Distance Doctorates?

by Jimmy Akin

in Miscellaneous

A reader writes:

I currently have been looking online for a possible distance learning "accredited" Phd/doctorate program in theology. Can anyone point me in the right direction of a credible source?

For one here in the U.S., not really, but see below.

I have looked at a few. For example, Liberty University has a doctorate program and claims to be accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Is this a legitimate accreditation?

Yes, it is. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools is one of the major regional U.S. accreditors. I also checked the CHEA database, and they are there (see below).

Finally by whom should a distance learning program be accredited by in order to have any legitimacy?

It depends on what country one is in. In most countries, accreditation is carried out directly by the government and there are few diploma mills. Here in the U.S., it doesn’t work quite that way. The major accreditors are private institutions, but anyone listed by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) is a safe bet. In fact, some places (like the state of Michigan) use the CHEA database as a test of whether a degree will be honored for employment purposes and exclude schools that aren’t under the CHEA umbrella (WARNING! Evil file format [.pdf]!).

p.s. Is there a link or website where I can look up the names of universities to see if they are accredited by a credible educational institution?

Sure, you can


Now, a few further thoughts:

  1. I can’t recommend that you go with Liberty University as they are a Southern Baptist School. A doctorate in theology from such a place will cut absolutely no mustard in Catholic circles. Doctorates in other things, like biblical languages or biblical studies, might, but theology, no.
  2. I don’t think distance education has matured to the point that many accredited institutions (particularly Catholic ones) feel comfortable offering doctoral degrees at a distance. We may get to that point some day, but we ain’t there yet. That’s why such things are so hard to find.
  3. I can mention one place that you might want to investigate that offers a distance doctorate at least somewhat along these lines: The Maryvale Institute in Birmingham (the one in England, not Alabama) offers a doctorate in Catholic Studies. This is a research degree and not a PhD in theology. They are accredited through the UK’s Open University, if I am not mistaken.
  4. The real acme degree in Catholic circles is not a PhD in theology but an STD. That’s not as horrible as it sounds (it stands for Doctor of Sacred Theology). Such degrees are awared only at schools that have Vatican approval to offer them, and I am sure that none of these schools presently offers a distance STD. It probably will be a long time before any do, though other doctorates in related fields may still cut a good bit of mustard.
  5. When looking at accreditation issues, one has to look at look not only at the school but at the program. Some schools are accredited to offer certain degrees but not others. Make sure to inquire about whether the degree you’re after is accredited and by whom.
  6. You also sometimes have to look at the government. Accreditation by some governments may not be worth much internationally.

Hope this helps!


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Samuel J. Howard March 14, 2005 at 11:14 pm

It should be noted that Catholic S.T.D.’s are accredited by the Congregation for Catholic Education and are not always additionally accredited by civil accrediting bodies. This is understood by universities and seminaries, but if one was working elsewhere, for instance for the U.S. Federal Government, you might not get credit for the degree for pay or promotion unless it is also accredited civily. This has long been recognized at the Master’s level. As a result, many institutions, such as St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie), the Archdiocesan Seminary of the New York and a part of the Pontifical Faculty of the Angelicum, award an accredited M.Div. or M.A. concurrently with the ecclesiastical degrees of S.T.B. or S.T.L. This is not as common with the S.T.D., though Leuven in Beligium does so, awarding a concurrent Ph.D.
Also, the absolute acme in Catholic theological degrees is the S.T.M. (Sacrae Theologiae Magister), a higher doctorate in Theology, beyond the S.T.D. Programs in English include Leuven in Belgium (http://cwisdb.cc.kuleuven.ac.be/opleidingen/0102/eng/a28.htm), and, I believe, Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Massachusetts and St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore (this is not an exhaustive list).
Higher doctorates are more common in Europe, for instance, universities in the U.K. award, for example, the D.Litt. in letters, the D.Sc. in sciences, and the D.M. in medicine (the medical degree in England is a kind of Bachelor’s). These degrees are usually awarded by examination upon the submission of a body of scholarly work and are usually earned by mid-to-late-career academics. The only commonly seen non-honorary higher doctorate in the U.S. is the J.S.D. (Doctor of Juridical Science), awarded by law faculties.
Finally, since the power to grant degrees is, in the Catholic Church, a power of the Pope, which he may delegate as he pleases, it is sometimes delegated to juridical persons other than universities. So, for example, the Dominican Order, has the power of granting degrees and sometimes does so. See for instance this article (http://www.op.org/DomCentral/prov/3stms.htm) on the inception of three Dominicans with the degree S.T.M.

berenike March 15, 2005 at 3:19 am

Looks as though there as STMs and STMs: the ITI
in Austria, for example, awards an STM as a first degree, exactly equivalent to the STB, rather as Scots universities award an MA as a first degree in arts faculties, and as Oxford and Cambridge do also.

berenike March 15, 2005 at 3:23 am

Moreover, you more or less have to have an STL, no, to get an STD? And an STB to get an STL? Someplaces you can practically treat as distance learning: I am doing a second degree at the moment, lectures once a month, with the cheap airlines now operating between my various cities of residence I could easily live in one and fly in for lectures every four weeks. In fact in my year I know of one chap who comes from Austria and one girl who comes from Bialorus who commute monthly. And my tutor during my first degree supervised someone living in Portugal who was doing a doctorate with the University of Surrey.

Christina March 16, 2005 at 10:23 pm

This discussion is very helpful. Now if you had (or could point to) a list of schools that offer the STL or other licentiate programs, that’d be enormously helpful. I have been searching high and low, but have yet to find a complete list of U.S. institutions that offer licentiates.

Br. Athanasius Cho, O.P. August 12, 2005 at 12:29 am

There are a number of good external Ph.D. programs in theology and religion, many with minimal or dispersed residence. One such program is the external PhD offered at the University of Birmingham. This program will allow an indiviual to do the research for his research PhD in a city that has good academic resources and libraries. The only residency is a minimum of 6 months, spread out. Another similar program is at University of Leeds, Theology and Religion Dept. The University of London (Heythrop College) also has B.D. (Bachelor of Divinity) degree soley by distance. In the US, Holy Apostles College and Seminary in CT has a M.A. in Theology and M.A. in Philosophy that can be completed via the net and distance learning. I believe Franciscan Univ. also has a M.A. in theology via distance as well. Additionally, Saint Joseph’s College in NJ has a M.A. via distance as well. As for the Ecclesiastical Degrees (e.g. STB, STL, STD, JCD etc) There are a few faculties that have the right to grant these degrees in the USA. For example:
Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception, Dominican House of Studies, STB, STL
Pope John Paul II Institute, STL, STD
Catholic University of America, STB, STL, STD, JCL, JCD
Univ. of St Mary of the Lake, STL (STD by invitation only)
Weston Jesuit School of Theology, STL, STD
Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, STL, STD (PhD Students at the Graduate Theological Union may be granted the STL upon permission at the conclusion of Comprehensive exams)
Regis College, Toronto, STL, STD
Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, Toronto, M.S.L., M.S.D. (by invitation only)
It might be noted that there are relatively few Roman faculties that have ENGLISH speaking courses. The Angelicum, the Pontifical Univ. of St Thomas Aquinas has STB, STL, and STD programs in ENGLISH.
A side note, in the realm of Ecclesiastical degrees the M.Div. in the US is the equiv. to the Roman S.T.B.
Aside from the Roman S.T.D. degree, there are also lesser known Pontifical Degrees such as…
His.Ecc.D. (Doctor of Church History) offered at the Pontifical Gregorian University, Rome
S.E.O.D. (Doctor of Oriental Ecclesiastical Sciences) Pontifical Oriental Institute, Rome
M.S.D. and M.S.L. (Doctor of Medieval Studies) Pontifical Institute, Toronto
D.Miss. (Doctor of Missiology) Gregorian Univ.
S.L.D. (Doctor of Sacred Liturgy) Liturgical Institute at the Pontifical University of San Anselmo
S.S.D. (Doctor of Sacred Scripture) from the Pontifical Biblical Institute or Commission, Rome

Molli Vassar October 10, 2005 at 6:37 pm

This has SAVED me from spending another 3 hours looking for a distance doctoral program! I contacted Maryvale at the nice link you provided–how easy was that! Thanks so much! By the way, I am currently a full-time distance student at Franciscan U. It requires ony 2 3 credit courses taken on campus during crash sessions in the summer. The rest is from home–great program! But VERY demanding. The great part is that you get the actual class sessions all on tape, so you get to hear all the student questions and the comments as well. Thanks again for the help!–Molli E. Vassar

Raja Soi October 23, 2005 at 12:56 pm

What is the career path for a person who obtains an S.T.D.? Does it financially make sense to get an S.T.D. instead of an PhD?

Plato's Stepchild November 16, 2005 at 9:26 pm

Don’t forget:
Catholic Distance University in Virginia.

Br. Athanasius Cho, O.P. November 22, 2005 at 10:56 pm

In terms of career and financial matters…..
Both the S.T.D. and the Ph.D. are academic doctoral degrees. How much one would make as a result of holding such degrees are up to the individual institution that hires you. Catholic seminaries, other ecclesiastical faculties, and diocesean offices surely recognize the STD, a pontifical degree. Most people who obtain ecclesiastical degreee work for the Church in some fashion. However, in the world of secular education, they may or may not be recognized. Thus, one might not get a job at at secular college or university to teach “the study of religion” or “religious studies”. However, I have to say that if you get a STD or other pontifical degree from a place like the Angelicum or the Gregorianum in Rome, the likelihood of getting a good job are VERY good.
Oh and I forgot to mention the Australian Catholic University has a distance M.A. in theology as well.
And…..to promote my own province, in the near future the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology will be offering a SUMMER Master of Arts in Catholic Theology (Civil Degree) as well as the Licentiate in Sacred Theology, S.T.L. The DSPT will become the summer campus of the Angelicum. Details soon!

John Etherton January 17, 2006 at 12:21 pm

I am looking for an STD Degree which is offered (or accredited) by a UK University. Does anyone know of such an award?

Rev. Jacobs, Ecc.d, D.D. April 28, 2006 at 11:52 pm

The Ecc.D. is most assuredly one of the lessor known degrees. Yet, it is a valid seminary degree – here in the U.S., anyway.
Just something to consider in your studies. It’s kind of comical just how many people ask me what it means.
God bless,
Rev. Joe

Rev John Cohen, PhD May 14, 2006 at 12:47 am

You might like to explore distance possibilities in Theology with Charles Sturt University in Australia and Melbourne College of Divinity through one of its teaching schools (Trinity College, Melbourne).

Brother Athanasius Cho, O.P. May 23, 2006 at 10:42 pm

As for Pontifical degrees in the UK, at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford (the Dominican Priory and Studium for the English Province) they offer the pontifical S.T.B and S.T.L. They additionally offer the S.T.Lect. (Lectorate in Sacred Theology), a program for Dominican men and women that allows Dominican to be “lectors” at priories and monasteries. Lector meaning the official “teacher” for the priory, ensuring the intellectual life of the friars/nuns. It might be noted that the University of Wales (Lampeter) also has a good Ph.D. program in theology and Catholic Studies. They offer minimal or no residentials for the M.A. in theology as well.
Additionally, Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit also began an S.T.L. degree, accredited through the Angelicum.
Regis College, Toronto (Canada) allows the student to obtain both the pontifical AND civil degree for the same coursework (Similar to Louvain). So one could obtain the S.T.D. and the Ph.D./Th.D.
Holy Apostles College and Seminary’s M.A. in Phil and Theol have been reworked so that the required courses are more structured. It is a good distance M.A., with thesis or non-thesis option.
Also Felician College, offers a distance learning M.A. in Religious Education.
Providence College (Dominican Friars) offers a ONLINE Certificate in Catechesis, which goes over the entire CCC.
A GREAT Summer M.A. in Theology program is the University of Notre Dame’s. They offer summer M.A. in theology for teachers and those who must work in the school year. They offer the MA in all the classical areas of theology: Hist, Biblical, Spiritual Theology, Systematics, etc….
Many UK universities offer distance “research” oriented MA/PhDs
The University of Glasgow (Scotland) now offers a B.D. degree via distance
The University of St. Mary of the Lake (IL) offers the STL and STD in Systematics and Sacramental Theology.

Andy October 1, 2006 at 1:50 am

Hi, would you tell me – if it is not too much trouble – what legitimate schools are out there that offer a BTh or B Div by distance learning? I am 50, have a PhD in political economy, and am gainfully employed, so this is solely for my personal edification, something to do on weekends. I nkow the University of London has a BD but I remember form my younger days that some other legitimate school, perhaps in Australia, offered a Licentiate in Theology too.

Richard February 25, 2007 at 1:27 pm

Does anyone have information about a Catholic doctoral degree in theology that is not entirely research oriented (like Maryvale), and is not an entirely “online” degree, but requires some low-residency on a campus combined with other methods of instructional delivery? Thanks.

Bill May 7, 2007 at 9:20 am

Another option for a Catholic doctoral degree is the Graduate Theological Foundation (http://www.gtfeducation.org/).

N. Athanasius Cho May 12, 2007 at 11:16 pm

A really good place to look would be the University of Wales, Lampeter (UK), it has a number of Catholic faculty there. They do offer a distance option for the MA, MTh, MPhil and PhD as well. They also offere a PhD in cooperation with the Franciscan International Study Centre, where a Franciscan faculty member can supervise your studies. They have many institutes and sub-programs that would appeal to Catholics, including a Center for Marian Studies. The dean of theology is a Catholic and actually holds a pontifical degree. Their Church History section is also very good. Wales, Lampeter has been ranked (according to the UK system) very highly in recent year, particularly their theology and religious studies faculty. Two major areas of focus in the department have been the Eucharist and Patristics.

N. Athanasius Cho May 12, 2007 at 11:19 pm

The Graduate Theological Foundation (Indiana and Oxford)-not to be confused with the GTU-Graduate Theological Union (Berkeley), has a number of great faculty there. They have affiliations with S. Hahn’s St Paul School of Biblical Theol. They also have a Master’s in Tribunal Studies in cooperation with the R. Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, CA. In fact, many students study at the Rome campus under an institute of the Society of the Atonement, with its director on the faculty of the Angelicum. A word of warning, the GTF is currently NOT accredited by an agency recognized by the US Dept. of Education.

N. Athanasius Cho May 12, 2007 at 11:27 pm

I had forgotten to mention the University of Dallas. They have the IRPS (Institute of Religious and Pastoral Studies-now called the School of Ministry). They offer a wonderful Master of Theological Studies degree with various concentrations (including Biblical Theology). U Dallas has an excellent reputation of orthodox Catholic theology. You may complete the entire MTS degree online. You can even take advantage of their Summer in Rome program.
A number of Catholic institutions are now having “distance” degrees. Including:
Felician College, MA in Religious Education
Saint Joseph’s College, MA in Pastoral Theology
Saint Mary of the Woods College, MA in Pastoral Theology
Franciscan University, MA in Theology and Christian Ministry (also has a Rome program where you can study at the Angelicum)
Viterbo University, MA in Servant Leadership (seems to be a “new” interdisciplinary program, whose content I am unsure of)
Australian Catholic University, MA in Theology and MRE (Master of Religious Education)-can be completed in under a year.
My top picks in terms of overall school reputation, general impression of orthodox, academic rigor, and easy to follow online program would be: University of Dallas MTS from the School of Ministry and Holy Apostles College and Seminary, MA in Theol or Phil.

N. Athanasius Cho May 12, 2007 at 11:32 pm

The Dominican School of Philosophy & Theology in cooperation with the Angelicum Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas in Rome, now has their summer program up and running. They have three blocks in the summer where classes can be taken. These courses can be used to earn the MA or MDiv from the Dominican School. Courses can also be used to count for the S.T.L. program, although this requires additional documentation that one has completed the first cycle (STB or MDiv) or its equiv. Robert Christian, OP vice dean of the Angelicum is teaching two classes for this program. Check out http://www.dspt.edu

N. Athanasius Cho May 12, 2007 at 11:38 pm

In terms of summer only (in person) programs. If you earned a first cycle degree (STB or M.Div.) or its equiv, you could study at the Catholic University of America. If you are looking for a doctoral degree, but not necessarily a research doctoral degree, you can earn a D.Min in Liturgy, Catechesis, Faith Formation etc, from CUA. This degree can be completed ONLY in the summer. Also I mention to deacons and preists, the D.Min. in Preaching at the Aquinas Institute of Theology (Central OP Province). It can be completed online with some face-to-face contact during the year.

N. Athanasius Cho May 12, 2007 at 11:43 pm

Those of you who might care to know, Weston Jesuit School of Theology (not exactly the most orthodox of schools) is currently looking at remerging with Boston College. They are hoping to become the “Divinity School” for Boston College. From what I understand, the US Jesuit Conference has petitioned the Sacred Congregation of Catholic Ed, to keep their ecclesiastical faculty even after the re-merging. So theoretically, one might (in the near future) be able to earn a S.T.L. and/or S.T.D. from Boston College.

James January 9, 2008 at 7:42 pm

How much does it cost to do a PHD and how long does it take?

Alberto May 7, 2008 at 6:19 pm

Since I have no formal background in philosophy or theology but hold an MD and feel called to a teaching career in theology, what are my online options among only the most orthodox catholic institutions? What degrees are best that I could build upon if desired, after some experience in the field?

Anonymous May 14, 2008 at 4:26 pm

The Graduate Theological Foundation is an unaccredited diploma mill.

David May 23, 2008 at 7:35 pm

For Alberto: There are two distance MA degree programs that are orthodox, regionally accredited, and respected:
Franciscan University of Steubenville and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.
Both are known for sticking to the Magisterium. Holy Apostles has a small college and is mainly a seminary, but the distance program has over 100 students.
I am finishing my MA in Theology from Holy Apostles and feel that I have received a good education.

David May 23, 2008 at 7:36 pm

For Alberto: There are two distance MA degree programs that are orthodox, regionally accredited, and respected:
Franciscan University of Steubenville and Holy Apostles College & Seminary.
Both are known for sticking to the Magisterium. Holy Apostles has a small college and is mainly a seminary, but the distance program has over 100 students.
I am finishing my MA in Theology from Holy Apostles and feel that I have received a good education.

Gordo the Byzantine June 12, 2008 at 7:53 pm

An additional option for the STL/STD track is the International Marian Research Institute through the University of Dayton. You can obtain your STL and STD in Marian Theology through Summer course work. I am considering this personally in the future…
Otherwise, I will echo that FUS Distance and Holy Apostles are two very, very solid programs.
God bless!

Kariann September 25, 2008 at 6:37 am

Has anyone heard of the Saint Anthony House School of Biblical Theology?

N.A. Cho October 25, 2008 at 11:06 pm

The Saint Anthony House you mentioned seems kind of “shady” if you ask me. I reviewed their web site looking for accreditation information and they avoid discussing it: they are NOT an accredited school either by the Associatition of Theological Schools or a Regional Accreditation Agency recognized by the Department of Education. At the surface it “appears” to be a Catholic or Orthodox school in the OSB tradition, but a careful look shows they are some independent church not recognized by Rome or any other historical See. It’s an interesting denomination. Firstly, they try to look like legitimate Catholic biblical institutions like the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum and Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem by offering a license and S.T.D. degrees. Saint Anthony’s even latinizes their name to sound like these schools. While their reading lists might seem orthodox, I would be weary about attending this school. To be honest, it looks like a one-man show.

N.A. Cho October 25, 2008 at 11:10 pm

I was looking at Maryvale Instiute’s web site recently and it appears they are now offering a B.Phil. in Philosophy, probably as a prep for theological studies. Interestingly enough, it is being offered through the degree granting authority of the venerable Pontifical Lateran University in Rome. So, although studying at Maryvale Institute, your degree would be from a Pontifical University.

N.A. Cho October 25, 2008 at 11:15 pm

If anyone is interested in Ecumenics, the Ukrainian Catholic University in now offering an M.A. in Ecumenical Studies via distance learning. I looked at their facult and it is impressive with well qualified Catholic and Orthodox theologians and clergy. Indeed, many of the instructors are American professors. A glance at their course offerings shows a deeply historical and dogmatic focus. To top it all off, the tuition is very affordable. The subject of Theology recently gained civil recognition in the Ukraine. You can take a class for enrichment or attain the MA degree. Check out their web site: http://www.iesdistance.org.ua/

Kariann October 26, 2008 at 5:52 am

Thank you N.A. Cho, for your response to my question. I didn’t know what to think about it. I am very grateful for your taking the time to help me out.

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