Obtaining a Doctorate in Catholic Theology/Biblical Studies?

If one was called, what are practical steps to take in order to be in a position to contribute to modern Biblical scholarship? I look at scholars like NT Wright, who can write around over 700 pages on a single topic in Christianity, whether it be the Resurrection, the historicity of Christ, etc. Others like him write at length on such specific areas of Christianity, such as “Jesus Monotheism” by Dr. Crispin Fletcher-Louis. Dr. Brant Pitre is a great example of a Catholic scholar who can tie Judaism and Christianity together. The Catholic Commentary on sacred scripture has great scholars involved like Dr. Mary Healy and Dr. Scott Hahn. Many of these scholars have a certain niche, yet there are still other areas that could be looked into further, where maybe the niche hasn’t been filled yet. But how do you get to this point, where you are the one helping others learn something so important? The more I study Theology (only at the undergrad level), I’m equal parts amazed at God’s glorious plan, and saddened by the overwhelming lack of interest by hordes of Catholics.

It would be so rewarding to serve God’s Church in a way that would inspire many Catholics to explore the riches of Catholicism, in a deep way. Now, I don’t think that highly of myself to think I am in any way even near ready or qualified. However, unlike most people, who list athletes and the like as heroes, I list people like I’ve mentioned above.

Something like this deserves lots of ongoing spiritual direction (which my spiritual director also holds a doctorate haha). But IF an individual like myself, a married man with 2 kids (and more, God-willing), were called to study at this level, what are some practical steps that could prepare me to be involved in the next generation of modern day Catholic Biblical Scholarship? How are Biblical Scholars able to drop 6 figures on education, to land jobs that, well, aren’t sought after to make the “big bucks.” Is this just something that if you’re called to, you must be prepared to experience decades of debt unless you become a renown best selling author like Dr. Scott Hahn? I have the zeal for this, but practically that’s only one small portion.

Are there areas to explore that I’m not aware of? Am I overestimating the financial burden of receiving a DTh? Maybe certain Archdiocese’s have programs that I’m not aware of, to help laymen just as they prepare Seminarians? Maybe Catholic high schools pay for you to finish your Masters, and universities pay for you to finish your Doctorate if you are employed? I just don’t have any idea. This is something I’ve prayed about for years. Perhaps it’s foolish and I’m not called to it, but I don’t want to simply disregard it without at least looking into the practicalities.

Thank you for your answers.

I don’t know of any free Masters programs in Theology. I do, on the other hand, know people who have an DTh who are un/under employed, so, check the job market in your Diocese.

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I would suggest you perhaps talk to some people who have degrees and are in the field and see how they managed it financially. It’s highly likely that

  • some of them were from well-off backgrounds to begin with
  • some of them had, or have, a spouse who could help support the family
  • some of them worked their way through
  • some of them got excellent financial aid packages for some reason like coming from a poor family or having top grades
  • some of them probably took out humongous loans that they’re going to be paying back for years and years.

It’s not so much that Catholics are so disinterested in this type of topic, but rather, Catholics like everyone else may be more motivated to study something that will pay for a house and good schools for the kids, especially if said Catholics don’t come from a wealthy family.

I would further suggest that you should be discussing this with your wife first and foremost, especially if you live in some community property jurisdiction where she becomes automatically responsible for half your debts contracted during the marriage.

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This is something that I’ve often wondered about myself, and actually began working toward a doctorate in theology. I’d nearly completed my M.A. before life circumstances forced me away from it.

Here’s what I found by talking to professors and students alike.

Most theological scholars aren’t Scott Hahn. If (and that’s a big “if”) they’re able to find a job in their field at all, they spend the majority of their time writing lesson plans, teaching classes, and grading tests and papers. Many can’t find a job at a university, so they end up teaching at a high school or working in a diocesan office. They don’t typically make enough money as theology professors to support their families and pay off their student loans, so they have to supplement their modest incomes by writing for academic journals. Some choose to write books as well, or give talks at conferences. But that’s also not a guarantee.

If you’re looking for a more “traditional” path toward your doctorate, you should start with a Master’s program. As a father of two, I presume you have a full-time job and are tied to your locality. I’d say look into an online M.A. or M.T.S. from Franciscan, University of Dallas, Catholic Distance University, or the Augustine Institute. It’s unlikely that you’ll be given a scholarship for an online program, but you’ll be able to keep your day job, stay in your current locality, and work on your degree at your own pace.

The doctorate is where things get trickier. You’ll probably have to move, as I’ve not heard of an online Ph.D., Th.D. or D.Min. that’ll give you the connections and networking opportunities you’ll need to land a job upon graduation. You’ll also need to be teaching while you’re working on your doctorate, and online teaching opportunities are hard to come by (but they’re out there).

Also, if you’re married, you’re wife is going to have to be 100% on board with this idea as it is going to dramatically impact her life as well. If she’s not on board, then perhaps you need to reconsider how God is calling you to serve the Church and inspire others to Catholicism (I recommend starting with being a great example and teacher to your children).

I hope that’s helpful. I know it’s a little bleak, but it’s the reality of what’s out there.

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Good point! I guess the big challenge would be, that you wouldn’t know what jobs would be open a decade before you’d obtain a DTh haha!

Great points! Yeah I can imagine families with double incomes would be a common route for those to pursue a doctorate. Fortunately for our family, my wife can stay home with the kids. Of course, that leaves less cash flow haha!

I’ll have to ask around, to those I know with doctorates.

This is great, just what I needed to hear!

I appreciate the realism, along with the how to. I think people often taken one approach or the other, but it’s helpful that you gave both sides of the coin. You said, a “traditional” path would obtaining an MA before the DTh. Are you suggesting there are other routes? Anyway, that’s what I figured I would do anyway. Obtain my BA, discern whether I should continue, if so, my MA, discern whether I should continue, etc. I know it’s highly unlikely that I would ever need a DTh, but I definitely appreciate some details to wrap my head around it.

The less “traditional” (but still fairly common) path is to obtain an M.A., then either make a name for your self as a youth minister, teach high school, or teach as an adjunct professor for awhile. Sometimes you can root yourself in a pretty good career just with an M.A. But then again, some individuals who go this route end up eventually getting their doctorate.

Ralph Martin is a good example of a more “non-traditional” route. He began giving talks and writing long before he even completed any graduate work in theology. It was decades before he finally earned his doctorate.

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Wonderful questions, and as a professor at an American university, I can give some relevant answers if you want to study and work in the US. Things are different elsewhere.

First of all, as one poster already noted, the best thing is to talk with people who have doctorates and jobs in the field you want to pursue. They will be invaluable.

You will also need to figure out exactly what you want to do, because every field is dramatically different. Do you want to be a theologian? What branch of theology? Philosophy? Do you want to study Church history? Do you want to be a scholar, or an apologist (they are sometimes, but frequently not, the same)? These are all questions you should explore with a mentor.

As another poster noted, the academic job market in the US ranges from bad to unthinkably atrocious, depending on the field. To get a sense of the jobs available, look at the posting in the Chronicle of Higher Education. There are currently 91 jobs available throughout the nation in all fields loosely described as “religion.” That is objectively pretty dismal. You should keep in mind, when discussing this with a mentor, that the mentor “won the lottery” so to speak. They may have a rosy picture of the job market that isn’t justified.

Depending on the field you may need lots of intense language training. Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic, and others may be requirements.

To your specific questions:

Certainly! Look at the journals your university library has to get a feel.

No. If anything you may be understating it. Although, tuition will be paid for you by any reputable school. The rule of thumb for a non-professional doctorate is that if you have to pay for it, the school isn’t worth going to. They will also give you a stipend. It won’t be much, but it will be some income. You will probably have to fund most of your own research though, and that will be pricey.

I’ve not encountered one, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.

As above, you will get your tuition paid and a stipend at any decent school for graduate work. It’s the living costs, research costs, and general non-employment that hurts.

I hope I was helpful. Be sure to hit me up if I missed anything, or you want some more detail.

Ah good to know. Yes I kind of figured I’d take a break after (if) I were to obtain an MA, if nothing else for the sake of money. Thanks for that example too

This is all very great Bill, thanks for taking the time to write this out!

Good questions. Years ago, an Apologist would be my field of choice. As I move on however, I think I’m more drawn to the broad nature of the entirety of scripture. Yes of course they cross over many times, but at this point, I’ve had to have listened to over 1,000 hours of Catholic Apologetics, and I’ve learned that while you are looking all over the Bible and Tradition, there is definitely a common “core.” I enjoy the aspect of looking at scripture and the story of salvation history, how the covenants tie together, etc. Speaking of, Jeff Cavins has the Great Adventure Bible Study, but even those are relatively quick. It’s very common for Protestants to spend a year of study on a single Gospel, or, 52 lessons on a Gospel, where the Pastor walks through verse by verse. We don’t have that in the Catholic world. I’m not saying Catholic Scholars are incapable of that, obviously there are great commentaries. But I think there is still much room to teach scripture on a deeper level.

You mentioned Greek and Hebrew for example, that also intrigues me deeply. Many Catholic Scholars may know a handful of words to support their beliefs, but rarely do they have a broad understanding of the language outside of specific verses. I’ve seen James White embarrass Catholic Apologists because they had such a narrow view on these ancient languages, and weren’t able to explain more than the specific notes they had prepared to “describe the Greek.” But there is something beautiful about learning how these languages enhance God’s glory and the power of scripture, which someone without a thorough understanding would often miss. That being said, “Biblical Scholar/Theologian” is what intrigues me more right now.

Now that that’s established, there is still a question of the job market haha. I’m an entrepreneur, so I’d want to consider starting a company that would focus on this kind of thing, as opposed to solely relying on an available job. That’s not to say that I wouldn’t want to first teach at a university in order to gain credentials.

All that I’ve said above, is the best-case scenario. I realize I could spend tens of thousands, be in debt, and jobless, and have wasted years that I could’ve devoted to my family/ another job. I want to do what God wants me to do, so if that’s to shut this mere “prideful dream” down, so be it. But if he put it on my heart for a reason, I want to consider that too.

Thanks so much Bill!

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I greatly appreciate this post!

That is so great that your husband was able to exceed so well that he was able to get full funding! Thanks for clarifying the language note. I’m coming from an anecdotal point of view in how I’ve observed Catholic scholars in America. I’ve heard leading scholars say a Greek word where they’ve jumbled up letters, so it’s a new word altogether. I’ve heard many say “I don’t know Greek, but the Greek in this passage is X which indicates Y.” And so on. That being said, I wasn’t trying to make the point that knowing Biblical languages is the pinnacle of truth, because Lexicons and language teachers come with a bias too. Perhaps why it’s anecdotally more common in American Protestantism, is because they don’t have the same regard for Tradition, and therefore use the “Original” in order to disprove Catholicism, when in reality there deep Greek study can be flawed because of a bias teacher.

That’s great to know that in the UK it is much more common to have a thorough knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, where they’d be able to read the Greek NT in addition to English. I guess that makes sense too, in Europe it is very common for people to speak many languages. Speaking 3-5 languages for a European tends to be pretty common. I’m sure in cultures where multiple languages are standard, that really helps students to grasp onto languages in a way that would allow them to learn other languages like Greek and Hebrew in a way that is at a disadvantage for Americans. I’ve had a number of European friends who can wow me with all of the languages they know haha! I don’t mean to minimize that though, as if there aren’t many hours poured into learning.

Yes I agree, a lot is simply God-given talent. I can’t imagine ever even being half the level of someone like NT… Wright!

fwiw, think about what a doctor is, an authentic (due to having been authenticated; i.e., receiving the doctoral degree, from other already authentic doctors) teacher of a discipline. So a doctor of theology ought to be able to teach authoritatively ‘from the hip’ or some such.

And now think about Catholicism. The only people who can teach theology authoritatively as far as matters of faith and morals go, are bishops, and then only if they teach in accordance with the papacy, which is the same as teaching what’s in the Catechism.

In a sense the bishops are the doctors of Catholicism, and their doctorate is their pastorate, and that’s gone back almost two thousand years now.

Have you considered a doctorate in philosophy?

Hahah yes, I agree. I respect this people very much, but don’t aim to be their equals. Wright was learning NT Greek, like, in grade school if I remember correctly.

Definitely a good thought, and I completely agree. As soon as you mentioned “teaching authoritatively,” I was like, whoa that’s reserved for the Magisterium haha, and then continued on to see that you were saying the exact thing I was thinking.

That’s one thing I was curious about too. For a Protestant Pastor, there is probably much more of a draw to gain the highest level of education of available, to gain credibility that your congregation would approve of. “Of course double predestination is true. Our Pastor, who has a doctorate in Theology, even knows fluent Greek and explained to us from the New Testament why this is true.” In Protestant circles, scholarship tends to be how you gain authority.

As Catholics, we don’t have that same problem, even though scholarship is extremely important. That being said, there are still many Catholic “Doctors” who are game changers today. But as they retire, people will need to step in. People like Dr. Brant Pitre, Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. David Anders, and the like are all married men, but experts in their field and help lead a tremendous amount of people to Jesus. That will always be a need, and laymen have a sort of “relatable” position in teaching that ordained men and women don’t necessarily have. So many people reject Theology of the Body because it was written by a celibate man. Of course, this is beautiful teaching, but you get the point I’m making.

Perhaps a DTh, or PhD are total overkill, but I don’t imagine folks like I mentioned above would say they regret taking their education to that level.

Regardless, I need to focus on where I’m at now, which is far from that level anyway haha. Things change, opportunities open up, etc.

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Crazy to think about a child learning Greek haha! Very impressive, but that is virtually unheard of in America.

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