Man made for the Sabbath


Widowed deacon remarries, gets laicized

Peter Feuerherd  

Dr. Gerard Weigel of Somerset, Kentucky, is 89, old enough to know something about what makes him happy.

Close to the top of his list is being married. “My personality is suited to feminine companionship,” he said.

In 2010 his wife Dorothy died. They had been married 53 years and were the parents of eight and the grandparents of 28. “It gets tough at Christmas,” Weigel joked to NCR about his large family.

And then, life got better. “I met a lady who’s been a gift to me,” said Weigel. He and his now-wife Gayle, a fellow parishioner at St. Mildred Catholic Church in Somerset, got married last summer.

A nice, yet unremarkable story about a man finding love late in life. But it wasn’t simple.

Weigel, besides being a retired physician, was also a deacon at St. Mildred’s, a part of the Lexington diocese. Ordained in 1981, Weigel helped out at the parish, presiding at funerals, weddings and baptisms, including those involving his own extended family. He also led new converts through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.

Yet he can no longer function as a deacon. He promised before ordination that he would follow the discipline of the Roman Catholic Church which prohibits deacons who are widowed from remarrying, unless they receive a rarely granted dispensation. He was formally laicized, a process that included provisions that he avoid his former parish, injunctions which he has largely ignored. He attends Mass at his parish, and its website lists his status as retired deacon. In his eyes, there is nothing scandalous or spiritually worrisome about his new marriage.

“I thought Rome looked at me as an outcast in my own parish, totally lacking in loyalty though they knew me not at all,” he wrote in a letter to NCR.

As part of his laicization, Weigel is prohibited from performing sacramental ministry pertinent to the ordained, as well as bringing Communion to the sick and reading at Mass, duties that can also be performed by laypeople.

Weigel wonders why his new marriage is an obstacle to diaconate service as well as lay ministry.

While training for the diaconate, the restriction on remarriage was not emphasized, he said. When he was in his fifties, outliving his wife at the time was not something he thought seriously about.

“I could not visualize that I would get in that situation,” he said. “I didn’t give it a second thought.”

There have been dispensations to the rule granted to younger deacons who have been widowed and have young children who need a mother figure in the household. There is also a provision for bishops to designate deacons in administrative posts who are deemed indispensable to continue even after a second marriage.

“That implies that there is nothing intrinsically wrong about being remarried as a deacon,” said Weigel.

In the hybrid world of deacons, who now number more than 18,000 in the U.S., the official explanation for the rule is tied to priestly celibacy, even though most permanent deacons are married.

Deacon Thomas Dubois, a deacon for the diocese of Toledo, and executive director of the National Association of Deacon Directors, told NCR that church regulations value celibacy as part of ordained ministry. The rule is seen in the light of Jesus’ preaching about giving up all things in the service of the kingdom of God.

Weigel’s desire to be married is understandable and part of human nature, said Dubois.

“Marriage is very much about companionship. Having that companionship is a benefit. It is one of the joys of marriage,” he said.

But deacons did sign on to the promise not to remarry when they were ordained. “It’s part of who you are as a deacon. You were willing to accept it as part of the ordination rite,” said Dubois.

While dispensations from the rule were once granted, that does not happen anymore, according to Dubois. One reason is the need for the wife of a deacon to understand his ministerial obligations. Often, he said, “it is not fair to throw her into something like that.”

Another reason is an ecumenical one, in which the Roman church is trying to make overtures to Eastern Christians, who allow for clergy to be married but often forbid them to remarry.

Deacon Steve Swope, former director of deacon formation for the archdiocese of Atlanta, said Weigel’s predicament is not unusual.

“Men think they will predecease their wives so it won’t apply to them,” he said. Still, while wives tend to outlive their husbands, 40 percent of married men can expect to outlive their wives.

While dispensations used to be granted, under Pope Benedict they stopped, largely because the criteria was narrowed. For a dispensation to remarry to occur, a deacon must be certified by his bishop to be indispensable to the operation of a diocese, and must be responsible for the care for either children or sick parents. Both elements need to be present; in the United States, those circumstances would rarely if ever occur.

“The challenge is that guys look at it and say why can’t the church make an exception for me,” said Swopes. “It’s not going to happen.”

The rule, he said, is tied into the requirement of priestly celibacy and would have to be changed by papal intervention.

Weigel is not convinced.

Weigel said that at his advanced age, the restrictions are not terribly onerous. And, he wrote in his letter to NCR, “I will try and be a true son of the Church.”

But he still wants higher church authority to look at the plight of widowed deacons who want to remarry.


[Peter Feuerherd is a correspondent for NCR’s Field Hospital series on parish life and a professor of journalism at St. John’s University, New York.]

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  1. I wonder if the deacon mentioned in this story put his case to Pope Francis? Surely Pope Francis will listen with compassion.
    I also wonder why this story made it o the ACPI website as it concerns American deacons. Surely we have more issues for priests in Ireland that need to be covered and are being neglected?

  2. This rule defies logic ,one would think that the church needs all the help it can get. Apart from the fact that it is a gross insult to his wife ,what exactly is wrong with a man of 89 having a companion.

  3. DR. HENRY says:

    In many ways the Pope’s hands are tied by canon law in this matter. He cannot do much to change canon law as it is. He can grant dispensations in some situations. However, the better approach is to have the entire code of canon law revised and rewritten by men and women who are first and foremost followers of the teachings of Jesus Christ. Clergy and other persons who hold doctorates in Christology can obliterate canons that have no connection to the teachings of Jesus Christ. This could be achieved quite rapidly with the pope’s overview. If it is Christ-centered then it can be proclaimed by the pope as doctrine rather than law. Revision of the entire code of canon law ought to be at the pope’s discretion when he is convinced that any canon law is not central to the teachings of Jesus Christ. I respectfully suggest that THE SOUL OF THE APOSTOLATE by Dom J.-B. Chautard be one volume that all members of the revision team read carefully. If this were to happen, millions of lapsed Catholics would return to the Church. A Christ-centered Church would utterly change the world…Respectfully written to the priests of Ireland and to his Holiness Pope Francis.

  4. Martin Murray says:

    Just ridiculous, especially the requirement to avoid his former parish. Do the rule makers not have any experience of community? Also his debarment from ministries normally open to lay people relegates him to an underclass in the church below even that of the laity. Pure vindictiveness. Something has to change.

  5. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    Dr. Henry @3, surely you must be joking about Canon Law being able to abide by the prescription of Natural Law with an emphasis on modern day logic? Could that possibly lead to a rewriting of Canon Law?

    Who would have thought? How is this petitioned for?

  6. Surely the time has come when we can think outside the box and open up the wonderful ministries to people who have given wonderful service to the Church.
    This case has as a surprise to me. Maybe as we are only starting to get used to permanent deacons in the Church in Ireland.

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