Sadly, i missed the "modesty pool jump." I was not on hand when a gaggle of students at Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, leapt fully clothed into their campus natatorium, so as to protest the rampant ungodliness of today's bathing attire. I was absent, too, when Ave Maria's Ch astity Team hosted its first-ever fashion show. I will need forevermore to satisfy myself with club founder Stephanie Smith's tantalizing preshow promise, "It's not going to be frumpy stuff," for I visited Ave Maria—one of the nation's newest, and perhaps most reactionary, Catholic universities—on a quotidian week in late autumn. The school mascot—Jax, a wrinkly English bulldog who often wears a blue blanket emblazoned "Marines"—was roistering about amid a succession of little prefab buildings, and the Ave Maria basketball squad was shambling back from the gym, looking battered. "What was the score?" I asked one player, a short, pudgy youth still in his game jersey. "One hundred twenty-six to thirty-seven," he said between drags on his cigarette. "Pray for us. Pray for us."
The whole scene might have been charming in its ultra-silliness were it not for the fact that the Naples campus of Ave Maria, which now boasts 400 students, is only the bud of the huge vision imagined by a billionaire Catholic hardliner. Tom Monaghan—who founded Domino's Pizza in 1965, then sold it 33 years later, for $1 billion—has given generously to antiabortion groups and has recently made headlines with his pledge to help bankroll the long-shot presidential campaign of Sam Brownback, the Kansas Republican who is the Senate's most fervent pro-lifer. But Monaghan, now 70, sees his principal mission and legacy as founding Catholic schools. In 2000, he opened Ave Maria School of Law near the Domino's headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Three years later he launched the school that I visited, using a former retirement home as a temporary campus, and is spending $400 million to construct his dream—a sort of right-wing Notre Dame University designed for 6,000 students that will, this fall, become the permanent home of all Ave Maria undergrads. (The law school may relocate there, too, but not before 2009.)
Now only partially built, the future Ave Maria University sits amid a flat, swampy, and desolate expanse of tomato fields and orange groves 30 miles northeast of Naples. A brawny, 100-foot-tall, arching Gothic oratory is already rising, soon to be flanked by the nation's largest crucifix and encircled by an entire Catholic community, Ave Maria Town, which will welcome 25,000 residents. In keeping with the tenor of Naples, where the average home costs $1.95 million and Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 4-to-1, the town will not be a hive of spartan monks' cells. Rather, it will feature a mix of "affordable" $175,000 town houses, $665,000 condos, and far more palatial Corinthian-columned manses equipped with lavish swimming pools. The golf course will be "championship" caliber, and the retail core will be at once walkable and pious. "Our plan," Monaghan told a gathering of Catholics last year (sending constitutional lawyers into a kerfuffle), "is that no adult material will appear on the town's cable system, and the pharmacy will not sell contraceptives."
Essentially, Monaghan plans to draw a line in the sand against a trend he deems evil. Even as the rapidly growing church lists right worldwide and a few rock-ribbed Catholic orders—most notably Opus Dei—are surging, American Catholics are becoming ever more progressive. Thirty-seven percent favor an easing of the church's abortion policies, according to a recent cnn/USA Today/Gallup Poll, and fifty-five percent support the ordination of women. Meanwhile, several Catholic universities—among them Holy Cross and St. Scholastica—have gone so far as to play host to the dread Vagina Monologues.
Monaghan's campaign may be a first in Catholic history. For centuries, the church's schools have always been headed up by a religious order—the Benedictines, for instance, or the Jesuits. Monaghan, though, is stealing a page from Protestant evangelicals such as Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and invoking a decidedly corporate structure. "I'm a businessman," he's pronounced. "I get to the bottom line.... And the bottom line is to help people get to heaven."
To conservatives, Monaghan is a deep-pocketed savior. Florida governor Jeb Bush, a converted Catholic, made Ave Maria Town a special tax district like Disney World, giving the self-appointed Board of Supervisors (run by Monaghan's development partner) wideonging powers and exempting the town from state and local laws. John DiIulio Jr., once George W. Bush's director of faith-based initiatives, is on the university's board of regents, and Pope Benedict XVI—who has bemoaned the "dictatorship of relativism"—sees great hope in Monaghan's school. A former student of the pope, Reverend Joseph Fessio, is the provost there, and when Fessio visited Rome recently, he reported that the pope asked, "How's Ave Maria?"
It's a question that few people can answer. The university insists that all interviews—with Monaghan, students, or faculty—be arranged through a PR office. When I sent in my request, noting that I'm a believing Catholic, I got the cold shoulder. "Why should I grant interviews to someone who's going to kick the shit out of us?" publicist Rob Falls asked me. He added, "The campus is private."
And so I trespassed in silence, mostly, until one Saturday evening when I saw a procession of students wandering the temporary campus, saying the rosary. I fell in behind them, my voice high and plaintive in prayer. And soon I was sitting in the student center, scribbling notes as four of my co-petitioners crowded around me, monitored—and then interrupted—by a lean, crew-cut young man with a lantern jaw, who rushed the table. "Whoa, whoa, whoa," this student said, identifying himself as a resident assistant. "Is this, like, an interview? With the media? You can't say anything to him—that's official policy." So we ventured off campus, to Applebee's.