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City of God (continued)

A conclave of conservatives

TOM MONAGHAN ISNíT the only conservative Catholic dedicated to changing American culture. Here are some allies and ideological fellow travelers:

The Reverend Joseph Fessio. Founder and head of Ignatius Press, primary publisher of the former cardinal Ratzingerís works in English. Previously dismissed as head of the Ignatius Institute (a conservative school-within-a-school at the University of San Francisco) and ordered to scrap plans for Campion College (a conservative, two-year Catholic school heíd hoped to build in San Francisco). Joined Ave Maria University after a stint as a hospital chaplain in Southern California.

Antonin Scalia. Supreme Court justice, former justice-in-residence at Ave Maria Law School, and possible replacement for Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

The Reverend John McCloskey. Head of the Washington, DCĖbased Catholic Information Center, member of Opus Dei, and converter of several prominent Washingtonians, including Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and conservative commentator Robert Novak.

Rick Santorum. Pennsylvania senator, staunch Catholic, and opponent of embryonic stem-cell research, legalized abortion, and gay marriage (which he claims paves the way for legalized bestiality and incest).

ó AR

This puts Fessio in a remarkably prominent position in American Catholicism, and will surely help Monaghan as he markets Ave Maria in the coming years. But liberal American Catholics will likely find Fessioís rise discouraging. Last month, I asked Fessio if American Catholics are obligated to embrace a specific political identity. "I canít give you a yes-or-no answer to that," he replied ó and then, for all intents and purposes, he did exactly that. "I think itís more difficult for someone whoís trying to live his life consistently with the Catholic faith to vote for Democratic candidates, because the partyís platform includes things which are clearly against Catholic teaching, such as abortion and homosexual marriage and so on," Fessio said. True, he continued, Democrats support the welfare state and Republicans do not ó but despite the Churchís doctrine of a "preferential option for the poor," Fessio refused to call this a Democratic strength. "These are things which the Catholic Church can accept different points of view on," he claimed, somewhat mysteriously. Later, Fessio insisted that any Catholic politician who supports legalized abortion should be denied communion. "This is a very simple question, a question of integrity and consistency and identity," he argued. "Look ó if you are sincerely convinced, thatís fine. I wonít vote for you. But please donít call yourself a Catholic in good standing. And donít behave in such a way that would give the impression that you are."

When talk turned to the town of Ave Maria, Fessio was more diplomatic. He promised that the Barron Collier Companies will have ultimate authority over the townís character. "No matter what Tomís personal desires might be, or anybody elseís, this town is going to be open to everybody," Fessio said. Still, he admitted that a considerable amount of self-selection was likely to occur. Later, when I asked Fessio what Ave Mariaís legacy might be a century from now, he was slightly less guarded. "My ideal would be for the entire human race to be fully and completely Catholic, and to serve God that way," Fessio answered. "But thatís not going to happen. What do I want for the town? Iíd hope the town would be like Iíd like the whole planet to be ó fully conformed to the truth. But thatís not going to happen either. So I donít know. Iíll accept whatever happens."

Keeping the faith

When the first homes in Ave Maria go on the market early in 2007, the students and faculty of Ave Maria University will be among the most likely buyers. So itís possible, by taking stock of the way current members of the Ave Maria University community talk and think, to gauge what the townís atmosphere might be like once it becomes a reality.

The promotional materials used to market Ave Maria University exude institutional swagger. The students and faculty are "pioneers" who will "win the hearts and minds of a new generation"; the university is "destined to be a mighty work of the Holy Spirit, a bulwark of Catholic truth against the windstorms of secularism and apostasy which seem to overwhelm our nation and our church." But this cocksureness is oddly lacking on an individual level. As he welcomed me into a study group he was leading on Ratzingerís Spirit of the Liturgy, Fessio urged me to act as a dissenting voice: "Feel free to criticize him," Fessio said, "even though he is the pope." The studentsí laughter was reassuring ó a sign, perhaps, that their faith could comfortably coexist with the outside world. But later, when I asked two recent graduates to discuss their experience at Ave Maria, they turned to Fessio with stricken looks. He quickly explained that all interviews needed to be arranged through the schoolís PR office.

This policy arose again after Latin Mass one morning, when I asked a middle-aged couple what had brought them to Ave Maria. As the wife began answering, the husband quickly stopped her; what I needed to do, he explained anxiously, was talk to the university spokesman. As it turned out, this wasnít just a local Catholic couple in search of a traditional service: the man was William Riordan, a theology professor and Ave Mariaís dean of faculty. Vetting questions directed at students is one thing. But it seems odd óand slightly ominous ó for a senior faculty member to shy away from freely speaking his mind.

Over the course of several days, however, I managed to meet a few candid individuals. The most expansive was Rachel Smolinski, a 26-year-old Floridian who plans to begin graduate study in pastoral studies this fall. As an undergraduate, Smolinski had been an environmental-science major, and she still looked the part ó tanned and pretty, in a granola-ish way, with her hair pulled back in a pony tail and small lizards emblazoned on her blue T-shirt. For reasons she couldnít quite explain, though, Smolinski had put her interest in science aside and come to Ave Maria to figure out Godís plan for her life.

Smolinski told me that the Church is poised on the cusp of a new golden age, a prospect that made her smile beatifically. "Thereís so much wonderful stuff going on," she marveled, citing the proliferation of the teachings of John Paul II, Mother Teresa, and Benedict XVI. "The beauty of the Churchís teachings is coming out and being seen. Itís just like the light, and the wonderful goodness ..." She trailed off, then finished her thought. "Thereís kind of an idea that people sometimes have of the Church as being bad and oppressive and negative and unpleasant. Whereas, really, itís teaching us how to truly be happy, in this world and the next."

Smolinski wasnít sure if she would settle in the town of Ave Maria once it was built. She liked the idea of serving as a missionary among unbelievers. Still, she had keen insight into the townís appeal. "The world is so confusing today," Smolinski mused. "Itíd be nice to have some places that are solid in faith.... To have that secure community like people used to have, when people respected these beliefs and you werenít being challenged by all these things ó wrong attitudes and despair and not understanding what lifeís about ó I think it sounds like a good place."

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Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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