Keeping Colleges Catholic: One School’s Story


October 1, 1993

Several years ago, I returned to my undergraduate alma mater, Williams College, which awarded me and some others honorary degrees. Williams is a college with a long tradition of providing ministers and missionaries to many different bodies of Protestantism. On the day I was there I read in the student newspaper that the burning issue at the college was whether the chapel, which is one of the most impressive buildings on campus, should be converted into a swimming pool or a billiards hall. This was my first warning that things at Williams were not as they had been when I had been a student.

That evening, during a symposium on the college’s direction and curriculum, I said we needed to address our heritage and recall Williams’s reputation for having pre-pared more ministers than any other school of its size in New England among liberal arts colleges of the Ivy League type. Predictably, the response was bafflement over why we should be committed to what we had done before or to “what our monuments were.”

When I returned home, I began to look carefully at literature from Harvard, my other alma mater. The seal on Harvard’s stationery bore the legend, “For Christ and Church.” It is in Latin, so perhaps its flagrantly religious message goes down more easily with unbelievers. Underneath is the word veritas. We might well translate it “truth,” but at the time of Harvard’s founding, it had a religious meaning.

I do not give these examples to criticize these schools for having become secular. They are only two among a vast number of Catholic and Christian institutions that are succumbing to the forces of secularization. Further, I believe secularization is in some ways not as serious in schools that have recognized and adopted it — such as Harvard, which no longer claims to be Christian. The greater problem I see is one of integrity: schools that still carry a Christian or Catholic label need to be what they say they are. My purpose therefore is simply to challenge all of us to halt the process of secularization and restore our institutions of learning to their Catholic mission. This is a difficult task for us, but I know it’s possible because, with God’s mercy and help, we are working to realize this at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.

We are a small Catholic university, founded in 1946. We have 15 buildings on our main campus and about 1,800 students from all 50 states and 42 countries; over 800 students are residents. We also have an extension campus in Gaming, Austria. We are fully accredited. We offer master’s degree programs in theology, education, business administration, philosophy, and counseling, as well as a school of nursing. The university has subscribed to the American Association of University Professors criteria on academic freedom and tenure. We operate on a $20 million budget.

One College’s Reformation

I first came to what was then the College of Steubenville in 1964, as dean. In 1969, I left to serve as rector of a seminary in Loretto, Pennsylvania. In 1974, I was invited to consider becoming president of the College of Steubenville, which then was in the middle of a crisis of identity and facing problems typical of colleges in the 1970s. Three initial candidates for the presidency actually recommended “solving” its ills by closing it or combining it with state institutions.

When I went to the search committee for the Board of Trustees, I said I could be of value to Steubenville only if I could make it stand for Christian and Catholic values, spiritual growth, and the Franciscan ideals of its founders. Knowing my proposal was much different from what the trustees expected, I did not expect to be chosen. To my surprise, they asked me to become president. I asked to go before the full Board of Trustees and make it clear to them — not just to the search committee — what might happen.

When I spoke to the trustees, I said that a spiritual renewal was needed. I said the only way I could effect what would be a spiritual revolution was by leading a clear commitment to Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I remember ending my talk by saying, “If we do all these things and this College still closes, still goes bankrupt, it won’t bother me, as long as we have done the right thing.”

They voted me in. I was confident God wanted renewal and had called me to serve that goal wholeheartedly. I knew I had to be faithful to the Lord above all, and that being faithful was essential to the renewal of the college. Still, my initial experience as president in 1974 was like being doused with cold water.

A Lonely Crowd

During my first semester on campus, I was surprised to see how quickly and strongly the widespread trend to secularization was moving through the school. The financially stricken college of 1,033 overwhelmingly “commuter students” was suffering through the social and moral issues of the day, and some teaching clearly opposed Christian and Catholic doctrine. Mostly, the students I encountered were lonely. They didn’t know many of the people who lived near them in the residence halls. A recent national research study concluded that the loneliest people in the United States are not the poor or homeless but college freshmen. Our students frequently told me that they resorted to sex, alcohol, and drugs in an attempt to escape this loneliness. They also spoke of vandalism as a manifestation of their frustration with loneliness.

Shortly after I arrived, I received a non-negotiable demand from the students for totally “open” dorms. I received a memo from campus ministry through the Dean of Students’ office recommending we abolish all Sunday morning Liturgies because nobody was getting up for them. I received a memo from the Dean of Student Affairs telling me that the only way we could change student behavior on campus was to eject every current student and start over with a new class.

After I began initiating changes, two junior faculty members called a meeting of faculty to express “no confidence” in the president. They were voted down overwhelmingly by the senior faculty. The junior alumni organized a protest and appeared before the Board of Trustees to ask for a change in administration. Then, after we terminated all intercollegiate athletics to mobilize energies and funds and to clarify the school’s principles, many alumni registered disagreement or anger.

In dealing with these and many similar situations that arose from trying to make Franciscan University truly Catholic and committed to dynamic orthodoxy, I found prayer to be my greatest resource. When I arrived at the college, I prayed fervently for God’s help, especially when I was in desperate need, including financial need. Some mornings I would stay in prayer for three to four hours asking the Lord what to do, before going to the office. Why go to the office when you don’t know what to do? I thought I should first find out what to do, and then go and do it.

Jesus tells us: “Seek ye first the kingdom of heaven and all else shall be given unto you.” He wants us, and He wanted the college, first to be faithful to him. Chapter 24 of Matthew’s Gospel tells us that it is on this basis that we will be judged. Faithfulness is the one thing that is essential to personal and collegiate renewal: faithfulness to the Lord above all else. Mother Teresa, when challenged on the piers of New York about how she handles success, said, “The Gospel doesn’t say anything about success — only about faithfulness.” Many of us at the university have adopted her now-famous statement, “faithfulness not success,” as our motto. Once you make a commitment to be faithful to Christ and His Church, then the question becomes: What does faithfulness re-quire? From those many hours of prayer — and trial and error — I’ve come to believe there are preconditions and strategies that are most effective in institutional renewal.

Clarity of Purpose: A Catholic college is not just a college that focuses primarily on academics or sports and adds something Catholic, such as a chaplain or a few theology courses. To the contrary, if it doesn’t partake of the nature of Jesus as the Way, the Truth, and the Life, we shouldn’t call it Christian. If it isn’t committed to seeking Christ’s truth, the way of the Gospel, the way of the disciples, and life in the Holy Spirit, then we shouldn’t call it Christian. Additionally, if it is not under the lordship of Jesus Christ and submitted to the authority of the Catholic Church, we shouldn’t call it Catholic. We could call it something else, but we ought to be clear what we mean when we use the word Catholic.

Athens and Jerusalem: How much of our schools are of the nature of Jerusalem and the Church, and how much of them are of Athens, the classical education beginning with Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and continuing through the tradition of the liberal arts?

I think the answer to this question is very simple for the Christian: We have to build both Jerusalem and Athens simultaneously. If we sacrifice either, we sacrifice what it means to be a Catholic university. A Catholic educational institution is an extension of the teaching mission of the body of Christ. As Article 10 of Ex Corde Ecclesiae states, “A Catholic university is without any doubt one of the best instruments that the Church offers to our age which is searching for certainty and wisdom.”

This mission becomes crucial in times of crisis. Does the college give first priority to its Catholic and Christian nature, to truth, and to morality, or does it decide first what the accreditation agency will think, what the professional society will think, how a decision will affect its reputation in current academic circles?

Pastoral Authority: As we read in Ephesians 4, pastors and teachers are given by God to establish the Church on the cornerstone of Jesus Christ so that the body may build itself up in love. The Catholic college must have someone who clearly has the authority and responsibility to pastor its Catholic life and to oversee its teaching. He must take the responsibility, and he also must submit to appropriate episcopal authority and the authority of the Holy Father. Accordingly, my response to student demands for “open dorms” and recommendations to cancel Sunday morning liturgies was to announce that I would be pastor as well as president of the campus. I would take the initiative to foster Christian virtues in every area of university life. I replied that I would preside personally and preach at the Sunday morning liturgy. Instead of opening the residence halls as proposed, we would reorganize them into “faith households.”

This decision to be pastor over the college is so crucial that I had the description of the president’s responsibilities changed to include full and final responsibility for the spiritual life of the campus as well as chief executive officer. Over the years since, many visitors from different colleges and universities have asked, “Why have you been blessed? Why are your students alive and fervent on the campus? Why is there orthodox Catholic teaching? What can we do?” Normally, I have had to say, “You’re the campus minister. Where is your president or pastor? What are his priorities and values?” That is where it all begins.

Staying the Course

If the above preconditions are satisfied, then a college should begin implementing the following seven-point strategy to develop authentic Catholicity:

1. Change the school’s environment to one that is overtly Catholic and Christian.

An environment is like the current of a river. I can walk into any school, anywhere, and in a short time tell you which direction the current is flowing by the interaction of students and faculty, by the conversation, by the decisions made, by the priorities followed. I can tell whether the current is moving towards what is moral, what is holy, what is edifying, what is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, godliness, and self-control; or whether that current is moving toward what is immoral, toward the flesh: envy, drunkenness, orgies, factions, selfish ambition, rage, discord, hatred, debauchery, and the rest.

How do you change your current? You witness the Word of God. You preach the Gospel. You establish the presence of committed Catholics.

2. Make certain that campus structures support a Christian environment.

I once heard someone say that one of the most insane things about American higher education is putting 300 students in a large cinder block building with narrow cells, dividing that building, and then telling them to call it home. The only other “homes” like that are either federal penitentiaries, mental institutions, or basic training camps in the military. If you do not establish structures that create Christian fellowship and a shared way of life — if you do not create a home for them — you cannot expect the fruit of conversion and changed lives.

When I became president, I made participation in small faith-sharing groups mandatory for all resident students. Though joining “households” as we call them is no longer required, most students choose to belong to one. Households on our campus ease the isolation and loneliness common to many college students and encourage growth in Christian virtue.

3. Establish a clear mission statement outlining the school’s principles and priorities.

A clear, concise expression of the basic principles of the institution gives the administration, faculty, and staff a foundation on which to build. The following is an excerpt from our current statement of convictions: “Our University is dedicated to the lordship of Jesus Christ. I commit this university to pursue a way of education based on God’s revealed truth and the teaching of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, and a life empowered by God’s Holy Spirit and nurtured by sound, pastoral guidance…. Franciscan University believes it is called to reaffirm the heritage of liberal arts within the Catholic university as it developed in the light of Christian faith. The university pledges to promote liberal arts study, Catholic and Franciscan teaching in all areas of life, and includes every student’s development in Christian maturity.”

This statement was joined with a May 6, 1983, statement of convictions that received the unanimous approval of the faculty, the Board of Trustees, the President’s Council, and the student government. The statement concludes, “The mission of this University is to foster an intellectual and faith community and, furthermore, that the administration, faculty, and staff are obligated to serve, lead, and guide the institution in a manner consistent with this mission.”

4. Base decisions about faculty and staff recruitment, development, and termination on their support for the school’s mission as well as on professional competence.

This standard requires a careful examination of all departments of the university. It requires much love, grace, and justice in dealing with every individual. We went through some very difficult situations that resulted in moving people to institutions that matched their values. One involved a faculty member who was promoting atheistic Marxism. Another involved a faculty member who promoted radical feminism and lesbianism over a Christian commitment. There were lecturers in theology promoting exegesis and relativism that obscured the truths of revelation. In drama, there was a struggle with a director who believed that “art for art’s sake” was the ultimate value, not serving the glory of God.

Many faculty members responded to the challenge to be more publicly Christian and Catholic. They were enthusiastic in embracing a Christian mission in submission to the Magisterium and loyal to the Holy Father. In May 1989, our entire theology faculty, our dean of the faculty, all of our priests in ministry, and I took the Oath of Fidelity and made the Profession of Faith as required by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Each year, new members of the theology faculty and newly arrived priests make this public profession.

We now try to recruit people who are not only competent for the job, but who can also be effective in promoting our mission. I personally interview each prospective faculty member and administrator before he or she is hired and secure a commitment to our mission statement as a condition of employment.

5. Develop a curriculum whose courses are based on Catholic truths.

It is not enough that the right people are in place; the right curriculum must be in place with the courses based on Christian and Catholic truths without compromise. We developed an entirely new theology major program and followed with a new philosophy curriculum. Human Life Issues was established as a minor. A new political science curriculum was developed and a sociology revision is underway.

6. Establish associates, allied non-profit corporations that stand for the school’s mission.

These associates helped solidify the changes and pro-vided a hedge around the permanent values of our institution. Examples of these are: FIRE, a Catholic alliance of Faith, Intercession, Repentance, and Evangelism, which supports the university by proclaiming in an evangelistic way its mission and giving concrete application to these values as they should be lived in today’s marketplace; the Apostolate for Family Consecration, which stands so firmly for Catholic family living and neighborhood renewal; and LAMP, which promotes Catholic social justice among the poor and oppressed.

7. Establish mainstream Catholicism as normal.

What we do to renew any institution should be established as being done in the mainstream of Christian and Catholic tradition. I presented the following at our faculty workshop about what it means to be a normal Franciscan, Catholic, Christian university:

It is normal for a liberal arts college to establish the humanities and sciences as its core and to require a minimum amount of such studies for all its students. It is normal for a Catholic college to promote a Catholic orientation in all its courses of instruction. It is normal for a college to generate free interaction of ideas and development of creativity in re-search and expression, but all in the pursuit of and reverence for truth. It is normal for a college to provide the best avail-able preparation for future vocations and careers as long as the preparation is consistent with the nature and mission of the college.

It is normal for a Roman Catholic college to submit to the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, with a special loyalty to the Holy Father, and to manifest this loyalty. It is normal for a Catholic college to establish in the power of the Holy Spirit a Christian communal atmosphere for its students and to teach them the ways of Christian living. It is normal for a Catholic college to give priority to prayer and worship, to feature sacramental, liturgical celebrations and related devotions. It is normal for a Catholic college to give high priority to training and service in evangelism and works of mercy. It is normal for a Christian college to seek to develop church leadership in all its students.

It is normal for a Christian college to promote cultural and entertainment events that are moral and consistent with Christian orthodox teaching and not to participate in what is immoral or what is anti-Christian. It is normal for a Franciscan Catholic Christian college to promote love, friendliness, and shared life first among its members and then among those in its surrounding community and its affiliates. It is normal for our University to yield graduates who are Christian leaders, Catholic lay ministers, priests, religious — especially Franciscans — business and professional leaders taking the high road of ethical and moral conduct, and fathers and mothers of healthy moral families.

Faith Community

I add here a point of realism. It is also normal to struggle, to fail, to make mistakes, to have difficulty in communication, to deal with moral problems, to struggle day by day to achieve the goal and mission God has given you. As I indicated earlier, we had a rough start, and we’re not through with the struggles, but God has blessed us.

Our enrollment has almost tripled. Last year we had the largest entering class and the largest total enrollment in our history. Our chapel is filled twice each day for Mass. Over 60 percent of our resident student body goes to daily Mass. This climbs as high as 80 percent in the Lenten season. We have added five chapels on campus to serve the increasing number of students who make daily prayer a priority. Our 12 priests involved in some level of campus ministry are overrun with requests for the sacrament of reconciliation.

In 1974, we didn’t have a theology major program. Now we have the largest Catholic theology major program in the country. We didn’t have any vocations to the priesthood coming in then. The last time we polled the undergraduate students, 20 percent were discerning a call to the priesthood or religious life. We didn’t have vocations to the sisterhood, but now these are flourishing, especially since the recent episcopal approval of a new religious order composed chiefly of our recent alumni and led by a former member of our student life staff.

We have built a 200,000-volume John Paul II Library. We have built the Saint Mary of the Angels Portiuncula Chapel where we have adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. We have built a 60-foot steel cross that can be seen from almost any place on campus. We have remodeled a nearby skating rink to provide additional office space. And we have completed Finnegan Fieldhouse, our new athletic center.

None of this has come easily, but it is worth the struggle. When our Catholic universities become truly Catholic, they will produce the future priests, sisters, and brothers, the loyal and scholarly Catholic theologians and philosophers, the Catholic business and professional people taking the high road of moral behavior, and the Catholic parents of the succeeding generation’s Church leaders.

Yes, it is well worth the struggle.


  • Michael Scanlan

    Michael Scanlan, T.O.R. (born 1931), is a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan Third Order Regular. He is responsible for the revival of the College of Steubenville, now known as Franciscan University of Steubenville. Scanlan served the university for 26 years as president and then 11 years as chancellor, before retiring in 2011. He currently resides at the Sacred Heart Province motherhouse in Loretto, Pennsylvania.

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