- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2003

Part I: A higher grounding

Second of three parts

YPSILANTI, Mich. — The new face of Roman Catholic higher education looks like Sean McNally, who is majoring in European history and literature at tiny Ave Maria College here.

Mr. McNally, 19, lives in Gabriel Hall, a residence for young men considering the priesthood. He regards himself as far more conservative than most of his elders.

“I went to a Catholic high school where I had to defend my faith to my professors,” he says. “My principal was a lesbian living with her partner, and the priest [at the school] was a lunatic.”

And that new face of Catholic colleges also looks like Arwen Mosher, 20, who after two years at the University of Michigan gave up a $6,000 engineering scholarship to take up theology studies at Ave Maria in January.

Not the most typical student — she married at 19 rather than cohabit with her boyfriend — she chose Ave Maria after checking out the University of Notre Dame.

“The students I stayed with didn’t even believe in God,” Mrs. Mosher says of Notre Dame. “There was a hostility to Catholicism.”

At Michigan, she adds, “the faculty actively push students away from anything related to God and objective truth.”

Conservative Catholic schools, along with evangelical Protestant colleges, are flourishing amid a U.S. enrollment surge as more baby boomers opt for values-based higher education for their children.

Increasing numbers of parents among the nation’s 63 million Catholics are turning their backs on the traditional powerhouse Catholic universities. They are gravitating toward a new breed of college that aims to attract students who place God’s truth, moral absolutes and loyalty to Pope John Paul II above parties, sexual hookups and winning football programs.

The trend has not gone unnoticed among orthodox Catholic groups with the wherewithal to found their own schools. All five Catholic colleges that opened in the past five years, or are set to do so by next year, are quite conservative, says Michael James, associate executive director of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU).

“The startup institutions,” he says, “have all aligned themselves [with] what they’d term fidelity to the magisterium [teachings] of the Catholic Church.”

Students at these schools, and their instructors, wouldn’t be caught dead attending Jesuit-founded Georgetown University, where a cardinal who briefly criticized homosexuality during a graduation speech in May drew protests from 70 faculty members. “Beyond the pale” is how one professor terms the venerable Washington institution, which opened in 1789.

Neither do these more-traditional students and professors honor Jesuit-founded Boston College, which has a support group for homosexuals and a “queer resources directory” on its Web site.

The “new conservative” student abhors the permissive, sometimes raunchy fare on other Catholic campuses: birth control and emergency contraception dispensed by health centers, liberal commencement speakers, theology professors who don’t adhere to doctrine, tolerance of heavy drinking and premarital sex, even the countenancing of the X-rated play “The Vagina Monologues.”

Re-embracing traditions

Patrick Reilly, founder of the Cardinal Newman Society, a campus-watchdog group in Reston, identifies what he calls a fundamental challenge.

“[I]n the 10 years we’ve been working on this,” he says, “we’ve not been able to [convince] Catholic educators to admit these things are problems that need to be addressed. Until they admit that, we do not expect significant changes.”

Mr. Reilly’s organization in March issued a study of graduating seniors at 38 Catholic colleges that showed higher approval or acceptance of abortion, casual sex and homosexuality compared with the attitudes of entering freshmen. The ACCU contested the methodology of the study, which also found that 9 percent of seniors had left the Catholic faith and a third said they don’t pray.

Does the antidote mean a return to traditions and rites such as Lenten fasts, holy days and daily Mass?

Definitely, say administrators at Thomas Aquinas College, on 130 acres of eucalyptus trees and mustard fields just outside the dusty California town of Santa Paula. Nestled against the Los Padres National Forest 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles, the school’s Spanish-mission revival architecture breathes tradition and stability.

Student life at Thomas Aquinas includes three Masses a day, nightly recitations of the Rosary and grace said before classes and meals. Processions on campus mark holidays honoring the Virgin Mary.

The 330 students bask in the disciplines of a place that does not allow T-shirts, jeans or sandals to be worn in class, where everyone also is addressed as “Miss,” “Mrs.” or “Mr.”

The freshman classes of 102 students both this fall and last are the largest in the college’s 32-year history. Twelve percent of graduates become priests, monks or nuns.

The curriculum at this “great-books school” centers on the most influential works of Western civilization. Amid math, philosophy and Latin tutorials, freshmen cut their teeth on the ancient Greeks who conceptualized democracy and Western thought: Euclid, Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Plutarch, Thucydides, Aristophanes and Euripides.

Sophomore year tackles Rome’s most-praised writers, among them Virgil, Cicero and Tacitus, along with patristic and medieval Christian thinkers such as Augustine, Dante and Chaucer. No electives or lectures here, simply class discussions in groups of 17, led by a professor.

Giving an accounting

“Great-books schools” — there are only a relative few in the United States — come under routine criticism for not providing specialized training. Thomas Aquinas College, however, promises to offer something far more valuable: grounding in logic and wisdom.

“We want to make people think,” Aquinas President Thomas Dillon says. “We want them to dig to find reasons and causes. Students will ask each other to give an accounting for what they think, plus they carry on this interior dialectic.”

The mission obviously resonates with some. Mark Belnick, in-house lawyer for Tyco International Ltd., donated much of a $2 million bonus to Aquinas in 2000.

Pia de Solenni, a fellow at the Family Research Council in her late 20s, says Aquinas was the only school her father agreed to pay for. He was disenchanted with his alma mater, Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

“He told me, ‘If Loyola were truly Catholic, Los Angeles would be a different place,’” she says.

Somewhat reluctantly, she enrolled at Aquinas.

“Truth was not opposed to the faith there,” she says. “It’s the first time you see that living the faith and being a reasonable person is the same thing. If it were not for Thomas Aquinas, I’d not be a practicing Catholic today.”

‘Perfect’ law school

Administrators at new-breed Catholic colleges interviewed by The Washington Times describe their role as similar to that of the monasteries of the Dark Ages: trying to maintain vestiges of civilization in the face of the barbarians of modernity.

In a time menaced by radical Islam and creeping secular humanism, these Catholic school administrators see their schools as outposts of the great ideals that formed Western civilization.

Indeed, Ave Maria Law School was founded in August 2000 after some of the best Catholic minds in the country gathered in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the spring of 1999. Among them: Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Notre Dame criminal law professor Robert Blakey and Princeton University jurisprudence professor Robert George. Their mission: to dream up the perfect law school.

First, they determined, the school would seek to encourage passage of laws informed by a sense of right and wrong. Among the founders’ targets of reform: Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court ruling in 1973 legalizing many abortions.

This ideal law school, they decided, also would hire instructors who believe in moral absolutes.

One of the first acts of Ave Maria’s trustees was to lure to the dean’s chair Bernard Dobranski, dean of Catholic University’s law school. He also was dean of the University of Detroit law school and a law professor at Notre Dame and Creighton universities.

“One of the great contributions of Western civilization is the rule of law,” Mr. Dobranski says, “to protect the dignity of the individual. We see this as grounded in something transcendent: God’s law and natural law. That is what gives you moral norms and objective rights and wrongs.”

Sen. Sam Brownback, Kansas Republican and a recent convert to Catholicism, was the featured speaker in May when the 75-student law school held its first graduation ceremony. Attorney General John Ashcroft sent a congratulatory video.

“Some call us right-wing fundamentalists,” Mr. Dobranski says, “but we have a lot of intellectual diversity. Just bring up ‘just war’ or ‘capital punishment’ and see the debate you get around here.”

Drifting from roots

America’s 222 Catholic colleges have come a long way since beginning as schools for poor immigrant children in the 19th century. By the 1950s, typical fare included mandatory chapel, prayers before class, crucifixes in the classrooms, teaching on Thomistic philosophy, meatless Fridays, Saturday confessions, eucharistic adorations and, in the main, priests and nuns as instructors.

But Vatican II, the famous council of the Catholic Church from 1962 to 1965, did away with many traditional practices. The number of priests and nuns teaching at colleges plummeted, and lay professors replaced them.

In 1967, leading Catholic university presidents gathered for a meeting convened by the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame. They produced the “Land O’ Lakes statement” declaring independence from church control. More and more big-name Catholic universities decided to admit increasing numbers of non-Catholics.

Pope John Paul II, perceiving that Catholic schools around the world had drifted far from their roots, in 1990 issued Ex Corde Ecclesaie, a document insisting that authentic doctrine be upheld in purportedly Catholic schools.

The most nettlesome requirement for academics ordered theology professors to obtain a “mandatum” from the local bishop certifying their doctrinal purity. Ex Corde also required that at least half the faculty at any college be practicing Catholics.

Although many academics charged the Vatican with squelching their freedom, few if any American bishops booted out dissenting faculty during the 1990s.

Noting this with alarm, Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monaghan cashed in his share of the pizza empire in 1998, reaping more than $1 billion. Operating on the premise that it’s easier to realize ideals through a new institution than by reforming an existing one, Mr. Monaghan invested $30 million to open Ave Maria Institute in Ypsilanti, Mich. He followed with Ave Maria Law School, for another $55 million, in nearby Ann Arbor.

Mr. Monaghan proposed in 2000 to move the institute — which became Ave Maria College — closer to the law school. But city and county officials refused to rezone his property for academic use.

Mr. Monaghan then got a phone call from Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who urged him to move the college to the Sunshine State.

“It had to do with teaching morals and values,” Mr. Monaghan, 66, says of their conversation. “Then he made a comment about us playing Notre Dame some day.”

Converting donors

Having a winning football team, however, will be secondary to the quality of Catholicism at Ave Maria, which also plans to establish a branch campus in Rome.

Another factor in the college’s presumed success is location, location, location. Naples, Fla., is the second-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the country after Las Vegas. The town of 24,000 on the southwestern coast caught Mr. Monaghan’s fancy in the early 1970s when it was headquarters for his largest pizza franchise.

And so Mr. Monaghan announced Nov. 19 that Ave Maria College would move 1,300 miles south to a new, $220 million campus 20 miles east of Naples. Its chancellor would be the Rev. Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press and a deeply conservative priest.

Officials of Naples and Collier County were delighted. The Collier family — after which the county is named — went so far as to donate 750 acres adjoining the 5,000 acres on which Mr. Monaghan intends to build not only a Catholic college but a small town on the western edge of the Everglades.

Both will be called Ave Maria, which means “Hail Mary” in Latin. The college will own 50 percent of the town. It will build roads, a water-treatment plant and three golf courses, one solely for donors.

These donors could be giving to other Catholic campuses, a fact that caused some consternation among fund-raisers, the ACCU’s Mr. James says.

“Tom Monaghan seems to want his vision for a college and damn everyone else,” Mr. James says. “He’s not as much an elephant in this field as one would think. Still, we’re in a tight marketplace for our capital campaigns and endowments, and it’s a concern that potential givers might migrate over there.”

From pizza to priests

Mr. Monaghan, who once studied for the Catholic priesthood, says he is determined to use his worldly fortune for God.

“Education is the most important thing I can do for the church,” he says, relaxing in a lush, Mediterranean-style building serving as Ave Maria’s temporary quarters.

One hundred students will attend the Florida campus this fall. The permanent campus will open in the fall of 2006. Students from the Ypsilanti campus can transfer there immediately or remain in Michigan through spring 2007. The law school, for now, will remain in Michigan.

Ave Maria eventually will accommodate 5,000 students as a full-blown university with courses in law, medicine, science and engineering as well as the humanities.

“You can do so much more with a university,” Mr. Monaghan says. “You can train people to train people. If you have a good principal, you have a good school, just like having a good manager makes for a better pizza shop.

“And,” he adds, “there will be no pro-abortion politicians on campus giving talks or getting honorary degrees.”

This is a reference to 16 Catholic campuses that invited liberal personalities — among them New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer — as graduation speakers this past school year.

Single-sex dorms will be another fixture at the new Ave Maria.

“We don’t believe we should in any way encourage fornication,” Ave Maria President Nick Healy says. “This protects the natural dignity of each person.”

Mr. Monaghan says his decision to move and expand the college is predicated on a pragmatic realization that the population, Catholics included, is shifting southward.

Academics elsewhere also see the potential. Southern Catholic University is slated to open its doors next fall in Dawsonville, Ga. Based on similar conservative principles, it will be Georgia’s first Catholic college.

‘Answer to prayer’

Tom Monaghan’s model for Ave Maria is the popular Franciscan University of Steubenville in eastern Ohio. That once-liberal Catholic school was on the verge of closing until 1974, when a new chancellor, the Rev. Michael Scanlan, turned it into a showcase for orthodox Catholicism.

“Father Scanlan is my hero in higher education,” Mr. Monaghan says, noting that the late cardinal of New York, John O’Connor, called Steubenville “the premier Catholic institution in the U.S.A.”

“It has produced more vocations [men entering the priesthood] than any other Catholic school,” he says. “One good, holy priest is worth 100 average priests. That’s the kind of priest Steubenville produces. But Steubenville has been jammed for years and there’s no more room. Plus, we’re in a nicer place.”

At the Ypsilanti campus, 17 young men in the total student body of 230 are considering the priesthood. Undeterred by the sex scandals that have rocked Catholic dioceses nationwide for two years, seven of the male alumni are in seminary. With results like that, it has not been hard to pull in $1 million from 8,000 donors, Ave Maria Vice President David Kelly says.

“We find among donors there’s a tremendous level of dissatisfaction with Catholic higher education,” Mr. Kelly says. “Many donors say we are an answer to prayer. There are basketball scandals at Catholic schools as well as non-Catholic schools; chapels closing, theology professors dissenting and proud of it. Somehow [those professors] got away from their mission. It is widespread and noticeable.”

Keeping the faith

Christendom College in Front Royal, 60 miles west of the District, is named after the medieval European concept of the Catholic faith being the cornerstone of civilization.

“Parents have figured out what’s being offered around the country in terms of Catholic education is a fraud,” Christendom theology professor William Marshner says, “so these smaller places are getting a second look. These schools are the genuine article. Parents know their children won’t lose the faith there.”

Christendom’s curriculum is its strong point, packed as it is with 84 hours of theology, philosophy, metaphysics and at least one foreign language.

“Most ‘Catholic’ universities today have abandoned or drastically cut back their core curricula,” reads Christendom’s 11-page mission statement. “Theology has been replaced by ‘religious studies,’ often with the Catholic faith treated less fully than other religions or presented by dissidents who reject essential doctrines.”

Christendom’s 50 faculty members take an oath of loyalty to church teachings. All but one of 370 students is Catholic. A respectable 10 percent of graduates become priests or nuns.

“Most Catholic colleges are indistinguishable from secular schools,” Christendom President Timothy O’Donnell argues. “They may have a bit of Gothic architecture, but that is all.”

Christendom retains several customs long since discarded at other Catholic institutions: dress codes, single-sex dorms, a ban on public displays of affection.

“It’s just Christian decency,” spokesman Tom McFadden says. “We’re a small Catholic community, so everyone knows everyone’s business anyway.”

‘What can be done’

Dating is not discouraged at Christendom. Of 1,200 alumni, 280 are now 140 married couples.

Wedded alums include Mr. McFadden and his wife, who married when he was 22 and she was 19. That was not long after history professor Warren Carroll started Christendom in 1977 with $50,000, five teachers and 26 students in Triangle, Va., near Woodbridge.

The school relocated to an old hunting lodge on 100 acres just east of Front Royal. It is now a campus where crucifixes and statues of Jesus, Mary and various saints every few feet are reminders that this is not a place where one deviates. Classes begin with prayer and end in recitation of the Doxology.

“I’d been raised Catholic,” says Jen Coleman, 21, a literature major from Oshkosh, Wis., “but had never been immersed in such a Catholic setting. [Being Catholic] is integrated in the lives of students, which was a refreshing change.”

This is not to say that Christendom students never let their hair down.

For those of legal age, drinking is permitted at some campus functions. Outside the dining hall, several students can be seen puffing away on a “smokers’ balcony.” The men talk of a path down to the Shenandoah River that gets well worn during Friday beer parties.

“We’ve shown what can be done,” Mr. O’Donnell says. “Every Catholic family used to have a black sheep, but in the social chaos of the 1960s we lost whole families who didn’t practice the faith.

“The founder was determined that people learn history. We’ve a generation suffering from cultural amnesia; we don’t know who we are.”

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