When did the diaconate really begin?

Over at his blog, Gerard Nadal makes a compelling argument that it started at the Last Supper:

As Holy Week looms large on the horizon, I’m thinking out loud a question I have thought to myself for years:

Were the Apostles really the first Deacons in the Church? Did the Apostles institute the Diaconate, or did Jesus at the Last Supper?

I believe that a scriptural case may be made for the Apostles being the first deacons. To begin, we all know that the Last Supper was the moment where Jesus instituted His Priesthood, conforming His apostles to himself as Priest when He commanded them:

“Whenever you do this, do this in remembrance of me.”

In that moment, with that command, Jesus conformed His Apostles to Himself as Priest. The Church teaches that at the moment of ordination to the priesthood, the very nature of the man is changed forever. A priest is a priest forever.

We are also taught, in Acts, that the Apostles selected and ordained the first deacons, conforming them to Christ the Servant…

…The Church also teaches that when a man is ordained to the diaconate he undergoes a change in his very nature, that he is a deacon forever. He is conformed to Christ the Servant, and theirs is a ministry of service. (It is important to note that every priest remains a deacon, forever.)

“If I, therefore, the master and teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do.”

With those words, Jesus conformed His apostles to Himself as servants, and this before He instituted the Eucharist. Going ahead to the dilemma of the Apostles in Acts, we see them exercising their ministry of service until the growth of the Church placed too many demands on them. When they laid hands on the seven they were transmitting what had been given to them at the Last Supper, namely, the ministry of service.

The Diaconate.

There’s much more. Read it all.


  1. ron chandonia says:

    Gerard makes the point that “every priest remains a deacon, forever” because our priests are now ordained to the (transitional) diaconate before they are ordained to the priesthood. I know that this practice can be traced back to the cursus honorum of medieval times, when clerics moved through the ranks from the minor orders up to priestly ordination (and later, possibly, episcopal consecration). But I’m wondering if there is evidence that the practice goes back to earlier patristic or even apostolic times. I ask because Deacon Bill Ditewig has written that it is not necessary–and, with the permanent diaconate restored, perhaps not desirable either.

  2. Henry Karlson says:

    It is not a good argument; it is a poor, unhistorical argument. Everyone is called for service, that doesn’t make everyone a deacon.

    Now, one can find precedence in the Old Covenant, and say that the foundation is there. Hence, Hugh of St. Victor: “This order in the Old Testament has its origin from the tribe of Levi. For the Lord gave orders to Moses that after the ordination of Aaron and his sons the tribe of Levi again should be ordained for the ministries of divine worship and should be consecrated to God, and that they should do service for Israel in the presence of Aaron and his sons in the tabernacle of God….”

    On the other hand, if we are going to enter into the New Covenant, the Apostles established the diaconate, not Christ. This can be found in all basic materials on orders; hence Peter Lombard, “This order was established by the Apostles.” Yes, it connects to Christ, and flows from him — thus Lombard says, “Christ exercised this office when, after the suffer, he dispensed to his disciples the sacrament of his flesh and blood, and when he urged the sleeping Apostles to prayer, saying: Awake and pray, so that you do not enter into temptation.” (IV-10). So while it is right to see service and the kind of service a deacon is to have at the supper, it is not because the order is founded there, and to say so is rather absurd and indicates a poorly-formed study.

    One could make a better case of precedence in the Temple, if one wanted to make any case, but in reality, we know when the diaconate was founded: The Acts of the Apostles. We know it was invented by the Apostles themselves to deal with serving the needs of the community when the Apostles themselves could not do it (too many people). It was not established by Christ but by the Apostles.

  3. Henry Karlson says:

    That reference from Lombard should be IV-XXIV.10.
    Hugh of St Victor is from his On the Sacraments II-III.x

    One could find a great deal of discussion of the precedence in the Old Covenant, but we still must remember, in the Church, it was the Apostles who established the order. This is basic. Very, very basic.

  4. Henry Karlson says:

    So to finish (my browser is acting up) — we really should not go and think “It’s been wrong all these years, for the whole of Christian tradition.” We should not be thinking, “I’m smarter than everyone, I can find the hidden history which has been ignored.” We should stop acting like we have no tradition to help guide us in these matters. We should stop thinking we can then make up any guess we want. No, it doesn’t work that way. To think that way is very dangerous indeed. Not only does it show pride, which should not be had in the practice of theology, this is the kind of novelty the Church recognizes as the foundation for heresy. Prudence should make us pause when we think 2000 years later we can change everything we know about basic teachings of the Church.

  5. Ron,

    On one level I agree with you. On another, I wonder if that wouldn’t undo the Orders as established by Jesus at the Last Supper. I clearly see the institution of the diaconate happening before the institution of the priesthood at the Last Supper. I think Jesus did that for a reason, as everything He did was purposeful.

    Priests are supposed to be conformed to Christ as Servant before they are to be conformed to Him as priests, with some rising to the level of Apostolic Successor. That’s why Jesus said that the one who would become the leader must first humble himself and become the servant of all. Service is supposed to be an integral and necessary component of the fullness of priesthood.

    We’ve missed that somewhere along the way in the history of the Church, and I believe that the ministerial priesthood suffers when the two are teased apart, which is why I alluded to the problem of clericalism in the article. Henry Karlson falls into this trap when he calls a scriptural analysis poor and unhistorical.

    The whole point is to assess Holy Orders from their institution, to look into the mind of Jesus as He expressed His desires at the Last Supper. Though the Apostles would create a separate ministry of necessity, we cannot escape the fact that Jesus told the first Pope and Bishops that in order to be leaders they must first be conformed to Him as servants of all.

    The Transitional Diaconate is poorly named in light of Jesus’ admonition and in light of the permanent ontological change that occurs when the candidate is ordained. He remains a deacon forever. His diaconate is as permanent as Deacon Kandra’s. If more priests lived this reality of their ontological status we would change the title to “Diaconate” for both groups of men who receive this level of Orders.

  6. I thought it was an interesting idea. Not ready to endorse it yet, of course, but it was thoughtful. Re the bad labels used in diaconal matters, see my “Diaconal categories and clerical celibacy”, Chicago Studies 49 (2010) 110-116.

  7. Thanks, Ed. I primarily wrote it to free myself from the endless circularity of the idea whirring about my empty cranium. I look forward to reading your article.


  8. “‘I’m smarter than everyone, I can find the hidden history which has been ignored.’”

    Nice quote, Henry. Too bad I never said or alluded to such a thing. Addressing your offensive commentary’s ‘substance’, let me speak as a scientist. Discovery consists of looking at what everyone has looked at and seeing what nobody has ever seen. It is the duty of an academic to seek discovery, to probe, to contemplate, to propose, and to debate.

    Theology, as opposed to catechesis, is a speculative discipline. Perhaps you should contemplate that before wildly accusing others here of grandiosity more characteristic of your bombastic commentary than their prayerful contemplation of Sacred Scripture.

  9. I don’t have enough background in sacramental theology to weigh in here on the merits of the argument, but the scriptural foundation seems to conflate two very different Gospel accounts of the Last Supper. John’s Gospel, which includes the washing of the feet and the mandatum, is very deliberately not a Passover meal and is silent on the institution of the Eucharist. The synoptics, on the other hand, feature the institution of the Eucharist, from which flows the institution of the priesthood, but are silent on the mandate to serve. Certainly there would be no problem citing John as additional evidence (if such was needed; the institution of the diaconate by the Apostles as recounted in Acts would seem to be more than enough) that deacons are conformed to Christ. But to force a conflation in order to see, in the Last Supper, a divine pattern for the order of ordination (diaconate first, because the footwashing preceded the meal at which the Eucharist and the priesthood were initiated) seems to be reading more into the scriptural evidence than it can support. Or am I missing something?

  10. Joanne,

    John has the foot washing being performed at the Last Supper, and the Church has always maintained that. If we take Jesus’s words during the foot washing in John and then turn to Luke 22, we see that he reiterates the servant issue after the institution of the Eucharist:

    “8 Then an argument broke out among them about which of them should be regarded as the greatest.
    9 He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them and those in authority over them are addressed as ‘Benefactors’;
    but among you it shall not be so. Rather, let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.
    For who is greater: the one seated at table or the one who serves? Is it not the one seated at table? I am among you as the one who serves.”

    As for forcing a conflation, I believe that the Gospels reveal something that was there all along. The whole point of the article was to show a a chronology in scripture. We all look at Acts and say thats where the diaconate began, and so it did as a separate order. However, that does not mean that the seven chosen were the first deacons, just that they were the first deacons to to be relegated to ONLY that ministry of service.

    The narrative in John clearly shows the Apostles being conformed to Jesus as servant with the command “As I have done, you also should do”. It is reinforced after the Eucharist in the quote from Luke.

    As we read Acts, we see the Apostles exercising both the priestly and diaconal ministries until they cannot keep up with the demands placed upon them. It was then that they transmitted that which was given to them by Jesus.

    Conflation never enters here.

  11. Henry Karlson says:

    Theology is speculative to a degree, but it must rooted in tradition. As someone whose work is in theology, in systematic theology, I know the method of theology. One of the things we don’t do is just look, dismiss everything which has come before us, and think “What can I make out of this.” It doesn’t work that way — that is what people without tradition and roots do, and it is what we see in the Protestant denominations, causing schism after schism as the new “right interpretation” is invented. It is eisigesis.

    I have consistently seen you as a polemicist who, truly, thinks you know about theology; I remember your risible assertions about my ignorance, once, saying I knew nothing about communion theology. The fact is, you really don’t know what you are talking about, and you use such ignorance to try to create novelties. That is not theology. Again, we can develop, but novelties for the sake of novelty is not theology, it is reckless imprudence.

  12. Henry Karlson says:

    Yes, I’m engaging clericalism when I point out your eisigesis is a farce. You are conflating notions, equivocating. We are all called to service, to the priesthood in fact of the ordinary Christian service; this is the grounding of the service of all Christians and remains with the Apostles. It has nothing to do with a diaconate order being established at the Last Supper. But hey, Luther also complained about clericalism when his novelty was exposed. It has nothing to do with clericalism, but it shows quite a bit of your pride to begin any criticism of your ideas based upon history and tradition to call it “clericalism.” Thanks for proving my point.

    Don’t quit your day job.

  13. Henry,

    Did you finish your doctorate yet? Your opening gambit and your only substance in all of this has been ad hominem attacks. Not much of an argument, and not the demeanor of a scholar, serious or otherwise.

  14. Hmm…Not too long ago, a very orthodox Passionist priest preached words to the effect that the first deacon was a woman ordained by Jesus. He compellingly cited the passage from Luke 4:39 where Jesus cures Simon’s mother-in-law and she “got up immediately and waited on them.” He said that the word used is diakoneo. Very interesting.

  15. Henry Karlson says:

    My only substance is ad hominem? Really? Not at all. I have pointed out the problem of your argument. It has no foundation with the Church’s own understanding. I have pointed out you could have used the Torah to make a case pre-Christ for an origin there.

    The fact that I have pointed out equivocation is itself indication of more than “ad homimen.’ Indeed, I have not made the case you are wrong because of your personal features, I indicated you are wrong because of tradition and poor scriptural interpretation (using equivocation). That you ignore the quotes I provided and say all I wrote is ad hominem is indicative of your lack of substance. And you know it. It is not indicative of a scholar to just accuse people of “clericalism” if they refute your risible claim. And yes, it is risible. The fact that they are called to serve does not mean they were made deacons at the Last Supper. That is equivocation to the extreme and a most forced reading of the text.

  16. Fiergenholt says:

    Floating through all of this discussion, maybe we need to consider this:

    –None of the Synoptic writers lived through the experiences they wrote about. All were composing their texts at least a full generation after the Passion/Death/Resurrection events and these Synoptic Gospel texts were based upon the stories that were repeated over-and-over in regular liturgies of the early Christian Community. In a very real sense, the Church created the Bible here and the “inspiration” in these three texts was a “communal” one.

    –BUT IF there was any “first-hand” account at all, it would have to be John — the younger son of Zebedee. There are simply too many “photographic details” in the Gospel attributed to him for us to consider any other option. “Been there. . . . Done that!”

    I would, then, rather trust an event described in John — even if it did not appear in the Synoptic Gospels — as being absolutely factual. The foot-washing happened — the fact that it does not appear in the Synoptics is irrelavent.

  17. Diakonos09 says:

    Thank you for this post. It has long been on my mind ever since I read an article (for which I have never been able to recall title or author) by a Scripture scholar who posited that HOLY ORDERS was instituted at the Last Supper (not simply the one degree of priesthood). This author say the diaconate in the foot-washing; the priesthood in the consecration-command, and the episcopate in the Last Supper discourse on the Spirit of Truth who would lead them (apostles) in the truth. I would very much love to see a solid Catholic theologian give us a good book on this idea.

  18. Please, let’s have some common courtesy here.

    “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.” Luke 22:26, 27

  19. What a terrific idea for a book, for a thesis!

  20. I’d love to see this pursued by a professional theologian as well. If you do recall that article, I’d appreciate it if you would share the reference.

  21. Henry Karlson says:

    And I was thinking further about your claim of theology being speculative and I continue to find it troublesome to the extreme. While speculative theology does happen, and it has its value, that is not what theology is about. Such a reading of theology is dangerous to the extreme and promotes the creation of heresies. Theology is not about speculation but revelation, it is discourse about God and with God, requiring humility. When there are difficulties which need to be addressed, speculative work is done, but not for the sake of speculation but for the sake of helping to clarify matter. What we have Gerard suggest, however, is something which theology should not be: speculation. Even when speculation gets involved with the process, it is not what theology is about.

  22. naturgesetz says:

    There is a basic principle in philosophy which holds that no one can give what he does not have. Applying it to the diaconate, the apostles could not have conferred it if they did not have it. The conferral of the order on the seven, therefore, has to have been the explication of their own order, as was the later establishment of the presbyterate.

    As for the fulminations about ignoring tradition, it seems to me that we can say that the saying that the diaconate was established by the apostles is true with respect to the diaconate as a separate order without denying that Jesus established the fullness of ordained ministry.

    One more thought: we were always taught that “a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace.” So if ordination to the diaconate is a sacrament, it was instituted by Christ; and if it was not instituted by Christ, it is not a sacrament.

  23. i think there is a problem when one starts by saying:
    “As I read the Last Supper narratives, there were two ordinations:”

    i am not aware of any statments by the magisterium or the liturgical traditon, or biblical understanding of a “dual ordination” at the last supper. we must keep the bilblical text in its context and not impose our concepts or understandings on it.

    Jesus was THE servant, and on the eve of his passion He gave the great sign of washing his apostles feet (a duty only a slave could perform) to impress on his apostles that all who are to minister in his name must do it with the spirit of self emptying and self sacrificing love. I am not aware of anyone in the tradtions of the east or west who saw it as an “ordination” to the order of diaconate.

    “personal opinions” are not that helpful and can even get us off the reservation if we are not careful. what would be helpful would be some references to biblical, liturgical, theological or ecclesial statements that would back up this dual ordinaion opinion.

  24. Henry Karlson says:

    Yes, Jesus established the fullness of ordained ministry. And we have, again, the connection to the Law of Moses, as I have pointed to time and time again, which also connects to the whole mystery involved.

    However, I would ask you, does this mean priests are married? I mean, according to the East, they are the minister of the sacrament. If not, then you will see the problem I have with your attempt to bring in philosophy to a mystery. I will agree they have the fullness of orders, which was given to them by Christ. However, to make a discussion of them being deacons because of the Last Supper just is a forced reading of the text, and engages (as I said) equivocation: for we are all called to service (and of course, holy orders as a whole is established for service to the Church). It is because of this, however, one can say the Apostles have authority over holy orders to establish the diaconate (following the example of the Old Covenant): they have holy orders, but to make more than that is, very troubling.

  25. Henry Karlson says:

    Exactly right.

  26. Some of the sniping that’s been directed at Gerard Nadal is really unseemly. I come here to be educated. He’s made an interesting observation about the origins of the diaconate, based on scriptural interpretation. Others are free to offer commentaries and ideas, including evidence that support a contrary view — but let’s keep it to the merits of arguments and avoid ad hominem comments.

  27. Ditto. I mean, it’s not like Doc is proposing you-know-what for you-know-who.

  28. Henry Karlson says:

    Read what Anthony wrote above. What he said is wise and to the point. The problem is a basic methodological problem. Note how Gerard thinks the point of theology is speculative innovation. Sorry, that’s not the point of theology. And the more we go forward with such a positivist approach to Scripture and theology, the more destructive it will be for faith. We need to get beyond the modernist desire for innovation if we want to have faith. This is not to say there are not difficult questions we need to explore, that we might need to (cautiously) suggest ideas of exploration, but we need to be careful and not confuse such speculations for the faith itself. That Gerard pushes forward for such positivism is exactly what a resounding “no” needs to be given.

  29. ron chandonia says:

    As I said in the first post, it seems to me the issue here is not so much theological as it is historical–and it calls for a response from someone knowledgeable in early Church history. In particular, in the ancient Church, was it customary to ordain men to the diaconate before their ordination to the priesthood and/or the episcopate? Seems an easy enough question, though perhaps there is no evidence either way.

  30. Thanks Mark and Ed. I think Henry’s histrionics speak for themselves. If there are priests and deacons who may have encountered some other thinking in the area, I’d be grateful for the feedback. In the interim, Henry can rest assured that my humble little blog post hasn’t moved the USCCB or Rome to error.

  31. naturgesetz,

    I agree. The Apostles words are clear in Acts:

    “2 So the Twelve called a full meeting of the disciples and addressed them, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the word of God so as to give out food;
    3 you, brothers, must select from among yourselves seven men of good reputation, filled with the Spirit and with wisdom, to whom we can hand over this duty.”

    It was a “duty” for the Apostles to see to the acts of service as a necessary part of their roles as leaders, as Jesus explained to them in Luke’s telling of the Last Supper. I’ve never questioned that the Apostles established a separate order, that of diaconate. I just think that we miss the institution of this sacrament by Christ, as you’ve pointed out with great clarity.

  32. Anthony,

    If you go the article and read the whole thing, you’ll get the biblical references you seek.

  33. Henry Karlson says:

    And once again, Gerard, those verses do not do what you are trying to force them to do. But yes, one can make the Bible say all kinds of things when we just engage with pure speculation not grounded with tradition. This is not how Catholics engage the Bible, however.

  34. You see, Henry, you are the sort of guy who puts words in people’s mouths and then beats them up for it. Now I already had to chastise you once for doing so on this thread. Now I need to do it again.

    I never said that the point of theology was “speculative innovation.” As a matter of fact, my article never tries to innovate anything at all. That you could posit me, of all people, on the left places you somewhere to the right of Mussolini.

    Now, here is what I ACTUALLY said, beginning with a quote you attributed to me which I never wrote, nor even intimated:

    {“‘I’m smarter than everyone, I can find the hidden history which has been ignored.’””

    “Nice quote, Henry. Too bad I never said or alluded to such a thing. Addressing your offensive commentary’s ‘substance’, let me speak as a scientist. Discovery consists of looking at what everyone has looked at and seeing what nobody has ever seen. It is the duty of an academic to seek discovery, to probe, to contemplate, to propose, and to debate.

    “Theology, as opposed to catechesis, is a speculative discipline. Perhaps you should contemplate that before wildly accusing others here of grandiosity more characteristic of your bombastic commentary than their prayerful contemplation of Sacred Scripture.”

    Nowhere did I ever intimate that it is the duty of an academic to innovate. You’re really showing your true colors here, Henry. Your vicious comments have been one long exercise in projection. It helps if you begin by not acting like the smartest kid in the class.

    I wrote a simple reflection and made a simple proposition on my own blog. Nothing more.

  35. Henry Karlson says:

    “Theology, as opposed to catechesis, is a speculative discipline.” That is your word.

    No, it is not a speculative discipline. Though speculation can be used in some engagement of theology when dealing with questions, that is not what theology is about. Your positivism is noted, and your inability to see the woeful pride involved with your methodology is rather telling.

  36. Thanks Mark.

    I had hoped to elicit more reasonableness earlier by asking for common courtesy. I even tried to draw some of the fire on me with a different post so as to allow for more civilized discussions of the merits or not of the posted Nadal article. All to no avail. Heavy sigh.

    This nasty stuff is the kind of thing that drives people away from excellent blogs. When the erudite cannot have a collegial discussion, what hope is there for the meek of the earth?

  37. Deacon Greg Kandra says:

    Amen. And thank you, too, Mark. No wonder people gave up the Internet for Lent.

    Sometimes, it’s enough to make me want to give up blogging and take up drinking …

  38. I think, in the context of short blog post or two, GN is safe in describing theology as speculative and catechetics as not. The Church teaches doctrine, not theology. Most doctrine is or can be taught by way of catechetics; almost everything else is theology, an inherently speculative discipline, rooted in doctrine, of course, but exploring it by speculative human genius, not by faith per se. Anyway, this is not meet stuff for comboxes. I think you overreacted on this one, HK. No big deal. It happens.

  39. Henry Karlson says:

    And I would once again say that he is wrong about theology and its practice; again, knowing speculation happens in it is one thing, but making speculation as what theology is about actually is the reverse of any authentic theology. Authentic theology is about revelation, about the God-talk come from the experience of the Christian life; theology is best done humbly on one’s knees, not proudly thinking things up which have no connection to one’s spiritual experience. Speculation is about thinking of things one knows not — and that is as dangerous as it comes, especially when one thinks that is what one does when doing theology.

  40. deacon john m. bresnahan says:

    I have no idea whether the idea is correct. But interesting speculation on possibilities shouldn’t be ridiculed with insult. Bad arguments (if this be such) are best confronted by opposite rational, reasonable arguments from the Bible and history.

  41. Ron, i think the issue is theological. the point, it seems to me, is about a “dual ordination” at the last supper. i am not aware of any understanding of this any where. so i think it is a good question to ask where in the past the church has taught it. i am not aware of any biblical understanding of the washing of the feet as the institution of the diaconate.

    the easiest understanding of where the Church has spoken and its current understanding is in the rite of diaconal ordination, especially the prayer of consecration. the consecration prayer has the calling of the seven men by the apostles as the foundational event.

    The church has always understood that holy orders has a three fold ministry, and its application and understanding of these has been different historically because of the pastoral needs, historical circumstances etc. there are number of books out that discuss the historical aspect and unfolding of these different levels of ordained ministry and especially the diaconate.

    i am just saying that the washing of the feet does not seem to be an ordination act, but for sure it is the foundational act for all who are called to ordained ministry to be servants who sacrifice and empty themselves for the salvation of all and for the Glory of the Father.

    we can miss the power and revelation of the Lord’s action in washing the feet; it holds the key to understanding not only the spirit of servanthood for all ministers, but to all that happens on Good Friday when he becomes the suffering servant who empties himself even to death on the cross. this message of the servant was understood by the early church as we can see in St Paul using the early servant hymn in his epistle to the Philippians.

  42. “theology is best done humbly on one’s knees, not proudly thinking things up which have no connection to one’s spiritual experience.”

    AGAIN, Henry, with the allegation of pride over a simple article posted at my blog. You ascribe base motive to anyone with whom you disagree, which is a character defect. And as for my “spiritual experience”, you know absolutely nothing. This is your way of spraying work with which you disagree with graffiti. You opened this morning with an ad hominem broadside and have kept it up all day. Ed is right. Overreaction.

  43. Henry Karlson says:

    No, I didn’t open up with an ad hominem. I pointed out the error of your equivocation as the first problem with your post. That’s not an ad hom.

    Sorry, you really are making things up as you go along, even now.

  44. ron chandonia says:

    Gerard’s argument suggests that just as bishops are inherently “priestly,” so too priests are inherently “diaconal.” The idea is especially intriguing because it conforms so well to the pattern for the reception of the sacrament of Holy Orders today. But I am curious whether or not it would have made sense to our ancestors in faith. One obvious bit of evidence would be the pattern of ordination in the early Church: Before a man was ordained to the priesthood, would he first have been ordained a deacon? I suspect not, but the question makes me want to read a recent and scholarly history of sacramental orders in the Church. I would welcome recommendations.

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