Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Religious higher ed: engagement vs. sanctuary?

Naomi Schaefer Riley writes--but not with much subtlety--about a dispute at Ave Maria School of Law regarding a possible relocation to southwest Florida, the site of Ave Maria University. It’s not that the lawyers prefer Michigan slush to Florida sunshine, but that Ave Maria Town is supposed to be set next to the university campus. The town, according to Tom Monaghan, the board of trustees chairman and principal bankroller of the undertaking, is intended to be a "family values" enclave, free of both pornography and the pill. (Whether that can actually be accomplished in the light of Florida real estate and commercial law, not to mention the demands of marketplace, remains to be seen.)

The controversy that seems to be animating the faculty and friends of the University and its law school is whether and to what extent a serious Catholic institution can engage with "the world" without being immersed in and surrounded by "the world." My first response as an outsider is that it ought to be possible to reach out to "the world" from a "sanctuary" that, in any event, is neither remote nor impermeable. In her book, Riley seemed to express some sympathy for this point of view, but in this article, she and her headline writer seem to side with the law school faculty member who ("hyperbolically," she concedes) described the plans for Ave Maria Town as a "Catholic Jonestown."

Riley’s WSJ commenters are generally sympathetic to the idea of Ave Maria Town. Here’s an example:

To call this proposed community a "Catholic Jonestown" and imply thereby that anyone who wished to live in a haven safe from pornography and moral corruption is a "kool-aid drinker" is so insulting and beyond the pale that the cover of recognizing it as "hyperbolic" becomes just dodge for excusing psuedo-sophistication and intolerance.

As I was thinking about this post, I just happened to be reading this book, by this man (no kool-aid drinker, he), and came across the following passage (p. 83):

Totally inclusive communication belongs alone to the communication of the kingdom of God, which God holds in reserve, while human communications, called to "partake of the divine nature," must first "flee from the corruption that is in the world through lust" (2 Pet. 1:4).

There surely is an interesting question here, but Riley regards it through the prism apparently characterized above all by simple-minded liberal pluralism. In her book, she seemed to celebrate "difference"; in this article, she seems to favor an oddly homogeneous pluralism that makes genuine difference difficult, if not impossible.

Update: Rick Garnett and Ann Althouse have more. Garnett sums up their view:

My own take -- which is consonant, I think, with Althouse’s -- is that (a) although it is not "creepy" to care about the enterprise of sustaining a distinctively and authentically Catholic law school, (b) it is big mistake to think that the enterprise is well served by retreating to a homogenous, planned community without an established, rich university environment. As Althouse puts it: "You can’t retreat and purify yourself. You have to become involved with the complexities of life, not shrink away from them."

Everyone seems to think that Ave Maria Town is the functional equivalent of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village. Is there any evidence that faculty, for example, will be compelled to live in Ave Maria Town? (They had better be paid pretty high salaries, if that’s the case, since housing is expensive in the Naples area.) And they, of course, can’t be prevented from leaving the community to indulge in vices not permitted on the premises. From what I could tell, by the way, there’s no evidence that Monaghan won’t permit fine dining and alcohol--his concerns seem to be limited to pornography and birth control. Do lawyers really need such things to make their academic and professional lives run smoothely? If so, I may be in the wrong profession.

Discussions - 4 Comments

The Cistercians did a pretty good job of impacting the world while living in sanctuaries.


Yes, about 800 years ago. It may be unscholarly to point out that the world has changed since then, but it has.

I’m no expert on Catholic education. But commonsensically, it would seem advisable for Ave Maria not to associate itself with a utopian experiment that, however admirable, is unsettling to the intellectual establishment and is easily mocked. Better to have a less pure institution that is taken a little more seriously than it would be if attached to a probably doomed attempt to create a "family-values enclave."

Anything worth doing is easily mocked and makes people uncomfortable. The world may have changed, but human nature has not. Any attempt to reintroduce a measure of seperateness and asceticism back into bloated worldly American Christianity is to be commended.

The utopian community is worth doing, but Ave Maria law school should not sit next to it. Its mission is different.

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