The Deacon's Bench

The Deacon's Bench

Should deacons wear the collar?

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?

Comments read comments(18)
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Mr. Basso

posted September 7, 2008 at 10:05 pm

how does the authority of the ordinary supercede that of universal canon law, which makes no distinction in regard to the order of clergy, but rather uses the word “clerics”? At the heart of the issue, I think, is whether deacons are regarded as clerics. Clearly deacons are of the clerical state just as, at one time, so were the members of the sub-diaconate and minor orders. I mention this because it has also raises a question about the attire of seminarians. i know of at least one diocesan seminary where the students at the theologate level are required to wear clerics, and at least one where the wearing of clerics by the students if forbidden. Likewise, a double standard is in place when transitional deacons are allowed, or required to wear the collar and permanent deacons are discouraged, forbidden, or given the “grays”.I developed a particular aversion to the “St. Louis” option (while in st. louis) not because of the distinction, but rather because I perspire a great deal and it is quite unsightly when one wears gray. When it is beneficial for the ministry and the good of the church, a cleric should wear clerics. When it would most certainly cause confusion or scandal (out for a romantic dinner with one’s wife, for example) then another option should be used. many professions and vocations have distinctive attire and for a multitude of purposes. There is simply no need to create a double standard.

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Jeff Miller

posted September 7, 2008 at 10:46 pm

He covers the subject very well.This is a good prudential question and the present circumstance is that Deacons wearing collars would confuse people even though they are ontologically clerics. Though if they wear a shirt of a distinctive color then this is less of a problem.At one time laymen belonging to third orders were allowed to wear the habits of their orders. That is why you often see pictures of St. Catherine of Siena in a habit even though she was a laymen belonging to a religious order. Though as a secular Carmelite myself I have often thought about how cool it would be to wear a habit even if that is a silly reason to wear one.

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posted September 8, 2008 at 1:18 am

This one seems pretty clear to me. It’s up to your bishop.What surprises me more that no one talks about is Can. 277 §1. Clerics are obliged to observe perfect and perpetual continence for the sake of the kingdom of heaven and therefore are bound to celibacy which is a special gift of God by which sacred ministers can adhere more easily to Christ with an undivided heart and are able to dedicate themselves more freely to the service of God and humanity.Note that “everyone’s favorite cannon”, #288 does not exempt permanent deacons from 277.

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Stone of Bethel

posted September 8, 2008 at 1:58 am

I think the use of another color, be it navy or gray, would be a nice alternative… The flexibility is still important though since Deacons often work in both the secular and religious worlds. But I think it good for Deacons to be allowed the option, since they are ordained ministers of the Church.I don’t see it happening in my Diocese, however, as we rarely see our parish priest wearing his. And when he does it’s often askew or flipped out on one side. :)

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Mr. Basso

posted September 8, 2008 at 3:12 am

as a woman, St. Catherine would have always been a layman, even if fully professed in the first order. (likewise, any religious / monastic vocation is distinct from Holy Orders)The confusion argument doesn’t really hold water, what with so many other ministers from separated ecclesial communities running about in their clerics. I live two doors down from an orthodox priest who putters about in a roman cassock most of the time.) Outside of liturgy a bishop is often indistinguishable from a priest and no one is worried that we might mistake a priest for a bishop. For that matter, many priests are in “civies” all the time anyway. I, for one, fancy a royal blue cleric shirt, as it is distinct form the black of a priest, and it is a visual sign of personal devotion to our Blessed Mother. (and while I’m ashamed to admit it tonight, I’m also a colts fan)

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted September 8, 2008 at 7:44 am

Mr. B…The “confusion argument” is, unfortunately, promulgated primarily by our brother clergy, the priests. A surprising number of whom, at this late date, still see deacons as interlopers, encroaching on their territory. I know a few who would like deacons to just quietly go away. (God forbid there should be other men wandering around the parish wearing the same clothes!) Fortunately, most of that is generational, and those kinds of priests are disappearing. And, I have to admit, confusion runs rampant. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had parishioners call me “Father” or ask me to hear their confessions. Dcn. G.

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posted September 8, 2008 at 10:29 am

Should deacons wear collars? No, please no.

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posted September 8, 2008 at 11:08 am

Being a deacon in the St. Louis Archdiocese, I have been involved in numerous discussions about the use of a collar. For the most part, those in my class (2007) wear a gray shirt and collar when attending official church functions, ie, formal meetings, RCIA, funerals, prayer services, hospital visits, etc. It is somewhat of a hodge podge for other deacons but the gray is becoming more in vogue.Our seminarians wear clerics almost from the day they enter. I have some issue with that. Personally, I feel as though the people at my parish expect me to dress like what they think a deacon should be, an ordained cleric. I have not heard one negative comment and have heard some say that I should be distinguished from others.

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posted September 9, 2008 at 6:14 am

It is confusing to the laity when the deacons go back and forth from lay attire to clerical attire, especially in a large parish where the congregation and the pastoral staff are not known personally to each other. Also, there are times when it is important to know the difference between a priest and a deacon. I think there should be a difference in the garb of each. Perhaps, something as simple as the diaconate stole embroidered on the pocket of the shirt might be enough to distinguish a deacon from a priest.

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posted September 16, 2008 at 9:20 am

This is a good question and is part of a larger question that we are now exploring in my community, Holy Cross. Prior to the council everyone who had been to the novitiate wore a habit which for us is a cassock and cape to the elbow. After the council everything was dropped even by the priests who were mostly teachers so the “habit” became jacket and tie in the 70’s. In the 90’s blacks were back for the priests.Now here’s the hitch, do the seminarians and deacons wear the blacks, too? Technically, this is approved for seminarians as they are candidates for the clerical state. Diocesan seminaries across the country almost always require their students to wear clerics. We have this year begun to bring the blacks to the seminarians, beginning with those in their final year. The transition is pretty seamless.If the seminarians are wearing blacks, it is not because they are clerics, but in virtue of their future state as priests. Clearly transitional deacons wear blacks for the same reason.For Catholics, black are so associated with celibacy, however, the grays option for permanent deacons seems reasonable to me. I suspect the fear is the association of obviously married men with the black collar might diminish the value of celibacy in the eyes of laity and clerics alike. This has always been a risk since the re-establishment of the permanent diaconate. There has always been a fear, reasonable or not, that men with vocations to the priesthood would take the diaconate option for the sake of marriage. I think the symbols of office are important for signing distinctions between lay and clerical and between different types of clerics.Another closely associate question in my mind is the dalmatic. Clearly this is the proper vestment for a deacon. So why are so many deacons still in the deacon stole and alb on Sundays? I doubt it is just money. I suspect there is an unstated fear that the dalmatic looks just like a chasuble from a distance, making deacons look like priests. Never heard anyone say it, but this is what I suspect is going on.This is a sociological perspective rather than a canonical one, I realize, but that is my training and I think it is a valuable angle.

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Deacon Greg Kandra

posted September 16, 2008 at 9:30 am

You’d be surprised at how many men wear just the alb and stole because it IS the money. In my own parish, my pastor declined to invest in vestments for his newly ordained deacon — me — and all the vestments I own, including the stoles, I either bought myself, or were gifts.Dcn. G.

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posted April 8, 2009 at 5:25 pm

I came onto this post rather late but heck…I still want to put in my two cents.In our archdiocese we have deacons on both sides of the clothing issue with most opting for secular attire 24/7. And personally, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. Whatever the archbishop wants is fine.HOWEVER…about the excuses that the laity will be confused or people scandalized when with wives or priests “jealous” of their clerical standing…these things will NEVER change until deacons, being treated as the Church officially teaches (“clerics and members of the hierarchy”) change this public perception. How? Not by any “in your face” stance on clothing but simply wearing the attire that is proper to their clerical state. Then one day the time WILL come when it’s no big deal to see a Catholic cleric with his wife even holding hands (eek!)I wonder why no one has come up with a “deacon’s collar” just as they have (used to have?) a Brother’s collar…recall those? It was easy to tell who was who once it became standard. Even a standard “oxford” type dress shirt where the body of the shirt is black and the button collar is white would say both “cleric” and “not priest”. No?And I agree with the poster above who wondered about seminarian clothing. Once in the last 4 years of seminary (theology) they often wear the collar and in most places are required to do so…and they are not even clerics. What gives??? Is celiacy the REAL covert issue? Hey, just food for thought thats all.

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Reverend Deacon

posted June 6, 2009 at 11:25 pm

In my church, Deacons wear collars. There are 2 differences between our attire and that of a Reverend or Pastor.1 – Gray is the only color cleric shirt we can wear.2 – Our collar tabs have a double verticle stripe. Our congregation knows the difference and feels a Deacon in collar is appropriate.

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Deacon Joe

posted January 10, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Wearing the collar should not about the Deacon. Regardless of whether you are a Bishop, Priest or Deacon, I believe that is an important aspect that needs to be understood. When people see a man in clerics, they see the Church. By knowing the Church is present (especially in ministrial situations), it “should” put the person at ease and help them recognize that they are in good and holy company.
I have been in situations where Deacons are in both clerics and regular clothes at the same time and location. It was notable that strangers were comfortable coming up to the Deacons in clerics and ask for prayers. Not so, with the men wearing street clothes–even if they were wearing a Deacon Cross.
Also, Deacon Bills’ analogy of wearing a uniform in the military is a good one for defining the parameters for wearing clerics. The military is not permitted to wear uniform in certain public gatherings and they are not required to wear them outside of work. The same could be true with clerics. So, while a military Deacon would not normally wear clerics to his place of work; it stands to reason that he would not wear his uniform to do his vocational ministry.
I would challenge Deacons that don’t wear clerics to try it one time (with your Bishop’s permission, of course) and walk into a hospital or hospice to do ministry. Most of you will find that they recognize what your clerics represent more than the person wearing them.
And for those that think clerics confuse the general public between priests and deacons. Take a stroll through the seminary and see if you can identify which men are Seminarians, which are Deacons, and which are Priests.
Finally, I believe clerics promote the ability to evangelize; especially for Deacons. Indeed, Deacons are an important part of the New Evangelization touted by Pope John Paul II. Clerics faciliate the ability for others to approach a Deacon and ask questions about the Catholic Church.

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Deacon Nick

posted November 25, 2012 at 4:27 am

I have three thoughts on this issue. I was ordained in Southern Africa in 1991 and I am quite convinced that wearing clerical clothing, (clericals if you must but clerics?) saved my life as I was at times in life threatening situations. So the contribution that clericals made to the distinctiveness of dress and the boundaries that I think we have lost between the movement from pre to post conciliar church. Particularly demonstrated by the

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Deacon Nick

posted November 25, 2012 at 5:25 am

incidence of sexual abuse encountered in recent years. I understand the law of the Church to give to all clerics the privilege of distinctive dress. Once a privilege is given it cannot be taken away – can it? Can it be taken away by Bishops, unilaterally? Unless of course it is a penalty levied against an offending cleric. So if deacons are entitled to the privilege, what is the problem, they then have a choice they can either exercise or not (given that the also have a dispensation should they wish to avail themselves of it.) One religious order put their Lay Brothers in grey a couple of centuries ago and only recently (comparatively) changed them back into white. Maybe the American dioceses will be able to do the same … soon. If the episcopal conference says that clerical dress for clerics is what is universally understood by the Church is acceptable for clerics what indeed is the problem?

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technology blog 654

posted January 18, 2016 at 4:53 pm

The template needs to accommodate text as well as some videos. Any apt ready templates in Joomla?.

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