It takes courage -- or recklessness, or contempt -- to stand inside Boston College High School and condemn the state of Catholic education. For nearly 150 years, BC High has been a prized destination for the sons of local Catholic families; the list of notable alumni includes politicians (former state Senate president William Bulger) and intellectuals (former New York Times Book Review editor Chip McGrath), and being a "Triple Eagle" -- a graduate of BC High, Boston College, and Boston College Law School -- is still a potent credential in Boston's corridors of power.
If Tom Monaghan knows this history, he doesn't care. It's a Saturday in March, and Monaghan -- founder of Domino's Pizza, former owner of the Detroit Tigers, and self-appointed savior of American Catholicism -- is addressing an overflow crowd packed into BC High's gymnasium for the first annual Boston Catholic Men's Conference. Monaghan doesn't seem like a revolutionary: his voice is gentle, his graying hair mussed, and he leans against the podium for support as he speaks. But his rhetoric is incendiary. Catholic schools are failing, Monaghan announces; on key issues (religious observance, sexual behavior, opposition to abortion), graduates of Catholic colleges and universities are actually less orthodox than their co-religionists who attend secular institutions. The problem is especially bad at elite schools, which are academically rigorous but spiritually impoverished. Yet Monaghan brings good news as well. At Ave Maria, the university he's building in southwest Florida, things will be different. In a few years, the median SAT score will be higher than that at any other Catholic institution; even better, the dorms will be single-sex, a quarter of the classes will be taught by "wholly orthodox" priests, and students will be urged to become priests and nuns.
Bold talk -- but the most dramatic part of Monaghan's speech is yet to come. Ave Maria won't be just a university, he continues. It will also be a new town, built from scratch, in which the wickedness of the world will be kept at bay. "We've already had about 3500 people inquire on our Web site about buying a home there - you know, they're all Catholic," Monaghan says excitedly. "We're going to control all the commercial real estate, so there's not going to be any pornography sold in this town. We're controlling the cable system. The pharmacies are not going to be able to sell condoms or dispense contraceptives." A private chapel will be located within walking distance of each home. At the stunning church in the center of town, Mass will be said hourly, seven days a week, from 6 a.m. on. "So," Monaghan concludes, with just a hint of understatement, "it'll be a unique town." As he exits the stage, the applause is thunderous.
This may be by design. The town's Web site, www.avemaria.com, minimizes its religious component, and Monaghan's spokesman, Robert Falls, says it's too early to discuss the way faith will shape life there. (Monaghan did not respond to several requests for comment for this story.)
Why the reticence? Maybe because the Ave Maria Tom Monaghan envisions -- a Catholic hub in which opportunities for sin will be strictly circumscribed, and from which the truths of orthodox Catholicism will emanate throughout America and the wider world -- may be illegal, and will certainly be controversial. If Monaghan's dream comes true, Ave Maria will, in effect, become America's first gated Catholic community. The decades-old efforts of American Catholics to assimilate will be reversed, and American religious pluralism will face a serious challenge.
What's more, the ascension of Pope Benedict XVI has many conservative Catholics hopefully anticipating a smaller, purer, more obedient Church. If Ave Maria becomes a reality, it will become the American embodiment of this ideal -- a combative bastion of orthodoxy in a sea of dissent and deviance. In other words, the stakes are high. And the less scrutiny Monaghan's utopian plan gets in its early stages, the more likely it is that it will come to pass.