• A Scholarly Endeavor in India Marked the Start of Katarina Schuth’s Lifelong Research Journey

    Katarina Schuth
    Sr. Katarina Schuth (Photo by Elias Adams)

    Like many other faculty members, I conducted my first significant research in order to complete my doctoral degree. My field of study was cultural geography, the topic of my dissertation, “Patterns of Literacy in Villages of South India.” After months of preparing for field work, which entailed lugging volumes of “The Census of India” back and forth from the Syracuse University library to Minnesota, I finally was ready for the adventure of a lifetime. In 1970, I spent much of the year doing research in the area around Bangalore, now in the State of Karnataka (then Mysore) in southwest India. This large and beautiful city long was known as “The Garden City” for its luxuriant flowers and greenery displayed in numerous parks. Today it has the added feature of being the hub of information technology, the “Silicon Valley of India.” When I was in the city I stayed with the Apostolic Carmelite Sisters, a welcoming Indian community, where I learned to eat lots of chapati and puri breads, and vegetables flavored with curry. The number and size of mosquitos would make the Minnesota variety seem puny, but all kinds of precautions prevented me from contracting malaria.

    Surrounding this third largest metropolis in India were densely settled rural areas, the location of most of my field research. After some preliminary investigation, I narrowed my study to 40 villages with a population of 400 to 800, and with literacy rates varying from almost none to nearly 100 percent. My goal was to find out why the rates varied so much; in a nutshell, the answer included the economic status of the villages, agricultural productivity, their religious make-up, location and history. The nights in a sleeping bag, with sacred cows huddled comfortably in the next room, the simple food of the villagers and their warm welcome made the site visits quite an experience! A year or two later, a condensed version of my dissertation, edited by my adviser, was published in a Cornell University Press volume titled, An Exploration of India: Geographical Perspectives on Society and Culture. The research experience was more than exhilarating and the recognition of being published was quite satisfying.

    To say the least, India was a long way from the Minnesota home I had known for most of my life. I grew up near the Mississippi River on a dairy farm in southeastern Minnesota with my parents, grandparents and six brothers. Parts of my German heritage were important to the future direction my life would take – being committed Catholics, being well-organized and disciplined, being active participant-observers of and commentators on all the life around us were essential elements. Though I never would have imagined it would be so huge, that background had a profound impact on my research agenda and ability in later years. After attending the College of St. Teresa in Winona, Minn., for a few years, I entered the Sisters of St. Francis in Rochester. After religious formation, I graduated from St. Teresa’s with a history major; just two years later I began graduate school at Syracuse University, earning a master’s and Ph.D. in 1973. For 11 years I taught and held administrative positions at St. Teresa’s, during which time my main research was for my courses dealing with various geographic topics. As an administrator my tasks were to develop an effective undergraduate curriculum and write grants to support some innovative ideas related to curricular changes, both of which required a unique kind of research.

    At the end of those years, my community asked me to study moral theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Mass. One goal was to have someone in the order prepared to deal with the medical-moral questions that arose at the hospital we sponsor in Rochester, St. Mary’s, which is affiliated with the Mayo Clinic. Since I had served for nine years on the Board of Trustees of the hospital, I had a reasonably good sense of some of the major ethical questions. In a few years I earned a master’s and license in theology from Weston.

    At that point my career and research agenda took a decidedly unexpected detour. Because of my dual preparation in the social sciences and theology, the officers of the Lilly Endowment Inc. asked me to consider writing about the status of Catholic seminaries. Another author had done an overview of Protestant seminaries, and there was interest in a comparable study for Catholics. From 1984 onward, the Lilly Endowment and other agencies have funded most of my research.

    In the beginning my first Lilly project was focused quite specifically on graduate-level diocesan seminaries and religious order schools of theology. The field was unfamiliar to me, but the research tools I had acquired in both the social sciences and theology were immensely helpful. Site visits were indispensable, and in the three years I had to amass information and write the manuscript, I visited more than 40 seminaries. Msgr. William Baumgartner, former Rector of the St. Paul Seminary, then executive director of the NCEA Seminary Department, was of immeasurable assistance. He introduced me to the seminary world and wrote to all the rectors asking them for cooperation. Every seminary I visited welcomed me as I invaded their territory with a packed interview schedule and endless questions for administrators, faculty, staff, students and board members.

    At Weston, where I then was working, the well-published older faculty helped me organize the manuscript, edit content and find a publisher. Realizing that producing a book is very much a collaborative effort, I vowed ever after I would assist faculty who were new to the publishing world in the same way I had been supported. In 1989, the Michael Glazer Press (later affiliated with the Liturgical Press) published Reason for the Hope: The Futures of Roman Catholic Theologates. While it was never on the best-seller list, it was deeply appreciated in the seminary world, especially among the schools that were part of the research. Consequently, ten years later the Liturgical Press published Seminaries, Theologates, and the Future of Church Ministry: An Analysis of Trends and Transitions, a fresh look at the seminary situation ten years later.

    Through the years as my knowledge of seminary education deepened, the scope of my research gradually and naturally broadened to incorporate numerous topics related to the Catholic Church in the United States and to seminaries world-wide. In 1995 I was invited to an international gathering of seminary rectors from more than 75 countries at the University of Louvain in Belgium. I presented talks on the status of American seminaries and at the same time learned a great deal about seminaries in Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. Following that event I was asked to make presentations to several Vatican-sponsored programs in Rome for English-speaking rectors from all over the world, and to conduct conferences at many other seminaries in Rome, Ireland, England, Scotland, Canada and Belgium. U.S. seminaries continue to be frequent consumers of my research, but international, national and regional organizations, dioceses and parishes also invite me to present material I have researched and had published.

    Two developments in my research agenda resulted in other books, Educating Leaders for Ministry and Priestly Ministry in Multiple Parishes, both published by the Liturgical Press in 2005 and 2006, respectively. The second book especially resulted from teaching seminarians. In the late 1990s these graduate students began to inquire more and more about priests in their dioceses who had been asked to serve more than one parish. Almost nothing was published on the topic, so during my sabbatical in 2005, I applied for and received the Henry Luce III Fellowship in Theology, which supported my research on priests serving more than one parish. The topic has grown in popularity among seminarians, many of whom have since done their own research projects on this future ministry for their final papers in the course on “Pastoral Ministry in American Culture.”

    My most recent research projects are among the most absorbing, and I hope among the most beneficial for seminaries and for the Church as a whole. For the past five years I have worked with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on studies of the causes and context of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The extensive study, published in May 2011 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, is an in-depth report on why and how the abuse took place. My task this year is to prepare study guides for seminaries, parishes and dioceses, with the goal of preventing such abuse in the future – a major issue of human dignity and justice. The second focus relates to my 30 years of studying Catholic theological education, mainly as provided in seminaries. My intent over the next two to three years is to produce a “retrospective and prospective view” of where these institutions have been and directions they may take in the future. Funding for the research is all but assured by a major foundation.

    One of the most unexpected and intriguing dimensions of the research I have undertaken is the convergence of several diverse aspects of my background. Cultural studies done in the field in India carried over to studying the culture of Catholic seminaries by site visits to all of these institutions. My knowledge of seminaries opened up broad areas of related studies on topics so vital to the Church today – vocations, priestly life and ministry, the development of lay ministry, and most recently the effects of sexual abuse.

    What motivates me to continue examining these vital subjects? Most importantly, it is my Catholic faith that both motivates and sustains me. The richness of our tradition and the ups and downs of its 2000-year history serve as founts of wisdom and of challenge. As a Franciscan, my early formation included several years studying the life of St. Francis. One particular story about his life always has touched me deeply. St. Francis was praying before an ancient crucifix in the Chapel of San Damiano when he heard a voice say, “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Francis took the request literally at first, but eventually came to understand that it applied to the whole Church. Through the years I have translated the meaning to be “Build my Church,” a call that is the foundation of whatever ministry has been mine to do.


    Sister Katarina Schuth, O.S.F., Ph.D. is Endowed Chair for the Social Scientific Study of Religion at the St. Paul Seminary School of Divinity.

    From Exemplars, a publication of the Grants and Research Office.

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