Misstatements in ‘Catholic Answer’

By Msgr. Robert J. Dempsey
Sunday, January 11, 2015

Father Francis Hoffman’s “Catholic Answer” column generally has useful replies to readers’ questions, but his most recent column on “Does a deacon act in persona Christi?” (Dec. 28, 2014-Jan. 10, 2015) contains two misstatements that need to be clarified. I will first quote Father’s text and then comment on it.

“All ordained ministers (bishop, priest, deacon) act in persona Christi — that is, in the person of Christ.”

Actually, in the documents of the Magisterium deacons are not said to act “in the person of Christ.” On the one hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, basing itself on the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, does state that “deacons share in Christ’s mission and grace in a special way. The sacrament of Holy Orders marks them with an imprint (‘character’) … which configures them to Christ, who made himself the ‘deacon’ or servant of all” (1570). On the other hand, although they are sacramentally configured to Christ, they are ordained “not unto the priesthood, but unto a ministry of service” (Lumen gentium, 29) and so do not act in persona Christi Capitis.

In order to make the latter point clear, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith found it necessary to modify the typical edition of the Catechism, which now states that from Christ, “bishops and priests receive the mission and faculty (‘the sacred power’) to act in persona Christi Capitis; deacons receive the strength to serve the people of God in the diaconia of liturgy, word, and charity, in communion with the bishop and his presbyterate” (CCC, 875). In 1998 St. John Paul II approved this change, and ordered that the Code of Canon Law be revised to reflect this clarification. In his 2009 Motu Proprio Omnium in mentem, Pope Benedict XVI promulgated the changes his predecessor had wanted made to the Code. Canon 1008 no longer states that all ordained ministers act in persona Christi Capitis. Moreover, a third paragraph was added to canon 1009, which now says: “Those who are constituted in the order of the episcopate or the presbyterate receive the mission and capacity to act in the person of Christ the Head, whereas [vero] deacons are empowered to serve the People of God in the ministries of the liturgy, the word and charity.”

The deacon is an ordained minister of the church, who has his own hierarchical rank and has received a sacramental conformation to Christ, the Servant of all, but the term in persona Christi is not used in connection with his ministry.

“A priest ordinarily administers all of the sacraments except confirmation.”

Actually, a priest has never been considered an ordinary minister of Holy Orders either. The 1917 Code (can. 951) did allow for a priest with an indult from the Apostolic See to be the extraordinary minister of minor orders, and it seems that Boniface IX and Martin V authorized certain abbots to ordain their subjects even to the presbyterate, but in the current law of the church a presbyter is neither the ordinary nor the valid minister of Holy Orders.

— Msgr. Robert J. Dempsey Pastor, St. Philip the Apostle, Northfield


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