Online PhD in Sacred Theology

The Doctor of Sacred Theology is the third and highest degree of study within the pontifical university system of the Catholic Church. Candidates for an S.T.D (Sacred Theology Doctorate) must hold a Bachelor of Sacred Theology (S.T.B) as well as the Licentiate of Sacred Theology (S.T.L.). The S.T.D is earned once the potential candidate has written and defended his doctoral dissertation, a process which generally concludes within two or three years. In institutions that have been approved by both secular organizations and the Holy See, Doctor of Sacred Theology programs may be shaped so that candidates may receive a Th.D. or Ph.D. in addition to his S.T.D.

The S.T.D. is also referred to as a Doctor of Canon Law (D.C.L. or J.C.D) and is the preferred degree for teaching theology or canon law at a Catholic university. However, there are some exceptions to this rule in which an S.T.L is an accepted qualification. A PhD in sacred theology can also be used to obtain administrative and pastoral work within the Catholic Church. In general, students pursuing studies in sacred theology have already discerned a vocation within or related to the Catholic Church.

About Online PhD Programs in Sacred Theology

There are currently only seven ecclesiastical faculties within the United States that offer the doctorate in sacred theology. While there are no fully online PhD programs in sacred theology, there is a good chance that such programs will appear in the future as education becomes more integrated with technology. For more information on the degree cycle, candidates can reference John Paul II's Spientia Christiania in the apostolic constitution of the Catholic Church. An S.T.D. is considered the equivalent of a PhD by the National Science Foundation.

Year One:

  • Liturgical Preaching. Students will learn how to preach appropriately and effectively in the many different liturgical celebrations of the Catholic Church.
  • Trauma and Addiction. This course will explore the effects and symptoms of trauma and its theological and spiritual consequences. Students will become familiar with different approaches to trauma therapy.
  • Adult Believers in a Postmodern Context. Students will contemplate the dynamics that make adults open to contemporary faith.

Year Two:

  • Catholics in American Culture. This course examines a series of issues affecting modern American culture within a theological context.
  • Women in Ministry. The class explores the experiences of ministry with and by women.
  • Theology of Culture. This course examines the relationship between theology and culture.

The end of the Ph.D. study will by marked by a public defense of the student's dissertation. Dissertations usually contain hundreds of pages of research and must be read, edited, and approved by various authorities before submission.

Value and Criticisms of a PhD in Sacred Theology

Like all terminal degree programs, a PhD in sacred theology is designed to produce professionals who have a broad knowledge of the field as well as a critical knowledge of research methodology and the ability to contribute original research to the wider community. However, sacred theology is unique in that there are limited career opportunities available after earning the degree. Those who participate in such programs are generally already engaged in a career path within the church, making earning a degree a relatively low-risk pursuit.

Because ecclesiastical degrees are required to achieve positions within or related to the Roman Catholic church, this field of study would not be beneficial to anyone who is considering a position unrelated to the Church. The one exception would be for those who hope to teach Catholic theology in a secular university. However, there are other degrees that are less stringent that could also satisfy this requirement.

Application & Admission Requirements

The application process and admission requirements for entering a PhD program in sacred theology are extremely competitive. Typically, scholars must be well-versed in Latin or Biblical Hebrew, and they must also be proficient in reading one modern language other than their native tongues. Students must have completed S.T.L requirements and must also have excellent GPA's and/or GRE scores. In addition to these prerequisites, students must also complete a comprehensive examination and prepare a thesis proposal for acceptance.

Career Options & Job Market

Embarking upon the path to an ecclesiastical degree opens doors for service in the Church, official roles within diocese, as well as research and professorships at post secondary institutions. Catholic priests can earn anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000, but those who are vowed to poverty donate their salaries to the communal funds of their religious communities. The Church provides for the basic necessities of all priests during their careers and also during retirement, making acetic living possible. The salaries of priests, including necessities provided for by the Church, are subject to taxation, and this obligation should be considered when calculating potential salary.

Priests are allowed to take on positions with universities and to receive supplementary income. According to, research and teaching positions at Catholic universities pay significantly more than positions within the priesthood. Salaries begin at approximately $35,000 and reach their maximum at upwards of $88,000 per year.

Where to Find Information

How to Get Funding

In addition to various paths for federally-funded loans, grants and scholarships, there are many different organizations that offer funding and scholarship for those studying sacred theology. Potential candidates should begin by contacting the Archdiocese of the region or city in which he resides. Another option is to speak to the financial aid officers of different programs of interest. Universities often offer their own assistantships, work-study, and scholarship programs.

  • Federal Direct Stafford Loan. Students who are pursuing a Ph.D. may be eligible for an unsubsidized Stafford Loan. The maximum award is currently $12,000 per academic year, and students benefit from the fixed interest rate of 6.8%.
  • Federal Perkins Loan. Full-time students who are pursuing postgraduate studies may be eligible for a Federal Perkins Loan. The loan is awarded based on financial need, and the average amount granted is $3,500 per academic year with a fixed interest rate of 5.0%.
  • Campus-Based Aid. Contacting the campus financial aid office is often the best first step for potential students. Advisors are trained to connect students with scholarships, loans, and grants that are offered on-campus as well as through federal and state governments.

Essential Advice

  • Those wishing to obtain an ecclesiastic degree should consider the level of commitment required. Although obtaining a PhD in sacred theology requires similar commitments of time and study as secular programs, there is also a spiritual commitment to consider. Potential candidates should consult with Church leaders before making the decision to enter this realm of study. Gaining insight into course requirements, potential challenges, and career opportunities after graduation are all benefits of consulting a mentor beforehand.