Widowed deacon remarries, gets laicized

A pair of wedding bands symbolizing the sacrament of marriage is depicted in a stained-glass window in this CNS file photo. (CNS/Gregory A. Shemitz)
This article appears in the The Field Hospital feature series. View the full series.

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. 

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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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