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City of God (continued)

Monaghan’s empire

THE TOWN OF Ave Maria is only the latest of Tom Monaghan’s conservative-Catholic social creations. Here’s an abbreviated guide to some of his other endeavors.

1987: After meeting Pope John Paul II, Monaghan founds Legatus, an organization for Catholic executives.

1997: Founding of Ave Maria Radio, the "Catholic Radio Station for the Nation."

1998: Ave Maria College — offered as an orthodox alternative to the prevalent heterodoxy of Catholic higher education — opens in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

1999: Monaghan co-founds the Thomas More Law Center, to combat "a culture increasingly hostile to Christians and their faith." Advisory-board members include former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn and US Senator Rick Santorum (R-Pennsylvania).

2000: Opening of Ave Maria Law School, which emphasizes "the natural law written on the heart of every human being." Faculty includes failed Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.

2001: Launch of Ave Maria Mutual Funds, which avoid companies that support abortion, manufacture or distribute pornography, or provide benefits to unmarried partners.

2004: The Ave Maria List political-action committee, established to counter EMILY’s List by supporting candidates who oppose abortion and embrace a "Culture of Life," helps oust Democratic Senate minority leader Tom Daschle by exhaustively documenting his shifting record on abortion.

— AR

At the height of his success, though, Monaghan had a troubling epiphany. Reading Mere Christianity, by the British Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, he reached a chapter titled "The Great Sin," dedicated to the perils of pride. "That chapter hit me right between the eyes," Monaghan explained at BC High. "I worked harder than most people. I thought that was virtuous. But now I realized that all I was trying to do was have more than other people.... I thought, ‘If pride is the greatest sin of all, I’ve got to be the greatest sinner of all.’ " He did not sleep that night. The next morning, Monaghan took what he calls a "millionaire’s vow of poverty." He halted construction of a new mansion, sold his extravagant collection of luxury cars, stopped flying first class. And he looked for ways to put his wealth to good use.

Monaghan did not sever his ties to Domino’s immediately; he retained ownership for nearly a decade, yielding his controlling share in 1998 for almost $1 billion. For much of that time, however, religious philanthropy was his primary focus. In the late 1980s, Monaghan’s donations to anti-abortion groups prompted the National Organization for Women to organize a Domino’s boycott. In the early 1990s, Monaghan spent millions of dollars rebuilding a Nicaraguan cathedral that had been destroyed in an earthquake. The reconstruction occurred amid widespread poverty and hunger in that country, and was criticized by some as an ostentatious vanity project.

For the most part, though, Monaghan has been less interested in strengthening existing institutions than in creating new ones. The parts of his empire are varied (see "Monaghan’s Empire," page 18). But they have two things in common: they promulgate Monaghan’s highly conservative brand of Catholicism, and they owe their existence to his deep pockets. Building this network has not been cheap. According to Business Week, Monaghan had parted with $450 million of his $950 million fortune by the end of 2004, a giving rate that ranks him ahead of Bill Gates and George Soros.

There’s an obvious precedent for Monaghan’s endeavors. During the Cold War, some East European dissidents challenged the Soviet Union by creating a "parallel polis" — a network of institutions that would let them disengage from Communist society and live in relative freedom. For Monaghan, the enemy is the morally corroded secularism of modern America, and the freedom he seeks is the freedom to fully obey the moral teachings of the Catholic Church. Still, his method is strikingly similar.

The resemblance may not end there. Hundreds of years from now, dissenters like Václav Havel will be remembered for helping to foster communism’s demise. And Monaghan, as improbable as it may seem today, could be remembered as the man who helped transform America into a theocracy.

Talk of the town

As Monaghan breathes life into his new Catholic community in Florida, he’s enjoying the same good fortune that propelled him to the pinnacle of the business world. He might never have ventured into Collier County if the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, had been more accommodating. But when he proposed building Ave Maria University in Ann Arbor Township, along with a 250-foot-crucifix bearing a 40-foot Jesus, local officials balked, leading Monaghan to look south in 2002.

As it turns out, the social and political conservatism of Collier County — in the last presidential election, George W. Bush reaped 65 percent of the vote — fits nicely with Monaghan’s own views. (Monaghan is a frequent donor to conservative Republican political figures, including Senators Sam Brownback, Tom Coburn, and Rick Santorum). Naples also has a large Catholic community, as well as large pockets of extreme wealth, much of which is possessed by retirees willing to direct it to the right philanthropic cause. What’s more, people are moving there at a brisk clip: Collier County ranks among America’s fastest-growing counties, with a population increase of 18 percent between 2000 and 2004.

The serendipity doesn’t stop there. After giving up on Ann Arbor, Monaghan initially planned to build Ave Maria University at a site in North Naples. But when an eagle — an endangered and protected species — was spotted on the grounds, he was forced to look elsewhere. At this point, the Barron Collier Companies — a powerful local developer named for the same pioneer who gave his name to Collier County — sprang into action, and a deal was struck. Barron Collier would donate 900 acres of land outside Naples to Monaghan so he could build his university; in return, Monaghan and Barron Collier would collaborate on the construction of an adjoining town.

For now, the entire community exists only in embryonic form. Ave Maria University, which just graduated its first class, is tucked into a cozy interim campus that blends easily into the sprawling exurb of Greater Naples; the school’s buildings were originally constructed for an assisted-living facility. Save for a few telling details — the Vatican flag flapping in the breeze overhead, an unusually high concentration of anti-abortion Florida license plates — it could be just another private community. The 5000-acre site that will eventually house the university and town — a community estimated at 30,000 strong in a decade or so — is just 20 minutes away by car, but feels much farther. The landscape there is dominated by dense orange groves and barren savannah; every few minutes, a battered school bus rattles by, filled with migrant laborers who work the local fields and are returning to their homes in Immokalee, a bleakly poor town a few miles to the north.

But the religious heart of Ave Maria — the spiritual DNA of the town and university — is already present in the person of Father Joseph Fessio, SJ, Ave Maria’s provost and top-ranking priest. In the last 15 years, Fessio has enjoyed a reversal of fortune so dramatic it almost seems providential. After two clashes with his Jesuit superiors, Fessio had been virtually exiled to a hospital chaplaincy in Southern California. As it turned out, this left him free to take the Ave Maria job — a fortuitous development for Monaghan, since Fessio wrote his dissertation under the guidance of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now known as Pope Benedict XVI.

That Fessio and Benedict are close is clear; how close is difficult to say. San Francisco–based Ignatius Press, which Fessio founded and still runs, is the primary English-language publisher of Ratzinger’s works. When Ratzinger became pope, Time magazine listed Fessio among the new pontiff’s innermost circle. But Fessio — a lanky, intense man whose quarters are located, incongruously, in a cabana next to the school’s swimming pool — made light of this when we spoke recently. "I’ve spent time with him, he’s been a great help, we publish his books, I was his student," he said. "But as far as real influence, there’s probably hundreds of people who have more." Still, since Benedict was elected, Fessio has become one of the primary interpreters of his nascent papacy, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press, MSNBC’s Scarborough Country, and PBS’s NewsHour to discuss the new pope and surfacing as a source in countless newspaper stories.

page 1  page 2  page 3  page 4 

Issue Date: June 17 - 23, 2005
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