In 2005 when Father, now Bishop, David O’Connell tasked Steve Schneck with reshaping the Catholic University of America’s Life Cycle Institute, he envisioned a new Catholic think tank of sorts that would produce academic research on the various stages of life from a distinctively Catholic perspective.

Twelve years later, as Schneck steps down from his tenure at what is now the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies (or IPR as it’s commonly referred to), he’s reflecting back on the transformation with a mix of pride and nostalgia. “It really worked quite well,” he told Crux.

The Life Cycle Institute was organized in 1974 with a particular focus on the study of the family, comprised by a mix of sociologists, psychologists, economists, and anthropologists.

The Institute’s early work was primarily for Church organizations, producing and analyzing studies related to the family and society. By the late nineties, several theologians and political scientists had come on board and shifted the focus to the sociological study of religion.

Both O’Connell, who was then president of the University, and Schneck knew that the university was well positioned to engage in and shape a national conversation about what “policies could be developed from a perspective informed by the mission of the university, Catholic social teaching, and the morals of the Church.”

Schenck was named director in 2005 and in 2009 the institute was formally renamed.

As its new head, Schneck’s immediate goal was to increase the number of fellows affiliated with IPR and to include more individuals with a background in policy that could bring their expertise to the needs of society, American politics, and the Church.

In retooling the Institute, Schneck decided to focus on issues of policy most directly concerned with the social teachings of the Church.

According to him, “Our reason in doing this was that we thought there were already many organizations focusing on the Church’s moral teachings, issues like abortion and same sex-marriage. We consciously decided to focus the institute on the Church’s social teachings and policies that had some bearing on them.”

With that in mind, economics, immigration, and poverty became the three pillars of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.

“I’m especially proud of where I think we really contributed to these conversations both in the Church and in American public life in general,” Schneck recalls.

“We have held a total of three really major conferences on economics that have been critical of libertarian economics and thought on politics and society — all carefully grounded in the Church’s traditional teaching and traditional teachings on Catholic social thought.”

Under the banner of “erroneous autonomy,” a phrase first used by Pope Pius XI in his encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, these conferences examined the dignity of work, the threats of hyper-individualism and globalization, and just wages, by policymakers and bishops alike.

Given the elevated attention these issues have seen in the life of the Church during the Francis papacy, the timing of these conferences have seemed providential to Schneck. “Even though we started on this before the election of Pope Francis, it’s been interesting to see how well it seems to fit with his mission. We found much of this in Benedict XVI’s writings, of course, but under the pontificate of Pope Francis it’s been a reverberating echo of everything we’ve been trying to do.”

The same is true with immigration, a long brewing national debate that has reached a tipping point with the election of Donald Trump. Schneck believes that IPR has played a critical role, both in the Church and in the public square in shifting the conversation from a legal focus to a moral one.

“We didn’t talk about immigration as it’s generally talked about in American public life, in terms of laws and rights. Instead, we presented a moral argument for approaching issues of public policy and immigration,” said Schneck.

No one talks about immigration now strictly in terms of rights and legalities. If you look at the way the USCCB talks about it, they discuss it in moral terms about what this means for the family, the moral development of the individual, etc.,” he added.

Yet despite such successes, Schneck isn’t stepping down without being self-reflective. “Poverty is the area where I feel I’ve been least successful.”

Originally this was one of his initial areas of focus for IPR, partnering with a range of organizations across the political spectrum, such as the Center for American Progress, the Heritage Foundation, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Yet in the same way that national debate on this issue has been contentious, Schneck is dissatisfied with where the Institute has made progress on this front. “I would hope that in the future someone at the Institute would continue to work on the poverty issue. The country as a whole needs to address poverty with a deeper understanding of the moral issues at stake.”

Turning toward the future, Schneck sees both a country and a Church that is direly at odds. “Just as Americans are sadly and profoundly divided culturally and politically, they’re divided in our pews, as well. In one sense I suppose that shouldn’t surprise us because we’re Americans and the divisions in our country are going to be reflected in our Church. But in another sense it really should surprise us because being Catholic should trump whatever other divisions there might be among us. We are all Catholic. When we sit down in those pews, the divisions should go away.”

Despite this diagnosis, Schneck believes the university and IPR specifically can play a significant role in the ever-important work of building bridges.  

“One of the things I was always the most excited about as a faculty member here at the Catholic University of America was that this is a pontifical university, this is the university of the American bishops and the university of the pope. And right at the moment, I think that’s especially exciting.”

The source of such excitement? The same man who visited the Catholic University of America’s campus in 2015 and who has injected a booster shot of energy and hope for Schneck and his colleagues.

“The vision of Pope Francis in so many ways offers answers to the moral crises of this generation and, frankly, offers hope for the polarization in the Church and in society and culture.”

While Schneck is stepping down at what he sees as an opportune time for the university, IPR, and the Church at large, he’s making his closing arguments to ensure that none of these constituencies squander this opportunity.

“For the last twelve years, IPR has been one the principle ways in which the university does that kind of public engagement. I’ve been proud and grateful for the experience,” he concluded.  

“I think the potential of this university in the public square is to interject that message of Pope Francis and the traditional messages of the Church that so well answer the needs of our contemporary world and to echo those in our public life.”