According to this post by an expert in Canon Law, deacons can only celebrate the sacrament of Baptism and Matrimony.

Similarly, Wikipedia states (apparently wrongly) that deacons can only celebrate baptism:

Deacons, like priests and bishops, are ordinary ministers of the sacrament of Baptism and can serve as the church's witness at the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, which the bride and groom administer to each other (though if the exchange of vows takes place in a wedding Mass, or Nuptial Mass, the Mass is celebrated by the priest and the deacon acts as another witness). Deacons may preside at funeral rites not involving a Mass (e.g., the final commendation at the gravesite or the reception of the body at a service in the funeral home), and may assist the priest at the Requiem Mass. They can preside over various services such as Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and they may give certain blessings. They cannot hear confession and give absolution, anoint the sick, or celebrate Mass.

I went to the respective entries in the Canon Law (e.g. Mass celebration here), but they do not state why the restriction (as expected, since it is only law).

I wonder which is the origin of these restrictions, i.e why the deacon cannot celebrate some sacraments. Is this part of the Tradition? I am particularly interested in the celebration of Mass. In fact, since deacons can be married, allowing deacons to celebrate Mass is a proxy for "married priests". This could perhaps be one of the reasons against it?


3 Answers 3


Confession and Mass (specifically, confection of the Eucharist) are the two sacraments where the priest (under the bishop) stands in the person of Christ. That is, in these two sacraments the priest is acting as if he were Christ, using the powers given by Christ to the apostles and handed down to today's bishops and priests.

A deacon, though he is ordained, does not have the call to ministry that priests (and bishops) do, though he does have the call to service:

"At a lower level of the hierarchy are to be found deacons, who receive the imposition of hands 'not unto the priesthood, but unto the ministry.'" At an ordination to the diaconate only the bishop lays hands on the candidate, thus signifying the deacon's special attachment to the bishop in the tasks of his "diakonia."

(Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1569. The quote is from Lumen Gentium, section 29.)

Thus, a deacon, though ordained, does not have the God-given call, and is not given the ability, to stand in persona Christi, "in the person of Christ".

In Confession, the priest is using the power delegated by Christ to the apostles to forgive sins:

[Jesus] said to them again, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you."

And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, "Receive the holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained."

John 20:21–23, NABRE

Thus, the priest is, as it were, Christ to the penitent. He is standing here in the person and the ministry of Christ; the deacon is unable to do this.

Similarly, Jesus gave to his apostles the power to confect the Eucharist:

Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

1 Corinthians 11:23–24

Again, this is a delegation to the apostles (and thus to their successors, the bishops and priests) alone; deacons are not called to this ministry.

Finally, it might appear that Anointing of the Sick is a sacrament that may be conferred either by a deacon or by a priest. This sacrament, however, always includes at least an offer for the sick person to confess their sins; and its first description specifies that "the presbyters", that is, the priests, are to do this:

Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders [presbyters] of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

James 5:14–15, NABRE; emphasis added

You don't mention the Sacrament of Holy Orders. This ordaining of priests is creating a man a delegate of his bishop. Thus only a bishop has this capacity. In much the same way, Confirmation can only be administered by the bishop; he is the direct successor of the apostles who received the Holy Spirit, and he alone has the capability of directly conferring this gift on others.

The remaining sacraments are Baptism and Matrimony. In an emergency, any human being (theoretically even an atheist!) has the capability of baptizing another. A deacon is given this permission even under ordinary circumstances, as part of his "ministry of service".

Finally, in the sacrament of marriage, the spouses are the ministers of the sacrament to each other. The Church merely desires to have an ordained person there as a witness on behalf of the Church. Any ordained man, therefore, can witness to a marriage.

  • So, if I understand correctly, the key issue here is that the figure of priests is directly associated with that of the apostles, and thus with the functions given to them by Jesus, whereas the figure of deacons (not specified in the Scriptures?) was a later addition, maybe belonging to the Tradition of the apostles. Is this the real situation here?
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 20:14
  • @luchonacho Sort of. The role of deacons appeared in Acts, when the apostles chose men to help with the distribution of food to the community (Acts 6:1-6). These men were ordained - the apostles laid hands on them - but they were ordained to serve the community, not to act in place of Jesus. Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 12:10
  • I still fell there is a lot of the distinction coming purely from Tradition. Nothing wrong with this, but I still do not see such a massive reason why some changes could be accepted.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 15:20

Catholic Church (CC) deacons, unlike CC bishops and priests, are not considered to have sacerdotal powers to bring present the unique, once for all, redemptive sacrifice of Christ.

1545 The redemptive sacrifice of Christ is unique, accomplished once for all; yet it is made present in the Eucharistic sacrifice of the Church. -Catechism CC-

A sacrifice requires a priest. To bring present the unique sacrifice on the cross, would require Christ to be present. So, the CC believes "the priest, by virtue of the sacrament of Holy Orders, acts in persona Christi Capitis" (CCC-1548).

Why don't deacons have this "sacred power" (CCC-1592)? Why don't all of the faithful of CC have this power? It's not entirely clear the reason CC has two priesthoods "CCC-1547 The ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests, and the common priesthood of all the faithful participate, [which presumably includes deacons]"

So, to answer the OP, the CC decided that there was a ministerial and a common priesthood. The ministerial has a "sacred power" to act in the person of Christ to bring forward the never to be repeated unique sacrifice on the cross, while the common priesthood does not.


Text of original answer

Catholic doctrine holds there are two participations in the one priesthood of Christ: the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood of bishops and priests (presbyters), and the common priesthood of all the faithful (CCC 1546-1547) [1]. In this regard, deacons side with all the faithful, not with bishops and priests.

Thus, while the sacrament of Holy Orders confers three degrees of ecclesiastical ministry: bishops, priests, and deacons, "there are [only] two degrees of ministerial participation in the priesthood of Christ: the episcopacy and the presbyterate. The diaconate is intended to help and serve them. For this reason the term sacerdos in current usage denotes bishops and priests but not deacons." (CCC 1554) [2].

[1] The Sacrament of Holy Orders in the Economy of Salvation (Vatican Website)

[2] The Three Degrees of the Sacrament of Holy Orders (Vatican Website)

Additional text in response to comments

While my original answer pressuposed the (presumably well-known) notion that "Catholic doctrine also holds that the Eucharist can be celebrated and the sacraments of Confirmation, Confession and Anointing can be administered only by men who have received the ministerial priesthood, while the sacrament of Holy Orders can be administered only by bishops.", commenters asked for the basis of that notion. I assume it is also well-known that Catholic (as well as Eastern Orthodox) doctrine is not based exclusively on Scripture but also on Apostolic Tradition, which is witnessed by the writings of the Church Fathers. One page which offers a list of such writings on this subject is [3]. Having said this, I will only touch briefly the biblical support of ministerial priesthood as distinct from the common priesthood of all the faithful.

1. That there is a ministerial office held only by the apostles and those appointed by them is clear from what Paul tells the Corinthians regarding himself, Apollos and Cephas (Peter):

"Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God." (1 Cor 4:1).

Otherwise all the faithful would be "servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God", not just Paul, Apollos and Cephas.

2. The way in which this ministry is passed on to others is stated in Paul's letters to Timothy:

"Do not neglect the spiritual gift within you, which was bestowed on you through prophetic utterance with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery." (1 Tim 4:1)

"For this reason I remind you to kindle afresh the gift of God which is in you through the laying on of my hands." (2 Tim 1:6)

That Paul included himself in the presbytery in the first passage is consistent with this passage from Peter:

"Therefore, I exhort the presbyters among you, as your fellow presbyter and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed," (1 Peter 5:1)

This is consistent with Catholic doctrine because, in current terminology, all bishops are presbyters, though not all presbyters are bishops.

That Timothy should, in turn, pass on the ministry to others is implicit in:

"Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself pure." (1 Tim 5:22)

3. For three sacraments, the NT states clearly that they can be administered only by the apostles and those who have received their ministry from them.

3.a. Holy Orders. Clearly stated in the above quotes from Paul to Timothy.

3.b. Confirmation

The book of Acts states clearly that the gift of the Holy Spirit (current sacrament of Confirmation) was given through the laying on of an apostle's hands, not of a deacon's hands:

"Philip [the deacon] went down to the city of Samaria and began proclaiming Christ to them. [...] But when they believed Philip preaching the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were being baptized, men and women alike. [...] Now when the apostles in Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent them Peter and John, who came down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. For He had not yet fallen upon any of them; they had simply been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then they began laying their hands on them, and they were receiving the Holy Spirit." (Acts 8:5,12,14-17)

3.c. Anointing of the sick

Clearly stated in James's letter:

"Is anyone among you sick? Let him call near the presbyters of the church, and let them pray over him, having anointed him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one ailing, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he might be one having committed sins, it will be forgiven him." (James 5:14-15)

4. Eucharist and Confession.

So far, it is clear from the Bible that there is in the Church a ministry received by the Apostles, and passed on by them to presbyters but not to deacons, which enables those who receive it to impose the hands to give the Holy Spirit, to anoint the sick, and to transmit the ministry itself through the laying on of the hands (the latter restricted to bishops, who are a subset of presbyters). Now, does that ministry include the exclusive capacity to celebrate the Eucharist and to forgive sins? In other words, do Jesus' words to the Apostles

"do this in remembrance of Me." (Lk 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24)


"If you forgive anyone's sins, they are forgiven; if you retain anyone's sins, they are retained." (Jn 20:23)

apply only to the Apostles and those who are passed on their ministry from them, or to all the faithful?

The answer to this question is not found in the NT but in the Apostolic Tradition.

[3] http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2010/05/holy-orders-and-the-priesthood/

  • 1
    This is good as far as it goes, but fails to explain why the sacraments of Confession, Eucharist, and Anointing require a member of the ministerial priesthood, while the others do not. Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 17:02
  • Yes. I would like to know the basis for such restrictions (Scriptures, Tradition, etc), not just their statement.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Jan 19, 2018 at 17:10
  • Please continue and explain how this applies to the actual question ... why Deacons can officiate a marriage and cannot hear confession or give last rites.
    – tomjedrz
    Commented Jan 20, 2018 at 7:36

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