Ph.D. Paves Seminarians’ Path to the Catholic Priesthood

Pursuing holy orders after earning doctorates.

A Theological College seminarian at prayer before the tabernacle.
A Theological College seminarian at prayer before the tabernacle. (photo: Photo by Keith Burney)

For most people, earning a Ph.D. is the culmination of years of academic study and research, the fulfillment of a vocation to a certain expertise.

But for some seminarians, a doctorate was a stepping-stone to a lofty calling: the Catholic priesthood.

Dominican Brother Gregory Liu dreamed of becoming a “great scientist,” ever since he was a young boy in his native Taiwan. Eventually, he came to California to do postdoctoral work in chemistry at the University of California-Berkeley. He told the Register his pursuit of advanced education helped him grow in his Catholic faith, because as a stressed and exhausted graduate student, Liu realized he “needed God’s guidance and inspiration to succeed.”

At a crossroads in his career in chemistry, when he was discerning his next professional step, he saw a notice in the parish bulletin for a “Come and See” weekend at St. Albert the Great Priory, the Western Dominican Province’s house of formation in Oakland, California.

While visiting the Dominicans, he was struck by the joy, community and intellectual tradition of the order. At the same time, he said, “God gave me the grace, not only to hear his call to religious life, but to be able to let go of my own ambition, in order to respond to this call.” Brother Gregory is in his sixth year of formation and will profess solemn vows this spring.

According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), the 2017 “Survey on Ordinands to the Priesthood” showed 26% of religious and 14% of diocesan newly ordained priests had completed a graduate degree before entering the seminary.

Jaime Maldonado-Avilés had met with a vocation director and had often wondered how God was calling him to serve. But as a neuroscientist at Yale, a job offer highlighted his choice between his career or formally discerning priesthood. Now a second-year theology seminarian with the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, he told the Register, “I could not commit to a career while constantly feeling a given restlessness, feeling drawn to God in a particular way.” He explained, “I had to make a decision to either commit to the career or finally take a step forward and discern with the Church if I was being called to serve God as a priest.”

For other men, though, a change can be as good as a test. Stefan Megyery — a Ph.D. in history and a third-year theology seminarian of the Archdiocese of Washington at the Theological College, The Catholic University of America’s national diocesan seminary — told the Register that his early interest in the priesthood found no encouragement.

“Nobody at that time really encouraged me,” he said. “Priesthood in Germany is not a very revered profession, and many parents discourage their children to consider it.”

But while doing research for his doctorate in Washington, D.C., and Abilene, Kansas, Megyery found himself attracted again to the priesthood. He credited the example of priests and laypeople he met there, whom he found more “vibrant” and passionate about their faith.

Discerning a new vocation has not meant for these Ph.D. seminarians a complete abandonment of everything from their previous careers. The intellectual habits that sustain work and research transfer well to the studies seminarians pursue.

Michael Bova, a seminarian at Pope St. John XXIII Seminary in Weston, Massachusetts, which is dedicated to forming seminarians over the age of 30, spent 14 years in the pharmacology field, in management and research. A spiritual crisis broke him out of his “Christmas and Easter” Catholicism and brought him closer to Christ.

Bova, who is in his fourth year of theology studies, told the Register that he did not have the idea of a priestly vocation when he returned to the Church, but “the Lord had a different game plan.”

Now preparing to become a priest with the Society of African Missions, Bova told the Register that his Ph.D. in pharmacology continues to be important to his studies for the priesthood. Besides the detailed knowledge he can bring to medical ethics, Bova said, the critical thinking honed over years of study and work is important for fundamental theology and philosophy classes, as well as apologetics.

“Obviously the material that I study is different,” he said, but it’s still a “very useful background.”

Vincent DeGeorge, a Theological College second-year pre-theology seminarian from the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering, told the Register his work had brought him closer to God, partly because the Lord is “at the bottom of any deep dive” into a scientific or artistic discipline. He found similarities in his scientific work and his faith in following a question (in either field) to where the answer lies, regardless of what the conclusion might be.

“Whether it’s science in an experiment, or asking the question of God and praying for the grace to accept where he leads, it is a similar process,” he said.

Many people believe the canard that Catholicism is hostile to scientific inquiry. Others try to separate domains of science and religion, rejecting one or the other. However, Bova explained this is a false choice.

“They’re parallel domains that overlap at very interesting points, but they’re not contradictory,” he said. “They’re very complementary.”

Maldonado-Avilés said that science is one tool among many that can be used to glorify God and benefit others. In addition, he said, it can be a way to live out “Christ’s call to love God and our neighbor.” At its best, “scientific work always points to God, to the transcendent Truth and Beauty.”

DeGeorge added that, throughout his scientific career, he found no conflicts between his work and his faith. “I found God in my work, and that’s still very much a part of my spirituality,” he said.

DeGeorge said that he is proud of the Church’s rich history of scientific inquiry, which includes people like Msgr. Georges Lemaître, a physicist who first proposed what became known as the “Big Bang” theory, and Sister Mary Keller of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, one of the first two people in the United States to earn a doctorate in computer science.

DeGeorge said that while it seems relatively uncommon to see men with doctorates join the priesthood, significant changes in the trajectory of a life can and do happen, and are good. “We’re never finished with what God is calling us toward,” he said.

Maldonado-Avilés encouraged Catholics discerning their vocation to “consider that any informal initial conversations are already means by which God, through the Church, speaks to us.”

Priests, and men and women religious, “welcome conversations without any presumption of commitment,” he said, and are one way the Church helps with discerning the nature of a vocation.

Dominican Brother Gregory said the chemical research he did prefigured the work he hopes to do as a priest. While at a research bench, he said, he would offer his work toward God and felt like he was participating in God’s creation by making new molecules.

He looks forward, though, to one day not only participating in creation, but offering it up to God on behalf of his people.

His advice for those with a similar background considering a religious vocation is to “be courageous, and trust in God’s providence. Don’t be afraid.”

Nicholas Wolfram Smith writes from Oakland, California.