Ur-Fascism: A Reflection on Umberto Eco and American Politics

BACKGROUND

Politics-of-natureLet me state from the outset that this essay is not pointed at any particular political party or candidate in the United States.  I write it, not as a political scientist, but as a Catholic deacon who is trying to understand the current state of American political life; consider this a small reflection undertaken as part of my own formation of conscience.

I have written it also as a retired Navy Commander who has had a longstanding interest in the nature of leadership and in the styles of leadership exercised in any human institution.  I have written elsewhere, for example, on authoritarian leadership in religious institutions.  Therefore, I ask that readers not assume

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or presume anything other than I find it fascinating on its face and that I do believe there are characteristics discussed herein that warrant our reflection during the current election cycle here in the United States (not to mention its possible applicability to other nations as well).

To explain a bit more, my generation was born shortly after the end of World War II.  As a child growing up in the 1950’s, I was always fascinated by the history of that war, especially since most of our parents and their families and friends had gone into the service and fought against the Axis powers or took jobs here at home which supported that effort.  One of our uncles was Uncle Joea paratrooper in the “Band of Brothers” who jumped into France on D-Day, and his letter to his brother following D-Day had a strong impact on all of us. (I’ve blogged about this before.) One of the first term papers I ever wrote in high school was on the history of D-Day itself, with Uncle Joe’s letter contributing significantly to the effort.  The question which fascinated me as a child and continues to haunt me to this day is this: How could an otherwise brilliant people such as the Germans, to take just one example, come under the spell of someone like Adolf Hitler?  Couldn’t they see and understand what seems so obvious to everyone today?  What did they “miss” about him?  More important, if they could “miss” Hitler, what would prevent other intelligent people from missing the boat in the future?  “It could never happen here” just doesn’t seem to cut it, in light of Hitler and the German people; I’m sure they thought the same thing.

umbertoeco-654x404So it was interesting recently to come across a 1995 essay by Umberto Eco, the great Italian author (The Name of the Rose), scholar and philosopher, entitled “Ur-Fascism.” Written for the New York Review of Books (22 June 1995),  it may be read in its entirety here.   It is on the points raised in his article that I want to reflect now.  Eco ends his article by writing,

Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances – every day, in every part of the world. [Emphasis added.]

 

Eco begins his article by recounting his own wartime experience as a boy in Italy during the final years of the war, and his own growing awareness of what was happening around him.  He then writes,

I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism. These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.  [Emphasis added.]

So, taking him at his word, let’s consider his fourteen “features” of fundamental (“ur“) fascism.  Notice well his caution that these do not constitute a coherent system of thought and action, but his final caution is apt, that just one of them needs be present to create a bloody (“coagulate”) fascism. Here is his list.  I offer them in his order and with his emphases.  For some of them, I simply report them as written; with others, I offer modest commentary.

CHARACTERISTICS OF UR-FASCISM ACCORDING TO ECO

  1. The Cult of Traditionalism: Don’t Let Reason Get in the Way

anti-intellectualEco points out the first feature of Ur-Fascism is a cult — worship — of tradition.  This of course does not deny the importance of tradition itself, as I read him.  Rather it is a question of emphasis and loss of balance: when this emphasis on tradition is taken to an extreme that it becomes traditionalism, an extremist point of view.  Traditionalism taken to this extreme is found in other times, cultures and systems beside Fascism, of course.  In fascist hands, however, traditionalism becomes focused on past glories, past identities, past expressions of truth understood in radical opposition to various forms of rationalism and rationalistic thought.  Eco points out that such a response is ancient, reflected in various schools of thought that reacted negatively to classical Greek rationalism.  In fact, perhaps the best way to think of this traditionalism that Eco is talking about would be as a kind of Gnosticism.  As a result of this worldview, there is no need for new learning, and it reflects an extreme anti-intellectual stance: “Truth has been already spelled out once and for all, and we can only keep interpreting its obscure message,” Eco writes.  So, Ur-Fascism would contend mightily with those who suggest that there might be other points of view to consider: this would explain frequent criticism of “intellectual elites” and others who not only seek to uncover the Truth that has existed for all time, but who might also suggest that this Truth might be understood in various ways under differing circumstances.  In short, the Fascist says, “We know the Truth, so don’t listen to the ‘intellectual elites’ who will only confuse you.”

2. The Rejection of Rational Modernism: “All that is New is Bad”

For this reason, Eco says that this extreme Traditionalism carries with it a rejection of all that is modern.  Here we Catholics need to be cautious with the terms.  I do not believe that Eco is using the term “modernism” as we sometimes see it used in late 19th and early 20th Century ecclesial discussions of “Americanism” and the like.  Here I believe Eco is speaking far more broadly about anything that is “modern” and at apparent odds with “Tradition.”  Eco explains:

Even though Nazism was proud of its industrial achievements, its praise of modernism was only the surface of an ideology based upon Blood and Earth (Blut und Boden). The rejection of the modern world was disguised as a rebuttal of the capitalistic way of life, but it mainly concerned the rejection of the Spirit of 1789 (and of 1776, of course). The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.

3.  Irrationalism: Cult of Action for Action’s Sake

fascism1Such irrationalism is based on what Eco calls “the cult of action for action’s sake”. The fascist sees action as good in itself and therefore action is taken “before, or without” any prior reflection.  In the fascist view, thinking is a form of emasculation.

Distrust of the intellectual world has always been a symptom of Ur-Fascism, from Goering’s alleged statement (“When I hear talk of culture I reach for my gun”) to the frequent use of such expressions as “degenerate intellectuals,” “eggheads,” “effete snobs,” “universities are a nest of reds.” The official Fascist intellectuals were mainly engaged in attacking modern culture and the liberal intelligentsia for having betrayed traditional values.

When we hear candidates today making promises of immediate action upon assuming office, are we listening to echoes from the past?  References in stump speeches to “real Americans” over against those “who live in ivory towers” reflect this kind of radical dichotomy between action and contemplation.  It seems to me that the real indicator of Ur-Fascism here would be the demonizing of the opponent, making “the intellectuals” into an enemy.

4.  Disagreement as Treason

Eco’s words on this point need no explanation:

The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.

Several election cycles ago, someone published a piece — I can’t remember who or where — that pointed out the increasing use of American flags as backdrops to political speeches during rallies.  If one candidate showed up in front of four flags, the other candidate would go to ten, and on and on.  The implication is clear: if you agree with me, you are a patriot “like me,” but if you disagree with me, then you are unpatriotic and probably a traitor.  The more heated the rhetoric and the optics, even if the word “treason” itself isn’t used, the more this association is made.

5.  The Fear of Difference/Racism

feature-sidebar-police-racismYet again, Eco is succinct and on point:

Besides, disagreement is a sign of diversity. Ur-Fascism grows up and seeks for consensus by exploiting and exacerbating the natural fear of difference. The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.

As we continue  confronting racism in our country (and around the world), fear against “others” whether this is expressed through language about race, immigration, or terrorism.  Fear is a normal enough emotion, but language and policy that “exploits and exacerbates” fear of the other (Eco: “the intruders”) crosses the line into fascism.

6.  Individual or Social Frustration

Ur-Fascism derives from individual or social frustration. That is why one of the most typical features of historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.

In our own day, this would seem to be reflected quite obviously in the growth of certain movements, such as the “Tea Party” and in our ongoing debates about immigration policy, especially in light of a struggling and “frustrated middle class”.  Such groups make the claim that they speak for this angry and disenfranchised middle class.

7.  Nationalism and an Obsession with “Plot”

fascism quote mussoliniCertainly, sometimes people are out to get us!  Terrorists have made that terribly, tragically, and repeatedly obvious.  However, look what Eco points out:

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. . . .  At the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.

Consider that opening clause: “to people who feel deprived of a clear social identity.”  Do we experience that reality in our society today?  When people feel powerless, forgotten, disenfranchised, it is easy to look for that which will give a sense of power, belonging, and identity.  Therefore, anything or anyone who threatens that identity will become the enemy who is “besieging” us.  Political rhetoric which creates, emphasizes or exaggerates “the plot” against “our people” quickly crosses into fascistic language and behavior.  Here again, we see that fear directed against the “other” which we saw earlier, this time writ large.

8.  Humiliation by Others

The followers must feel humiliated by the ostentatious wealth and force of their enemies. . . . However, the followers must be convinced that they can overwhelm the enemies. Thus, by a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak. Fascist governments are condemned to lose wars because they are constitutionally incapable of objectively evaluating the force of the enemy.

What a fascinating observation!  People are to feel humiliated.  I was particularly struck by the notion of humiliation by the force of enemies.  When we discuss foreign policy today, especially on strategies about how to deal with ISIS and other forms of terrorism, people often complain of being powerless: how can a superpower be apparently powerless in dealing with such a threat?  In the heat of political debate on this issue, we hear echoes of Eco’s “continuous shifting of rhetorical focus” in which the threat is characterized as too strong on the one hand, or too weak on the other.  His conclusion is stunningly apt: a fascist government will always lose because “they are constitutionally incapable” of an objective evaluation of the threat.  After all, if we could evaluate objectively, there would no longer be the humiliation the fascist seeks.

Hitler-Mussolini-Neo-Fascists9.  Life Lived for Struggle

For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle. Thus pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. It is bad because life is permanent warfare. This, however, brings about an Armageddon complex. Since enemies have to be defeated, there must be a final battle, after which the movement will have control of the world. But such a “final solution” implies a further era of peace, a Golden Age, which contradicts the principle of permanent war. No fascist leader has ever succeeded in solving this predicament.

Have you ever known a person who is always in some kind of struggle, no matter what is going on in their life?  Some years ago in the cartoon strip Li’l Abner, artist Al Capp introduced a character named Joe Btfsplk who was always down on his luck and with a rain cloud always over his head.  In fundamental Fascism, struggle is not something that is transitory leading to an eventual peace, but rather struggle is the point of life. It is no coincidence that Afolf Hitler’s prison manifesto was titled Mein Kampf: “My Struggle”!

In political rhetoric we hear from many candidates about “war against” this or that: drugs, terrorism, whatever — but the war is never won.  Most people want there to be a victory in these struggles so that we can live in peace; the fascist mindset, however, wants to keep the struggle going.

ubermensch10.  Populist Elitism

Ur-Fascism [advocates] a popular elitism. Every citizen belongs to the best people of the world, the members of the party are the best among the citizens, every citizen can (or ought to) become a member of the party. [The fascist leader] also knows that his force is based upon the weakness of the masses; they are so weak as to need and deserve a ruler.

We have had many political conversations over the last twenty years or so about “American exceptionalism”, which risks easily crossing over into Eco’s notion of belonging “to the best people of the world,” while demonizing opponents (including opposing political parties).  Notice the implied cynicism about the character (“weak”) of the people; only the Leader can save them.  He is their strong-man, their Hero.

11.  Heroism is the Norm

With these ideas of life-as-constant-struggle coupled with populist elitism, it is not surprising that what will be valued most is “heroism”: the people want and need a hero, and they are themselves called to become heroes.  Reading Eco, I was reminded of German philosopher Friedrich Nietsche and his concept of the ubermensch (Super-man); his philosophy had direct influence in Hitler and others.

In such a perspective everybody is educated to become a hero. In every mythology the
hero is an exceptional being, but in Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death. . . .  In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

12.  Transference to Sexuality

In light of our highly sexualized society in general, and the often reported sexual improprieties (and sometimes outright crimes) on the part of certain politicians, Eco’s point here is insightful:

Since both permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play, the Ur-Fascist transfers his will to power to sexual matters. This is the origin of machismo (which implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality). Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the UrFascist hero tends to play with weapons – doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.

13.  Selective Populism

For Ur-Fascism. . . the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction. . . .  There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People. Because of its qualitative populism Ur-Fascism must be against “rotten” parliamentary governments. . . .  Wherever a politician casts doubt on the legitimacy of a parliament because it no longer represents the Voice of the People, we can smell Ur-Fascism.

I was immediately struck by Eco’s remark about the internet.  Consider how politicians and political parties today rely on social media: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and the like.  This “internet populism” risks becoming taken as the true and proper voice of the all the people.  Couple this with the general frustration and dissatification of most Americans with the ineffectiveness and inefficiency of the Congress, we should probably be alert for the odor of fascism (Eco: “we can smell Ur-Facism”).

Bundesarchiv_Bild_2102-09844_Mussolini_in_Mailand-464x26114.  Impoverished Vocabulary and Newspeak

Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. Newspeak was invented by Orwell, in 1984, as the official language of Ingsoc, English Socialism. . . .  But we must be ready to identify other kinds of Newspeak, even if they take the apparently innocent form of a popular talk show.

American politics has always been jingoistic, using words as slogans representing movements, goals and objectives.  Eco’s point here, though, is well worth considering: when does language become a weapon in the constant war, a weapon designed to control and coerce?  What is the language of our public discourse these days?  I think most of us would agree, regardless of political affiliation, that what passes for cultured discourse today is a far cry from that of our predecessors.

 

CONCLUSION: Where to go from here?

My point, as I stated at the outset, has been to review the characteristics of fascism as presented by the late writer, Umberto Eco.  I do so with no agenda in mind than to offer a cautionary message.  This is not about Republican versus Democrat, liberal or progressive versus conservative, Trump versus Clinton.  It is about a worldview.  There are other worldviews, of course, and as time permits I may attempt similar essays about them.

For deacons, I submit that the next step is to compare and contrast ideas such as these with the principles of Catholic Social Teaching, especially those directly related to political life.  We need that as part of our own formation of conscience but also as we attempt to help others.  That task exceeds the scope of this particular essay, however.  I hope to turn my attention to such an effort in the near future.

I conclude this essay with a final, well-known quote from Umberto Eco.  It seems an appropriate summary statement of his comments on ur-fascism:

“Nothing gives a fearful man more courage than another’s fear.”

Umberto-Eco-009-600x250

 

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Terrorism, Dachau and Diaconate: Perspectives and PBS

INTRODUCTION

12172xlAs I write this, reports are coming in from Baton Rouge about yet another attack with multiple casualties.  The world is reeling from the endless chain of violence and death of recent months.  On Friday, the PBS series Religion and Ethics Newsweekly ran a program on the Order of Deacons in the Catholic Church.  Given the state of the world, one might think this an odd or even irrelevant topic.   Upon reflection, however, I believe that there are some important dots to connect.  It is precisely because of the current state of violent death, destruction and havoc that the diaconate — properly understood — might offer a glimmer of hope.  After all, it was precisely because of the “abyss of violence, destruction and death unlike anything previously known” (John Paul II, referring to World Word II) that the Order of Deacons was renewed in the first place; we’re here to help do something about it. So we shall review the PBS story against that critical backdrop.

47e73934-588c-4a95-985f-3ddac791ede4.png.resize.298x135THE PBS PROGRAM: Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

First, watch the program or read the transcript for yourself; you may find both of them here.  The diaconate is not often covered in the media, so this could have been a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about a remarkable ministry.  Unfortunately, despite very obvious good intentions, the program was full of errors ranging from simple errors of fact to more serious, even egregious, errors of history and theology.  Furthermore, a wonderful opportunity was missed to connect the “concrete consequences” which the diaconate might offer a hurting world.

The Mistakes

Why focus on some of the errors made in the program?  First, simply to get them identified and out of the way.  Second and more important, it is crucial to dispel such errors because they can distort the meaning of the diaconate and distract the audience from its proper potential.

  1. “He’s a married layman.” This simple error of fact is made twice at the very beginning of the report.  Of course this is simply not true.  Deacons are clergy and not laymen.  For those of us who live and teach about the diaconate, this is usually the first red flag that the rest of the discussion is not going to go well.  Why is this distinction important?  Back to that in a moment.
  2. “Celebrating Mass is a function reserved only for priests who are considered heirs to the original apostles.” In Catholic theology, of course, the “heirs” or “successors” of the apostles are bishops, not priests.
  3. “[The deacon] did have to step in recently to speak the words of consecration at communion – for Catholics the most sacred part of the Mass. That’s because his pastor is on leave, and the priest filling in doesn’t speak English.” This is terribly wrong on several levels.  First, the deacon can be seen and heard praying part of the Eucharistic Prayer, which is absolutely reserved to priests alone.  The priest in question should have just said the prayer in his native language, whatever it is.  For years, Catholics of the Latin Rite celebrated Mass in Latin: no one stood next to the priest to translate the Latin for us.  Not only did the deacon not “have to step in” to do such a thing, church law expressly forbids it.  Canon 907 states: “In the eucharistic celebration deacons and lay persons are not permitted to offer prayers, especially the eucharistic prayer, or to perform actions which are proper to the celebrating priest.” My guess is that every deacon who saw that part of the segment is still cringing!  (The other cringe-worthy tidbit was seeing the deacon improperly vested, wearing his stole on the outside of his dalmatic. How cringe-worthy ?  Think wearing underclothing over your pants).
  4. VaticanII“In the Middle Ages the role of deacons began to fade as the power of priests and bishops grew. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council restored the role of deacons – but only for men.” The evolving role of deacons throughout history is far more complicated than that, and overlooks the fact that the diaconate never completely disappeared, but became primarily a stepping stone to the priesthood.  I fully acknowledge that the history of the diaconate in all of its complexity goes far beyond what can be covered in such a brief program, but still: the broad brush strokes of the history could have been recognized and acknowledged.  This is also when the program shifts to the question of the possibility of ordaining women as deacons.  I will deal with that question below.
  5. “Until recently, the wives of deacons were required to take the same classes over four years as their husbands did to prepare for the diaconate.” Here the reporter falls victim to a common danger when discussing the diaconate: extrapolation.  There are nearly 200 Catholic dioceses in the United States, and the procedures and processes of formation vary greatly from place to place.  National standards established by the US Bishops do not mandate such a requirement, although wives are definitely encouraged to participate to the extent possible so that the couple grows together throughout the formation process.  Even the “until recently” is confusing: perhaps in that particular diocese something has changed, but not in all.  Not every wife of every deacon candidate is required to write papers or attend classes. Like many things in the renewed diaconate, it varies by location and bishop. But even more important — and completely left out of the piece — is the question of vocation.  Preparing for ordination is far more than taking classes, writing papers, and giving practice homilies.  At the heart of formation is the crucible of discerning God’s will: is God calling a person to ordained ministry?  Becoming a deacon is not simply “signing up”, taking a few courses, and putting on the vestments.  This is a life-altering process which at the moment is only engaged in by men.  Whether that changes in the future remains to be seen.  And, if it does, and women enter formation, they too will then go through that crucible of formation — as well as the papers, the courses and the homilies.
  6. “After increasing for several decades, the number of men entering the permanent diaconate has begun to decline, despite a growing need.”  It is worth noting that the diaconate is the only vocation that is growing in the United States—outpacing the priesthood, sisters and religious life. In my own research on the diaconate, I would question again the extrapolation going on: perhaps in some areas or in some dioceses, the number of deacons is going down, but that is simply not the case throughout the country and the rest of the world.  The diaconate has been growing steadily for decades and continues to do so.  The diaconate worldwide has the potential to be one of the great success stories of the Second Vatican Council.

13-2-600x450Now, on the PLUS side:

One exceptionally brief section of the program was a bright spot, and captured the characteristic identity of the deacon.  Several deacons were shown installing a laundry room in a home for women emerging from crisis.  The reporter describes this group as “a ministry that responds to crises. . . .”  One of the deacons involved points out that “besides doing liturgical functions, we’re also called to serve the poor and serve the people of God.”  There it is: the role of the deacon is to respond to crises, to serve those most in need.  The identity of the deacon is expressed in many ways, but most characteristic is this focus on the needs of others: while we are called to exercise our ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Charity in a balanced way, all of it finds its most significant expression in the servant-leadership of the community in service.  If the program had focused on these dimensions — on the very heart of the diaconate itself — it might have avoided the problematic areas which they got largely wrong.

POPE WAVES AS HE ARRIVES FOR GENERAL AUDIENCE AT VATICAN

Diaconate and Diakonia: An Essential Element of the Church

The entire Church is called to be a servant-church, a diaconal church.  Pope Paul VI repeatedly taught that deacons are to be “the animators of the Church’s service,” and St. John Paul II carried it a step further when he referred to the diaconate as “the Church’s service sacramentalized.”  These popes were echoing the teaching and the decisions of the the bishops of the Second Vatican Council when they determined that the Church’s diakonia should be a permanent part of the sacramental life of the Church.  Being a deacon is not simply some activity which a person takes on themselves, at their own initiative; rather, it is believed to be a call from God as discerned through the help of the broader Church.

Pope Benedict wrote in Deus Caritas Est, citing St. Luke:

20. “All who believed were together and had all things in common; and they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-5). . . .  As the Church grew, this radical form of material communion could not in fact be preserved. But its essential core remained: within the community of believers there can never be room for a poverty that denies anyone what is needed for a dignified life.

21. A decisive step in the difficult search for ways of putting this fundamental ecclesial principle into practice is illustrated in the choice of the seven, which marked the origin of the diaconal office (cf. Acts 6:5-6). . . .  Nor was this group to carry out a purely mechanical work of distribution: they were to be men “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (cf. Acts 6:1-6). In other words, the social service which they were meant to provide was absolutely concrete, yet at the same time it was also a spiritual service; theirs was a truly spiritual office which carried out an essential responsibility of the Church, namely a well-ordered love of neighbor. With the formation of this group of seven, “diaconia”—the ministry of charity exercised in a communitarian, orderly way—became part of the fundamental structure of the Church.

It is time now to bring all of this together: in the light of Baton Rouge, Nice, Dallas, “Black Lives Matter,” terrorist acts and wounded communities all around the world: why should we care about an order of ministry within the Church?

THE DIACONATE IN CONTEMPORARY CONTEXT: WHY?

DachauBunkBedsSo, what is the connection?  How can the diaconate be understood against that much larger and violent backdrop?  The most important question of all is perhaps, why do we have deacons in the first place?

  1. We have deacons because the church and the world needed ministers to link the needs of people with the providence, mercy and love of God.  This is why deacons have always been described as being associated with the ministry of the bishop and with having the skills to administer “the goods of the Church” for the good of people.
  2. Deacons have historically not been exclusively associated with parish ministry.  For the bulk of church history, deacons served as the principle assistants to their bishops, often representing them in councils and as legates, in catechesis (consider Deacon Deogratias of Carthage), in homiletics (Deacon Quodvultdeus, also of Carthage) and by extending the reach of their bishops, such as Deacon Lawrence of Rome.  Over time, deacons became subordinate to presbyters as well as bishops, and increasingly involved in what we would recognize as parish ministry.  To this very day, deacons are ordained solely by their bishop, for service to him and under his authority: where the bishop is, so should be his deacon.
  3. dachau_collIn our time, as I’ve written about extensively, the Second Vatican Council decided overwhelmingly that the diaconate should be renewed as a permanent ministry in the church once again, even to the extent of opening ordination to married as well as celibate men.  The bishops in Council did this largely because of the insights gleaned from the priest-survivors of Dachau Concentration Camp.  Following the war, these survivors wrote of how the Church would have to adapt itself to better meet the needs of the contemporary world if the horrors of the first half of the 20th Century were to be avoided in the future.  Deacons were seen as a critical component of that strategy of ecclesial renewal.  Why?  Because deacons were understood as being grounded in their communities in practical and substantial ways, while priests and bishops had gradually become perceived as being too distant and remote from the people they were there to serve.

    In short, the diaconate was renewed in order to deal more effectively with the horrors of the contemporary world, not simply to function as parish ministers.

    As I frequently challenge myself and other deacons: is the energy I’m expending as a deacon helping to create the conditions in the world in which another “Dachau” could not exist?  Or am I involving myself in things that are superficial, contingent, and relatively inconsequential?

  4. light_christThe diaconate today, fifty years after the Council, has matured greatly.  Those who would talk intelligently about the diaconate need to keep that in mind.  Over the past fifty years, formation standards have evolved to better equip deacons for our myriad responsibilities, for example.  The diaconate has, at least in those dioceses which have had deacons for several generations, become part of the ecclesial imagination.  In some dioceses we have brothers who are deacons, fathers-in-law and sons-in-law who are deacons, fathers and sons who are deacons.  In one archdiocese, an auxiliary bishop is the son of that archdiocese’s long-time director of the diaconate.  As I mentioned above, the diaconate looks and feels different from one diocese to another and while it is tempting to generalize whenever possible, it is particularly dangerous.
  5. Let me briefly address the question of women and the diaconate.  This is a question demanding serious conversation, just as the Holy Father has indicated.  He is not alone, nor is he the first pope to think so.  Pope Paul VI, St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict (both before his ascension to the papacy and after), and now Pope Francis have all been interested in the question.  The 2002 study document of the International Theological Commission (ITC), convened by the authority of then-Cardinal Ratzinger, concluded that it remained for the Church’s “ministry of discernment” to work toward a resolution of the question.  But the main thing at this point is to have the conversation.  And that conversation will need to take place within the broader context of the lived diaconate, the diaconate whose pastoral praxis and theological reflection has deepened over the past fifty years.  Many who opine about women and the diaconate do so from a dated or inadequate understanding of the order.  If this conversation is going to be done, it must be done well.  In short, to understand the possibilities of women in diakonia, one must first understand the diaconate itself.

violenceHere is my point: If we deacons were restored in response to Dachau and similar world shattering violence, translate “Dachau” to Baton Rouge.  “Dachau” to Nice.  “Dachau” to “Black Lives Matter”.  “Dachau” to 9/11.  “Dachau” to every act of senseless terror and random  violence.  What are we doing to confront these tragedies?  What are we doing to work toward a world in which THEY can no longer exist?  This is so much more than who gets to exercise “governance” (a technical canonical term) in the Church, or who gets to proclaim the Gospel in the midst of the community of disciples.  Like the bishops of the Second Vatican Council, we must ask ourselves how we must evolve and adapt to the new violent conditions of our own age.  How can they best be addressed in the interest of the millions of suffering people — here at home and abroad — whose needs we are called to serve?  We deacons must, like our “founders” at Vatican II, look beyond the normal categories of parish and issues of “insider baseball.”

Paul-VII hope that there will be more media programs on the diaconate.  I hope that not only will they be done accurately, but that they will also be done with a sense of the vision and potential of the diaconate.

As Pope Paul VI said of us, we are to be “the animators” of the Church’s service: May we give our lives to change the world.