The Deacon's Bench

Every now and then, I hear from deacons and deacon candidates who ask that very question. Some have seen pictures of deacons in other dioceses in clerical attire and asked, “What’s up with that?” I can almost hear them scratching their heads.

I decided to pose that question to someone who knows a lot more about this than I do: William Ditewig, Ph.D. Bill was for a long time the executive director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate with the USCCB. Ordained for 18 years, he is now the Director of Graduate Programs in Theology and Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Leo University in Tampa.

He’s the author of 101 Questions and Answers About Deacons, and The Emerging Diaconate, among others.

In other words, he’s a brainiac.

And he’s a great guy, to boot. He gave a superb retreat to my class just before ordination.

So here’s some of what he e-mailed me on the subject of deacons wearing the collar:

To begin, we need to know what the law says or doesn’t say about the matter. Canon law requires clerics to wear the clerical attire prescribed by the episcopal conference and/or the bishop of the diocese. Notice that even canon law doesn’t mandate “collars” per se; it’s just that collars have — over the last century or so — become the standard clerical attire in the United States and other parts of the world. As late as the late 1800s, “clerical attire” in the US often consisted of simple, plain clothing — and it was usually the black “frock coat” that often marked the cleric, not a “collar” — their neckware was the same as anyone else. (This also parallels the development of clerical “titles”: back in the 1800s, it was not unusual for a priest or even a bishop to go by “Mister” or perhaps “Reverend Mr.” Some bishops and priests who had doctorates might go by “Doctor”, or “Reverend Dr.” but this was rather rare. Even to this day, in Europe, most bishops don’t go by “Most Reverend.” Titles are affected greatly by local or national practice.) Bottom line: clerics are bound by law to wear “clerical attire” — however that is defined in the region.
But then we get to the permanent deacon. Our famous canon (c. 288) relieves us of the obligation to wear clerical attire. Why? Because it is assumed that most permanent deacons are still working men, and the law doesn’t want to impose a conflict on such deacons. As you know, I was a career Navy officer, and I was ordained while still on active duty. If c. 288 didn’t exist, I would have had to show up for duty wearing a collar, not my Navy uniform! That would not have worked well! OK, so, the OBLIGATION is removed; that doesn’t mean we CAN’T wear clerical attire as determined by lawful authority. The lawful authority on this question can be either the USCCB or the diocesan bishop, or both. Let’s look at each.

The USCCB, since the first Guidelines on Formation for deacons were promulgated in 1971 (the “Green Book”) has adopted the position that, nationally, the preference is that deacons should dress in a manner “resembling the people they serve.” Obviously, this means dressing like lay persons (at least one person has joked that since we serve bishops, we should start wearing collars and pectoral crosses!), but it was never promulgated as PARTICULAR LAW. This position has remained throughout the three documents which address the issue (the 1971 Guidelines, the 1984 Guidelines, and the 2004 National Directory), and the US bishops are in agreement: THEY DO NOT WANT A NATIONAL LAW ON THIS ISSUE, because that would tie the local diocesan bishop’s hands. They have reviewed this decision several times; they even considered a proposal to pass a law that each of the 14 episcopal regions could have their own policies — this proposal also went down in flames. The bottom line: the bishops want the ability to deal with this issue in their own dioceses, and don’t want some other supradiocesan authority to dictate it to them.

So, let’s move on to the diocesan bishop. We have 196 dioceses and eparchies in the United States, and the pastoral situation in each is unique, and that affects how bishops deal with this. Many, many dioceses have policies in which deacons wear clerical attire. The policy in Washington, DC (my home diocese) is quite good: “If, in the professional judgment of the deacon, the wearing of clerical attire will enhance his ministry, he may do so.” Under previous archbishops, this meant wearing the same kind of (black) clerical attire as the presbyters. Archbishop Wuerl decided to adapt the practice, and directed what I call the “St. Louis option” (because this is where I first saw this practice): deacons would wear grey clerical shirts, while priests would continue to wear black. This offers a measure of distinctiveness. Not all dioceses worry about the color of the shirts. Still other dioceses absolutely FORBID the wearing of clerical attire by deacons, and this is the right of the bishop. They do this for a variety of reasons, but usually it’s over concerns of confusion. But probably by far the MOST COMMON PRACTICE is that deacons may wear clericals on an “ad hoc” basis with the bishop’s permission. In other words, the deacon calls the bishop and explains what he wants to do and why he feels he needs to wear the collar; more frequently, of course, the bishop himself will communicate those situations in which he wants deacons to wear the collar. Again, in Washington, even WITH our policy, Cardinal Hickey used to REQUIRE that we wear collars whenever we served in hospitals and prisons; it was no longer up to us. The bottom line here: Each bishop wants to have this flexibility. By the way, I can’t give specific numbers on which dioceses follow which policies for the simple fact that these policies can change from bishop to bishop. So, as in Washington, while one policy is followed under one bishop, it may change or be modified by a successor bishop.

A word about the reasons pro or con for wearing collars. We’ve heard them all. And deacons themselves are almost equally split on it themselves. For example, there are deacons in many dioceses who would REFUSE to wear collars unless they were directly ordered to do so, BECAUSE THEY BELIEVE THAT THE COLLAR WOULD GET IN THE WAY of their ministry! They believe that, whatever benefits might be present in terms of identifying the deacon, they don’t think those benefits outweigh the negatives. Of course, other deacons are concerned that no one will know that they are deacons if they don’t wear a collar. Here’s where my personal experience rears its head. I have worn the collar on many occasions, sometimes routinely, while in the Archdiocese of Washington. In other dioceses, I have NEVER worn it. You know what? It didn’t make one iota of difference. People knew who and what I was either way. Secular clothes with a nametag; clerical attire with nametag: IT DIDN’T MATTER in practice.

And, ironically, in the nearly 10 years I was in and out of the USCCB headquarters in Washington, including the five full years I served as Executive Director of the Secretariat for the Diaconate, I didn’t wear the collar once, even though I could have, given the polic
y of the Archdiocese of Washington. In all of the trips I made in that capacity to more than 150 dioceses (including the wonderful diocese of Brooklyn!) in our own country and numerous countries overseas representing the diaconate of the United States, I never wore the collar. And it never mattered one bit. When we’re serving in a parish, our parishioners don’t need a collar to identify us; and I’ve found that in most other venues, we don’t need a collar either. “Cleric ID cards” and nametags usually work just as well, and they don’t carry the “baggage” of the clerical collar. (By the way, I don’t wear a collar here on campus either; yet all of my undergrads refer to me as “Deacon” — or “Doctor”; actually, my nickname is “Triple D”: “Deacon Doctor Ditewig”).

So there you have it. Thank you, “Triple D.”

Any questions, class?

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