Before I get too far here, I would like to introduce what may seem like a left-field idea: eschewing on line programs in favor of actual on-site college studies for college credit. Many of you may live in large metropolitan areas where there are many Catholic colleges. Boston certainly comes to mind, and were I living in Bean Town I would probably make it my business to take night school courses in theology and religious education at Boston College even now, at age 67, to fill the considerable gaps in my own theological knowledge. If possible, take the courses for credit, not audit, meaning you would be accumulating hours toward a real (accredited) college degree. There are other considerations about attending college, of course, having to do with your career plans and finances, among other things, and I will discuss these on Wednesday, “Professional Development Day.”
How do you know if a college is a reliable source of teaching in the Catholic Tradition? The United States Conference of Bishops has anticipated us, and provides an exhaustive but convenient list of all Catholic Colleges around the country. You will notice that the list includes seminaries as well. A few seminaries do not admit laymen as a principal, but many by contrast do open their downs to laypersons and religious seeking degrees in theology and Church ministry, and in fact depend upon the income of broader admission policies. A good example for those around Buffalo is suburban Christ the King Seminary, which actually conducts a degree track for theology and pastoral ministry.
But suppose college attendance is out of the question, for the moment, anyway. Can you go to college for a degree on-line? Yes, it is possible, but not every college offers on-line degree programs. I checked with college recruiters at the NCEA Convention. Notre Dame and San Francisco do not. You might be saying, “But I see ads on TV for degrees all the time for on-line degrees and certifications in just about everything.” True, but read the small print: “our credits are not transferrable” which indicates that the regional accrediting bodies of colleges—I discussed those yesterday—have significant difficulties with exclusively on-line learning, and the “degree” has much less clout when you apply for jobs.
Possibly the most common form of on-line learning comes in the form of certificate programs, which was the root of my student’s original question. In truth, anybody can start and maintain one, though rarely have I seen the level of fees anywhere near the site that was submitted to me. So how do you know if your selection of an on-line study program is a good decision?
First, your bishop and diocese may already endorse one. At the Diocese of Orlando website, a seeker will be directed to a link to the Virtual Learning Center for Faith Formation of the University of Dayton. This is a triple guarantee of legitimacy: The University of Dayton includes one of the finest theological faculties in the country, it is accredited and listed by the USCCB, and it has the blessing of the chief catechist of the Orlando Diocese, Bishop John Noonan.
Second, is the study website connected in any way to an existing, approved institution of the Church? For example, is there a corporate link to a mother organization (which is usually labeled on the front webpage as “about us” or some variant)? This might be a diocese, a legitimate Catholic school, parish or university, an approved publisher, or a religious order or Church-approved organization. The USCCB contains a list of all approved publishers who market faith formation printed material, but I was told by publishing reps that it is physically impossible for the USCCB—or just about anyone—to evaluate the proliferation of on-line teaching sites claiming to be Catholic.
Third, how does the instructor identify himself/herself? In the site we discussed yesterday, the webmaster claimed to hold a Ph.D. and self-identified as “doctor,” but there was no mention of the school that awarded the “degree.” Have you ever gone to a doctor who hid his credentials? Hopefully not more than once.
Is the curriculum of the courses available for your review? Good educational sites will lay out the curriculum, as in Dayton’s introductory sketch. You should see exposure to a sequential and organized course of study. In truth, ministry training outlines should look something like seminary course outlines as the minister or catechist will be undertaking parish work with an ordained graduate of a seminary, and “should speak the same language” so to say.
Do the usual internet safety standards appear evident? In the site I looked at yesterday, I could get no meaningful information without giving my credit card number, which of course I would not.
And finally, I would add three more things in your selection process: (1) Will this program enrich my intellectual and spiritual life, along with my passion for learning? (2) Will this course of study enrich the people I serve, and (3) will the degree or certification you earn by completing the program most enhance your future earning power and progress if you are considering expanding your ministerial career? A good site will, at the least, give you some indications of how to answer those questions.