"The first time i ever kissed a guy," a gentle, soft-spoken Ave Maria freshman named Mersadis said over her mozzarella sticks, "I thought it was disgusting. And now I don't want another guy to kiss me before marriage." She took a sip of her iced tea, then continued. "In high school, I found myself looking at every girl and asking, 'Has she given up her virginity? Is she still pure?' Here, I've stopped asking. I know everyone is."
Beside me sat a stern and erudite priest-in-training, a freshman named Aaron. "Here at Ave Maria, we follow the teachings of the magisterium," he intoned, meaning that students regard the pope's guidance as infallible. "We have not prostituted ourselves.... Other Catholic schools—and the rest of America—have embraced modernism and the culture of death. They have given wholehearted support to the death penalty, abortion, and euthanasia. The value of the human person is now entirely relative."
Aaron argued that the United States can only be saved from moral perdition if it, like Ave Maria, embraces the magisterium as supreme. "We don't believe in the separation of church and state," he said, "and this country should orient itself toward Christ. The foundation of Western civilization rests on Christendom, which means that America owes its existence to the Catholic Church."
But Catholicism, as Aaron sees it, has been straying ever since the early 1960s, when Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council of bishops to update and humanize the church. Revising cobwebby doctrine, the council acknowledged that other denominations and religions also offered "sanctification" and "truth." And Vatican II radically altered the standard Mass. Prayers became shorter and simpler—and, as conservatives see it, a lax, unholy relativism gnawed its way into the church's holiest rite. Where once the priest blessed the Eucharist in Latin, with his back to the congregation, he now faces his parishioners and speaks in the local tongue. "The offertory in the new Mass," griped Aaron's friend, an energetic and sandy-haired youth named Mike, "is essentially a Jewish table grace."
A student at Florida Gulf Coast University, Mike has a fiancee at Ave Maria, and every weekend, when he pays her a chaste visit, he shuttles her two hours east to Miami, so that together they can take in a rarity not even offered on the Ave Maria campus: a Tridentine Mass, which uses the Latin and ancient prayers of the pre-Vatican II service. Quoting a 19th-century theologian, Frederick Faber, Mike called the ceremony, with its wafting incense and quietude, "the most beautiful thing this side of heaven." Mostly, though, Mike's faith seemed dismissive in spirit. He was disdainful of "those dissenting Catholics. They're just going to contracept themselves out of existence," he snickered.
Aaron, meanwhile, spoke of Ave Maria with a smug, William F. Buckleyesque swagger. He called it "the bulwark of orthodoxy. And if you are devout," he added, "the calling of celibacy is not a problem.... Christ did not marry Mary Magdalene and all that hogwash."
Not everyone at ave maria shares Aaron's self-certainty and resistance to change. In fact, one student tracked me down outside a dorm and in urgent, secretive tones said, "Don't use my name, but I saw you talking to Aaron, and you should know that most people here think he has very extreme views on modernism."
To Aaron's chagrin, modern Masses take place often at Ave Maria, and indeed on the weekend I visited, four Franciscan friars from New York were there, barefoot and clad in simple gray robes as they treated students to a nonstop 40-hour retreat that looked very much like a pajama party love-in. The friars were strumming winsome and lyrical folk music on their guitars and getting hip in their homilies, depicting Christ as a survivalist paintball player, and unleashing rap riffs: "You gotta go with the Jesus flow / All of us gotta know." One brother twisted low, hips swiveling, as, prayerfully, he sang, "I want to see-eee-eee you." The students all swayed, barefoot themselves and ardent, like so many ecstatic pilgrims at a Grateful Dead concert, before a six-foot-tall, wooden, Ikea-ish structure—a "burning bush" appointed with candles.
And for a moment I thought, hopefully, that they were getting subversive and channeling a looser-limbed Catholicism, a faith not based on persnickety rule-mongering but on a generosity of spirit—the sort that historian Thomas Cahill believes suffused the Catholic Church in its early, most formative years. Cahill is a graying don of liberal Catholicism, and in his new book, Mysteries of the Middle Ages, he depicts his spiritual forebears as social revolutionaries who laid the groundwork for modern feminism by exalting women such as Hildegard of Bingen, a mystic nun. He calls the Franciscans, who commit themselves to aiding the poor, "the world's first hippies"—and it is his version of Catholicism that sings to me. I am with St. Martin de Porres when he argues that the precept of charity trumps that of obedience. Sitting in Stella Maris Chapel, wondered if that Catholicism was somehow thriving at Ave Maria beneath Tom Monaghan's radar.
I soon discovered that it most decidedly is not. The students are far too controlled for that to happen. They are forbidden to live off campus, unable to take any elective courses during their first two years, barred from having TVs in their rooms, and (according to the student handbook) subject to fines if they listen to "any music which is sacrilegious, obscene or violent." One Ave Maria adjunct music professor, Lan Lam, told me, "They seem very sheltered, very polite. It's as if they don't know how to act up."
The celebrants of the burning bush were, I learned, not radical lefties but rather Franciscan Friars of the Renewal—that is, affiliates of an obscure, newly minted conservative branch of the order. "I thank God for Bill Clinton," preached a friar/priest named Father Juniper, "because he led me to pray more, by disrespecting the sanctity of human life and the sacredness of marriage." Juniper's spiritual brother, David, told a long, complex story about "rescuing" a pregnant woman outside an abortion clinic. The woman, he said, fled out to the sidewalk after her abortion was already in progress, and he kept talking about the pins that, he said, were protruding from the woman's uterus. He described his rushing her to the hospital, through New York City, as a hilarious high-action chase scene. "But, sir," he told a police officer in frantic, pinched tones, "we've got this girl with us who's got sticks in her uterus!"
I left the chapel. On the walkway outside, I crossed paths with Lantern Jaw, the sober RA who'd hassled me earlier. He was looking very Secret Service now, in a crisp black suit, so I ducked away. I went to the library. The New Yorker was there on the periodical rack, along with the Weekly Standard, the American Conservative, and Human Life Review, but I leafed through Ave Maria's campus paper, the Angelus. University president Nicholas J. Healy Jr. writes a column for each issue. In one he calls Islam "a hostile and aggressive religion," and goes on to lament a "widespread loss of the Christian moral vision," most evident in Europe, where "birth rates far below replacement levels have already allowed millions of Muslims from North Africa and the Middle East to...heavily influence the political agenda."
When I stepped outside, finally, I was relieved to find four rowdy guys huddled around the blue glimmer of a cell-phone screen, their mesh shorts drooping, their baseball caps askew and backward. "This shit is fuu-ucked up," crowed one of them. I approached, thinking that maybe at last I'd located the wild heart of Ave Maria. "So," I said, "are there any parties on campus tonight?" "Yeah, there's a kegger over in Dorm 32." "Really?" I rejoiced. But of course they were simply messing with me. "Dude, we're Catholics," said one. "We've got a lot of studying to do tomorrow. We're going to bed."