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Graduates in Theology

Nearly two hundred students here at Notre Dame elect Theology as their major. Some do a full double major in philosophy and theology (price of admission: one year of a classical language) while others have different co-majors. We just graduated our seniors this past Sunday. What will our majors do after graduation? The range is quite revealing. Some will go to law school. Two are seeking out a few years of adventure: one will be a firefighter in California and a young woman signed on to a salmon fishing boat in Alaska. One student who is a double major in economics and theology (and the class valedictorian) will work on an organic farm this Summer and then enter the Jesuit novitiate in August. Two will go into the military as commissioned officers and another will begin working with his family to start up an internet company. Two will return to Notre Dame as campus ministry interns and a fairly good number will teach in underserved Catholic schools through Alliance of Catholic Education or work as parish educators through the ECHO program. Two are going to medical school and a few are doing volunteer work for a year with an intention either to come back to school for graduate work in theology. One student is headed to Northwestern for an MA in education and others are looking for jobs in the non-profit arena. Acouple of them have confesssed to toying with the idea of religious life. It is not infrequently the case that students want to declare a major in theology but are dissuaded by their families who envision them working at Starbucks for minimum wage and reading Karl Rahner on their breaks. It is for that reason why I narrated the above instances. They received a solid liberal arts education, they are deeply committed young people, and they will find their way. We had all the graduates in theology at our house on Sunday morning along with their families. When the 170 plus guests left our house, my wife and I headed over to campus to watch our youngest daughter graduate. She heads off to New York City to live with her sister and seek her fortune in communications (she was not a major). Her job plans are not yet firm but she has a good education and is filled with that hope which is is characteristic of the young. We now have an empty nest and that will take some getting used to.

About the Author

Lawrence Cunningham is John O'Brien professor of Theology (Emeritus) at the University of Notre Dame.



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Hi Larry!So what, in your opinion, do we need to do to convince more of our very talented and dedicated graduates to go on to do Ph.D.s in theology--whether or not they enter into religious life?Would it require starting a grief-counseling program for their parents? Cathy

As the former chair of our Religious Studies Department, I know the difficulty of convincing parents (and at least some students) that majoring in theology or religious studies is not a prelude to a life asking: "Do you want fries with that order?" We do not have nearly as many majors as you do, but our experience is similar: Our majors are incredibly talented and follow career paths that are remarkably diverse. Alas, as Cathy points out, not many go on to do Ph.D.s in theology.

Don't worry about that empty nest. Those calls "Dear Dad, send money" will more than make up for any absence.Out of 6000 plus students, 200 choose theology as a major. Three percent. We talk about the preponderance of women in theology today. Is 2% considered high or is Notre Dame the average?It would be interesting to know how your nearly two hundred students compare with other students and what is their view as to the theology of engagement as opposed to that of isolation. Particularly with reference to the Vagina Mongologue brouhaha.

Vagina Mongologue-- quite a Freudian slip there, no?

The students are fairly evenly divided by gender but in terms of their theological commitments, they range from the Catholic Worker activists to those who yearn for more attention paid to the "Theology of the Body". I did forget to mention that one of our students (a Protestant) will be playing professional soccer in Europe after being an All American collegiate soccer player.In terms of the VM the range is equally disparate; one of our students who graduated last year eagerly worked on the cast (she had been sexually abused as a youngster) while others picketed the performance when it was on campus a year ago (this year it was performed - where else? - at the Unitarian Church off campus). Curiously enough, no student ever asked for my opinion on the VM in class but that may be because I am old and am thought - correctly - to take a dim view of the whole thing.

I find it interesting that Professor Kaveny commented on getting more people to do PhD's in theology. After all, I would like to go on to graduate school, but the amount of money for programs (even Notre Dame offers funding to their very small, very select group of candidates) is scarce.And, who really makes any money with a MA or MTS is theology? Enough to pay back $80,000 worth of debt anytime soon? What about a PhD's worth of debt and work at a small college's religious studies department? The whole prospect is unsettling, financially, especially if one plans on starting a family. Incidently, a much better plan might be to get a religious congregation to pay for your education... hmmm...

In the ND theology dept., we admit a few students in each subfield, and in many cases tuition and a stipend are provided. Many PhD programs, in religious studies, history, etc., have decided that they don't accept people if they can't provide them with funding. Yale is that way now, I believe.So, if you get into a good PhD. program, you should n't come out with much debt --siome ancillary debt yes, but not tons of debt. Masters degrees are a different story. It's much harder to have them funded. Most people who do them in religious studies are CCD teachers, or religious ed teachers. I'm not sure what scholarships are available for them.As far as family life goes, yes it's harder to support a family on an academic salary than on an investment banker's salary. I think it would be hard to support a family on one academic's salary --especially in a city. Nonetheless, there is more flexibility, and job satisfaction, than in some careers--at least for people called to be academics. Your best, bet if you want to be a married theology professor, might be to marry an investment banker!

Thanks, Professor Cunningham, for this heartening report. My late wife was a Notre Dame Ph.D in math. And one of our sons went to ND. He too majored in math. While there, he had Fr. Burrell for a course on justice. He's turned out just fine, now working for GE to perfect the engines for the new Boeing 787.When his mother died, his roommates had a tree planted in her honor on the ND campus.Needless to say, ND means much to both him and me.All good wishes.

Larry, What adventurous daughters! in New York! but who could be surprised with such parents. The Steinfelses are always good for a meal or two, if they need respite from the New York adventure.

It would be interesting to learn if the years of theological education change beliefs and attitudes. Do the theology majors emerge from their classrooms as more liberal or more conservative than when they entered? More religious or more spiritual? Or are the theology graduates different from other majors largely because of self-selection with relatively few differences across disciplines attributable to education?

We have nothing more than impressions about changes in attitude; if I were to generalize, I think they become more mature in their faith.I try to encourage our best students to get PhDs to replace those of us who are walking into the sunset. I say "best" because competition for PhD stipends is vigorous. The good news is that everyone of our newly minted PhDs got good jobs this past year.Religious congregations are unlikely to pay for educating lay students since they - contrary to what some might think - are hardly flush with money. We currently have a number of male and female religious studying with us in graduate programs and they compete for stipends like everyone else.

From talking to my friends who are academics, one of the challenges is that you have to go where the work is. I discovered my love for theology after certain commitments regarding marriage, children, and place of residence had already been made. The prospect of starting an academic career in my early 50s was also somewhat daunting. It is these reasons that made me decide not to pursue work beyond the Masters' level.Every now and then I wonder what might have been. "Late have I loved thee," and all that. But a friend of mine who is a pastor and an STD believes that there is a desperate need for people at the parish/diocese level who can translate academic theology into intellectually solid catechesis. If my own parish is any example, the ranks of parish catechists will also need replenishing in the years to come.

Lets not even suggest that the best way to be Christian, or Catholic, is to study theology. Unfortunately, many people in the church have no idea about the work of lay people in the world and their call to give expression to their faith precisely in the course of being good mechanics, bakers, techies, etc. The quality of a Catholic universioty has no direct correlation with the percentage of its students who major in theology.Nonetheless, I'm glad to know about this year's ND graduates.

To be a theologian is a definite charism as I see it. Problems come when there is pressure from above to not follow your research but the magisterium. The magisterium must learn from the theologians and give considerable weight to their view. All of this can be very tricky. Theologians can be very jealous of each other, just like everybody else, and work contrary to the truth. One's ego can well get in the way of the pursuit of truthHaving said all that, Jesus said that the wise and simple of this world will get to the kingdom before the wise and proud. ""I thank Thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent and hast revealed them to babes" that is to simple and humble people (Matt.11:25).Now those words I believe Jesus said.

In addition to Bernard's comment, it also has to be said that not every Catholic studying theology will come from a Catholic undergraduate program. Catholics attend a whole range of schools, which form them intellectually and emotionally.The undergraduate institutions that produce the most Ph.D.s--in all fields-- communicate the value of the life of the mind for its own sake. I think small liberal arts colleges have the highest rates of students going on for doctorates, especially in the humanities.

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