How to Study Theology (and not quit your day job)

When considering the possibility of taking some theology classes, or even pursuing a degree, it’s often the objections that hold sway rather than the movement of the Spirit. What can you do with that? Do you have a back-up plan?  Isn’t that a waste of money?

The pressure to do something practical that will lead to employment is immense.  And yet, our hearts are restless…The desire is there, but the justification is sometimes hard to come by.

Those who take the plunge give a wide variety of reasons for doing so – some quite specific, others barely communicable. Here are three reasons you might be considering the formal study of theology.

You work for the Church in some capacity and want professional development.

Whether you are a catechist in a parish, a permanent deacon, or a vice-chancellor of an archdiocese, continuing formation in the faith is crucial.  No ministry is minor. Though advanced study may or may not mean an increase in salary, it will bring an increase in confidence and a deeper relationship with Christ.

The beauty of theology is that its subject matter is infinite.

You’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of your Catholic faith and feel the need to know more.

Conversion is a powerful thing. When your faith is awakened, you crave a deeper relationship with the Lord and a greater knowledge of His revelation. Your desire to live your faith in your home and professional life is strong, but the know-how is lacking. Even twelve years of Catholic school is not enough!

The personal encounter with Jesus sparks a desire to learn everything possible about Him.

You feel God calling you to something, but you don’t know what it is.

When asked why they decided to study theology, so many students say that they really don’t know-they just felt that God wanted them to do it. Theology students range from traditional-age college students searching for their vocation to retirees looking to grow in the faith and serve in their parishes. The diversity among students is as great as within the Church herself.

So, you are feeling the call to study theology, but you can’t leave your employment. Or move to a new city. Or go into large debt. It is just too impractical. But wait – there’s more! It is, in fact, possible to study theology and not quit your day job! Here’s how.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology program makes it convenient and affordable to earn a theology degree, or just take some classes. The program is completely online offered in a self-paced environment with monthly start dates and offers the lowest tuition of any online Catholic theology program.

The college offers an array of programming, including a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts degrees in Pastoral Theology, Sacred Theology, and Advanced Diaconal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies, and a variety of certificates in Catholic theology at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels. For the neophyte, a non-credit course on The Catechism for Catechists is a perfect beginning.

New certificate programs in Black Catholic and Latino Catholic communities prepare pastoral ministers serving those populations, both of which are changing as they grow. Once predominantly African-American, the Black Catholic population now includes many refugees from Africa, making the population very diverse. Likewise, the Latino community is representative of a number of Spanish-speaking countries, each with a unique culture.

Mindful of both the ecumenical and ecological mission of the Church, Saint Joseph’s College has recently partnered with Gratz College of Philadelphia, to offer a joint Graduate Certificate in Jewish-Christian Studies starting March 1, and with the Laudato Si Institute in Granada, Spain, to provide an International Certificate in Christianity and an Integral Ecology starting April 1.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program is rooted in, and professes fidelity to, the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to combine faith with reason in the pursuit of academic excellence. Its faculty exemplifies its philosophy that effective ministry requires a solid theological foundation, grounded in solid Catholic doctrine, with a deep spiritual and pastoral orientation.

Every faculty member has received the mandatum from the bishop of the local Diocese of Portland.

So here is the fourth reason to study theology-because you can!

The Gospel tells us to “be not afraid” to “go by another way!” Studying theology may be the road less traveled, but it is one that is spiritually enriching and has practical applications for our work, both in the Church and in the temporal world. Saint Joseph’s College is a guide on that road, and we’d like to invite you to walk with us.

The choice to study theology may not get the enthusiastic nod from family and friends. It will require humility, and even a small martyrdom. It is “another way,” and an often unexpected one. But it is a path you do not walk alone-the SJC community accompanies you.

Carmina Chapp and Ann Koshute teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.
(Note: This article first appeared as sponsored content on Crux.

Technocratic Model vs. An Integral and Integrated Vision

Chapter Three of Laudato Sí is entitled “The Human Roots of the Ecological Crisis;” it could well be called “Original Sin, Reprise.” Once again, humans have participated with God in creating things with enormous potential for good, in this case all that falls under the term “modern technology,” then proceeded to spend an inordinate amount of time distorting that potential goodness.  We have done it now to the point that we worship (there is hardly another word for it) “an undifferentiated and one-dimensional technocratic paradigm” [italics his], increasing the tendency of the scientific method as “a technique of possession, mastery and transformation” (L.S. 107) to the point that this paradigm devastatingly dominates the world economy. “The economy accepts every advance in technology with a view to profit, without concern for its potentially negative impact on human beings” (L.S. 109).

As if that critique were not disturbing enough, the Holy Father goes on to strike at the very root of the distortion, “an inadequate presentation of Christian anthropology” that has resulted in an “anthropocentrism” of mastery over rather than stewardship of the rest of Creation (L.S. 115-6).  (Notice how deeply ingrained the distortion is: we tend to say “creation” when we mean “everything except us.” The paradigm of dominance is woven into our everyday language.) Pope Francis wisely highlights the interconnectedness of the reality, and hence of the distortion: we cannot heal our relationship with the rest of creation in isolation, nor heal our human relationships without addressing the former: healing, like violence, is of a package (L.S. 119).

The counterpart of the technocratic model in which we are living according to Pope Francis in Chapter 3 is the need for a humanism with an integral and integrated vision, as Pope Francis explains,

We urgently need a humanism capable of bringing together the different fields of knowledge, including economics, in the service of a more integral and integrating vision. (LS, 141)

This integral and integrated vision of reality is urgently need right now because modernity img_0856based its great progress in the separation of the subject form the object. For Roberto Goizueta, theology professor at Boston College, modernity gave birth to “the autonomous agent of his or her own life” who does not just live in history but makes history. In this way “history is a product of the human activity or praxis.” The consequences of this view are reflected in our own language: “The modern subject ‘makes’ a living, ‘makes’ love, and strives to ‘make something’ of himself or herself.” This “making” of everything creates a separation of the subject from the object that Goizueta sees as a “precondition for the subject to control the object in order to manipulate it.”

The separation of the subject from the object implicit in the understanding of human activity as praxis has lead us to great advances in modernity. However, what caught Goizueta’s attention is the fact that “human beings can control and transform their natural and social environments, as well as their own lives,” which also carries with it the ideology of progress characteristic of modernity.

Thus, for Goizueta, modernity gave birth to the human subject as “maker” of history, as alienated from the object and able to “control” and “work on” his or her environment.

Human action–praxis, grounded in the separation of the subject from the object as modernity understood in Goizueta’s view has also “laid the foundation for the devastation of the environment”

This devastation of the environment which foundation was laid on by the separation of the object from the subject and that brought great progress, today is in need of an integral and  integrated  vison or what Pope Francis calls integral ecology, an approach to ecology that insist that environmental and social problems are interconnected, as Pope Francis explains,

We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature. (LS, 139)

This integral and integrated approach to ecology described by Pope Francis implies an “economic ecology” which considers that   “the protection of the environment is in fact ‘an integral part of the development process and cannot be considered in isolation from it.’” (L.S. 141). A “social ecology” that understand that” the health of a society’s institutions has consequences for the environment and the quality of human life.” Because as Pope Benedict XVI in Caritas Veritate says, “Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment.” (51) Finally, this integral and integrated vision of ecology requires a “cultural ecology” that lead to accept that “Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment” (L.S. 143).

Nelson Araque teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Ministry to Latino Catholics Certificate Program and Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture and spirituality forSaint Joseph’s College Online.

Maine: The “Least” and the “Most” Christian State

MAPThe Huffington Post reported on the to-date most comprehensive statistical study of religious bodies in the U.S. and, specifically, a state by state look at the percentage of Christians, as self-reported.* Maine fared the worst, with only 27% identifying as Christian, while Utah was at the top with 78%. Northern New England is among the least Christian in the nation, according to this 2010 study, and I would venture that at least the Maine stats are lower in 2015 than 2010. Saint Joseph’s College is the only Catholic college remaining in Maine, and there are but three Catholic high schools, two in Portland and one about 45 minutes away, in a state that covers a huge geographical area.

When I moved to Maine almost three years ago, it was a shock to the system. I had to work harder at being “intentionally” Catholic. Most churches have only one Mass on Sundays, and it is even more difficult to get to Mass on Holy Days of Obligation. Because of the shortage of priests, they have become like the “priests on horseback” of old, traveling great distances to attend to the sacramental and pastoral needs of the faithful in parishes consisting of “clusters” of individual churches several towns apart. I taught the high school faith formation class in the local church, with a scant four regular students attending, all girls in grades 9-12, one of whom was my daughter. This is vastly different from the metro-NY area from which I came, where there was a palpable Catholic rhythm to life that was easy to spot for the aware. I could roll out of bed any time on Sunday and find an available Mass in any number of churches close to home. Daily Mass was a breeze, with so many options, and just five minutes from my house was a shrine with priests to hear Confessions from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and if the penitent needed absolution right away, a priest would answer the door until 11:00 p.m.

SJCSaint Joseph’s College has become a Catholic haven, of sorts, for me, because during the school year we are blessed with a priest on campus who offers weekday Masses and a Sunday afternoon Mass that late sleepers can appreciate. Everywhere I look I see crucifixes, meatless cafeteria-food Fridays in Lent, and opportunities for prayer. I pass the welcoming statue of the Venerable Catherine McAuley, foundress of the Sisters of Mercy, and the college campus regularly peppered with quotes from her, such as:

Mercy receives the ungrateful again and again, and is never weary of pardoning them.

If the love of God really reigns in your heart, it will show itself in the exterior.

No occupation should withdraw our minds from God. Our whole life should be a continual act of praise and prayer.

As I turn into the campus driveway every morning (aptly named McAuley Drive), I pass the sign bearing our patron’s name and offer a little prayer to Saint Joseph for the well-being of our college community.

While the state of Maine may be the least self-identified “churched” population, the “state” of Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Community may be among the most “churched” population in the nation. Our large body of online theology students comes from all over the United States and beyond its borders to learn and drink in the beauty of the Catholic faith. Our on-campus and online theology faculty possess the Mandatum to teach according to Ex Corde Ecclesiae. Our theology family-at-a-distance, by virtue of being tethered in mind, heart, and spirit to our beautiful campus on the shores of Sebago Lake—dare I say—maybe inches us towards the “most” Christian state—if not in the whole perhaps in the little plot of land in Standish, Maine, where Saint Joseph’s College calls home.

Patricia Sodano Ireland is Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Program Director of Online Theology Programs at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.


“But What Does It Mean?”

An Appreciation and Assessment of Father Thomas Berry, CP
on the One Hundredth Anniversary of His Birth [November 11, 2014]


T. BerryI continually meet people who express appreciation for the wisdom of Thomas Berry [1914-2009] as the “bard of the new cosmology.” Each seizes on some different dimension of the accomplishments of this great man. I have been privileged to know him both as Father Thomas and simply as Thomas. I cannot begin to express the debt of gratitude that I owe to him as a priest and as a teacher and mentor. Thomas married my wife and me, and baptized our first son. But above all he was one the great masters in our intellectual journey. For forty-two years until his death in 2009 he and I talked about the books he encouraged me to read and to study. Since I met Thomas in 1967, roughly about half way through his own journey as a scholar, I first knew him as he was completing for himself the intellectual foundations for his The Great Work: Our Way into the Future [1999] and for The Universe Story, co-authored with Brian Swimme [1992]. Knowing about these intellectual foundations adds even greater depth to an understanding of these later works. In fact I wish I had known him even earlier in his more formative years when he read his way through the Patrologia Latina, the great collection of the Fathers of the Church. He was deeply informed by the neo-Thomists of his youth, Joseph Gredt and Aimee Forest, and by the historian, Etienne Gilson. I wish I could have been there when as a young teacher, at the same high school seminary that I later attended, he tried unsuccessfully to get high school seminarians to read Augustine’s City of God and The Communist Manifesto. On the day I met, while I was still in college, we talked about the relationship of religion and culture found in the historical works of Christopher Dawson whom he claimed as one of his inspirations.

As he did for so many, he encouraged me to study the religions of Asia. Thus four years later, he encouraged me to concentrate my graduate studies at Fordham University in the history of religions. I had the honor of being his graduate student and also was appointed his assistant at the foundation of the Riverdale Center for Religious Research in Riverdale, New York. I remember the hot summer afternoons when we moved his extensive library of books in wash tubs in order to clear the old house for renovation as the Riverdale Center. Thomas and I, under the supervision of Father Ernie Hotz, spent several days knocking down old plaster walls with hammers. During my first summer with him each morning he taught me Sanskrit and each evening he would bring me books to read: McNeil’s The Rise of the West, Beckett’s Endgame, Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, van der Leuuw’s Religion in Essence and Manifestation, Fung Yu-Lang’s History of Chinese Philosophy, Neumann’s The Great Mother, and de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex. Even then his attention was on issues of the environment. We read Commoner’s The Closing Circle and Dubos’ So Human an Animal. I helped Thomas plan his week-long summer conferences: “The Counter Culture,” “Symbolism,” “New York as Sacred City,” “Energy: Its Cosmic-Human Dimensions.”

In his courses Thomas introduced me to Lady Murasaki, Confucius and Mencius [“no one should call themselves educated if they have not read Mencius”], Teilhard, Lao Tzu, the Buddha, Black Elk, and Krishna [somehow he missed Muhammad; I think it was deliberate!]. He encouraged me never to forget Thomas Aquinas. He directed my dissertation on the Bhagavata Purana, stressed the importance of divine affectivity, and how to make comparisons in similarity and difference. He persistently asked me, “But what does it mean?” Amazingly he affirmed me as a young scholar; he told me to write the entire dissertation before showing it to him. It took me four months. From 1982 to 1996, each winter, I spent two weeks with him studying. In the nineties we discussed for several years Cajetan’s commentary on Aquinas concerning creation out of nothing and the analogy of being. For our last meeting, my wife MaryAnn, Brian Brown, and Amarylis Cortijo visited him in Greensboro, North Carolina. He had had a stroke and was aphasic He couldn’t read but he could remember. He remembered which passages for me to read aloud from Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles.

In sum, for my own scholarship as an historian of religion, I learned three things from Thomas. (1) The world religions have conflicting soteriologies that include contradictories. Thus Berry never spoke of convergent “ways to the center.” For the next forty years, this conclusion placed me at odds with the prevailing currents in the theology of religions. Only with the emergence of comparative [and contrastive] theology has a countervailing assumption begun to be given a hearing. (2) Fr. Thomas worked from the style of cultural history of Christopher Dawson. He maintained that the problematic of the present time is cultural, not theological.[1] He stated to me that there was nothing basically wrong with the classical theology of God. Characteristically he bragged that he had never read anything by Karl Rahner.[2] (3) I learned: go deeper in theology and not to innovate. I would add that Ewart Cousins also taught me that Paul Ricoeur was perhaps naïve about second naïveté, since there was nothing naïve about first naïveté. Depth need not be achieved by innovation. Fr. Thomas’ later development of an ecozoic spirituality, which, while not completely dismissive of, is at least inattentive to, the redemption, I have chosen not to follow.


I think it is unfortunate for those who encountered Thomas Berry in his later years after The Great Work [1999] that they don’t know about Thomas’ intellectual development from the thirties to the sixties. Augustine’s The City of God is central to Thomas’ historical perspectives with its emphasis on the biggest picture possible, on convergent historical factors, and on cultural impact. With Augustine Thomas searched for the broad unfolding of human, and of cosmic, history; of the entanglement of the divine and the human. He wanted to know where history was going. This emphasis on Augustine also explains why Christopher Dawson influenced him even though he never [rarely?] cites him. Dawson understood that religion was the key to understanding culture. When Thomas called himself a cultural historian he meant it in the sense that Dawson did, not in the anthropological sense of Kroeber and Kluckhohn. His dissertation at Catholic University in 1948 on Vico illustrates what I am saying here. It is basically an essay on Vico’s thought. It would not pass muster these days as a dissertation. But it very much shows the direction of Berry’s thought, and his practice as a cultural historian. In the early fifties he studied the great neo-Confucians, especially Chu Hsi [12th century A.D.]. This is important because Thomas juxtaposed neo-Confucian cosmic humanism dialectically with Augustine’s and Aquinas’ monotheism. In the later fifties he discovered Teilhard who for him synthetically pulled the two strands together and from which Thomas derived the basis for his environmental and ecological work, even while he could be very critical of Teilhard.

I think Thomas in the forties and fifties should be situated as a historian of thought, and then from the sixties on as an essayist of genius. He had found his genre. Unfortunately, Thomas never produced a major historical work. Nonetheless, his insights are conveyed and shaped by the “essay” which may be the perfect vehicle for what he wanted to say, for the audience he wanted to reach, and for the way he wanted to impact that audience. He appreciated other essayists like Emerson, Annie Dillard, Rene Dubos, Wendell Berry, Teilhard, etc. The essay, with its carefully-crafted prose and poetic resonance, channeled and focused his thinking. What he wanted to say he would say in ten pages of careful prose that he reviewed again and again. He also delivered these essays in spoken form. Usually he stayed very close to the text. His phrases and modes of thought were repeated again and again in his essays, even as they unfolded over the decades. He never got involved in academic games of publication and scholarship, and in the intricacies of detailed research. He read foundational texts directly and worked off of them, e.g., Augustine in Latin, Chu Hsi in Chinese, the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit, the Communist Manifesto, Teilhard, Jung, etc. Many of the dissertations of his doctoral students were about significant Hindu and Buddhist texts, and about Native American myths and rituals, and what they mean to a contemporary. This approach allowed him to read the ancients as if he and they were contemporaries. Their thought spoke directly to him in the present. Thus he did not get bogged down too much in historical contextualization. This is both a gain and a loss. It means that his major points may on the whole be true, but his historical illustrations may fall short. Historians may be impatient with him, from the historical point of view rightfully so.

As I stated above, I would join Thomas each January for a two-week intellectual retreat. We discussed Thomas Aquinas and his doctrines of analogy and of creation. These discussions show that in his last years, in private conversations, he was very interested in the most important question from his earliest studies as a seminarian: is the universe self-explanatory or not? Yet he rarely alludes to these themes in his essays. Back on him as a historian, he works into his essays a thesis that Christianity since the Black Death, the Reformation, and the Counter Reformation has overemphasized redemption at the expense of creation theology. This he thinks contributed to the ecological crisis. This thesis is stated but never demonstrated with convincing historical evidence according to contemporary historiographical criteria. I am not sure I support this thesis. In fact, I know I don’t. However I think it can be sorted out of his thought without losing its overall value and impact. [He would not have agreed with me]. This is the strength and weakness of Thomas Berry as an historian. He was an “essayist” and direct reader of texts. He was a humanist in the classical sense even as he resituated the human project into the Universe Story: “the basic mood of the future might well be one of confidence in the continuing revelation that takes place in and through Earth”

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.

[1] Thus I have found the reflections on culture of Tracy Rowland, Charles Taylor, John Milbank, and Joseph Ratzinger very helpful.

[2] This is ironic because, when Fr. Berry told me that, I was working with Fr. McCool on The Rahner Reader. My contribution was to provide the index.

“Nothin’ Left to Lose” — Perhaps Everything!

Thoughts for Earth Day 2014

In Kris Kristofferson’s poignant song, “Me and Bobbie Magee,” there is the haunting line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.” Let me transpose the idea: “Freedom’s just another word for everythin’ left to lose.” By itself, the line “nothin’ left to lose” is metaphysically incorrect, although it has its truth in human experience. The universe, if created by God, is not a “sound and fury signifying nothing.” If God created the universe out of nothing, then the universe signifies everything that God intends. A thing is wonderful when it is significant, revealing purpose metaphorically and analogically. There is no wonder in the insignificant, and thus no purpose. In a metaphorical universe, there is nothing insignificant. If the universe is not created by God, if the universe is not a metaphor analogically expressive of the fullness of meaning, then, indeed, there is “nothin’ left to lose” because there was nothing there to gain in the first place, and everything signifies nothing. There is nothing to imagine that would not be merely “imaginary.” This latter insight is close to the heart of Buddhism.

Sebago Lake, Saint Joseph's College of Maine

Sebago Lake, Saint Joseph’s College of Maine

No one deserves a star or merits a sunset. The universe, if created by God, is a vast metaphor saying that it is God’s gift. It has been said, very cynically, that “Blessed is he that expecteth nothing, for he shall not be disappointed.” And such a person will have nothing to be thankful for. Chesterton wrote in his St. Francis, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he shall enjoy everything.”

There is a tendency when speaking of metaphors to say that something is a “mere” metaphor. But if God created the universe, then it is no “mere” metaphor. The Catholic analogical imagination imagines that everything speaks of God and everything is a gift of God. If God saw that everything was good, then human beings must see everything as a gift, a gift for which human beings are responsible and accountable. This gift deserves our gratitude, a gratitude that can be put into environmental action. Gratitude may be the “real skill” with which Thomas Berry hopes “to raise the sails and to catch the power of the wind as it passes by.”

Since Fall, 2001, our College has offered the course, “Ecology and the Environmental Challenge,” required of all the students of the Sebago Lake Program. The course is a teaching challenge not just for the professors, but also for the whole College community. It is not just about self-preservation. We need to go much further. As Pope John Paul II stated, “An education in ecological responsibility is urgent: responsibility for oneself, for others and for the earth . . . A true education in responsibility entails a genuine conversion in ways of thought and behavior.”

I would add that a genuine conversion of imagination, one consonant with the Catholic imagination, is needed if we are going, as a College, to contribute solutions for our environmental crisis. A universe that is good, that is filled with real things that are good, and that speaks of God, surrounds us. If it is so, we are indebted to God for it, an infinite debt that can only be repaid by an everlasting hymn of gratitude. Dante Gabriel Rosetti said somewhere that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank.” Every Earth Day, we should remind ourselves that our “Attainable/Sustainable” efforts need to be grounded in the deepest Catholic identity of the Mission of the College. Gratitude is a greater motive for environmental action than self-preservation. In Chesterton’s words, all “goods look better when they look like gifts.”

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine and former Director of the Online Theology Program.