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The Rev. Matthew Dougherty ’09 (left) conducts lake research with undergraduates.

A Norbertine at Yale

The Rev. Matthew Dougherty ’09 arrived at St. Norbert College on a path he confesses was headed more toward atheism than the priesthood. That all began to change after late-night discussions with some fellow Madelaine/Lorraine Hall residents that covered questions as deep as whether there were a God, and what would that mean for the living? Dougherty was ordained a priest in 2015 and is now a Ph.D. candidate at Yale University in the school’s department of ecology and evolutionary biology. He spoke about his journey with Mike Dauplaise ’86.

Q. How did those Mad/Lor talk sessions change the trajectory of your faith journey?
A. It was a lot of fun debating with those guys. They were true believers and their faith was central to their lives. Slowly, they won me over until I came back to the church in a very strong way. I reclaimed my faith and started to think seriously about religious life and the priesthood.

Q. What is it about the Norbertines that drew you to that community?
A. The Norbertines who lived on campus shaped me a lot. They used to live in the priory next to Old St. Joe’s. We’d go buzz the priory door at all hours and the Norbertines were always happy to see us. I was longing for that community life, and they have a long tradition of scholars. First and foremost, we’re trying to follow Jesus Christ and live a life of poverty, chastity and obedience; but I liked the possibility of being a scholar, too.

Q. Where are you in the doctoral process?
A. I have two masters’ degrees in theology, and I will be getting a master’s in biology from Yale. I entered the Ph.D. program without a master’s in biology, which is kind of common in the sciences. You can earn enough credits to earn a master’s along the way. It takes the average student 5½ to six years to complete, and I’m shooting for five. I’m hoping 2½ more years and I’ll be done, but the experiments have to go properly.

Q. You must have had to obtain your abbot’s approval to pursue a Ph.D.?
A. What tends to happen is, the Norbertine leadership starts to think about what you can do as a priest. I had been having conversations with the previous abbot and prior [the Rt. Rev. Gary Neville ’73 and the Rev. Jim Baraniak ’88], trying to figure out what was in store for me. They knew I had a background in science and took delight in studying. They want to put more Norbertines back on campus, so they gave me the green light to apply to a few schools, and I chose Yale. It’s a very long, careful process between the abbey leadership and the candidate.

Q. The working title of your dissertation is “The Context Dependency of Eco-evolutionary Feedback in Alewife.” Do you find yourself having to justify your views on evolution as a priest?
A. Absolutely. There is such a misunderstanding about that topic. Pope Pius XII addressed evolution in his “Humani Generis” in 1950, and all of the popes since then have made positive statements about evolution. They have been saying evolution is the best way we know to explain the diversity of life. Pope Pius warned against evolution being applied to the human soul. The teaching of the church is that one must believe as a Catholic that the soul is directly infused by God. I think if more people knew what the church’s teaching actually is regarding evolution, it might surprise them.

Q. What are your long-term plans?
A. I’m definitely looking forward to working with students when I get back. I want to be a priest and a scientist as well.


July 24, 2020