself in the faithful and fruitful callings of husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, from whom all the children of God arise.

How blessed and privileged we are to occupy the places we do in the great house of the Lord — be it in the sanctuary or in the nave, in the workshop or at the hearth. We serve Him best by serving Him in our station, according to our rights and duties. It is time, it is well past time, that we stop being embarrassed about the good of hierarchy and start rejoicing in it, as did Our Lord, His most holy Mother, His foster father, His apostles and disciples, and all the saints who have followed Him in unity of faith and life.

Last year, in 2021, Crisis Publications brought out my book Ministers of Christ: Recovering the Roles of Clergy and Laity in an Age of Confusion. This work offers a robust defense of the traditional view of the complementarity of the sexes; explains why all liturgical ministries should be performed by males only; defines the rationale and relationship of lay and clerical states; demonstrates the true meaning of liturgical participation and exposes the error of activism; and (with the help of Bishop Schneider) vindicates the traditional major and minor orders. Those who are interested in understanding the traditional views and carrying them on into the future may wish to have a look at it.


[1] These also became chapters in my book Ministers of Christ, about which more anon.
[2] See Ott, Fundamentals, Bk. 4, pt. 3, §2.VI, no. 1, p. 477.
[3] CIC (1917), canon 1144.
[4] Theologians argue that marriage confers a quasi-character, because it instills in the spouses an enduring disposition and right to receive sacramental grace, as long as the spouses are alive. If the minor orders are held to be sacramentals, they can be seen as asking God to instill a lifelong disposition and right in the souls of the men who receive them so that they would perform their duties worthily with divine assistance.
[5] These two, the right and the promise, are separable from each other: historically, one who was removed from the clerical state would lose the right to perform the ministry, but the promise of divine assistance, if one were to perform the ministry, remains, since one would not be re-ordained to the minor orders if one were to re-enter the clerical state. Since they are separable, this indicates that the conferral of a minor order is in fact more than just a conferral of a duty. It is a more speculative question to ask whether someone who was ordained an acolyte but was later removed from the clerical state would still receive the graces to which his office entitled him were he to perform at Mass the ministry of an acolyte without having been reinstated.
[6] 1 Cor. 14:26, 40. For commentary on the first Epistle to the Corinthians, see “St. Paul Tells Us How to Fix Our Liturgical Problems,” in Kwasniewski, Holy Bread of Eternal Life, 35–42.
[7] ST II-II, Q. 93, art. 1, ad 3. Note that this argument cannot be flipped around and made a justification for novel practices, because the condition for the legitimacy of replacing traditional practices with novel ones is that the former have been discovered to be contrary to some truth and in need of change or suppression. But Aquinas would not grant this possibility — nor should we.
[8] ST II-II, Q. 183, art. 2.
[9] ST II-II, Q. 183, art. 2, ad 1.

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