Catholic Colleges Use Distance Education to Train Lay Ministers


Fewer Roman Catholic clergy members and increasing numbers of Catholics living in the United States have led more Catholic colleges to offer distance-education programs to train their lay members to perform ministerial tasks. While the institutions uniformly see a great need for pastoral distance education, some debate exists on whether online courses fit as well with Catholic teaching traditions as more traditional distance-learning techniques.

Officials at some Catholic colleges think that online courses and pastoral education are a match made in heaven. For example, the Satellite Theological Education Program at the University of Notre Dame offers six not-for-credit courses online. Students can download their course material, turn in assignments by e-mail, and participate in online chats. The program now serves eight dioceses with 300 participants and expects to add the Anchorage, Alaska, and Atlanta archdioceses soon, said Thomas Cummings, its director.

“We think the national scope of the market is approximately 100,000, and we think it’s possible to reach 20,000,” Mr. Cummings said.

On the other hand, the Loyola Institute for Ministry Expansion at Loyola University in New Orleans, the largest granter of lay ecclesial-ministry degrees and certificates in the nation, offers no online courses.

“We’ve pretty much decided that the majority of our work will be face to face,” said Cecelia Bennett, the institute’s associate director. “Right now, [Internet] technology doesn’t enhance what we’re doing.”p. Loyola offers 51 degree and certificate programs via distance education. More than 800 students from 49 states and Britain gather weekly in groups of 12. A facilitator guides discussion and shows a video prepared by a Loyola professor. “The key to quality education is communication between the faculty member and the student,” said Sister Angela Ann Zukowski, director of the Institute for Pastoral Initiatives at the University of Dayton.

Dayton uses live teleconferencing through the Internet to hold classes every three weeks with students at Chaminade University, in Oahu, Hawaii, said Sister Zukowski. The university’s new Virtual Learning Community for Faith Formation, which she heads, started last month and offers online courses to Kentucky, Ohio, and Indiana residents. To foster a sense of community among students, class sizes are limited to 12 students per section.

Catholic colleges are training lay members to do pastoral work that priests, nuns, and brothers no longer do because of falling numbers. Since 1965, the total number of Roman Catholic clergy members in the United States has dropped more than 48 percent, to 128,793, according to figures from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, at Georgetown University. In that same period, the Catholic population in the United States has grown by 33 percent, to 60.6 million. More than one parish in six doesn’t have a resident priest.

More than 26,000 lay ministers now hold leadership posts in dioceses, parishes, and Catholic organizations.From 1985 to 2001, the number of lay ecclesial-ministry programs has doubled, to 314 nationwide, and enrollment has tripled, to 35,582. Most Catholic colleges offering pastoral-ministry programs grant master’s degrees or certificates in pastoral ministry, religious education, and pastoral education.

Sponsoring dioceses get professionally trained lay ministers with graduate-level credentials and competencies to teach religious education, said Ms. Bennett, of Loyola. “For religious educators who will be parish or diocesan directors, having credit gives them a big advantage,” she said. Some dioceses — including many in the Northeast — require their personnel to have degrees or certification.

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