Religion in a Changing World: Comparative Studies in Sociology

By Madeleine Cousineau | Go to book overview

10
Catholic Deacons: A Lesson in Role conflict and Ambiguity

Frank R. DeRego Jr., and James D. Davidson

Churches, like most other organizations, place people in various positions, or statuses, such as priest or minister, choir director, or parish council member. Each status is related to a role, or a set of expected behaviors related to one's position. Sometimes these roles are clear and consistent, in which case people have relatively little difficulty carrying out their responsibilities. At other times, roles are unclear or involve lots of conflicting expectations. Role conflict and ambiguity make it difficult, if not impossible, for people to perform effectively.

The Roman Catholic Church recently created a social position that is fraught with role conflict and ambiguity. That position is known as the "permanent diaconate." 1 People who occupy this position are called "deacons." While deacons derive considerable personal satisfaction from their work with the church, they also report a number of problems that can be traced to conflicts and ambiguities inherent in the diaconate.

In this chapter, we show that the main reason the diaconate is to fraught with conflict and ambiguity is that it was a compromise solution to the problem of the worldwide priest shortage. We also show that in the United States, where the diaconate has spread most rapidly, deacons experience frustrations and identity problems that are rooted in the conflicts and ambiguities inherent in their role.


A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DIACONATE

The order of deacons thrived in the first three centuries of the church ( Olson, 1992:28). Closely aligned to the office of bishop, deacons were entrusted with the administration of temporal affairs such as the vital work of charity, as well as spiritual matters such as teaching and liturgical functions ( Cunningham 1987:268- 269). As monasteries developed into communities of men dedicated to prayer and service, the deacon's role in social welfare diminished. However, deacons' responsibilities in areas such as teaching prospective converts and performing

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