Thursday, May 17, 2012

Steuby's example: Catholic to the core

Scott Hahn meets Pope Benedict after a
papal audience at St. Peter's last April.

Yesterday, it was announced that Dr. Scott Hahn was appointed to an endowed chair of theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Most of our readers are doubtlessly most familiar with Dr. Hahn as a successful Catholic writer. His books (close to 40 of them, by my count) are mostly geared to a popular audience and he has also found success on the speaker circuit for parish missions and conferences. He has also hosted and co-hosted numerous shows on EWTN. In short, he has taken his journey into the Church very seriously and, through diligence and a talent for words, utilized that journey to jumpstart a vocation of energetic evangelization, helping, through his articles, books and lectures, to make the depths of Catholic theology easier to understand and attractive to a wider audience.

Dr. Hahn is certainly not the first to become something of a celebrity (at least among practicing Catholics in the U.S.) due, in large part, to his ability to write well about what some consider a very personal matter: his religious conversion. As an adult convert myself (though I contend that, as I was raised as a practicing Christian, "conversion" is certainly a less-than-accurate term but, as a matter of convenience, it’s the term I’ll use), Dr. Hahn was the author of many of the books that I read on my journey towards the Church. But he was one of many such authors. In fact, the 1990s produced a veritable cottage industry of Catholic "convert-authors" who wrote, from many backgrounds, about their conversions to the Church. Scott Hahn likely tops the list, as far as being a well-known name in this regard, but there were many others as well. Most, like Dr. Hahn, are still very active as authors and on the speakers’ circuit and they are all to credit for shining a bright light of clarity on the process of becoming Catholic.

Campus of the Franciscan University of Steubenville

Since 1990, Dr. Hahn has been a faculty member at Franciscan University of Steubenville, a university which has undergone its own conversion, of sorts, in the past 40 or so years. Founded in 1946 as the College of Steubenville, the institution suffered the same crisis of identity and purpose that many Catholic schools have faced since the 1960s and 1970s. In the case of Steubenville, however, the school met the challenges head on. 

Dr. Hahn's new appointment is called the "Father Michael Scanlon Chair of Biblical Theology and the New Evangelization," and it is aptly named for the former president of Steubenville who almost single-handedly engineered a remarkable turnaround for the school. In 1974, Fr. Michael Scanlon, TOR, became president of the college. Under his leadership, Steubenville undertook an ambitious course of action that included improving scholarship and academic credentials as well as fully embracing the school's Catholic foundation. 

And guess what… it worked.

Enrollment began to increase as the school created a noticeably fresh and energetic Catholic culture on-campus. Professors and students alike knew, without any ambiguities, that the school was fully Catholic and loyal to the Magisterium. Recognition began to pour in and it came not only from interested students and parents looking for an authentically Catholic educational experience, but also from the normal, widely recognized college ratings guides.

Today, Steuby is still widely recognized as providing a great liberal arts education and doing so not just “in the Catholic tradition” (the cryptic self-description used by many colleges and universities that were founded as Catholic institutions but have since jettisoned any other than empty nods to their Catholic pasts), but as a fully and unapologetic Catholic university. Even here, among the (relatively) small population of Catholics at the University of Mississippi and in Oxford, I have known a handful of students and parishioners who have attended the Steuby. And, without an exception, they’re not only knowledgeable but also excited about their Catholic faith.

If only more Catholic colleges and universities in the U.S. would follow in the steps of Steubenville and more clearly embrace their Catholic identities! Nobody likes a fence sitter and this is no truer than in the realm of faith. All Catholic institutions are called to be bold witnesses of Catholic faith, loving all and ministering to their faculty, staff and students and always “speaking the truth in love” (Eph 4:15). For, to quote Pope Benedict, in a recent address to American bishops on this very topic, “the essential task of authentic education at every level is not simply that of passing on knowledge, essential as this is, but also of shaping hearts.”