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Interested in studying for an MA in theology?

January 10, 2007

Periodically, we receive emails from our readers requesting information and advice on choosing Masters programs in theology. I earned my masters degree in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University, and Katerina is a masters student in Pastoral Studies at the University of St. Thomas. We both have experience in this area: the applications, the politics, the studies and the life after graduation. If you have ever had an inkling for studying theology, please read on…

When I was 18 years old, I was an apologetics junkie. Keating, Sheed, Madrid and Armstrong were my heroes. Through my study, I gained the false sense that private study and “orthodox” Catholic apologetic books were all one needed to gain a substantial theological formation. I viewed formal theological studies with suspicion, especially those at Catholic universities, thinking them to be too “liberal”, “progressive” and even “heterodox” to be worth anything. Boy, was I wrong! During my years at Steubenville, I encountered a number of fellow theology students who had once held the same conviction that apologetics provided the ultimate intellectual formation in the faith. But then we found ourselves enraptured by true theological studies–the scholarship, the professors, the critical aid of peers, the seminar discussion—and we discovered that true theology opens entirely new horizons for faithfully creative thought in the Catholic faith. This is not to denigrate apologetics; indeed apologetics has its place in the Church. But I wish to convey how intellectually and spiritually stimulating the study of biblical scholarship, historical theology and pastoral trends are, and how invigorating it can be to study the scholarship of thinkers such as Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Karol Wojtyla, Aloys Grillmeier, Gerald O’Collins, N.T. Wright, and Yves Congar. I can describe it as a conversion of the mind that can only be understood as it is experienced, just as conversion of the heart and mind to Christ can only be understood when it is experienced.

Theological studies, however, do not guarentee faithfulness or even intellectual scaffolding. I should make that clear. In fact, the genuine Catholic life, it seems to me, is not lived through the reading of books, but through spiritual conviction that leads to prayer, worship and works of mercy. In other words, theology does not construct the best or even necessarily the better Catholic, and it is important that students of theology keep this in mind lest an air of superiority creeps into the room.

So which MA programs are worth the time, the effort and, possibly, the cost? Well, it depends on your purposes. If you wish to teach religion in high schools, be a minister within a parish, guide religious education for a diocese or other parish activities, then most Catholic institutions will do. Reputable seminaries such as St. Mary’s in Houston and Sacred Heart in Detroit will serve your purposes well, as will smaller Catholic universities such as Franciscan University, Christendom College or Ave Maria University.

If you desire a life of scholarship, university teaching and publishing, I recommend you pay attention attention to the politics of the process. The best Ph.D. programs in the U.S. are looking for men and women who are potentially going to make a significant contribution to scholarship and teaching. You must choose your MA program wisely, because a huge part of gaining admissions to the best programs involves where you studied previously and who is recommending you. From my own experience and conversations with theology scholars, I offer you what I believe to be some of the best masters programs in theology in the country, in no particular order. This is, by no means, an exhaustive list:

University of Notre DameThere is no question that Notre Dame provides the premier masters programs in theology in the country. Graduates of Notre Dame’s masters programs have an incredibly successful placement record in top doctoral programs in the country. The faculty at Notre Dame leans a bit to the left, but remains very centrist. Despite the few weak links, the faculty is outstanding, including a number of scholars who are top in their fields, such as Lawrance Cunningham (spirituality and culture), Robin Darling Young (early Church), Brian Daley (early Church), Cyril O’Regan (systematic theology, John Henry Newman, von Balthasar), James VanderKam (biblical studies and Dead Sea Scrolls), Mary Catherine Hilkert (pastoral theology), and Robert Krieg (Christology). The MTS progam is the way to go, though Notre Dame also offers an MA in theology and an MA in Early Christian Studies. One warning: admission to Notre Dame’s theology program is fiercely competitive and they accept only a handful of students each year.

Marquette University Marquette University offers perhaps the most balanced and comprehensive MA program in theology within the U.S. The program is designed to produce graduates who are competent in three areas: biblical theology, historical theology and systematic theology. Marquette graduates do quite well in doctoral programs, and its faculty is not short on superb and faitful scholars: William Kurz (biblical studies), Michel Barnes (historical theology, Augustine), David Schultenover (modern theology and the crisis of modernism), Ralph Del Colle (Christology and pneumatology), Rober Masson (fundamental theology, Rahner) and Susan Wood (sacraments, ecclesiology, de Lubac). From what I understand, Marquette is in the process of hiring four new professors in theology, so their program’s strengh and breadth may increase in the next year.

Saint Louis UniversityMy own alma mater offers two different MA programs, one in theology and one in historical theology. The focus of the theological studies department is, however, on historical theology. Students acquire through the programs excellent research skills in terms of literature and language (MA students in historical theology must pass two language exams before graduation). Courses in historical theology tend to emphasize the study of primary texts (e.g. instead of only reading about Augustine, you would actually read Augustine himself). The strengths of SLU’s theology deparment are early Church, medieval Church history and modern theology. Many of the faculty members are tops in their respective fields. At SLU, I highly recommend studying under Kenneth Steinhauser (Latin Church history, Augustine), Cornelia Horn (Eastern Church Fathers), James Ginther (medieval studies), Jay Hammond (Franciscan theological tradition), Kenneth Partk (historiography, Anglican and English Catholic theology, Newman), James Voiss (theological method, Rahner, Balthasar and Brian Robinette (systematic theology, phenomenology).

Catholic University of America – CUA is always an excellent choice for theological studies. Allowing students to cross-register at the Dominican House of Studies and the John Paul II Institute, CUA can provide a very enlightening graduate experience. Faculty such as Peter Casarella (medieval theology, Balthasar, cultural studies), Regis Armstrong (Franciscan theological tradition), John Galvin (Christology, systematic theology), and Joseph Komonchak (Vatican II, theology and culture) establish CUA as perhaps one of the most comprehensive Catholic programs around. Also, the opportunity to study under David Schindler (theology of marriage, ressourcement and culture) at the JPII Institute should not be passed up.

Other excellent MA programs are offered at the St. John’s Univeristy (Collegeville, MN), University of St. Thomas School of Theology (Houston), and the University of San Francisco (a good friend of mine is currently earning her MA there. Any of these programs will expose you to the scholars and material that doctoral programs desire their candidates to have experienced.

If others wish to comment on a particular program that I missed or add anything to what I write, please do so.

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