ROME – There are certain figures who embody broader transitions, and others who actually drive those shifts rather than simply riding the wave. Father Michael Scanlan, who died on Saturday at the age of 85, was clearly both.
Scanlan, a member of the Third Order Regular Franciscans, was the charismatic priest – “charismatic” both literally and colloquially – who took over the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, in 1974, and transformed it from a moribund liberal arts college into a thriving center of what he called “dynamic orthodoxy,” meaning robust and unapologetic commitment to the fullness of Catholic faith and practice.
Steubenville under Scanlan became the crossroads of what one might call the evangelical revolution in American Catholicism, a place where virtually every form of more conservative, orthodox, and high-octane Catholicism during the 1980s and 90s was at home … not just at home, but the new normal, with anything less seeming aberrant.
Scanlan served as the university’s president until 2000, and as its chancellor until 2011. He died on Saturday after an extended illness.
Born in 1931 in Cedarhurst, New York, Scanlan had a law degree from Harvard and later served as a lawyer in the Air Force before becoming a priest within the Franciscans’ Third Order.
There’s a rich history of charismatic spirituality within the various Franciscan movements, and Scanlan was part of it. It’s a quasi-Pentecostal, exuberant form of faith that emphasizes the “gifts of the Spirit,” such as healings, wonders, speaking in tongues, prophecy and so on, and Scanlan was a pioneer and leader in that world.
Yet Scanlan was “charismatic” in the broader, secular sense of the term too. He was smart, funny, driven, energetic, the kind of guy into whose orbit you almost couldn’t help being drawn.
It’s virtually impossible to overstate the importance of Steubenville in American Catholic life on Scanlan’s watch.
In the period after the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, most of the leading Catholic universities in America became beachheads for a reformed, progressive vision of Catholicism. In practical terms, that meant liberals knew where to go but conservatives were often adrift, not sure where to find an experience more suited to their sense of what being Catholic is all about.
After Scanlan’s version of the place got going, Steubenville, a former mob stop-off halfway between Chicago and New York and the birthplace of Dean Martin, became something of a pilgrimage destination for what would eventually become known as the “John Paul II” wing of the American church.
If you had hung out in the Holiday Inn in Steubenville long enough during the Scanlan years, you could have seen every conservative Catholic of note in the English-speaking world. Today it boasts the highest number of students majoring in theology, catechetics and philosophy of any Catholic university in the United States, and Steubenville graduates have become the backbone of many chanceries and parishes across the country.
The place barely had an enrollment of 1,000 when Scanlan took over. He more than doubled that number by the time he was done, and in the process turned Steubenville into an unlikely magnet for national and international talent.
I only met Scanlan twice: Once in 1998, when I did a reporting trip to Steubenville to cover a meeting on independent Catholic schools, and again in 2001, when he was in Rome for a conference on a new Vatican document attempting to regulate expressions of charismatic Catholic spirituality.
I have to say, on both occasions I was completely charmed.
In 1998, Scanlan told me the story of how he got the job in the first place. Established in 1946, Steubenville by 1974 was suffering the double whammy of flagging energy in Catholic higher education and being located in a former steel town in a cycle of decline. When the university went looking for a new president in the early 1970s, the working assumption was that whomever they hired would be the one to turn out the lights.
Scanlan told me that he said to them, “You can either go out of business, or give me a shot … it’s up to you.”
They gave him a shot, and the rest is American Catholic history.
In 2001, I got another insight into Scanlan’s personality. He was a papal loyalist and a staunch defender of Catholic teaching, yes, but he was hardly a milquetoast with regard to authority. At the Rome conference, he was among the critics of a new Vatican document trying to regulate prayers for healing, which Scanlan and others saw as an attempt to fence in and control a legitimate new spiritual movement, and he wasn’t bashful about saying so.
For many, Scanlan was a hero, an example of what an aroused Catholicism not ashamed of itself and willing to challenge the broader culture can achieve.
The distinguished Catholic intellectual George Weigel, for instance, told me the following on Saturday after news broke of Scanlan’s death.
“Father Mike Scanlan was a priest of the New Evangelization before there was a New Evangelization,” Weigel said.
“The greatest joy of his life was bringing people to Christ, and he brought many. His legacy can be found, not only in the college he built up from a very modest start, but in Steubenville’s graduates, who can be found wherever the Church is permanently in mission.”
For others, Scanlan was an irritant, the kind of priest they associated more with the Church’s past than its future. His undeniable success in building a citadel to “dynamic orthodoxy” at a time when other places more associated with the “spirit of Vatican II” were struggling was, for that group, a source of chronic frustration.
Whatever one made of him, Father Michael Scanlan was among the lions of an entire era in American Catholic life. Whether one was rooting for him, or quietly wishing he would just stop, there was never any question – none at all – that he mattered.