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Survey Finds Number of Deacons at Lowest Level Since 2011

Men lie prostrate during their ordination to the diaconate at the Catholic Pastoral Center in Nashville, Tenn., April 1, 2023. Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville ordained 12 permanent deacons and one transitional deacon, Seth Reed, who will become a priest next year. (OSV News photo)

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — A new survey from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Georgetown University shows that the number of permanent deacons in active ministry in the U.S. last year is the lowest since 2011, which “is [a trend] in keeping with the slow decline of the diaconate over the past several years.”

The survey, “A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate in 2022,” found that there are an estimated 13,695 permanent deacons in active ministry. The figure is about 1,000 less than the average number of permanent deacons in active ministry since 2011 — about 14,635.

Commenting on the survey, Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Michigan, chairman of the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations, highlighted the importance of permanent deacons to the church in a recent statement. He did not respond to a Crux request for comment on the survey.

“Permanent deacons are essential to the Church’s ministry of love and service, especially to the poor and vulnerable,” Bishop Boyea said in the statement. “By virtue of their ordination, they give witness to Christ the servant in the daily exercise of their work and ministry.”

The survey was published by the USCCB Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life, and Vocations, in concert the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University. The same survey has been conducted on an annual basis since 2005, aside from a few years in between.

To collect the data, CARA reached out to the 183 dioceses and eparchies whose bishops and eparchs belong to the USCCB and who have an active Office of Deacons. It received responses from 143 dioceses and eparchies (78%), which were used to make up the survey.

The total number of permanent deacons in the U.S. in 2022, including those who are no longer in active ministry was estimated at 19,971, which is above the average number of total permanent deacons in the U.S. since 2011, which sits at 19,042.

Although the survey shows that the number of permanent deacons in active ministry is the lowest since 2011, it also forecasts that the current figures will “remain relatively stable” at least through 2027. Part of the reason for that conclusion could be an increase in permanent deacon ordinations in 2022.

There were 910 men ordained to the permanent diaconate in 2022. Comparatively, there were 567 permanent deacon ordinations in 2021, which was one of the lowest of the last decade. Since 2014, the average number of permanent deacon ordinations has been 642.

According to the survey, deacons most often hold parish ministerial positions, like a director of religious education or youth minister. They also often hold positions in administration and business. To a lesser degree, they hold those roles at the diocesan level, or work in hospital ministry.

The survey found that 41% of active permanent deacons in the U.S. are 60-69 years old, 36% are age 70 or older, 19% are 50-59 years old, 4% are 40-49 years old, and less than 1% are age 39 or younger.

It also found that 94% of permanent deacons in the U.S. are Caucasian/white or Hispanic — 76% and 18% percent, respectively. Asian/Pacific Islander and African American/black deacons each make up 3% of permanent deacons in the U.S., and Native Americans are 1%.

The Archdiocese of Chicago has far and away the most permanent deacons of any U.S. diocese, with 868.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston is second on the list with 361, followed by the Archdiocese of New York (350), Diocese of Joliet in Illinois (322), and Diocese of Rockville Centre (318). The survey doesn’t list the dioceses with the lowest number of permanent deacons.

As the U.S. Church as a whole grapples with a generally declining number of permanent deacons, Bishop Boyea asked Catholics to “continue to pray for our deacons that they remain faithful to their vocation of bringing Christ’s presence to all.”