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What kind of model is Steubenville?

NCR Staff
Steubenville, Ohio

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 Schönborn -- 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 self-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. Several board members contacted by NCR said it came as a surprise, leading to speculation that Scanlan had been ordered to stand down by his provincial superior, Third Order Franciscan Fr. Edmund Carroll.

Carroll did not respond to requests for comment or to a faxed list of questions. The Third Orders, who founded the university in Steubenville in 1946, are a branch of the worldwide Franciscan movement.

In an interview in his Steubenville office, Scanlan said his resignation arose from a conversation with Carroll, but denied he was coerced. “It definitely was not against my will,” he said.

According to several board members, Carroll asked the board -- which includes such high-profile Catholics as Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes and former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn -- to suspend its February agenda and to name Bourque as Scanlan’s replacement.

Bourque, appointed provost at Steubenville in 1997, has a master’s in theology from St. Michael’s College in Toronto and a doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco. He taught religious studies at St. Francis College in Loretto, Pa., also run by the Third Order Franciscans, before moving to Steubenville. Most sources called him a theological moderate.

The board voted to offer Scanlan a new position as chancellor, allowing him to represent the university, including hosting his TV series “Franciscan University Presents” on EWTN. Members balked, however, at appointing Bourque on the spot. The matter was to be revisited in April.

Shortly afterward the university put out a news release announcing Scanlan’s resignation and his appointment as chancellor. No mention was made of Bourque.

After being named to the top academic job in 1997, Bourque “shook some cages,” according to Stephen Miletic, now Steubenville’s acting faculty dean. Most prominently, Bourque derailed the efforts of a group of faculty in the humanities department to push through a controversial new core curriculum. Bourque appointed a broadly representative task force to study the issues -- pointedly omitting some of the faculty most identified with the earlier efforts.

Whatever its roots, hostility against Bourque was palpable. Opponents dug into Bourque’s background for evidence that he was unsuitable to lead a university known for its orthodoxy.

A long-time faculty member told NCR that when he asked a colleague in theology why he opposed Bourque, the theologian produced a syllabus of Bourque’s from St. Francis. It included theologians usually seen as progressive on a recommended reading list.

“It was a list of authors, some of whom would be seen as liberals,” the faculty member said. “But this was just suggested reading, not a theological treatise.”

An alumnus told NCR that when he asked a member of the philosophy faculty the same question, the philosopher told him that Bourque had quoted Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, a well-known progressive theologian, in his doctoral dissertation.

Michael Campbell, a board member and vice president at Steubenville, confirmed that copies of Bourque’s syllabi were faxed to him, but said they “came in blind” so he could not determine their source. Campbell said one such syllabus was dated 1984.

The Third Order Franciscans attempted to rally behind Bourque. During the April meeting of the board, Carroll said he had many faculty letters supporting Bourque. The statement backfired, however, when some board members saw it as an attempt to pressure them. They delayed action again.

In the meantime, faculty debates intensified. Bourque faced his critics during an extraordinary faculty meeting May 13. According to sources present, Bourque read vows he had taken as a Franciscan pledging his loyalty to the order and the church.

“I thought he did very well, given that there were darts and arrows from all over the place,” Miletic said.

Although it had no legal force, a “sense of the faculty” vote was supportive of Bourque. According to one source, 67 were in favor and 17 opposed.

Despite the result, it became increasingly clear during May and June that the board was deadlocked. In a June meeting, Scanlan told the board he was withdrawing his resignation and that he would serve at least another year.

Bourque resigned in June 1999 and now works as director for formation for the province in Washington, D.C. He declined to be interviewed.

Observers differ on how much the charges of unorthodoxy hurt. Scanlan says it was a non-issue. “The board made an explicit statement that it was not concerned about Fr. Tom’s orthodoxy,” he said.

Campbell said the issue was whether the university needs a talented administrator in its top job, which was Bourque’s reputation, or more of a visionary and pastor.

Both Scanlan and Campbell said they have no doubts about Bouque’s orthodoxy.

Former board member Alice von Hildebrand, however, told NCR that she saw the questions about Bourque’s orthodoxy as among the key reasons the board rejected him. Von Hildebrand was still on the board when the decisions about Bourque were made.

Scanlan acknowledged the board was skeptical about whether Bourque would follow his path. “Fr. Tom had been explicit that he wanted to,” Scanlan said. “The board for this or that reason felt that he wouldn’t.”

Observers say several forces combined to sow those doubts. One, according to a nationally prominent Catholic close to the university, is a perception that Bourque would face pressure from the Third Order Franciscans to steer the university in a more moderate direction.

“They’re concerned that Steubenville get back into what they see as the mainstream of Catholic life,” the source said. “But others on the board like the rough edges.”

Scanlan acknowledged that those views exist within the Franciscans. “There’s no sharp break that we’ve got to make a 90 degree turn, but there are differences in emphasis that from some perceptions would be more moderate,” he said.

An alumnus active in university affairs spelled out the concern. “The fear is that the university will go back to what it was before Scanlan, just a community college with an interesting history.”

A common vocabulary

One point where conflicting visions have collided is the curriculum, or the set of courses Steubenville offers. Some want a humanities-driven core curriculum, required of all students, in order to create a common theological and philosophical vocabulary.

As this drive got underway in the mid-1990s, one source said, it encountered resistance from faculty worried about alienating students seeking career preparation. Sources said programs such as nursing, education, business and communication arts draw students from the surrounding region who see Steubenville as a good school with high moral standards, but who are often unaware of, and sometimes uncomfortable with, the intense religious emphasis. “Sometimes the liberal arts faculty disparage the professional programs,” said Jason Negri, the university’s alumni relations officer. “They fall into the trap of making this a religious issue, saying they want to make the curriculum more Catholic.”

According to two faculty members who spoke to NCR, the curriculum debate created a perception that a group of deeply conservative thinkers in the humanities -- including John Crosby and W. Patrick Lee in philosophy, Regis Martin, Scott Hahn and Mark Miravalle in theology, Stephen Krason in political science, and James Gaston in history -- wanted to reorient the university along the lines of traditionalist Catholic institutions such as Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., and Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. Both stress a Great Books approach.

These faculty represent, according to observers, a “second wave” at Steubenville under Scanlan. The first was charismatic, the second more traditionalist and classically orthodox.

“This gang is pretty ultra-conservative, though not pre-Vatican II,” one faculty member said, calling the way certain members of the group conducted the curriculum debate “unbearably arrogant.”

Several sources at Steubenville said the most vehement faculty opposition to Bourque came from members of this group.

Miletic acknowledges the disagreement. “Absolutely. I would like to see what university doesn’t have this kind of tension -- I will move there tomorrow,” he said. “Any faculty that can’t duke it out, that doesn’t have the guts to do that, that place is gonna close,” he said.

Miletic said Steubenville couldn’t adopt the Thomas Aquinas College model because it’s “not the right fit” with its diverse student population.

He wants to beef up the university’s honors offerings, however, to attract “the Ivy League-bound high school kid who likes the spirituality, likes the camaraderie, likes the social life here … but they don’t find what they would find at Harvard or Princeton or Yale.”

A 1998 evaluation by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, a conservative think tank, suggested the strong countercultural ethos at Steubenville impairs its academic mission. “It’s almost a four-year retreat,” said one Steubenville faculty member quoted in the evaluation.

“We are so thoroughly fortressed from the world and homogenous in our faculty that there is little intellectual excitement. We don’t engage the world of ideas enough.”

Miletic said, “Whoever wrote that evaluation needs to check their sources.”

Today much of the fire seems to have gone out of the curriculum debate. The special task force created by Bourque has been meeting for more than a year, and sources indicated it enjoys wide credibility. As faculty from different departments work together, sources said, they’ve found their differences narrowing.

In a conversation with NCR, task force members said they intend to have a plan at the end of the semester -- and, while nothing is final, it seems likely to be only a modest departure from existing practice. One member described it as “routine maintenance.”

Gifts of the spirit

While Steubenville’s charismatic ethos is credited with keeping the university afloat, it also triggered the most controversial aspect of the Scanlan era.

During the 1970s and 1980s, charismatics around the country grouped into small faith communities known as “covenant communities.” A group of people -- sometimes including whole families -- signs an agreement, or “covenant,” often including a pledge of obedience to leaders.

The community formed in Steubenville under Scanlan’s guidance was connected to the Sword of the Spirit, a non-denominational charismatic movement based in Ann Arbor, Mich.By this time Scanlan was widely known as an international leader of the charismatic movement; his spiritual experiences are described in a 1986 autobiography, Let The Fire Fall.

While many members of the Steubenville community worked at the university or were former students, the community had no formal tie to the university.

Rumors of excessive control over members’ lives and cult-like secrecy dogged the group. Albert Ottenweller, former bishop of Steubenville, launched an investigation in January 1991, inviting national experts on cult activities to lead it.

Their report, summarized in the Steubenville diocesan newspaper in June 1991, cited several abuses. They included excessive control over child rearing, dating practices, finances, buying and selling real estate, the location of homes and even the sexual lives of married couples. The report also faulted the communities for fostering elitism, excessive secrecy, fundamentalism and a lack of compassion -- including the shunning of members who left.

Nine years later, it remains controversial how much Scanlan knew about the practices. He says he was largely unaware.

“I was assured by people in our annual written and oral interviews that there were only some aberrations, and this was not going on in the mainstream,” he told NCR. “When I later asked people they said, ‘Well, we didn’t feel like we could tell you, we didn’t know what you’d think of us,’ things like that. So I really was not aware, though I always had this sense that what works with religious life, what works with single people, may not work as well with families.”

Two members of Ottenweller’s investigation team dispute Scanlan’s assertion. “With the way information is funneled up to the people you are submitted to, it is to be expected that he would be fully aware of what was going on,” said Doris Quelet, who tracks cult activity from Baltimore. She made several trips to Steubenville as part of Ottenweller’s panel.

Quelet said she is bound by a confidentiality agreement and could not comment on the details of the investigation.

Another member of the team, Fr. Walter Debold of Seton Hall University, said he believes Scanlan “was aware of all the methodology in the whole business.”

“Personally, subjectively, I believe he thought he was doing good things for the church,” Debold said. “But objectively I differ with his methods. Christ and the gospel call people to freedom. Surrendering your freedom to some kind of guru is not the message of Jesus Christ.”

Debold said it worries him that Franciscan University under Scanlan has received “pats on the back from some of the highest churchmen in the country,” arguing that Scanlan’s approach reflects “the germ of fundamentalism.”

Most observers acknowledge that the 1991 investigation pruned many of the most serious abuses. Today Scanlan acknowledges there were problems, but also sees positives.

“I learned how difficult it is to care from the outside for families. Family relationships are very delicate things, and … it’s very easy for that to start having some negative reactions,” he said. “Beyond that I learned a lot of wonderful things about how you build a sense of community and faith and sharing on campus.”

Some observers, however, believe the lessons have not been fully assimilated. Steubenville’s approach to student life is still faulted by some alumni as excessively controlling and paternalistic. This critique has unfolded over recent issues of an unofficial alumni journal called The Concourse (available on-line at www.theuniversityconcourse.com/).

The heart of student life at Steubenville is the “household system,” made up of some 35 student faith-sharing groups. Students sign covenants pledging themselves to a shared spirituality and a common life. They choose names such as “The Apprentices of St. Joseph,” “Love of the Lamb,” and “Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam.” Households are seen as predominantly, though not exclusively, charismatic.

The most common concern is not that households as they exist today replicate the covenant communities. Rather, it is that the student life office attempts to exercise too much control, leaving students insufficient room to make their own judgments.

When Scanlan took over, he made membership in a household mandatory, seeing it as a way to attack loneliness and isolation. Today membership is optional, and approximately half of the 2,100 students take part.

Scanlan acknowledged that during the peak of the covenant communities households mirrored some of their abuses, a point echoed by some alumni.

Gregory Gronbacher, for example, graduated in 1991. He wrote in a 1997 issue of The Concourse that “such paternalism would be better suited to a Bob Jones University or a Liberty College.”

180 degrees different?

Randall Cirner, executive vice-president at Steubenville and former head of the student life office, said these perceptions are dated and things are “180 degrees different” today.

Cirner, who was part of the Sword of the Spirit movement in Ann Arbor, co-authored a book with Scanlan on a pastoral approach to deliverance from evil spirits.

“We’re on the lookout at the upper administrative levels,” he said. “People that act as advisers to households have meetings with the coordinator of household support, and they’re well briefed on what their role is and what they’re supposed to do. Then the coordinator meets with the leaders of the various households, making sure that the leaders themselves don’t start heading off in that direction.”

Katie Ferri, a Steubenville sophomore and member of a household called “The Little Flowers,” agreed.

“It helps you to become more who you are and who you want to be. It’s not making you become somebody you’re not,” she told NCR. “You choose to sign a covenant. You know what you’re getting yourself into.”

Campbell said surveys of alumni have never identified concern with the household system. He said the views expressed in The Concourse “are not of general concern.”

“I would caution you against embracing the opinions of a small group whose opinions on many issues are not widely shared,” he said.

Other observers disagree. “The natural immature reaction at a secular university is to rebel, whereas the natural Steubenville immaturity is to confuse religious docility with submissiveness and a failure to recognize your legitimate freedoms,” one alumnus said. “Student life tends to encourage submissiveness.”

Others say the problem may solve itself as the charismatic element dwindles, replaced by more traditionalist students whose tastes run to membership in groups such as Regnum Christi (a branch of the Legionaries of Christ) and Opus Dei.

Cirner said that many former charismatics at Steubenville have become interested in Marian apparitions and Marian devotions.

Marian interest here focuses especially on professor Mark Miravalle, who is leading an international campaign to ask the pope to declare Mary “co-redemptrix, mediatrix of all graces and advocate.” Miravalle sees his efforts by analogy to the push for declaration of Mary’s Immaculate Conception in the mid-1800s.

Miravalle has garnered the endorsement of 35 cardinals from around the world, and he recently had a private audience with the pope.

Several sources at Steubenville, however, say that Miravalle encourage fascination with Marian apparitions such as Fatima and Garabandal that at times shades off into apocalypticism.

Miravalle declined to be interviewed by NCR.

During 1999, rumors circulated on campus that some of Miravalle’s most ardent supporters believed that the world might end or some terrible tribulation might be unleashed if the co-redemptrix dogma was not officially proclaimed. In some versions, the date was Pentecost of 1999, in other cases, the beginning of 2000.

Scanlan said he was aware those ideas were held by some in the Steubenville community. He rejected suggestions that he should root them out.

“Does it fit to have some ideas like that within the university? Fine. Did I believe them? No,” he said. “As long as you’re not imposing it on someone else, if you want to take those kinds of interpretations from private revelation, that’s fine. You may just be right one day.”

“I spent a year, if you heard any of my preaching … talking about what the Holy Father was saying about the great Jubilee that’s coming and the greatest era in the church,” Scanlan said. He said such talk makes little sense if the world is about to end.

Steubenville’s impact

Steubenville has 383 theology majors, making it by far the largest Catholic undergraduate theology program in the country, and over 700 alumni work across the country as directors of religious education, Catholic schoolteachers, leaders of programs for adults preparing to join the church, youth ministers and missionaries.

Those alumni tend to generate strong reactions. Some dioceses, such as Peoria, Ill., and Sioux Falls, S.D., have made a point of hiring them. Others have balked, refusing to recruit Steubenville alumni.

Both sides agree the graduates usually feel a genuine excitement for the faith. Critics, however, say that excitement too often becomes self-righteousness.

Fr. Thomas Maikowski, director of education in the Gallup, N.M., diocese, told NCR that Gallup has hired approximately 15 Steubenville graduates in the past seven years, and with one exception all created divisions in the parishes or schools to which they were assigned.

In one case, Maikowski said, a Steubenville graduate working as a schoolteacher told students they should receive Communion on the tongue rather than in the hand; in another, a graduate disrupted a workshop on scripture by insisting the presenter was reflecting a secular view of the gospels.

Maikowski said he has written to Steubenville saying he will not recruit their students and has advised Catholic school leaders in the diocese not to do so.

“I need a community, not a subgroup,” Maikowski said. “I need someone who will buy into our diocesan philosophy. What I don’t need is someone who believes Scott Hahn is the fourth person of the Trinity,” he said. Hahn is a well-known convert to Catholicism and a scripture scholar at Steubenville.

Maikowski said he sees Gallup as very much “middle of the road,” neither left nor right.

Education experts at the national level contacted by NCR confirmed that Maikowski’s experience is not unique. Some said Steubenville concentrates too much on doctrinal formation and not enough on how to work with a broad range of students; others said the spirituality at Steubenville is too vertical, too oriented on the individual believer and God, rather than on the horizontal dimension in community.

Many of those observers credit Steubenville with making progress, pointing to the hiring of Barbara Morgan, a well-known catechetics expert, to lead the Office of Catechetics and Religious Studies.

Scanlan says he knows his graduates have created some division.

“It’s a fair warning to us. We have taken direct initiatives to balance or prevent that kind of judgmentalism, which I believe has happened in some cases.”

Conflicting visions

Scanlan does not lack admirers. Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver called Steubenville “the best known” college of its kind in the country and throughout Europe, saying, “I believe in the mission of this school.” Cardinal John O’Connor of New York once said, “I don’t know a better university in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.”

Even former Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, who has poured millions of his fortune into building a new Catholic college in Ann Arbor, Mich., once said, “I’d rather have my children go to Franciscan University of Steubenville than any other university in the world.”

Scanlan’s friends say that many of the current fissures -- the viciousness surrounding Bourque, the curricular debates, the at-times excessive zeal of Steubenville students -- are all signs of strength, betokening a community with a deep sense of Catholic identity that’s passionate about the future. They are, in other words, the right problems to have.

Skeptics say that finger pointing over orthodoxy, a controlling atmosphere and untempered fascination with private revelation are the inevitable fruits of Scanlan’s ultra-orthodox style. As the charismatic fires at Steubenville continue to dim, they worry, an increasingly narrow and militant style of orthodoxy may take root.

Reconciling such conflicting visions is perhaps the core challenge awaiting Scanlan’s successor. Scanlan says he hopes the university doesn’t have long to wait.

“I like the idea of being chancellor,” he said. “When people say they’re ready, that will be fine with me.”

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000