The death of Fr. Michael Scanlan, the University of Steubenville’s long-time leader, has saddened many in the conservative Catholic world, if not refugees from covenant communities. It’s an event that may not resonate with the majority of the Christian world, but for those of us with any involvement with the University of Steubenville, it’s worth noting.
I’m going to leave to those more directly affected by his actions vis-à-vis covenant communities how to explain that situation. Suffice it to say that, after lecturing us on visitations from God, the covenant community that absorbed Steubenville’s Emmanuel group came to an end after the visitation of another higher power, namely the bishop.
As someone who chaperoned three youth group trips to the National Catholic Charismatic Conference on Young People and Youth Ministers (1981-3) and attended one leadership conference (1983,) I have an entirely different question: how did we get from the breezy, folk mass and folk youth service format of those days to the stiff, Latinate style (which I refer to by the Twitter hashtag of #straightouttairondale, because its most prominent proponent is EWTN) that is all the rage in conservative Catholicism now? Why are the same people who thought we were really in touch with God then now promoting something different?
Let me start by giving you a couple of examples of what things looked like in those days. The first is a little photo montage I put together from my years in the Texas A&M Newman Association, just a few short years before:
The second comes from Steubenville itself: it’s the opening of the 1983 Student conference:
When we look at either of these, and then compare them with what is presented as “normative” conservative Catholicism these days, the difference is, well, striking. And what isn’t shown is also worth noting: devotions to Our Lady were few and far between (although I confess I saw a rosary so large it took two people to carry it) and not a word of Latin in or out of the liturgy. The old folk Mass reigned supreme in those days; it’s just about considered blasphemy now.
What’s really amazing is that many of the same people who thought this was from the throne room have joined the #straightouttairondale bandwagon: Bert Ghezzi, Ann-Marie Shields, Ralph Martin, etc. Scanlan himself “swam the Tennessee” (which is what you would do going to Irondale or Cullman) during his tenure as President of the University. The University’s summary of his years there is as follows:
Over the next 26 years, he transformed the College into Franciscan University of Steubenville and gained for it a worldwide reputation for both excellence in academics and its passionate Catholic faith environment…His success helped spark a restoration of authentic Catholic education in the United States and beyond, with many colleges and universities renewing their Catholic identity and new schools imitating his emphasis on Catholic Church teaching.
But reality isn’t this seamless. When you throw in the business about the covenant communities (which have been accused of Protestantising tendencies, although the situation is complex) you get the impression that you’re looking at a group of people who started out at one point, ended up at another, and either have no idea they went on a journey or who don’t want to admit it.
I think there are several reasons for this spectacular volte-face:
- A change in pontificate. John Paul II was solicitous about putting the RCC’s “house in order.” A large part of that was to emphasise particularly Catholic practices such as devotions to Our Lady. That split many an ecumenical prayer group or covenant community, including this one.
- A belief that traditional Catholic doctrine had to be accompanied by traditional Catholic worship style and practice and traditional Catholic devotions. This is a mistake we see in many threads of Christianity; we cannot seem to separate what we believe with the style of our worship. I am aware of the connection (especially in liturgical churches) between what we believe and what we pray, but that has been pretty much set since 1970, except for the English translation changes.
- The tendency of people in authoritarian institutions to switch sides and party lines as a means of survival. This isn’t restricted to the RCC; we saw this in the early years of the Church of England, and during the Cultural Revolution in China. It’s not pretty but it can be explained.
Some people think that the current Pontiff is trying to pull the Church back the other way. I think that the current Bishop of Rome is a reverend père Jésuite whose goal is to bring back the morale accomodante of the likes of Escobar, Bauny, Sánchez, etc., and that’s always a disaster.
But we must return to Scanlan’s journey, which has now ended. If I had to pick a song for his funeral, it would be Erich Sylvester’s “Stay With Me,” whose third verse goes like this:
I went to school for a long time
Expecting to stay in a straight line
Until I discovered that great minds
Don’t move in a straight line at all
The sooner that everyone can face the reality that his life and those of many who walked with him were and are not straight lines, the sooner Roman Catholicism will be able to decrease its efforts to bring its departed sheep back home, because not so many will leave.