What Kind of Model Is Steubenville?

By Allen, John L. JR. | National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000 | Go to article overview

What Kind of Model Is Steubenville?


Allen, John L. JR., National Catholic Reporter


As university anticipates life beyond Scanlan, debate surfaces on his controversial legacy

For 25 years, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, has been virtually synonymous with its president and father figure, Third Order Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlan upbeat and vigorous, aggressive about restoring a vision of Catholic culture he believes was forgotten or suppressed after the Second Vatican Council.

Catholic leaders from Rome and around the world have showered Scanlan's achievement with praise, frequently visiting Steubenville or accepting honorary degrees. If the next pope, for example, is Nigerian Cardinal Francis Arinze or Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schonborn -- and both seem good bets -- Steubenville would be the American campus they know best. Such prelates often tout the university as a model for John Paul's vision of higher education in Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

Steubenville has an outsize impact on the American Catholic scene because of the number of graduates -- more than 700 -- working in parishes and dioceses as youth ministers, teachers and directors of religious education. It also has had extraordinary success reaching youth. From 1977 to 1999, 100,910 teenagers from all pockets of the country participated in one or more of Steubenville's summer conferences.

Thus the unexpected news in February 1999 that Scanlan was resigning touched off a crisis here, a sense that the university's identity was up for grabs. Scanlan later agreed to stay on amid fierce controversy over his replacement, but there's a clear sense his era is winding down -- and a contest for the future has begun that is, inescapably, a referendum on his tenure.

Those years have been marked by controversies new and old, some well known and others reported here for the first time:

* Accusations of unorthodoxy that helped scuttle the appointment of Third Order Franciscan Fr. Thomas Bourque as Scanlan's successor;

* A fight over curriculum that reflects tensions over Catholic identity, as well as resentment over what is perceived as the growing influence of a deeply conservative core of humanities faculty;

* Scanlan's embrace of the charismatic movement, including unresolved questions over how much he knew about its excesses in the 1980s and early 1990s, and whether the lessons of that era have really been learned;

* Scanlan's tolerance of fascination with Marian apparitions and end-time scenarios;

* Polarized reactions to Steubenville graduates -- whose zeal, critics say, too often shades off into serf-righteousness, reflecting the "more Catholic than the pope" ethos of Scanlan himself.

Collectively, observers told NCR, these aspects of Scanlan's tenure form the core of a debate over whether what's grown up here on the banks of the Ohio River is really a model -- and if so, what kind.

Battle over Bourque

Scanlan's Irish charm, coupled with his transformation of a dying regional school into a bustling international institution, makes him a remarkably popular figure here. Even the harshest internal critics usually exempt Scanlan from blame for the people or policies to which they object.

His achievement is well documented. Scanlan rejuvenated a small liberal arts college on the brink of extinction in the 1970s by making it a center for charismatic practices such as healing and speaking in tongues, and by stressing a deep (critics would say unreflective) loyalty to the church's magisterium. Today Steubenville's 2,131 students come from all 50 states and 35 foreign countries.

Scanlan's prominence means that whoever succeeds him will play on a big stage, and that may explain the extraordinary skirmishing unleashed last year when the prospect of life beyond Scanlan first dawned.

Though what happened has been the subject of rumor in Steubenville, the details have not previously been made public.

The first notice that Scanlan was considering resignation came at the February 1999 meeting of the board of trustees. …

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