More U.S. Catholics preparing for diaconate, lay ministry

WASHINGTON – The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate reports that in 2006-07 it identified more permanent deacon candidates and more students in U.S. lay ecclesial ministry programs than in the previous year.

The number of seminarians in graduate theological studies during this past academic year was down slightly. While enrollment was up in college seminaries, it was down in high school seminaries.

The biggest change was in the number of people working toward degrees or certificates for lay ecclesial ministry – 20,240, or 25 percent higher than reported in 2005-06.

CARA, based at Georgetown University in Washington, has been tracking U.S. seminary enrollments for 40 years. In more recent years it also has conducted annual surveys of enrollment in deacon and lay ministry formation programs across the country.

The results of the latest studies appear in the 2007 edition of the “CARA Catholic Ministry Formation Directory,” due out in early June. CARA provided Catholic News Service with an advance copy of the directory’s statistical overviews of each type of ministry formation May 30.

The directory, a hardbound book of more than 425 pages, includes the program, enrollment and contact information on all the U.S. formation programs for priests, deacons or lay ministry that responded to CARA’s surveys. CARA releases its statistical data every year but publishes the full directory only every other year.

On seminary enrollment, CARA reported that in 2006-07:

– Theology enrollment was 3,274, down 32 from the previous year. Of these, 2,410 were preparing for diocesan priesthood and 864 were studying for priesthood in religious orders.

– Seminarians in undergraduate college programs numbered 1,365, up 68 from the previous year.

– High school seminaries had 729 students, down 34 from the previous year.
In its theology student figures, CARA includes pre-theology students – men with college degrees who still need about two years of additional academic studies in philosophy and related studies to qualify for graduate theological studies. More than half of those men do their additional preparatory studies at theological seminaries, while a minority do them in college seminary settings.

In 2006-07, pre-theology students made up 623, or 19 percent, of those counted as theology students. That group, which formed only 4 percent of theology students in the early 1980s, rose rapidly in the early ‘90s and has fluctuated between 17 percent and 20 percent for the past decade.

Whites still made up 64 percent of theology students in 2006-07, but the racial/ethnic diversity has increased significantly since CARA first started collecting seminarians’ racial and ethnic data in 1993; at that time 79 percent were white. This past year Hispanics formed 15 percent of those in theology, Asians 11 percent, blacks 4 percent and other minorities 6 percent.

Just over half the theology students were between the ages of 25 and 34 and one-third were 35 or older, including 6 percent who were 50 or older. Only 16 percent were under 25.

One-fourth of the theology students in 2006-07 were foreign-born, slightly up from the 23 percent in 2005-06.

Tracking seminary retention rates from the first year of theology to the fourth year, CARA found that the class of 2007 dropped from 727 students in its first year, 2003-04, to 555 students at the start of the final year, for a retention rate of 76 percent.

This was better than the 67 percent retention rate in the class of 2006 and the 72 percent rate in the classes of 2005 and 2004, but worse than the 85 percent retention rate for the class of 2003.

CARA said it received reports from 142 permanent diaconate programs and found 2,044 candidates among the 111 programs that had candidates in 2006-07. This was up 5 percent from the 1,942 candidates in 113 active programs reported the year before.

New U.S. norms for permanent deacon formation that took effect in 2005 set up a new “aspirant path,” a time of discernment and reflection before a prospective permanent deacon can enroll in a formation program as a candidate. There were 1,080 aspirants in 2005-06 and 978 in 2006-07.

In the spring issue of its quarterly newsletter, The CARA Report, CARA reported data on retired and active permanent deacons for the first time. Of the nearly 15,000 permanent deacons in the United States, CARA said its research indicates that 77 percent are still in active ministry.

Mary L. Gautier, CARA senior research associate, told CNS that according to the most recent data available on diocesan priests, 71 percent of them are still in active ministry.

Formation for lay ecclesial ministry has been the most rapidly growing area of education for ministry in the past two decades.

The first year CARA surveyed U.S. programs for lay ministry, in the 1985-86 academic year, it found 10,500 students in 206 programs. A decade later the number of students had swelled to more than 20,000, and by 2002-03 it had grown to more than 36,000.

In 2004-05, CARA narrowed its definition of students for lay ecclesial ministry to include only those who were in degree or certification programs – thus eliminating the thousands of Catholic adults enrolled in courses in those programs just for their personal faith enrichment.

As a result of the narrower definition, the number of students CARA counted in 2004-05 dropped to just under 19,000. The next year it dropped to 16,000. This past year it rose to 20,240. Of those, two-thirds, 13,523, were working toward a certificate in ministry and one-third, 6,717, were working for a graduate degree in ministry.

The 2007 edition of the “CARA Catholic Ministry Directory” costs $75 plus $4.95 postage and handling. It can be ordered online at:; by telephone at: 202-687-8080; or by e-mail to:

Catholic Review

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