New papal decree clarifies role of deacons and result of defections on marriage

This morning the Vatican published a Motu Proprio from Pope Benedict called “Omnium in Mentem”  and dated October 26. According to J.D. Flynn, a canon lawyer for the Archdiocese of Denver, the new document clarifies the nature of a deacon's orders and the impact of defections from Catholicism on the validity of a marriage.

“Omnium in Mentum,” roughly translated as “Everything in Mind,” deals with two unrelated topics, a fact that caused Flynn to observe that it's probably easier to publish one Motu Propio than two.

Writing in an explanatory note for the Motu Proprio,  Archbishop Francesco Coccopalmerio, president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, commented on the modified canons (1008, 1009, 1086, 1117 and 1124). These variations, he said, "concern two separate questions: adapting the text of the canons that define the ministerial function of deacons … and suppressing a subordinate clause in three canons concerning marriage, which experience has shown to be inappropriate."

The first issue addressed by the Motu Propio is the role of the diaconate.

Part of the current canon “describes sacred orders as participating in the headship of Christ,” Flynn explained. “The Motu Proprio clarifies that priests and bishops participate in the headship of Christ 'in persona Christi,' whereas deacons serve the Church, the people of God, through the ministry, services, or 'diaconias' of liturgy, word, and charity.” Thus, Flynn said, the document emphasizes that there is a “clear distinction between the diaconate and the presbyterate.”

“The distinction is between the deacon who acts “in imago Dei” and the priest who acts 'in persona Christi,'” Flynn explained. 

What this means in layman's terms is that “we see the diaconate as a unique ministry unto itself and not simply a step along the way to the priesthood,” he added.

The second item considered by the Motu Propio is an obscure clause regarding a dispensation in canon law.

The reason for this allowance under the 1983 Code of Canon Law was to attempt to support the institution of marriage, even for Catholics who had renounced the Faith, Flynn said. Catholics who defect from the faith, or formally renounce it, must do so by writing a letter to their bishop stating their defection.

The only consequence of a defection prior to “Omnium in Mentem” was that the defector would subsequently be able to “get married validly without observing canonical form,” noted Flynn. This would mean that a defecting Catholic could validly be married in a civil ceremony, for example, without a dispensation.

“This Motu Proprio eliminates the impact of defections on marriage and requires that defectors follow canonical form for marriage,” he stated.

Stressing that “this idea that you can defect from the church by formal act for the purposes of marital validity has always been a sort of anomaly to our theology,” Flynn explained that the document abolished the anomaly.

He also noted that, “in the United States, we get very, very few defections by formal act.”

“What this really is, is an affirmation of our theology. Theologically we understand that what makes us Catholic is our Baptism or our reception in to the Church. Whether we want to be Catholic is not germane to the question of whether we are Catholic. Whether we follow the teachings of the Church or not is not germane to the question of whether or not we are Catholic. The thing that the church says is that all Catholics are bound to the teachings of the Catholic Church.”

Thus, at the theological level, the document establishes “that the Church does not participate in a congregational ecclesiology,” said Flynn. “Our ecclesiology is sacramental.”

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