On Saturday, May 20, 2023, the three inaugural graduates of the Villanova University doctoral program in Theology will gather on stage at the Master's and Doctoral Degree Commencement and Recognition Ceremony inside Villanova Stadium. University President the Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD, ’75 CLAS, will bestow upon them their academic hoods—a symbolic act recognizing their successful completion of the program and their transition from students to colleagues of the faculty.
The Rev. Rebecca Irwin-Diehl '23 PhD, Andre Price '23 PhD and Sister Theresa Dung Trang, LHC, '23 PhD, who all entered the program in 2017, will make history as the first cohort of Theology PhD students to graduate.
The PhD program was founded in 2016 as an interdisciplinary and integrative program seeking to formulate and advance theology within the Augustinian tradition of “faith engaging culture” and to emphasize the study of theology as lived experience. Students would study how faith and theology interact with cultural dynamics and would be able to see their specific research questions in the context of broader social questions.
“Several years ago, when considering new doctoral programs, I was determined that new programs should only be added if they fit Villanova’s distinctive niche and our Augustinian mission to serve the needs of society, the Church and the world,” says Father Donohue. “Villanova’s PhD in Theology program does just that—exploring the intersection of theology and culture within the Augustinian tradition, setting it apart from other Theology PhD programs across our country. St. Augustine and our Augustinian values continue to define who we are as a University community, and our Theology PhD program brings together a new community of scholars to engage in conversations about Augustine, his life and his legacy, and how they impact our lives today.”
Associate Professor Peter Spitaler, ThD, who was chair of the Villanova Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the inception of the PhD program, notes that its creation was motivated by the need to train scholars who are well-equipped to address the complicated issues facing the global church and society.
“The outlook of the program is bright,” Dr. Spitaler says. “As the world becomes more complex and diverse, the study of theology becomes increasingly relevant, and our program provides students with the intellectual tools and skills necessary to address these complex issues. These graduates have completed a rigorous program and demonstrated an unwavering commitment to their academic pursuits. They have developed new ideas, theories and methods in the fields of theology and religion, and they have enriched Villanova’s academic community. I am confident that they will continue to make meaningful contributions to the church, society and academy.”
Another defining characteristic of the Villanova Theology PhD is its Heart of Teaching program, which provides coursework in theological pedagogy in addition to faculty mentorship and supervised teaching. It serves as a practical application of an apprenticeship-in-community model inspired by Villanova’s Augustinian identity.
“The Heart of Teaching program is a beacon for doctoral education, across higher education, that generally neglects teacher formation,” says Heart of Teaching Program Director and Associate Professor Timothy Hanchin, PhD. “By forming reflective educators in light of Villanova’s distinct mission, the Heart of Teaching enfleshes Augustine’s concern for education attuned to our restless heart and mind. The Heart of Teaching recognizes that teaching is a creative craft just as intellectually rigorous as scholarship.”
This emphasis on both scholarship and teaching is essential for Adele Lindenmeyr, PhD, William and Julia Moulden Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), who was also instrumental in the creation of the PhD program.
“Thanks to its rigorous curriculum and teacher training program, our doctoral students are prepared to be the effective teacher-scholars our communities, schools, churches and organizations need,” says Dean Lindenmeyr. “I am grateful to the doctoral faculty for their investment in the program and their students. Teaching and mentoring at the doctoral level is time-intensive, and the success of these students reflects our faculty’s commitment to preparing a new generation of theologians.”
Program Co-director and Professor Stefanie Knauss, ThD, notes that the program’s goal is to train theologians who are experts in their fields of studies, excellent scholars and dedicated teachers, but the program’s focus on “faith engaging culture” also prepares students to take on leadership positions outside of the academy.
“Our students have an openness to the world around them,” Dr. Knauss says. “They are open to other career trajectories, and we emphasize how our students’ skills can transfer to other fields, which responds to the changing professional profiles of graduates with a PhD in Theology and of the academic landscape in the humanities more broadly.”
This openness is reflected in the next steps that each new graduate will take in their careers. Dr. Irwin-Diehl will continue to serve as the Director at the Center for Continuous Learning at American Baptist Home Mission Societies in King of Prussia, a position she accepted while enrolled in the PhD program. Dr. Price will be a Louisville Institute Postdoctoral Fellow beginning Fall 2023 and will continue to pastor Mount Olivet Tabernacle Baptist Church in West Philadelphia, as he has done throughout his time at Villanova. After a semester-long research fellowship in the fall, Sister Trang will return to her native Vietnam to begin her teaching responsibilities for sisters in formation.
While the graduating students all recognize the importance of the Theology PhD program in their lives and careers, Dr. Knauss also notes that the PhD program and the students enrolled in it have had a significant impact on the culture in the department.
“The engagement with our students’ questions enriches our own research; they challenge us to consider new questions and perspectives in our teaching; and the Heart of Teaching program has motivated not only our students to be intentional about their pedagogical practices but also us as faculty,” Dr. Knauss says.
For Emory Woodard IV, PhD, Dean of CLAS Graduate Studies, the mission of the Theology doctoral program is directly aligned with the mission of the University.
“The centerpiece of the first-year experience for every Villanova undergraduate is an introduction to our Catholic and Augustinian ethos,” says Dean Woodard. “Having a doctoral program that produces scholars whose work exemplifies that ethos completes the circle. Now, not only do we ensure our students are exposed to values that are central to the Villanova experience but also do we ensure that such scholarship informs the work at community organizations, churches and other institutions of higher education across the country and around the world.”
Dr. Knauss has been the PhD program co-director since its outset, along with Professor Jonathan Yates, PhD, who notes the rapid pace of change in higher education and the world since they began planning the program more than 10 years ago. The global pandemic, the changing influence and perception of Christianity in U.S. culture, and online education, for example, have all necessitated department leaders to adjust their plans, or, in some cases, have reaffirmed their assumptions, such as the value of in-person instruction and the cultivation of an authentic academic community. Through all of the upheaval and uncertainty of recent years, Dr. Yates sees promise in the future of the program and the impact it can have at Villanova and beyond.
“This year’s Commencement ceremony will be a special one. We hope it will be a day that will make the Villanova community proud and be the first of many commencements at which we are able to send a few doctores out into the world,” says Dr. Yates. “We hope that this program might be able to contribute, at least in a small way, to the growth and to the flourishing of the church both in the U.S. and around the world. The overarching goal, of course, is to make our world a little better than it has been.”