The president of Franciscan University of Steubenville tendered his resignation on Friday April 5, prompting a search for a new leader for a university which has become a flashpoint for controversies around Catholic identity. The board accepted the resignation that weekend.
Three days later the university released a statement in which Fr Sean Sheridan, a Third Order Regular (TOR), said: “I feel called to continue my service to the Catholic Church in another capacity to be determined in consultation with our TOR minister provincial … this is an appropriate time for the board to initiate a search for a new president who will be available to welcome the incoming class this fall.” He will continue until the end of the spring term.
“We are thankful for Fr Sheridan’s years of leadership,” said Fr Malachi Van Tassell, chairman of the board of trustees, in a statement. “And dedication throughout which he continued the Franciscan University tradition of exceptional education grounded in a passionately Catholic faith that enables our alumni to evangelise and transform the culture.”
The resignation came a week before news broke that five priests associated with the university had a substantiated claim of unwanted sexual advances against them, though none of the five are still at the university. For two, those alleged incidents were in their home dioceses, and three of the five are dead now.
Fr Sheridan had been president of the college for six years, and he introduced the Catechetical Institute, which has quickly built a wide reach. Prior to coming to Steubenville, Sheridan was an attorney, before being ordained to the priesthood in 2006 and receiving a doctorate in canon law.
La Croix characterised his resignation as unexpected, writing: “His decision came as a surprise to the university board and the wider university community.”
Ed Condon of the Catholic News Agency added that Fr Sheridan had come under fire from various more conservative groups, which “questioned his commitment to ensuring a faithfully Catholic approach to university education”.
English Professor Stephen Lewis was widely criticised earlier this year for assigning Emmanuel Carrère’s book The Kingdom to his class. The book contains blasphemous passages, as Lewis acknowledged in a defence published at First Things. “I share the revulsion Catholics rightly feel toward lewdness and blasphemy,” he wrote, “but in the end I decided that my students could benefit by reading this text.” The work was, he wrote, an example of a secular viewpoint which Catholic students could benefit from understanding. One of his students, for instance, “stated that she feels her current work as a missionary has been made more effective because she frequently encounters people who display features of Carrère’s mindset”.
Fr Sheridan said that while the text was “scandalous and extremely offensive”, he did not attribute malice to Lewis himself. Nevertheless, Lewis was replaced as the head of the English department, and a contentious atmosphere has lingered – especially among Catholic publications which have strongly criticised both the professor and the president.
The Newman Society, at least, gave Fr Sheridan a fairly warm send-off on its website, saying: “Fr Sheridan has been steadfastly devoted to the Catholic mission of Franciscan University. Earlier this year, he invited all of the university’s faculty and staff to join in the Oath of Fidelity as an outward sign of their fidelity and commitment to faithful Catholic education.”
Whatever one makes of Fr Sheridan’s tenure, it is clear that the university’s identity is somewhat unsettled at the moment. Professors have publicly criticised each other and the university administration.
One important recent change was the hiring of William Gorman as chief operating officer. He was one of Cardinal Wuerl’s top lieutenants and served in various roles in the Archdiocese of Washington for 14 years. He was also seen as a close ally of Fr Sheridan. As the search for the Franciscan’s successor begins, one suspects that the tensions at Steubenville are far from over.
During Fr Sean Sheridan’s tenure as president of the Franciscan University of Steubenville, enrolment grew by more than 10 per cent from 2,733 to 3,028 students. In 2013, he launched the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life, which “strives to provide meaningful alternatives to the usual secular analyses of moral and cultural dilemmas”. In 2015, he established the Franciscan University charisms of Ongoing Conversion, Human Dignity, Family, Dynamic Orthodoxy, Evangelisation, Hospitality and Joy.
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