Though many American Catholics may never have heard of the so-called “pontifical” or “ecclesiastical” degrees annually awarded at a dozen of our institutions of higher education, these Church-sponsored academic degrees have had—and continue to have—a considerable impact on the formation of America's clergy.
Ecclesiastical degrees are the degrees many U.S. bishops want their seminarians to earn for the priesthood. Seminaries often prefer that faculty members have ecclesiastical degrees rather than other theological degrees. And finally—because of guidelines issued for all pontifical universities and faculties by Pope Pius XI in 1931— those who earn an ecclesiastical degree in the U.S. share a rich academic common ground with those who earn the same degrees in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America.
In the eyes of the universal Church, an ecclesiastical degree truly is a “catholic” degree, a degree which transcends national and cultural boundaries.
According to the Annuario Pontificio, an annual compendium of Church data, there are several U.S. Catholic institutions which have “ecclesiastical” faculties or departments. They are: The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.; St. Mary's Seminary and University School of Theology in Baltimore; St. Mary of the Lake Faculty of Theology at Mundelein in Illinois; the Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass.; the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif.; St. Michael's Institute at the Jesuit School of Philosophy and Letters in Spokane, Wash.; the Pontifical Faculty of Theology of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C.; the Marian Library and the U.S. Branch of the Pontifical Theological Faculty of the Marianum at the University of Dayton in Ohio, and the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and the Family in Washington, D.C.
In most of these universities with ecclesiastical departments, the degrees offered are the STB (Bachelor of Sacred Theology), the STL (Licentiate of Sacred Theology), or the STD (Doctorate of Sacred Theology). Other ecclesiastical degrees are awarded in canon law, in philosophy, and in several other fields.
Today, at the Catholic University of America, Father James Wiseman, OSB, the current Chairman of the Theology department, believes that the ecclesiastical degree programs are extremely solid academically. And they still are very much in demand. He sees practically no change in the numbers of students enrolled in their ecclesiastical programs over the last decade.
“It looks to me as though it has held steady,” said Father Wiseman. At full strength, he added, Catholic University has an “ecclesiastical” faculty of about 21 and a student population of about 200. Even the bachelor's degree, the STB, has rigorous standards, he said. But it takes some explaining to make sense out of the way “Church” degrees work.
“This is technically a graduate degree. You can't enter the program without a BA,” he said, agreeing that the term “Bachelor of Sacred Theology” is misleading. While an MA (Master of Arts) degree in Theology would usually mean 30 credit hours, the STB requires 69. Many seminarians work toward an STB because the degree requirements basically approximate the courses they need for ordination. And, according to Father Wiseman, the requirements for this bachelor's program are fairly rigid and leave little room for electives.
The STB student, Father Wiseman pointed out, must have had an Old and a New Testament course as prerequisites. “Once enrolled, the student must take Latin, a seminar on dissertation methodology, an Introduction to the History and Method of Theology, Foundations in Christian Moral Life, Introduction to Canon Law, Introduction to Patristics, one or two courses in Christian Spirituality, Church History, five courses in Systematic Theology, two courses in Sacramental Theology, three courses in Moral Theology and five courses in Scripture.”
“So, there's a lot more work here,” said Father Wiseman, comparing the MA with the STB degrees. “It's a more thorough degree.”
Ecclesiastical degrees may not always have carried the prestige they have today. When Pope Pius XI issued the apostolic constitution, Deus Scientiarum Dominus in 1931, new guidelines went out to pontifical universities and faculties. Pius XI, it's said, wanted to raise the level of studies in theology, philosophy, law, and history. But he also wanted to stress the importance of newer fields, such as the biblical sciences, ascetical and mystical theology, archaeology, Christian art, and sacred music.
The Catholic University and other American institutions offering ecclesiastical degrees have only a few lay people in their programs. Unless a layperson hopes to teach in a seminary, the extra coursework required for the STB won't help secure a position in theology.
“Most people won't be willing to invest the extra time,” agreed Father Leo Lefebure, the Dean of the Ecclesiastical Faculty at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary at Mundelein. “The American graduate system is out of sync with this ecclesiastical degree program. To get an STB means three years of work, but it's called a bachelor's degree. It seems like it's less than a Master's degree. And most universities would look at an STL as roughly equivalent to a Master's degree.”
And so, at Mundelein, as at the other institutions, candidates for the priesthood or priests are often pursuing ecclesiastical degrees. At Mundelein, only the STB and the STL are offered. “There are usually about a dozen students in the STB program,” reported Father Lefebure.
“In the Licentiate program, we're specialized in Sacred Theology with a focus on Christology, Trinitarian Theology, and Theological Anthropology,” he added. “This is a three-year program. For students in the seminary, the Licentiate program would begin in their fourth year and continue for one year after ordination.”
But there's a persistent problem plaguing the Licentiate program at Mundelein. And it has nothing to do with the students or the coursework.
“Many bishops are not willing to allow the students to stay to complete the degree because of personnel needs and the shortage of priests,” said Father Lefebure. “Often a bishop might feel more of a pressing need for an associate pastor than for someone with advanced training.” And in other cases, he said, some bishops send their young priests back to complete the degrees after several years of parish work.
But at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, the young priests leaving the seminary carry away a different kind of ecclesiastical connection. No ecclesiastical degrees are awarded at this seminary, explained Msgr. Thomas Olmstead, rector and president of the Josephinum.
“The degrees we award are given through the accreditation of the Association of Theological Schools of the United States and Canada,” he said. “But we are the only pontifical seminary outside of Italy. The nuncio of the Holy Father to America, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, is our chancellor. He appoints all of our full-time faculty.” The president himself is appointed directly by the Vatican Office for Catholic Education.
Josephinum graduates are just as well prepared for priesthood, Msgr. Olmstead insists, acknowledging that ecclesiastical degrees are a great gift to the Church.
Founded in 1888 as a high school seminary for orphaned boys who wanted to study for the priesthood, the Josephinum was the first seminary in America requiring graduates to be fluent in German, English, and in Latin, the language of the Church. Taking note of the seminary's high academic standards and the missionary needs of the German immigrants to America, the Holy Father named it as a pontifical seminary four years later.
Today, seminary students at the Josephinum continue to meet rigorous academic standards including the mastery of several languages. And to meet the needs of a growing Hispanic Catholic population, seminarians must study Spanish. “We also offer Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, and French,” Msgr. Olmstead said.
Msgr. Olmstead likes to remind Josephinum students that the word “pontifical” really means “bridge-builder” from the Latin words “pons” (bridge) and “facere” (to build). “We really see bridge-building as a very important thing today, both in terms of promoting ecumenism and dealing with polarities within the Church.
“But, as a pontifical seminary, we do see that we have a special identity and mission to foster love for the Church which Peter shepherds and to have a greater appreciation for the role of the Holy Father in the Church,” he said.
And in a very real sense, ecclesiastical degrees, whether awarded in Washington D.C. or in Rome, in Mexico City or in Budapest, are one more expression of unity and teaching authority for which the Holy Father is a most visible and viable symbol.
“It puts us in the international community of Catholic scholarship,” Catholic University's Father Wiseman believes. “It gives us certain ties with all of those (pontifical) Roman universities, you know—the Gregorian, the Angelicum. They offer these degrees too. It puts us in a family that's international.”
Catherine Odell writes from South Bend, Indiana.