Doctor of Philosophy in Theology with a Specialization in Person, Marriage, and Family (Ph.D.)

St. John Paul II once wrote that “[d]ifferent cultures are basically different ways of facing the question of the meaning of personal existence,” that is, the “fundamental events of life, such as birth, love, work and death.” In reflecting on these events in light of our own culture, we recognize that the Church’s primary task can be characterized as helping men, women, and the culture as a whole face these very questions in light of the revelation of Jesus Christ. The task of the Church in other words is to guide human society to an authentic culture. But precisely these questions represent the greatest stumbling block for the modern intellect, which seems ill-equipped to face them at all.

Engagement must therefore take the form of sustained thought about foundations. What are the cosmological, metaphysical, anthropological, and moral assumptions of modern existence? Are they adequate to reality as a whole? In short, the Church must help men and women think through the very issues modernity seems to have put out of play: the meanings of the humanum and its world, the ultimate principles of being and life, the implications of creation, the Incarnation, and God’s trinitarian nature, the good, the beautiful, freedom, love, the identity and nature of the human person him- or herself. If these are the very questions modernity seems incapable of asking, they are also the questions that must be asked if a genuinely human culture is to survive.

The Institute’s Ph.D. program seeks to engage these most fundamental of human questions at the highest possible level of the life of the intellect, in light of the theological and philosophical tradition of the Church.


The purpose of the Ph.D. program at the John Paul II Institute is the formation of students toward an understanding of person, marriage, and family, in accord with the mission of the Institute (see mission statement).  The program prepares students to carry out significant research and publication and qualifies students for academic positions in universities, colleges, and seminaries.

The Ph.D. program is devoted to the study of the perception of the human person in all of its dimensions: philosophical, theological, anthropological, and scientific. Benefitting from the wealth of the Western and Catholic traditions, the Ph.D. program studies the central human and theological questions while it uncovers the basic presuppositions of the answers given by contemporary culture. Paying special attention to the work of John Paul II, the Ph.D. program examines issues specific to the person, marriage, and the family while it also offers a full-fledged theological formation.

For John Paul II, the link between divine revelation and human experience indicates a fundamental aspect of the Institute:  human love expresses itself in history also as culture. This reality communicates not so much transient and relatively limited customs or notions as a new mentality acknowledging that Christ reveals the meaning of time and history. This new culture, called to generate a "civilization of love," springs from and deepens in wonder the truth of being and invites the grateful gift of the whole self in response. This, at root, is what John Paul II meant when he stated that "the future of the world and of the Church passes through the family" (Familiaris consortio, 75).

Admissions Requirements

Admission to the Ph.D. program requires the successful completion of a master's degree in theology or a related field and the completion of the application process as outlined on the appropriate admissions form. Prior to acceptance, an on-site interview will be required.

Degree Requirements

The Ph.D. program is a 45-credit program (15 courses), and course work is to be completed over three years. Ph.D. students must be in residence for full-time study during the first three years of the program, and ordinarily for the two years of dissertation writing. Full-time study is defined as taking three courses per semester and fulfilling the requirements of the Symposium, which meets four times each semester.

Proficiency in four languages is required of all Ph.D. students: scholastic-ecclesiastical Latin, New Testament Greek, and two modern languages, as delineated below.

Additionally, students are expected to complete successfully the two foundational works examinations at the start of the second and third years of study and qualifying examinations by the end of January of the sixth term of study. (More precise guidelines are given below.)

Following completion of coursework, language requirements, foundational works examinations, and qualifying examinations, Ph.D. students must submit the dissertation prospectus by November 1 of the 7th semester of study. After the prospectus has been approved, students are expected to complete their dissertations in two years.


Ph.D. courses are generally offered on a three-year cycle, and students may choose any 15 courses of those offered at the Institute during the first five semesters. 

Ph.D. students who are new to the Institute are typically required to take additional courses at the master’s or licentiate level. With the permission of the Ph.D. Program Advisor and the fulfillment of an additional writing requirement, one of these courses may be substituted for a Ph.D.-level course.


Students are required to demonstrate reading proficiency in scholastic-ecclesiastical Latin, New Testament Greek, and two modern languages (French, Spanish, Italian, German). Proficiency is demonstrated by successful completion of a written examination administered by Institute faculty. One ancient and one modern language examination must be taken before the end of the first semester. The remaining language examinations must be taken by the end of the third semester.

An additional language may be required, depending on the dissertation topic.

Qualifying examinations may not be taken until the foundational works examinations and language requirements have been fulfilled.


The Symposium consists in monthly evening seminars on selected "Great Books" (and occasionally works of art or music), for the purpose of developing a community of conversation among all Ph.D. students and the faculty around the themes of person, God, love, marriage, and family as these have been articulated by, and shape, the tradition of Christianity and the West. This community of conversation is integral to both the method and the substance of the educational mission of the Institute. An overarching concern of the conversation is to explore the sense in which the meaning and dignity of human life are recognized and can finally be sustained only from within a culture of obedient and free gratefulness. John Paul II writes often of a "civilization of love" or again a "culture of life." The Symposium examines civilization, love, and life as matters above all of what the Greeks termed "morphosis," or "morphe," of being formed, hence of "form."

A short paper is submitted prior to each Symposium discussion. The reflective question for the paper will be posed on the occasion of the previous month's Symposium by the professor who will guide the next discussion. If a student misses the Symposium, he or she is required to submit a 3000 word essay to the leader of the missed seminar. A student must receive a grade of "pass" for each Symposium discussion, based on the short paper and on participation in the discussion; otherwise, the student must pass an oral examination to be administered at the end of the semester.

The Symposium reading list is available in the administrative offices of the Institute.

Foundational Works

The two foundational works reading lists cultivate both the breadth and depth of students’ knowledge of theology, philosophy, and of the Catholic intellectual tradition.  The two examinations based on these lists require students to demonstrate a profound grasp of the main concepts, issues, and themes contained in each of the works constituting the reading lists. 

The foundational works reading list is available in the administrative offices of the Institute. Although some of these books appear on course bibliographies, each student is expected to read and prepare on his or her own all the books for the foundational works examinations.

Qualifying Examinations

The qualifying examinations consist of both written and oral components. The written component is divided into three sections and the student’s responses in these three sections are treated in the oral component.

The qualifying examinations will take place in the second week of the sixth semester of study. Upon request to the Provost/Dean, permission may be granted to postpone the qualifying examinations to the first week of April. Qualifying examinations may not be taken until the foundational works examinations and language requirements have been fulfilled.

Students should register for the qualifying examinations during registration week of the fifth semester.

The three written parts will be offered normally on the Monday (section 1), Wednesday (section 2), and Friday (section 3) of the selected week. Each section requires students to answer two of three questions, in four hours, on computers provided by the Institute.

The written component of the examination will comprise the following sections.

Section 1: Quarrel between Ancients and Moderns. What is one to make of the nature and demands of classical and medieval thought relative to the assumptions of modernity, postmodernity, and Anglo-American liberalism? How does the one thing needful as set forth in Greek philosophy (“Athens”: reason) stand with respect to the one thing needful as proclaimed by the Bible (“Jerusalem”: biblical revelation); and how does each of these stand with respect to modernity in its defining features? What are the defining features of the way of the moderns as distinct from the way of the ancients, medievals, recent Christian thought, and the Church of Vatican II?

These questions will be examined through the following authors:

  1. Ancient writers: Plato, Aristotle
  2. Medieval writers: Aquinas, Bonaventure, Ockham
  3. Modern writers: Machiavelli, Hobbes, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Hume, Kant
  4. Recent Christian authors and the Second Vatican Council: Balthasar, De Lubac, Rahner, Documents of Vatican II
  5. American authors: I. Hecker, W. Elliott, J. C. Murray, J. Rawls, L. Strauss

A list of required works by each author is available in the administrative offices of the Institute.

Section 2: Anthropology and Fundamental Theology and Morality. This section requires critical elucidations of the fundamental anthropological-ontological, theological, and moral teaching of Karol Wojtyła/John Paul II and Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI.  Students will answer questions regarding such topics as the meaning of person, being as gift, nuptiality, action and freedom. A list of required works by each author is available in the Institute offices.

Section 3: Contemporary Critical Issues. This section requires students to take up currently vexed issues in theology and philosophy pertinent to marriage, family, and the person.  Questions will be drawn from such areas as sexual ethics, bioethics, sacramental theology, feminism, gender, and their social, cultural, and political/juridical contexts, requiring students to discuss the current status of an issue in contemporary literature.

Each question in this section will provide a substantial excerpt from a contemporary theologian on one of the topics indicated above.  The student will be asked to elucidate the argument, identify its key philosophical/anthropological principles, and evaluate the argument in light of the Catholic tradition.

The oral component of the exam takes place as follows:

The board normally examines the student within 10 days after the student has completed his last written section of the Qualifying Examination. The oral component of the examination will be at least two (and not more than two-and-one half) hours in length.

At the beginning of the oral component, the student will have up to fifteen minutes to offer clarifications or modifications with respect to his or her written responses prior to the commencement of questioning. The student may bring a one-page outline of his planned comments but should not read verbatim from this prepared document.

The board members question the student for each one of the three sections of the written component for up to forty-five minutes. Each professor will be given ten to twelve minutes per section. After the first round of a questions, board members may engage in a round of follow-up questions during the section’s remaining time. Normally, the panel will begin with the first section and proceed in order to the other two sections. At the discretion of the chair, the forgoing structure of the oral examination may be modified. The chairman of the board is chosen by the Program Advisor and cannot already be a member of the panel. The chairman does not vote concerning the grade but moderates the board’s discussion following the examination.

Dissertation Prospectus

The dissertation prospectus is prepared under the guidance the dissertation director, who must be selected by registration week of the fifth semester. The key elements of the dissertation prospectus are the research and articulation of the dissertation’s argument and the collegial process of guidance by the dissertation director and the first and second readers of the dissertation.

Excluding the bibliography, the prospectus consists of a 3000-word summary that makes explicit the main argument of the dissertation.

It should consist of all the following parts:

  1. Title of the thesis
  2. Paragraph briefly stating the thesis’ argument and its contemporary relevance.
  3. Brief Status Quaestionis of the topic
  4. Methodology
  5. Description of the content of each chapter, showing how the argument proceeds
  6. Table of contents
  7. A preliminary bibliography containing the most important primary and secondary sources.

(Each of the more substantive sections [3-7] should begin on a fresh page in the document.)

Dissertation Prospectus Evaluation

The student must have passed the qualifying examinations before the prospectus can be submitted for formal evaluation. Once the dissertation director deems the prospectus acceptable, it is circulated among the entire faculty. The prospectus may be submitted by April 1 of the sixth semester, if possible, and no later than November 1 of the seventh semester. Faculty members have two weeks to submit comments, objections, and/or questions to the thesis director and Program Advisor.

After this review, the student may meet with his or her board, comprised of the director and two readers, for the evaluation of the prospectus. The prospectus evaluation is an opportunity for the candidate to present his or her thesis, its importance and historical or scholarly context, and the intended methodological approach to his or her panel members. It also gives the panelists an opportunity to pose questions, offer comments or criticisms, and suggest or require changes, whether large or small, to the prospectus and intended dissertation.

The prospectus is deemed to be finally approved when it has been signed by the dissertation director, the first and second readers, and the Program Advisor. The prospectus, with original signatures, is held in the student’s permanent file.

The board may make the following dispositions of the prospectus as a result of the evaluation meeting: “pass,” “pass with minor modifications,” “revise and resubmit,” or “fail.” Once the prospectus has been approved, the student may begin to write his or her dissertation and is considered a “candidate” for the degree. Students who fail to meet any of the conditions or deadlines, he or she must petition the Dean to continue in the program.

If a student changes his or her dissertation topic, the new topic must be approved by the dissertation director, the Program Advisor, and the Dean. If the dissertation director or any of the readers is to be changed, the approval of the Dean is required.


The Ph.D. degree is awarded after the successful completion of the doctoral dissertation and a defense of the dissertation before the dissertation board. The dissertation should not exceed 300 pages (bibliography excluded) and should demonstrate maturity of theological judgment based on advanced graduate study. It should give evidence of research capacity and reflection commensurate with advanced study, ability to perform independent intellectual work, and comprehension of the candidate's chosen field of study. The dissertation should be of sufficient quality to constitute a genuine contribution to that field of study and to warrant publication.

On or before the deadline for submission noted in the academic calendar, the student must submit to the Program Advisor six copies of the completed dissertation, accompanied by six copies of an abstract of 350 words. The dissertation copies must be bound with a black spiral binding, a black vinyl back cover, and a clear plastic front cover. The text of the dissertation may be printed double-sided, and the text should be double-spaced in 12-point New Times Roman font, left-margin-justified. The margins should be 1.25” at the right and left of the page and 1” at the top and bottom of the page. The dissertation should follow the Chicago Manual of Style. A sample title page and table of contents may be requested from the Assistant to the Program Advisor.

The student must receive approval from his dissertation director before the dissertation is submitted for defense. Once the dissertation has been submitted, the Program Advisor, in consultation with the dissertation director, may select an external reader who is not a member of the faculty to participate at the defense.

The Assistant to the Program Advisor distributes the copies of the dissertation to the dissertation director and the other dissertation board members.

The dissertation may not be submitted to the board members until the director has given approval. In consultation with the director, other board members may disqualify the dissertation for defense by submitting their written objections within four weeks of the dissertation’s submission. If no objection is registered, the defense date will be confirmed.

At least eight weeks must elapse between the submission of the dissertation and the defense; the summer months and official holidays will not be counted as part of the required eight weeks. The fall and spring deadlines for submission of dissertations will be listed in the academic calendar for each year, and all candidates will be strictly bound by those dates.

Defense of the Dissertation

After acceptance of the dissertation by the director and readers, the student must defend the dissertation in a public defense of at least two hours. The student will begin with a fifteen-minute presentation of the dissertation, which will be followed by a period of questions from each member of the dissertation board.

At the end of the defense, the oral defense and the dissertation are graded separately. A vote is taken in secret for each component and is supervised by the chairman for the examination. The possible grades for the dissertation are "pass," "pass with revisions," and, in rare instances, "pass with distinction." The candidate must receive a "pass" for both the dissertation and the defense to receive the Ph.D. degree. A unanimous "pass with distinction" is required on both the dissertation and the oral defense in order to receive this grade for the dissertation.

If a candidate fails the defense, he or she must obtain permission from the Provost/Dean to retake the examination. A candidate will not be permitted to repeat the defense until at least one semester, or an equivalent period of time, has elapsed from the date of the failure. If the student fails a second time, he or she ceases to be a candidate for the Ph.D. degree.

Dissertation Publication

Following approval of the dissertation and any required revisions, Ph.D. graduates have the option to submit their dissertations for publication by UMI ProQuest. UMI ProQuest is a national dissertation archive that allows Ph.D. dissertations to be accessible, via abstract or full text, to the scholarly community.

Submission for publication is completed through the Institute’s private institutional online portal. Instructions for the submission process will be distributed upon request. Depending on the author’s selection of services from UMI ProQuest, the publication process may be free or may require the payment of several nominal fees.

Advising and Dissertation Direction

The Program Advisor orients the student to the degree program, guides the student through questions regarding the degree requirements, assists the student in selecting the dissertation director, and gives final approval to course selection.

The dissertation director, normally selected by registration week of the fifth semester, guides the student in preparing the dissertation prospectus, and serves as mentor during the dissertation writing process.


The Symposium discussions are graded pass/fail on the basis of short papers and participation. The prospectus course is graded pass/fail; passing the course does not necessarily imply that the dissertation topic will be passed in the form of its original submission. All other courses must be completed with a grade of B- or above; grades of C or below are not counted toward completion of the degree but are included in the calculation of grade-point average.

Qualifying examinations are graded pass/fail. In the case of truly exceptional performance, a grade of "pass with distinction" may be awarded only by unanimous vote of the examining board. For a truly exceptional dissertation, the grade of "pass with distinction" may be awarded only by unanimous vote at the dissertation defense.

A student may be awarded the Ph.D. degree "with distinction" only if the grade "pass with distinction" is earned for both the comprehensive examinations and the dissertation, and if the student's grade-point average is 3.9 or above.

In the case of truly exceptional performance in the qualifying examinations, a grade of "pass with distinction" may be awarded only by unanimous vote of the examining board. For a truly exceptional dissertation, the grade of "pass with distinction" may be awarded only by unanimous vote at the dissertation defense.

Review of Academic Progress

The Ph.D. Program Advisor conducts an interview with each doctoral student at the end of his or her first and third years of study to review the student’s academic progress and to receive comments from the student regarding his or her progress and concerning the program itself.  At this time, the Program Advisor communicates to the student the results of the periodic evaluation of his or her progress by the faculty members of the Admissions Committee.  

All courses must be completed with a grade of B- or above; grades of C or below are not counted toward completion of the degree but are included in the calculation of grade-point average. Ph.D. students must maintain a GPA of at least 3.5 during their coursework and are automatically under "probationary status" if they drop below the GPA minimum. The committee reserves the prerogative of permitting the student to continue or not in the program if his or her GPA should fall below 3.5. If a student is unable to maintain this average grade at the end of the third semester of study, he or she ceases to be a Ph.D. student. Furthermore, for unsatisfactory written work, failure to complete program requirements on a timely basis, failure to comply with other guidelines or to make adequate progress in the degree program, appropriate action may be taken, up to and including dismissal from the program. An appeal of this decision may be directed to the Provost/Dean, whose decision will be final in all cases.

After successful completion of the dissertation defense, each student will meet with the Ph.D. Program Advisor for an exit review of the program. A written review of the program is also requested at this time.


The Ph.D. program normally requires six semesters of full-time study in residence, plus two years of dissertation writing. The completed dissertation must be defended within seven years of the date the student enrolls in the Ph.D. program. If a student is unable to defend the dissertation within seven years, the student may petition the Provost/Dean for a one-year extension. If a student fails to defend the dissertation within this period, he or she ceases to be a candidate for the Ph.D. degree.


Ph.D. students are required to serve in research or teaching assistantships during the fourth and fifth years of study, as available. The assistantships may entail ten to fifteen hours of work per week assisting a designated professor or teaching a full-semester course offered through the Institute’s Continuing Education Program. Acceptance of assistantships is required for continued receipt of any scholarships or stipends.