National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Summary Report of the National Study of the Diaconate, January 1996.
A summary of the four national surveys of deacons, deacons’ wives, the supervisors/directors of deacons and parish lay leaders should begin with its central finding: The restored order of the diaconate has been highly successful. The vast majority of deacons themselves, their wives, their
. Not included in this overall summary are the detailed statistical analyses in the larger reports on Phases l, 2, 3 and 4. A great number of statistics would defeat the point of a summary. But we should be mindful that, of course, numerous nuances – to which statistics clearly alert us – are required for almost any declarative sentence made in the summary. For example, while only 1 percent of the deacons say they would not recommend the diaconate to someone considering it, 30 percent say they would but “with reservations.” It is also pertinent to acknowledge here that the work of a national sample is also directly linked to its limitations. Since it generalizes from numerous and sometimes contrary local tendencies, the aggregate tendencies – the big picture – it reports might not altogether fit any real diocese, parish, deacon or deacon’s family. But in Roman Catholicism each diocese, parish, deacon and deacon’s family is encouraged to consider as part of its local reality the larger – and thus more general – question, “How is the diaconate serving the church universal?” While aggregate data – the big picture – cannot focus on each particular place, they can help each particular place better see itself and its diaconate in the context of serving the entire church in her historic mission.
supervisors and the lay leaders of their parishes describe the permanent diaconate as meeting their initial expectations.
Deacons tell us that they would advise others to pursue the ministry.
The data show some disappointments but contain no disillusionment.
Their supervisors describe the deacons’ largely parish-based ministries as successful and increasingly important for the life of the church.
Lay leaders report widespread and enthusiastic acceptance of the ministries performed by deacons. Fifty-nine percent of the lay leaders (with no difference between men and women) in our sample answered “very positive,” and another 35 percent said “positive,” to the direct question: “In 1968 the permanent diaconate was restored in the United States. From what you have observed of all permanent deacons who have served in the parish, what is your general reaction to the restoration of the diaconate?”
Deacons’ wives describe themselves as supportive of their husbands’ ministry, and their family as greatly enriched by his ordination and service.
While the deacons, their wives and their supervisors speak of problems of identity and acceptance, they report them in the larger context of high satisfaction and characterize them as remediable by better communication and personal relations. Parish lay leaders were the least likely to perceive problems of deacon identity or of collaboration among deacons, priests and lay staff.
The great majority of parish leaders foresaw a growth in the diaconate. A large number of them explicitly analyzed the future of the diaconate in the context of declining numbers of parish priests.
From the data gathered by our four national samples, we might characterize the primary challenge of the diaconate for the future as the
challenge to broaden its ministries beyond its largely successful and increasingly indispensable adaptation to parish life, and to focus more strongly on the deacons who through ordination are called to be model, animator and facilitator of ministries of charity and justice within the local church.
Who Are the Deacons?
While they range in age from their 30s to 86, their average (and median) age is almost 60. And 60 percent report professional or managerial careers that usually followed at least a college education. Only 3 percent were never married, and about one-fifth report “minority” backgrounds (about half from minority backgrounds say “Hispanic Latino”). African-American deacons number 4 percent. Less than 1 percent are of Asian descent. One percent are from other nationalities, and of these the largest number are Native American.
While a little over half of the deacons say that at one time they had considered the priesthood, only about one-third feel that this earlier consideration was at least a strong influence on their becoming a deacon. They describe as more proximate and far stronger the “need to deepen the service(s) I was already giving to the church.” The deacons’ wives agree. Very few “feel that my husband really wishes he had pursued ordination to the priesthood.” Their wives report that they also were highly active in the church both before and after their husbands’ ordination.
The majority of the lay leaders say they knew their deacons before they were ordained.
Family Life and Diaconal Responsibilities
The deacons mostly feel that their ministry has enriched their family, their relationship with their wife and their home life, although the written-in comments sometimes distinguished the experience of ministry when children are younger and when they are older. In fact, the great majority of the deacons have completed their childrearing responsibilities. Their wives, supervisors and lay leaders in their parishes corroborate the deacons’ judgment that their ministry and their diaconal responsibilities have been complementary rather than competitive.
When asked if the deacons’ ministerial duties ever conflicted with their family obligations, a third of the supervisors in their parishes answered “never” and another half said “sometimes.”
Most (71 percent) of lay leaders did not perceive it problematic for deacons to balance their family and ministerial responsibilities. Women lay leaders were very slightly more likely than men to perceive difficulties arising from deacons’ family obligations. About one-third of lay leaders answered that “sometimes” they saw conflicts, but an equal percentage said “never or rarely.” Only 1 percent of the wives (6 percent were not sure) said that if they “knew then what they know now” they would not have consented to their husbands’ ordination.
The great majority of the wives felt involved in their husbands’ training and continued to feel part of their ministry. Indeed, most of the wives said that they had their own parish ministries. Many noted in their written-in comments that during their formation programs the deacons were taught “family first, job second, diaconate third.” These priorities seem to be shared implicitly by parishioners as well. Only 6 percent of the wives felt “the parish expects too much of me because of my husband’s position as a deacon.” About as few said they “sometimes feel that I am in competition with the church for my husband’s love and affection.” Two-thirds say they never have felt the need for a support group to better understand their husbands’ ministry, although quite a few recommended more “preparation days” for the wives of men in formation given by wives whose husbands have been ordained for at least five years.
The written-in comments show that as a result of being a part of the diaconate the couple had more enriching experiences, met more people and on deeper levels, and had more to share and talk about. Both say the diaconate has brought them human and spiritual growth.
What Do Deacons Do? What Will They Do?
They do many things, but mostly they do the things that priests did unaided before the restoration of the diaconate. Most deacons feel that their initial vision of what the diaconate would be has been fulfilled. Two-thirds thought they should serve in their home parish where, in fact, most did their field work and most presently serve in largely liturgical and sacramental roles.
According to supervisors (who are mostly the pastors where the deacons serve), they ably perform these duties. Almost all their supervisors (95 percent, and 58 percent added “very”) described as effective the deacons’ work in sacramental activities such as baptisms, marriages and liturgies. While their supervisors rated all other deacons’ responsibilities “effective,” the majority added “very effective” only to two others pastoral care of the sick and giving homilies. Those receiving the lowest number (less than 20 percent) of “very effective” ratings were prison ministries, promoting human and civil rights, and work with small base communities. Between the high effectiveness of sacramental and liturgical work and the lesser effectiveness of promoting human and civil rights were (in order) the following: religious education; work with the poor; Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults; “preach, teach or inform others about the social teaching of the church”; evangelization; counseling; parish diocesan administration; leader of prayer groups, Marriage Encounters, charismatics; prolife movement.
Parish lay leaders’ answers to questions about the effectiveness of the deacons in their ministries were strikingly similar to those made by the deacons’ supervisors. First of all, they rate the deacons’ contributions to parish life very highly. But they rate deacons as most successful in the most familiar and traditional roles: in liturgies and in the administering of sacraments. When lay leaders were asked to evaluate ministries less explicitly tied to the immediate religious needs of parishioners, they showed less knowledge about them and less confidence in evaluating them.
The amount of preaching done by deacons appears to vary quite a bit. A little more than one-fourth of the supervisors reported their deacons “seldom” preached while another quarter said “very frequently.” A plurality of deacons (47 percent) is said to preach “somewhat frequently.” The lay leaders (52 percent) tended to rate deacons’ preaching as “about the same in quality” as those “preached generally by priests.” But when they did not judge them as roughly equal, lay leaders were almost twice as likely (31 percent to 17 percent) to rate priests’ homilies as higher in quality.
Their supervisors did not think that, were they not ordained, these men “would devote the same time to these ministries.” Only about one-third thought this likely or probable. Fifty-five percent said they did not think the deacons’ ministries could be “performed equally well by a lay person
without ordination.” On the other hand, those answering “probably,” “maybe” and “yes, definitely” comprised 44 percent of responses.
Lay leaders tilt in the other direction. A very slight majority (51 percent) of them did not think ordination was necessary for the ministries performed by deacons to be successfully done in their parishes.
While about one-quarter of the supervisors (and another 9 percent saying they did not know) described “the diaconal formation programs with which you are familiar” as not satisfactory, most (68 percent) answered “satisfactory” and 19 percent of these added “very satisfactory.”
Parish lay leaders are even more confident about the formation programs for deacons. More than 80 percent (and most of them adding “very”) of the lay leaders characterized the deacons’ formation as adequate. Not many of them find mistakes in the selection of candidates for ordination. Almost all of the lay leaders (94 percent) affirm that “if it had been in their power” they would have agreed to the ordination of the deacon(s) in their parish. Deacons themselves gave the highest ratings to their formation programs.
From these data (and, later, the written comments) we probably best conclude that the vast majority of their supervisors and lay leaders regard their deacons as clearly necessary, judge them effective in their ministries and find them satisfactorily trained; but both their supervisors and the lay leaders in their parishes are evenly divided over whether the deacons’ ordination is important for the actual ministries they ably performed.
We asked the deacons’ supervisors and the lay leaders in their parishes a series of open-ended questions inviting lengthy and more thoughtful responses to questions about the future of the diaconate.
Consistent with the fixed-answer survey responses, fewer than a dozen of the hundreds of written-in responses could be interpreted as outright negative about the diaconate and deacons’ ministries. The great majority anticipated a future that was much like the present, differing only because they expected there would be an even greater need for deacons to assist in the work of a diminishing number of priests. The most common response given by supervisors and lay leaders explicitly referred to a worsening shortage of priests and an increasing reliance on deacons for liturgical
and sacramental services. Even the new roles anticipated by the majority, more deacons in parish and diocesan administration were extensions of the already heavy involvement of deacons as assisting pastors and priests in a parish context.
The lay data especially makes clear that they have come to view the deacons as essentially an adjunct to the pastor and primarily accountable to him. Only a few of the supervisors and directors explicitly welcomed the narrowing of the diaconate service to the parish context; the majority simply noted it.
The lay leaders showed little evidence of thinking about the diaconate in any other context but the parish. But between the supervisors and directors there were, it should be noted, some clear expressions of ambiguity about this development and more than a few expressions of deep concern that the meaning of the diaconate was being misshapen by its de facto absorption into explicitly parish-based clerical roles. A handful ventured into the issue of broadening the eligibility requirements for ordination. In this reflection they were joined by an almost similar number of lay leaders.
The most common anticipation of the future was the neutral judgment that in it there would be fewer priests and more deacons who would increasingly function as “parish administrators,” “parish life coordinators,” “parish ministry chaplains” or “satellite-parish leaders.” Some, but by no means most, added that they expected a corresponding increase in the number of salaried fulltime deacons. Eight percent of the deacons report they are already in charge of parish communities lacking a resident pastor. It should be noted that 10.3 percent of all parishes in the United States do not have a resident priest.
While some of those expressing a judgment on this anticipation sounded sanguine noting that the deacons’ assumption of administrative work would free pastors for more explicitly priestly work about three dozen of the supervisors’ and directors’ responses explicitly described the use of deacons as a pragmatic response to the priest shortage as distorting the meaning of both priesthood and the diaconate. Here are some representative comments offered by supervisors and directors: “I’m afraid the diaconate will become more clerical, more liturgical, a stopgap for the priest shortage.” “I hope they do not become mini-priests.” “I fear deeper
confusion with the role of priests and lay people.” “We have hundreds of parishioners doing voluntary work. I don’t need a liturgy helper.” “I hope lay ministry for men and women which is parish-based will replace it.”
Some of the supervisors about a dozen in all in effect said that the increased use of deacons in parish administrative roles would lead to (here we must search for a non-ideological term) a “reconstruction” of the sacrament of orders. Ten thought that those deacons with suitable training and personal gifts would be ordained to the priesthood while another half-dozen anticipated the ordination of women to the diaconate. Among lay leaders about 20 wrote that they expected structural changes in the diaconate. Ten expected deacons to assume all the roles of priesthood, and nine expected women to enter the diaconate. Almost an equal number anticipated a large increase in deacon-administered parishes with, as one said, “visiting priests available for Mass and confession.” Only three lay leaders mentioned diaconate ministries that were not somehow tied to the future of the priesthood.
How Do Deacons Fit In?
In general deacons feel they are part of a team with whom they work. The deacons and their wives describe some dissatisfaction and strains but place them in a larger context of acceptance and cooperation. For example, 67 percent of the wives say they sometimes “feel that some priests resent working with a married deacon.” But far more often, 80 percent, they say “the priests in our parish see my husband as a valued colleague,” and only 12 percent say that “the priests in our parish have a difficult time relating to me as the wife of an ordained minister.” Parish lay leaders do not agree with these assessments. Indeed, they are less likely to perceive tensions between priests and deacons, and even less likely to think priests don’t relate well with deacons’ wives.
When deacons and their wives express dissatisfactions, it is not about his being a deacon but about being a deacon in a particular place at a particular time and working with particular people. They report dissatisfaction not with the “role” of deacon but with his “role partners.” And even these contingent kinds of complaints were frequent but not pervasive. The deacons and their wives describe these strains not as structured into the role of deacons but as located in the contingencies of people and place,
remediable through better communications, better personal relations or better luck. Parish lay leaders are even more positive in their perceptions about the collegiality they observe among deacons, priests and lay staff. More than 80 percent (and more than one-third of these say “strongly”) find parish priests are enthusiastic about the restored diaconate. Moreover, almost three-quarters think that “over the last 10 years priests have grown even more supportive of the diaconate than they were.”
Identity of Deacons
Forty-one percent of their supervisors answered “yes” to the question: “Deacons sometimes speak of an identity problem. Is this generally true in your experience?” The deacons themselves agreed with their supervisors, but only with regard to a large minority of the parishioners and the priests and lay staff with whom they worked. They did not think this was true of bishops and pastors.
In their written-in comments more than a few deacons complained that they are too often thought to be either “incomplete priests” or “more advanced laity.” A majority of their wives agreed with the statement, “I sometimes think most laity do not really understand that deacons are not ‘priest-assistants’ but ordained clergy in our church.” One perceptively noted, “Deacons are not treated as clergy or as laypersons but as someone who is forever infringing on others’ territories.” On the other hand, lay leaders did not perceive any large problem regarding “deacon identity.” The data suggest that they are simply less interested in the question than are deacons themselves and their supervisors. Parish leaders are most interested in the quality of the religious services available in their parish, and they are pleased and grateful that their deacons effectively contribute to them.
As the diaconate has unfolded after its restoration, deacons have largely occupied parish places previously filled either entirely by priests or entirely by laity. The deacons’ initial expectations, their formation and training programs, their internships, their actual work in short, all their primary diaconal influences and experiences intertwine to draw them more narrowly into precisely those areas, roles and behaviors already occupied by parish priests mostly, or parish staff mainly.
Except for the theologically sophisticated, it seems entirely natural that laity would view their deacons as either underqualified priests or overqualified laity. The vast majority of the lay leaders seem to base their ideas about the diaconate mostly on informal observation. They define the diaconate in terms of what they actually see deacons doing in their own parishes.
Supervisors and lay leaders agree that there is little regular catechesis on the role of the permanent diaconate provided for parishioners.
Serving Beyond the Parish
While the deacons often mention service to others in their written comments, the category “to influence social change” rarely appeared. Few report attempting or having any influence on local or national politics. Few report much training in areas of Catholic social thought or in ministries of direct human services.
To a question about social teaching, only 12 percent reported that it received “a very strong emphasis” in their studies and formation while only an additional 20 percent were able to say at least “somewhat.” Lay leaders agree. They very unoccasionally hear a deacon preach about social ministry or the social teaching of the church. Likewise deacons gave only mediocre ratings to their formation preparation when asked if they were prepared “to use social referral agencies like Catholic Charities and the family life bureau.” Less than one-third said this preparation was good or excellent; more than one-third said it was poor or even absent. Those few deacons working in non-parish based ministries report that their training was mostly “on the job” and subsequent to their formation program.
While the deacons tend to say they have at times preached on Catholic social teaching, very few were able to say they had even read the most prominent contemporary examples of this tradition. For example the vast majority have not read the pastoral letters “The Challenge of Peace” and “Economic Justice for All” or the papal encyclicals “On Human Work” or “Centesimus Annus” (“On the Hundredth Anniversary”). Sixty percent are not familiar with the term “the consistent ethic of life.” Only 13 percent of the lay leaders were able to say they “regularly” heard their parish deacon preach on the church’s social teaching on justice and peace.
The deacons’ reading seems eclectic. Some said they read many books. Some said none. The books they noted comprise a very diverse list ranging from Thomas a Kempis to “The Velveteen Rabbit.” They mention no work dealing with the theology of peace and justice. In fact, apart from topics of counseling in general and death and dying in particular, no “issue” book is mentioned.
With some frequency deacons meditate, read the Bible and spiritual works. In the course of a week, 76 percent read Scripture and 56 percent read spiritual writers. When asked, “Besides the Bible, what one book in particular among the books you have read do you consider especially important to your diaconal ministry?” a large and diverse number of books were listed. “Humanae Vitae” and “The Road Less Traveled” were cited as often as St. Francis de Sales.
We provided spaces on each questionnaire for anticipation and visions of the future. In all our samples most respondents anticipated diaconate futures pretty much like their experiences of the present ministries of deacons. The deacons’ vision mostly involved better understanding, more acceptance and clearer identities. Very few laity expressed a desire for anything more than what their deacons were already doing. The general direction of these remarks probably should be considered as understandably predictable.
Deacons themselves do not give as motivations for entering the diaconate a desire to better help the church, better serve the community or to make her social teaching better known. Overwhelmingly they say they were motivated by the opportunity for a mostly ecclesial ministry of service which might deepen their own spiritual life and give them a more powerful sense of purpose and place in life. These motivations are deeply shared by their spouses, implicitly accepted by their parishioners and then explicitly encouraged by their supervisors, who are almost always pastors, who find themselves increasingly dependent on them for the liturgical and sacramental ministries once done solely by priests. Their formation programs seem not to have challenged their initial parish-based vision of ecclesial service. Not much in their post-ordination experiences seems likely to challenge it. Half say they have no spiritual
director. Their contacts with their pastor-supervisor are mainly task oriented. Besides, their pastor-supervisor’s horizon is also parish-bound. They are not likely to have received any specific training for supervising their deacons. Most say they either never read or do not recall the 1984 National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ “Guidelines for the Permanent Diaconate.” They are not likely to have read specific diaconate material or to have been in any close contact with either the diocesan or national deacons’ offices. The norms for deacon accountability are mostly tacit and are unlikely to lead their supervisors and directors to encouraging them into less familiar or more adventuresome roles.
Very few parishes have written mission statements for their deacons. The lay leaders report that issues of accountability and role are largely determined through the single channel of the pastor. Although they seem prompted mostly by the generic good sense of the idea rather than any felt needs to review priorities, the great majority of lay leaders support the idea of a written ministerial agreement for deacons serving in their parish.
If it is desirable to move the ministry at least somewhat beyond its current overwhelming focus on parish life, the stimulus will have to come from outside the life worlds of the vast majority of deacons, their supervisors and parish lay leaders; specifically from the diocesan bishop. Otherwise their future ministries seem destined to tie them even more closely to parish life.
With very few exceptions, the deacons themselves find great satisfaction in their parish work, their pastor-supervisors find them increasingly indispensable and parish leaders are content to have them as increasingly necessary adjuncts to their busy priests. Still, there are some modest indications from the data that, even within this context of success and need, some deacons would be open to appeals for service in less familiar and more innovative ministries. Significantly, almost all deacons say they are available for opportunities to learn of the new needs in the church and new challenges to her mission. About one-third of the deacons say they don’t attend more than a couple of seminars, lectures or diocesan discussion groups each year. They also express a strong consensus that “field training should be more carefully chosen to better serve diocesan and community needs” (53 percent agree “strongly” and 29 percent “somewhat”).
When asked “What is your understanding of incardination?” deacons rank first “being attached to a diocese” and second “being an extension of the bishop.” When asked, “Do you understand your obligations and rights as a cleric in accordance with the provisions of the 1983 Code of Canon Law?” 79 percent responded “yes.”
Since lay leaders have defined the role and mission of deacons mostly in terms of their direct personal experience of what they have seen deacons do, it is likely that laity will only reshape their conception of the diaconate and its meaning for the church as deacons themselves deepen their conception of the ministry.
Conclusions Drawn From the Data
1. Central finding: The restored order of the diaconate, largely parish based, has been successful and increasingly important for the life of the church. The primary challenge of the diaconate for the future is the challenge to broaden its ministries beyond its largely successful and increasingly indispensable adaptation to parish life, and to emphasize more strongly that deacons, through ordination, are called to be models, animators and facilitators of ministries of charity and justice within the local church.
2. The enthusiastic acceptance of the diaconate by parish lay leaders is widespread. The majority foresaw a growth in the diaconate in the context of declining numbers of parish priests. Lay leaders rate the deacon’s contribution to parish life very highly, most successful in traditional roles. Fifty-two percent of lay leaders rated deacons’ preaching as about the same in quality as they would rate priests; 31 percent rated priests’ homilies as higher in quality. Fifty-one percent of the lay leaders did not think that ordination was necessary for the ministries performed by deacons in their parishes.
3. The wives of deacons are supportive of their husbands’ ministry and consider their families greatly enriched by his ordination and service. As a result of being part of the diaconate, the deacon and his wife had more enriching experiences, met more people on deeper levels, had more to share, all of which brought them human and spiritual growth.
4. Problems associated with the identity and acceptance of the deacon are reported in the larger context of high satisfaction and are characterized as remediable by better communication and personal relations.
5. The median age of the deacon is 60. The majority are Caucasian, married, college-educated, deeply spiritual and highly motivated toward service. They believe that their ministry has enriched their relationship with wife and children.
6. About one-fifth of the deacons report minority backgrounds, with one-half of those describing themselves as “Hispanic-Latino.” The obvious challenge is to recruit and form more deacons from minority communities.
7. Supervisors of deacons in ministry, most of whom are pastors where deacons serve, describe their deacons as “able” in performing their duties. Ninety-five percent of the supervisors rated their deacons as “very effective” in pastoral care of the sick and as homilists, and as “effective” in sacramental service such as baptisms, marriages and liturgies, but less so in promoting human and civil rights.
8. From the data, including written comments, we may conclude that the vast majority of supervisors and lay leaders regard their deacons as clearly necessary, judge them effective in their ministries and find them satisfactorily trained, but are evenly divided over whether the deacons’ ordination is important for the actual ministries they ably perform.
9. The most common anticipation of the future was the neutral judgment that in it there would be fewer priests and more deacons who would increasingly function as “parish administrators,” “parish-life coordinators” or “satellite-parish leaders,” considered by some, but not all, a pragmatic response to the priests’ shortage that distorts the meaning of both priesthood and diaconate.
10. The data suggests the need for a more effective catechesis on the diaconate, especially for the laity, who are most accepting of the deacon but least sure of the role of the deacon apart from his sacramental ministry, the “priest-assistant.” Parish leaders are most interested in the quality of the religious services available in their parish, and are pleased and grateful
that their deacons effectively contribute to them. Lay leaders did not perceive any large problem regarding the identity of the deacon.
11. The majority of parish leaders support the idea of a written mission statement for deacons serving in their parish.
Issues for the Future
1. How are the issues of the deacon’s identity and acceptance to be resolved in light of the tendency of many to use the deacon to address the present shortage of priests?
2. Is there a need for a more determined recruitment of men for the diaconate from minority and less affluent communities? If so, how is this to be addressed?
3. How can preordination spiritual formation and post-ordination continuing spiritual direction of deacons be better addressed?
4. How can diocesan deacon formation programs be strengthened to address better the principles of Catholic social justice teaching, and how can candidates be better prepared to utilize service agencies, such as Catholic Charities and family life bureaus, for referral and as a source of training?
5. What are the best means of responding to the demonstrated need for a more focused effort on the national and diocesan levels to form and challenge deacons toward roles and ministries more clearly differentiated from the ministerial priesthood?
6. What will be required in developing curricula for deacon formation which will more clearly orient deacons toward embodying and preaching issues of justice, human rights and peace?
7. In what ways can diocesan formation programs be strengthened in the following areas:
– Field training and internships which are extra-parochial and diocesan-oriented?
– Orientation/preparation days for wives by wives of deacons in
the context of the role of the wife of a deacon and the impact of ordination on the deacon’s family?
– Spiritual direction for and by deacons?
– More focused communication and accountability systems joining supervisors and deacons into wider networks of diocesan and church-wide concerns?
– Promoting further the need for a written mission statement and a specific role delineation for deacons?
– Promoting opportunities in evangelization?
The challenge of the next decades will be to make these developments more theologically rich and thus continually to expand even beyond the parish itself the deacon’s sense of ministry, evangelization and service.
Origins 25 (1995-1996): 497, 499-504.