conservative colleges say existing institutions lead students away from the true
Every evening at 9 o'clock a group of students and faculty members gathers
between two four-story student residences -- one for men, the other for women
-- and sets off on a "rosary walk" around the former assisted-living complex
that serves as Ave Maria University's temporary campus, proclaiming the 20
mysteries of the life of Jesus Christ.
At Ave Maria, Mass is celebrated three times a day, Latin is a required subject,
and divorced Catholics are not welcome as faculty members. Opened last fall and
currently enrolling 122 students, it is the best financed and the most ambitious
of about a dozen new or planned Roman Catholic institutions of a very
After a quarter century in which no new Catholic colleges were established, most
of those being founded now are led by traditionalists who feel the majority of
America's 230 Catholic colleges have strayed from the truth of the Catholic
The Rev. Joseph D. Fessio, a Jesuit and Ave Maria's chancellor, shares that
view. He is bitterly critical of the University of San Francisco, the Jesuit
institution where he taught for almost two decades, for such decisions as hiring
a gay former priest as head of marriage-and-family counseling, and allowing
students to stage the play The Vagina Monologues. In a fund-raising
appeal for Ave Maria he wrote, "Many Catholic institutions ... have ceased to be
places where the fullness of Catholic truth is joyfully and vigorously taught,
defended and proclaimed."
Dissatisfied with existing Catholic higher education, the new colleges aspire to
train graduates who will raise a strong and orthodox Catholic intellectual voice
in the debates over stem-cell research, gay marriage, and other social issues.
They strive to maintain a conservative campus life, where students and faculty
members attend Mass frequently, premarital sex is strictly forbidden, and gay
support groups have no place.
The new institutions are an answer to the prayers of some families. Kathleen
MacLean, from New Hampshire, has a daughter who is a freshman at Ave Maria. "We
read about Catholic colleges which don't want to put up crucifixes in their
classrooms," she says. "It's like they're apologizing for being Catholic."
Yet conservative Catholic colleges, a small handful of which were founded in the
1970s in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the subsequent
liberalization of Catholic higher education, appear to have had only a minimal
impact on Catholic higher education or American society at large. It remains to
be seen whether the new crop will have a broader influence.
A Generous Patron
If Ave Maria's benefactor, Thomas S. Monaghan, has his way, the institution
will be a major intellectual force. He intends to transform remote pepper and
tomato fields in Immokalee, in southwest Florida, into a permanent campus for up
to 6,000 students. His plans include a Catholic church with the largest seating
capacity of any in the United States and the largest crucifix in the world. Mr.
Monaghan, the founder of Domino's Pizza, has committed $200-million to the
university. "My mission is to help as many people as possible get to heaven,"
says Mr. Monaghan, 67. The best way he can do that, he says, is to promote
orthodox Catholic higher education.
Raised in an orphanage and foster homes, Mr. Monaghan reportedly made $1-billion
when he sold Domino's Pizza in 1998. He had already taken what he calls "a
millionaire's vow of poverty"; he sold his yachts, airplanes, and the Detroit
Tigers baseball team, and stopped flying first class.
For the last 20 years he has devoted himself to conservative Catholic causes.
One of his early decisions was to finance the construction of a new cathedral in
Managua, Nicaragua, to replace the old one that was destroyed by a 1972
earthquake. The move was a stand for the faith. "Nicaragua," he explains, "was
controlled by the Sandinistas, who were atheists and communists." He went on to
take over the failing Nicaraguan branch of the University of Mobile, a Baptist
college, in 2000, and turned it into Ave Maria College of the Americas.
Before his latest venture, in Florida, Mr. Monaghan had opened another Ave Maria
College, in Ypsilanti, Mich., in 1998. Two years later, he established a
separate institution, Ave Maria School of Law, in Ann Arbor. Mr. Monaghan had
planned to establish the new university in Ann Arbor, too, but the project ran
aground when local officials refused to grant zoning authorization. So Mr.
Monaghan took the project to southwest Florida, an area he knew from regular
vacations in nearby Naples.
In what appears to be a real-estate first, the campus is being built jointly
with a new town, also to be called Ave Maria. Designed in the style of Mr.
Monaghan's favorite architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, the campus is scheduled to
open in 2006. Barron Collier Companies, a major Florida real-estate developer,
says the presence of the academic institution will make the housing more
attractive to buyers.
The developer is donating 900 acres for the university, which will be built on
both sides of a grassy mall in the center of town. The huge church will be at
one end of the mall. Shops and cafes, small lakes, and a golf course for donors
to the university are also planned.
While other Catholic educators are sometimes irritated by its holier-than-thou
image, Ave Maria University has had no trouble attracting students and
professors who share a common desire to return to their Catholic roots. The
institution has received more than 100 applications for some faculty-job
openings, says William K. Riordan, dean of the faculty.
The majority of students have come from out of state. Clare Robidoux, a freshman
from St. Louis, Mo., says she is glad to be at an institution where students and
faculty members regularly spend time in prayer. "Having a good spiritual life
helps you do the right thing and be holy," she says.
The right thing for students at Ave Maria includes bringing Christmas gifts to
migrant farm workers' children. It also includes conducting sidewalk
"counseling" of women arriving at a local abortion clinic every Friday, and
praying out loud against abortion in front of a Planned Parenthood office on
The administration supports those actions and provides vans to transport
students to them, reflecting Mr. Monaghan's own strongly held views. He has long
raised money from other wealthy people to defeat politicians who support
abortion rights and to overturn laws granting equal rights to homosexuals. His
conservative activism so roiled the National Organization for Women that in 1989
the group organized a boycott of Domino's Pizza.
Holier Than Thou?
Mainstream Catholic educators are often peeved by perceptions that Ave Maria
and the other new institutions set themselves apart not just from secular
colleges, but from most Catholic ones, too. "What bothers us," says Monika K.
Hellwig, a former professor of theology who is president of the Association of
Catholic Colleges and Universities, "is that they think we're not properly
The Rev. Charles L. Currie, president of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and
Universities, says the new institutions "tend to get very judgmental. There is
much more authentically Catholic going on at Catholic universities than Joe
Fessio would give us credit for."
And Alice Gallin, former executive director of the Association of Catholic
Colleges and Universities and a scholar-in-residence at College of New Ro-chelle,
a Catholic college, says the new conservative Catholic colleges are like overly
protective parents in the way that they try to maintain strict campus
environments. Rather than allowing students to develop their own intellectual
and moral judgments, "this group places more emphasis on how often the students
go to Mass and what kind of films or plays can be shown on campus; all these
neurotic points," says Ms. Gallin.
But some conservative Catholics are distressed by the way Catholic institutions
in recent decades have seemed to embrace the mores of the larger society. About
30 Catholic colleges this spring are staging performances of The Vagina
Monologues, a feminist play celebrating women's power over their bodies and
their sexuality. Earlier this year, the University of Notre Dame held its first
"Queer Film Festival." And last year about 70 faculty members at Georgetown
University signed a statement protesting a commencement speech by Cardinal
Francis Arinze, a senior Vatican official, because the cardinal used the
occasion to condemn homosexuality.
A recent study conducted by Patrick J. Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman
Society, which promotes conservative values on Catholic campuses, concluded that
Catholic colleges did a poor job of imparting church teachings to
undergraduates. The study, "Are Catholic Colleges Leading Students Astray?,"
which was published last year, surveyed 7,200 students at 38 Catholic
institutions in their freshman year and again as seniors. Significantly more of
the seniors approved of abortion, homosexual marriages, and casual sex than did
the same students as freshmen.
Among Catholics "there is a small but vocal contingent that feels the old
certainties are gone," says Ms. Hellwig, of the Catholic colleges' association.
"They feel betrayed."
Indirectly, Vatican II contributed to the deep changes at Catholic institutions.
The council called for a respect for modern learning, the autonomy of the social
sciences, and a greater role for lay Catholics in running Catholic institutions.
In response, Catholic colleges increasingly accepted lay people as trustees and
senior administrators. The decisive blow came in 1967 at a meeting of presidents
of leading Catholic universities, called by the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, Notre
Dame's president at the time. The "Land O'Lakes statement" they produced, named
for the Wisconsin town where they met, declared independence from church
The New Institutions
For a small number of very conservative Catholics, that was the last straw.
The Land O'Lakes statement produced "a wholesale loss of Catholic identity" at
most Catholic institutions, according to the mission statement of Christendom
College, in Front Royal, Va., which was founded in 1977. "The very existence of
objective truth was in many cases denied."
For a few Catholic educators, the only solution was to establish new
institutions. "The only surprise," says David O'Brien, a historian of American
Catholicism at College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass., "is that it took
so long for these colleges to arrive."
A similar phenomenon had already occurred in Protestant higher education early
in the 20th century. As America's majority religion and its colleges adapted to
the relaxed mores of modern life, some conservatives grew dissatisfied. Biola
University, in La Mirada, Calif., established in 1908, and Bob Jones University,
in Greenville, S.C., established in 1927, were created at a time when
"Protestant fundamentalists broke off and started their own institutions," says
William D. Dinges, an associate professor who specializes in Catholicism and
culture at Catholic University of America, in Washington. "Now that Catholicism
is becoming more accommodating to modern culture, some Catholics are doing
The late 1960s and 1970s saw the founding of four colleges with a staunchly
conservative Catholic character: Christendom College; Magdalen College, in
Warner, N.H.; Thomas Aquinas College, in Santa Paula, Calif.; and Thomas More
College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, N.H.
In 1990 the Vatican attempted to restore a degree of the church's authority over
Catholic higher education when Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae
-- literally: from the heart of the church. After its release, American bishops
said Catholic theologians had to seek a mandatum certifying that they
were teaching "authentic Catholic doctrine." The controversial order appears to
have been largely ignored. The episode only reinforced the drive to establish
The institutions founded in the last few years, like those from the 1970s,
advertise their unquestioning obedience to the Vatican, often expressed as
"faithfulness to the magisterium of the Catholic church." All are small, and
many have adopted a "great books" approach: a large core of required
liberal-arts courses, stressing the reading of classics of western civilization,
starting from ancient Greece and Rome, in history, philosophy, literature, and
theology. Some celebrate Mass in Latin, a practice largely ended by Vatican II.
Many of the new institutions place great emphasis on academic excellence.
Franciscan University of Steubenville, in Ohio -- along with Ave Maria, the only
two full universities among the orthodox institutions -- has been ranked by
U.S. News & World Report in the top tier of Midwest colleges for the third
year in a row. It enrolls 2,200 students.
Steubenville was founded as a college in 1946, but after almost collapsing it
was transformed by the Rev. Michael Scanlan, who took over as chancellor in
1974. In addition to strengthening the institution academically, he gave it a
strong "charismatic Catholic" character. That orientation has since diminished
somewhat, but campus prayer meetings still exhibit some of the exuberance
normally associated with Pentecostalism, including arm waving and speaking in
Ave Maria School of Law is also excelling. Last year its first graduating class
scored highest among graduates of all Michigan law schools in the state's bar
exam. In a videotaped message at their graduation ceremony, U.S. Attorney
General John Ashcroft told students they were "trailblazers" for having chosen
Faculty members drawn to the new orthodox institutions are often seen by
their peers at best as idealists, at worst as troublemakers. The career of
Father Fessio, Ave Maria University's chancellor, illustrates the constant
tension between mainstream Catholic higher education and the small minority of
Catholic academics who reject the direction it has taken.
As a young theology teacher at the University of San Francisco in the mid-1970s,
he founded the St. Ignatius Institute to promote a great-books education, in
response to a liberalizing of the university's curriculum. Two years later he
founded Ignatius Press to publish conservative Catholic thinkers, including
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's doctrinal watchdog and Father Fessio's
mentor since the time he did his doctoral studies at the University of
Regensburg, in Germany.
Many at San Francisco viewed Father Fessio and the small group around him as
doctrinaire elitists who opposed the university's attempts to engage with modern
society. In 1987 Father Fessio was fired as director of the St. Ignatius
Institute, but allowed to continue teaching. Then in 2001, the simmering
conflict came to a head when San Francisco's new president, the Rev. Stephen A.
Privett, fired the institute's then head and his assistant and revamped the
The traditionalists did not take the move lying down. Supporters called on
alumni to withhold donations to the university. And Father Fessio and his
colleagues reconstituted the institute as a small independent institution,
Campion College, just a half-block beyond the University of San Francisco's
The move was seen as an act of insubordination, and the head of the Jesuits in
California ordered Father Fessio to Los Angeles, to take up a post as an
assistant hospital chaplain. He acquiesced, but Mr. Monaghan and Ave Maria
University's president, Nicholas J. Healy Jr., appealed to the Superior General
of the Jesuits, in Rome, who agreed to allow Father Fessio to join the new
university as its chancellor.
The Truth, Period
The new orthodox colleges are often seen as attempts to recreate the more
structured and insular Catholic higher education of the 1950s, with its clear
answers and great certainties. Mr. Reilly, of the Cardinal Newman Society, says
that's not the case. "There is an understanding that free academic interchange
is a central part of academic education," he says. But within limits. Students
at the new institutions will be allowed to debate controversial issues like
abortion and gay rights in class, he says, but professors will be expected to
uphold the church's orthodoxy. "Faculty members," he says, "would not debate."
Indeed, for many of those involved with the new colleges, the Vatican's doctrine
represents the truth, period. "I love the church," says Ave Maria's Father
Fessio. "It means everything to me. I don't understand people who want to change
Here are several conservative Catholic colleges recently founded or being
Campion College, a small two-year institution offering an intensive
"great books" education, was opened in 2002 by the founders of the St. Ignatius
Institute of the University of San Francisco. It is planning a branch in
Holy Spirit College is being established near Lansing, Mich. Rusty Hills,
a former chairman of the state's Republican Party and chancellor of the college,
says that in its various disciplines it will focus on such controversial social
issues as abortion, cloning, and doctor-assisted suicide.
The Legionaries of Christ, a conservative Catholic movement active in 20
countries, plans to establish a university in Sacramento, Calif., with 7,000
students, and another one in Thornwood, N.Y., about 20 miles from New York City.
New Catholic University, which describes itself as "uncompromisingly" and
"unapologetically" Catholic, plans to admit students in the fall of 2006 in the
San Diego area. It will offer degree programs in business, technology, and
communications media and plans an in-house business incubator.
Southern Catholic College, in Atlanta, is being established, like most of
the new institutions, by lay Catholics with the blessings of the local bishop.
The college plans to admit its first students in the fall of 2005, after the
original 2003 opening date was delayed several times, and hopes to have an
enrollment of 1,500. Its founder, Tom Clements, sold the small, successful
software company he had founded and is one of five businessmen to contribute
more than $1-million each to the project.