Diaconate Formation vs Theology Degree

Since my reversion about 7 years ago, I’ve had a strong hunger for God’s truth. I love soaking up knowledge whether it be from the Bible, Theology books, Catholic Answers, etc. I’ve been itching for a couple of years to dig deeper and seek a more formal training.

I’m 25, married, have an 18 month old, and my wife and I definitely want a larger family, God willing. She stays at home, and I work as a Graphic Designer. Since my current degree is unrelated to Theology, I’d basically be starting from scratch, and even at some of the more affordable Colleges like Holy Apostles, 20 grand is quite a bit of money to dish out in our situation. I feel from time to time a call to the Diaconate, but even so I would need to wait another decade due to age. My question is, how similar is Diaconate formation, to a Bachelor’s degree in Theology from a Catholic University? I know they are both 4 years, but I’m wondering if Diaconate Formation is more of a casual, once a week presentation as opposed to a Theology Degree where I’d be studying in depth — the Catechism, Church Fathers, Aquinas, etc. 20k for a degree that I’d be using for Volunteer Work is hard to justify, unless it would me much more fruitful than the Diaconate formation alone. Too bad a layperson can’t benefit from the free Seminary training priests get!

Not having been through the Diaconate Formation, I can’t speak on that half of your equation specifically, but my thoughts are, based on my own pursuit the field of theology, I would venture to say that they are very different, in that theology is more of an academic and secular pursuit while the Deaconate is more of a religious and spiritual pursuit.

Good luck in any endeavor you take on!

There is (of course) some overlap, but they are definitely very different. I had a friend who had a Masters degree in theology who, nonetheless, had to go through an additional 4 year diaconate formation program when he was preparing to be a deacon. I think some of his previous theology courses counted for something, but there is a whole lot of other stuff (e.g. homiletics, etc.) that are different.

I’d wager that it varies based on the individual theology and diaconate programs, though.

The diaconate program is not “casual”, though. :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes: Yes, most programs are geared towards men who are full-time husbands and fathers and cannot simply go to school full-time. However, the programs I am familiar with require weekend class seminars 2 or 3 times a month and week long summer retreats (some solo and some with your spouse). It’s a huge time commitment.

For a regular theology degree, that runs the gamut, too. Some places offer programs that are geared towards those who want to work for the Church (in positions such as DREs or what have you). Others are more academic. There are plenty of universities that offer distance programs, too. I’ve known people who went that route. It takes longer, but it costs less and is manageable even with a full-time job and a family.

Ultimately, you need to pray about where and how God is calling you to serve. If he’s calling you to be a deacon, great. If he’s calling you to something else, that’s great, too.

Our former bishop allowed people who were not on track to be ordained to take the classes with the candidates. I went through the program and earned a MA in Theology. We did everything the candidates did except get ordained.

IIRC, 35 is the minimum age for a man to be ordained to the permanent diaconate, isn’t it?

In any case, (at least in my diocese), the normative idea is that attempting to fill the role of deacon while one has young children is not optimal – too much opportunity for conflicts between ministerial and family obligations.

In any case, attempting deacon formation as a means to receive a theology education doesn’t seem like the most praiseworthy approach out there.

“Free”? It comes with a lifetime commitment to celibacy and ministry… :wink:


Yes they are different. I went through the Diaconate program in my Archdiocese. After the birth of child #5, (and then child #6) I elected not to pursue Ordination, but I did complete the academic work.

The formation of a Deacon is a lot more than just the academic part. If someone has a degree in Theology, they will probably get ‘credit’ for all that work, and just have to take a few additional classes, the liturgical practica, homelitics, etc…

But the formation will still be about 4 years long. There is a lot of non academic time, time spent with our spiritual director and time spent with the diaconal formation team. In our case, we met monthly with a week long retreat each summer.

That allows the canidate to develop spiritually, and for the formation team to assess the canidate and make honest recommendations to the (arch)bishop

Very similar to how sacerdotal candidates receive formation.

Ministry in Holy Orders is not just an intellectual activity. In many ways, that is really a minor portion of what they are called to do.

For reference, here is the academic load for a diaconal candidate at the seminary that I attended.

https://www.shms.edu/content/undergraduate-intermediate-diploma-diaconal-studies This load is assuming that the candidate already has a bachelors. Otherwise, there are some of the standard college pre-reqs.


I am currently about half way through a 5 year diaconate formation program, so I’ll share my view from the midst of it.

First, the academic education will depend on a given program. Some diocese have their diaconate candidates attend classes through a seminary while others either roll their own classes or perhaps use faculty from a Catholic University. Some diocese have an option for their deacons to come out with a Masters in Theology and others don’t.

I regularly speak with a seminarian who started at the same time as I started formation and can say that the full blown theology degree is more in depth. For instance we spent 6 weeks on the Gospel of John whereas he had a 16 week semester long class on the same topic. In many cases I would say that good programs will cover the same material but more as an overview or survey fashion.

That being said, we are still held to graduate school level research and writing in my program. So while we meet once a week for a 3.5 hour class, I regularly have 10+ hours of reading outside of class as well as time for writing and researching papers.

One thing that is very different though between a theology degree and diaconate formation is that academics is only one piece of formation.

Formation consists of four pillars: Theological, Human, Spiritual, and Pastoral. A theology degree covers the theological aspect, but does not touch on the other 3 aspects of formation. Formation also works on our personal flaws and how we relate to people (human formation); our personal relationship with Christ and interior prayer life (spiritual formation); and how we bring the light of Christ to others through ministry (pastoral formation). All these things are additional time spent outside of class.

It’s important to remember that being a deacon is a call and to successfully answer that call requires more than simply knowing theology. If you are thinking about the diaconate as a way to learn more you might be missing the point. We learn theology to help us in ministering to God’s people. The education is not the end goal, but simply part of what we need to fulfill that call.

One final thing to remember is that the diaconate is a vocation just like marriage, the priesthood, or religious life. As such the Church and candidate both are in ongoing discernment if a man has a calling. That means that if you are only focused on the education that you might discern out if you neglect the other aspects of formation. Several times a year we meet with the director of formation and the theological aspects are only a very small part of the discussion.

If you are called to the diaconate then by all means take advantage of the education it affords, but it is a grave mistake to think of either seminary or diaconate formation as an alternative to other educational avenues.

The key question to ask yourself is if you want to study for your own sake or is it to serve God and His children?


The canonical age for married permanent deacons is 35, but an unmarried man can be ordained at 25. There is some leeway, but most diocese would not accept candidates under 29 or 30.

That varies and many programs in the US are actually recruiting younger men. Older deacons are actually more of an anomaly in the US since the restored diaconate was never envisioned as something you do after your kids are grown and you approach retirement. Many US bishops realize that the aging population of the diaconate is not sustainable and are opening up to the idea of having men in many different phases of life is good, indeed required, to have a healthy order. For instance, I am 45 and there are 4 men younger than me in my formation class. Two of us have had children while in formation and maybe 1/3 of the class has children preschool age or younger. We also have men that are in their late 50s with grandchildren and all phases in between. We balance out each other’s strengths and weaknesses and learn from each other.

To be sure it can make life challenging to be working, studying and having small children, but it is not an absolute bar to a man that is dedicated and can balance all the aspects it entails. We were told quite plainly that if we truly have a calling that artificial barriers would not be put in our way. I know not all places hold the same view, but it is a trend that is growing in many parts of the US.

That I would agree with. :smiley:

At least if a man is ordained a priest, the Church will support him financially. Permanent deacons get a “free” education so that we can volunteer 5, 10, 20, 30+ hour a week. Unlike other volunteers we can’t just quit either. :wink:

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It may depend greatly on your Archbishop or Bishop.
Here, they don’t encourage parents of younger children as you will spend SO MUCH TIME away from your family, and they are your first priority which I think is a good policy to have.

FWIW, my Masters in Theology did have elements of all the pillars. :wink:
Indeed, as a DRE, I had to counsel many a child and a family.

Best wishes! You’re ve receives somw great answers.


FREE? Your Diaconate classes are free??? They are not here.

Not here either. Where I’m at now, it’s in thirds: A third from the Diocese, a third from the parish, and a third from the candidate for the diaconate.

One deacon I know makes the joke that some people get paid to work for the Church, some people volunteer, and deacons pay the Church in order to volunteer. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:


Right. And I know of one candidate that was VERY botter that the pastor wouldn’t sponsor him or pay his way.

My classes were covered by the Archdiocese after the first year ( the application year). Once you were accepted into the program, the class costs were covered. I still had to buy my own text books In addition, wives could take classes for free.

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Yes correct, you need to be 35! Which is another pro of getting a degree first, otherwise I will be waiting quite a while to have some formal training haha.

“In any case, attempting deacon formation as a means to receive a theology education doesn’t seem like the most praiseworthy approach out there.”

Right, as I said, I’ve felt the call to the Diaconate, and have at least ten years of discernment given my age. My question was more about whether I should receive a degree, and then go through the Diaconate, or if I’d be wasting money on a degree to find out I covered the same material again if I were to join the Diaconate. Your comment implies that I’d be going through the Diaconate for education and then fleeing to another country or something haha. I would want to make sure I was a very qualified Deacon and didn’t know if most got Theology degrees and the four years of Diaconate formation.

Haha yes, my last comment was meant to be taken sarcastically!

Thanks for this Brendan.

“Ministry in Holy Orders is not just an intellectual activity. In many ways, that is really a minor portion of what they are called to do.”

This is a great reminder. I need to pray for more formation in other areas if I’m really being led this direction. Perhaps there is a reason God’s put this on my heart at a young age.

Thanks so much for this, you’ve beautifully laid this out for me! The 4 pillars point was especially helpful. I’ve really got a lot to learn about the Diaconate, and if it’s what God wants me to do. Your response has definitely opened my heart to thinking more about what others would get out of me becoming a Deacon, vs what I would get out of becoming a Deacon. I sincerely appreciate that and that question is crucial to discern.

If I’m not mistaken! And I hate to talk about money when it comes to spiritual formation whether it be Holy Orders or a Degree, but unfortunately it is something that needs to be considered.

Haha that’s great!

Well, I would told I’d get reimbursed for at least the textbooks for my Theology degree and then, in the end, “they spoke prematurely”.

Yes. We pay for books but their is no tuition cost. Our instructors are all diocesan clergy with ecclesiastical degrees from pontifical colleges or graduate/post-graduate degrees in theology. They volunteer to teach and we use one of the diocesan schools for class. Any costs are covered by the parishes and various grants to the diocese.

That being said we do not have the opportunity to earn a degree while in formation. Previous classes had the option to earn a MA in Theology through a local university and the Diocese would pick up part of the tab. There were changes in the arraignment with the university and we now can earn the MA after ordination at a decent discount. The parish and diocese might cover some of the cost based on need, but it is a case by case basis.

All of it comes back to not trying to put unnecessary barriers in a man’s way. A man with a true calling should not be deterred because they can’t afford to pay part of a graduate education.

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