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Deacon Cerrato’s Establishment Hypothesis

A new understanding of the origins of the diaconate and the unity of holy orders

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When and by whom was the diaconate instituted? By Jesus Christ at the Last Supper, or by the apostles as a response to new ministerial needs in the Church? How are the three degrees of holy orders — diaconate, priesthood and episcopate — related to each other, and what is the basis for their unity? Deacon Dominic Cerrato addresses these questions in a groundbreaking new essay published in the theological journal Nova et Vetera. Entitled “The Establishment Hypothesis: Toward a More Integrated Theology of Holy Orders,” this essay offers a proposal for understanding the origins of the diaconate that is grounded in Our Lord’s Paschal Mystery and in the personalist philosophy of Pope St. John Paul II.

Cerrato begins by highlighting the regrettable lack of a cohesive theology of the diaconate in the Church. The reason for this, he says, lies in the fact that the theological community’s focus on holy orders has been historically directed to the priesthood, and this is because of the intrinsic connection between priests and the Eucharist. While understandable, the result has been an impoverished understanding of the diaconate. Moreover, the diminishment of the deacon’s place in the threefold hierarchy of orders has led to an insufficient appreciation of the sacrament as a whole.

Cerrato uses the image of a triptych — a piece of art divided into three panels held together by hinges — to illustrate this point. Just as a triptych, when one panel is partly closed, fails to fully reveal the intent of its artist, so a complete theological understanding of holy orders is impeded when one of its levels — namely, the diaconate — is not fully “extended” and understood.

The solution, Cerrato contends, is to come to a more unified grasp of the sacrament. The means by which to accomplish this is what he calls the “Establishment Hypothesis.”

At the Last Supper

Put simply, the Establishment Hypothesis is a proposal that the Sacrament of Holy Orders in all three of its levels (deacon, priest, bishop) is rooted in the Paschal Mystery of Jesus Christ and in the words and deeds of Jesus at the Last Supper. The Last Supper, Cerrato contends, was not simply part of the Paschal Mystery but an encapsulation of it: “What Jesus said on Holy Thursday, he actually did on Good Friday.” If there is any unity to the three levels of holy orders, he argues, we should look first to the Lord’s final meal with his apostles for evidence of it.

That the priesthood was instituted by Jesus Christ at the Last Supper has long been held by the Church. To his words over the bread and wine identifying these elements as his body and blood, Jesus added the injunction to his apostles “Do this in memory of me” (Lk 22:19; cf. 1 Cor 11:24-25). In doing so, the Lord “constituted them priests of the New Testament,” as the Council of Trent explicitly taught.

But what of the diaconate? Most standard treatments of its origins focus on the apostles’ selection of and laying hands on the seven men in Acts 6:1-6 as the moment when the order of deacons emerged in the Church. If this is the case, however, then it would appear that the diaconate was not directly instituted by Christ, but rather it emerged as an apostolic expansion of holy orders after the Lord’s ascension. While such a development might be seen as a legitimate use of the apostles’ ecclesial authority, it would also seem to undermine any claim for the unity of holy orders as a threefold hierarchy instituted directly by Christ.

Cerrato resolves this apparent conundrum by pointing out that, at the Last Supper, Jesus engaged in not one but two significant actions, and issued not one but two sets of commands to his apostles: the institution of the Eucharist accompanied by the directive, “Do this in memory of me”; and the washing of his disciples’ feet accompanied by the mandatum, “As I have done for you, you should also do” (Jn 13:15).

Already in his public ministry, Jesus had identified himself both as one who serves and one who would offer himself up in sacrifice: “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).

As Cerrato observes, in this single statement Jesus identifies himself both as deacon and priest — as deacon insofar as he is a servant, and as priest insofar as he offers himself in sacrifice. At the Last Supper, he solidified this twofold identification in his dual actions of foot washing and instituting the Eucharist, and gave his apostles a share in both identities by means of the mandatum and the command to celebrate the Eucharist in his memory.

Institution of …

As for the traditional tendency to locate the establishment of the diaconate in the choice of the seven men in Acts 6, Cerrato makes a key distinction between the institution of (1) the diaconal office and (2) the diaconal order. The former, he asserts, was inaugurated at the Last Supper by means of the mandatum, while the latter came into being when the apostles selected and laid hands on the seven. Likening the process to the stages of conception and birth, Cerrato argues that an office of deacon must first be established before one can enter the order of deacon.

The idea that Jesus instituted the office of deacon at the Last Supper is not original to Cerrato; as he points out in his essay, both ancient sources — for example, the third-century document known as the “Didascalia Apostolorum” — and modern theologians — for example, Deacon James Keating, Cardinal Walter Kasper — have made the connection between the foot washing and the diaconate. Where Cerrato breaks new ground is, first, in his efforts to more thoroughly anchor this connection in the Paschal Mystery and, second, by integrating elements of personalist philosophy into the Establishment Hypothesis.

At its most basic level, personalism can be understood as a philosophy that takes the human person as the basis for all philosophical reflection. Its most famous Catholic proponent to date has been Pope St. John Paul II, who both as the priest-philosopher Karol Wojtyla and later as Bishop of Rome drew heavily upon personalist concepts in his teaching, especially his Theology of the Body. One of the key elements of personalism that Cerrato develops in his Establishment Hypothesis is the notion of love as self-donation. This concept finds beautiful expression in the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, which states, “Man … cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (No. 24).

Cerrato applies the idea of self-donation to holy orders by proposing that both the diaconate and the priesthood are part of a series of “successive gifts of self” rooted in the Paschal Mystery. At the Last Supper, Jesus anticipated his sacrificial self-offering on the cross the following day. He also issued two sets of commands to his apostles — one at the foot washing, one at the meal — in which he instituted the diaconate and the priesthood, respectively. Having received these self-gifts from the Lord, the apostles then passed them on to the bishops, who through the ages have passed on these self-gifts to deacons and priests through the act of ordination. Deacons and priests then pass on these self-gifts to the laity through their diaconal and priestly ministry, and the laity then pass on what they have received to the rest of the world.

Two Key Contributions

The Establishment Hypothesis makes several important contributions to the theology of holy orders. I will focus on two. First, it provides a substantive and highly credible explanation for the unity of holy orders grounded in Christ’s Paschal Mystery. Widespread acceptance of Cerrato’s claims might go a long way toward resolving many longstanding questions about the nature of the diaconate, not least of which is the current debate about the admission of women to the diaconal order.

Some proponents for doing so argue that because the diaconate is an order quite distinct from the priesthood and episcopate, ordaining women as deacons would have no impact on the Church’s reservation of priestly ordination to men. If Cerrato’s proposal is deemed credible by the wider theological community, this position would be very difficult to sustain.

Second, Cerrato’s personalist approach to the diaconate has great potential to enhance and indeed to transform the understanding that deacons have of their ministry of service. Rather than viewing service (whether liturgical or charitable) simply as something they do, deacons formed in a personalist understanding of holy orders might instead see it as an expression of who they are — namely, men sacramentally configured to Christ the Servant.

When viewed from this philosophical perspective, ecclesial ministry (both diaconal and priestly) is seen not to be primarily about the functions a cleric performs, but rather about the Lord to whom he is sacramentally configured at ordination. Drawing on the personalist concept of irreducibility (the idea that human beings cannot be reduced merely to functional categories), Cerrato points out that “Christ does not offer salvation in a cold and depersonalized manner, but instead by giving himself in a deeply personal way.” One implication of this statement is that if this is how Christ gives of himself, the deacon must do likewise.

Dominic Cerrato’s Establishment Hypothesis marks a significant step forward in our understanding of the diaconate and of holy orders in general. It deserves to find its place in any future theological reflections on the sacrament.

STEPHEN FAHRIG, STD, is associate professor of biblical theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, and an instructor in the permanent diaconate program for the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is a candidate for the diaconate.


Encountering Christ the Servant

In “Encountering Christ the Servant: A Spirituality of the Diaconate” (OSV, $19.95), Deacon Dominic Cerrato expounds on the Establishment Hypothesis. The foundation of the deacon’s diaconate, the very foundation of his ministry, is intimate communion with Christ the Servant. This communion originates and deepens in the interior life, and it is here, through prayer and meditation, where he truly discovers God on a personal level and, at the same time, discovers himself in a more profound way. An intimate relationship with Christ the Servant will open deacons and deacon candidates to their true identity, and their mission, as heralds of the Gospel of Christ.

— The Deacon staff


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