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Steubenville merits close scrutiny

In normal circumstances, the pending retirement of the president of a small Catholic liberal arts school in eastern Ohio would not warrant much notice. There are many skilled and dedicated clerics and lay people laboring diligently in such arenas.

But Third Order Franciscan Fr. Michael Scanlan is no ordinary small college president, nor is the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, an ordinary Catholic institution (see story).

Scanlan has always painted on a canvas that stretched well beyond Steubenville. The public relations apparatus at the institution has worked overtime to make sure the world knows of its significance. Faxes fly to news outlets about every new student gathering, every visit of a curial official or U.S. prelate, every utterance favorable to the university, every time the faculty takes a new oath of allegiance to Rome.

It is beyond dispute that Scanlan has turned the university around, from a fading school in danger of being sold to the state to a high-profile center of conservative Catholic activism. Some say it is the model university of the John Paul II papacy, one that might have grown directly from the pages of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the controversial papal document governing the conduct of Catholic colleges and universities.

As a model of the kind of Catholic institution that finds favor these days in Rome, Steubenville merits close scrutiny, and that means the less flattering side of the Steubenville experience cannot be ignored. For if the university fosters high-intensity devotion, it also is an incubator for rigidity and absolutism, authoritarianism and expressions of piety and theological speculation that border on the fantastic.

The most recent case in point erupted last year, when ultraconservative faculty and board members smeared the reputation of one of Scanlan’s Franciscan confreres. One of the concerns of the self-appointed protectors of orthodoxy is that Fr. Thomas Bourque, tapped by the order to succeed Scanlan as president at Steubenville, might inject a moderating influence on some of the most extreme elements on campus. And those extremes were never more visible than when this group raised objections because Borque had once cited the eminent theologian Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx.

The campaign against Bourque is a part of Steubenville’s history under Scanlan that isn’t usually told. Scanlan has continued to embrace people and movements whose notions of orthodoxy are suspect. The most dramatic example came in the late 1980s and early 1990s with the covenant community that developed under Scanlan’s leadership.

Scanlan excuses himself today by saying he did not know what was happening. It is difficult to imagine he was so far removed from what was going on, since he would often speak glowingly in his many public appearances of the covenant community and the households associated with the university. It took an investigation by a courageous bishop, Albert Ottenweller, to put a stop to the most blatant abuses of authoritarian control.

Scanlan was intimately familiar with the leadership of such influential charismatic groups as the Word of God community in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the international Sword of the Spirit community, groups that inspired and provided the instructions for such covenant groups.

In 1991, the same year Steubenville was investigated and a highly critical report was issued, Ralph Martin, one of the founders of the charismatic renewal and a leader in Ann Arbor, issued a stunning apology for the excesses and harmful effects of practices in the community. The self-critique issued by the Word of God community said its training program “fostered elitism,” “attempted to build a comprehensive Christian culture by fiat,” was especially harmful to women, “had a negative impact on many marriages and placed undue stress on many families” and “fostered an atmosphere that bred judgmentalism -- amounting to a form of legalism.”

And why didn’t Scanlan defend his fellow Franciscan, why hasn’t he spoken up against the character smears and extremists of today?

While the authoritarian abuses of the past may have been eliminated in the community living arrangements on campus, there is evidence that an unhealthy elitism and judgmentalism are still part of the Steubenville picture -- and is part of the baggage that accompanies its graduates who increasingly fill ministry posts throughout the American church.

It is the most galling irony that fearful Vatican bureaucrats should be clamping down on other Catholic institutions when anomalies like Steubenville are heralded as the preferred example of Catholic academic life. If the price for enthusiastic devotion is rigid control, fringe theology and smear campaigns, maybe Rome is pitching the wrong model.

National Catholic Reporter, February 11, 2000