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Ave Maria University: A Challenge Among Friends Print E-mail
By Hadley Arkes   
Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Ave Maria, Florida. I’m in this pioneer town, about fifty minutes from Naples, Florida, to do two talks on natural law at Ave Maria University. The place is exotic because it is so different from academic towns in the Northeast, and not merely in the weather, forever spring.   But it is also “familiar” to some of us because it suddenly transports us into a world we used to know in the forties and fifties: a neighborhood with a virtual society of children, roaming freely at large because the community is filled with “catchers-in-the rye” an ample supply of grownups always looking out, ready to pluck spirited kids from the occasional hazard. A community has been taking hold for about eight years, built around this new university, designed to be thoroughly and militantly Catholic.  

It seems improbable, to mark off an undeveloped tract of land and build a new institution literally from the ground up. But in the days I’m here, the new façade by the sculptor Marton Varo is being hoisted in place in the Oratory in the town square, and the square itself, filled with shops and an English Pub, is a lovely place brought to life by students and faculty gathering in the evenings. Yes, students and faculty – drawn to this curious place in a reclaimed swamp, with hawks flying overhead, alligators at times walking through, and the bipeds, old and young, drawn precisely by the sense of a Catholic mission. The only thing to explain it is the uncomprehending insistence of Tom Monaghan, the founder, who refused to understand why it couldn’t be done. And with the academic guidance of Michael Novak, steady in counsel and support and, now, a venerable presence.

As with every enterprise laboring through a start-up, there are shortfalls and disappointments. The endowment was supposed to be fed by the boom in real estate. But the end of the boom brought a grim tightening of the budget, felt all around. There is grumbling over a dumbing down of the student population, the same grumbling we hear today at Amherst College and other places. But at the same time, every faculty member I meet remarks that he loves his students – that the best are comparable to the best they’ve seen at more established schools.  And all about me I see students who are upbeat, smart, quick, respectful of things that merit respect, and faculty who are gifted and devoted. 

But a collision of worlds – and a serious challenge – came out at dinner with a dear friend, an accomplished professor, a graduate of Harvard transplanted from the Northeast. He has two daughters at Ave Maria and he said, when I pressed him, that he wouldn’t send any of his children to Harvard. The new sexual ethic, whether on pornography, promiscuity, abortion, homoeroticism, is so pervasive, touching every aspect of life, that there is little room for those who will not pay homage to that reigning ethic. I do think that it is mainly the schools with a religious character that can offer now real academic freedom and a course of study in the humanities not warped by ideology. 


           The Ave Maria Oratory (
with the new Marton façade under contruction) 

But what of some us teaching at places like Amherst and Princeton? My friend insisted that we were pursuing a strategy of “infiltration,” bound to fail. The Catholic students at these places were likely to have their faith eroded and even lost. The evidence already suggests that students at schools like Ave Maria or Thomas Aquinas were more likely to come out with their faith sustained, and even fortified.  I couldn’t say he was wrong, for I’ve seen the trend among some of the Catholic students at Amherst: a falling away from Mass, and a willingness to make one’s peace with a campus ethic that proclaims every other day its contempt for what Catholicism teaches.

And yet, Robert George and I have seen the cases, at Princeton and Amherst: students who say it made a turning in their lives when they heard “the arguments.” Some of them astonished themselves when they become “pro-lifers”; some returned to the Church, and others came into the Church through conversion. My friend insisted that these were gains made at retail. A far more dramatic prospect came with a real Catholic institution bringing forth every year a flock of graduates, firmed up in their faith, ready to take on the world.  

He may indeed be right. But I think of Fr. Benedict Ashley, a central figure in teaching on the theology of the body. Ben Ashley, in the 1930s at the University of Chicago, was a flaming atheist and perhaps a Communist – until he met Mortimer Adler, who confronted him with Aquinas and natural law, and flipped him. That flipping produced a writer who has educated several generations of Catholics.

But what of my friend himself? He met his late wife when they were undergraduates at Harvard, both strikingly smart – and atheist. They made their way to Catholicism together, raised six children, as savvy, committed Catholics, and now he has six more, bound to impart their character in turn to every life they touch. And then we add to the ledger his own brilliance and force as a teacher of hundreds of students now. Not a bad result, altogether. And it may show the wonders that have been done for the Church and world in touching those rare souls, still to be found among the heathens in places like Harvard.


Hadley Arkes
is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence at Amherst College. His most recent book is 
Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law

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written by Lee Gilbert, January 17, 2011
Sure, it may be that the occasional atheist may stumble across "the arguments" at Harvard et al. and convert, just as one reads of Moslems encountering Jesus Christ while on pilgrimage to Mecca. It can happen.

However, at this point for a young Catholic to go to the Ivy League colleges is a very large presumption on grace, is it not? As Thomas More admonishes Richard Rich in "A Man for All Seasons," "A man should go where he won't be tempted."

Nevertheless, you can bet that if any of our elite Catholic college prep schools around the country sends a student to Harvard, Yale or Princeton etc, it will show up in its promotional literature for years if not decades. In this way we have the structure in place and operating perfectly to send our best and brightest young Catholics into grave spiritual peril, if not to their eternal doom.

In the stockyards and meatpacking plants of old there was an animal known as the Judas goat who would lead unsuspecting cattle up the ramp to their slaughter. Is that what our hyper-expensive Catholic college prep schools and their college counsellors have become (all unwittingly, one trusts) for our brightest Catholic high school students?

It certainly looks that way.
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written by Bill, January 18, 2011
Thank you for an excellent article, Dr. Arkes. Of course, it is what we have come to expect. When you are mentioning the Harvards of this country, you might wish to include what used to be called "Catholic" colleges and universities.
My Alma Mater, the "Catholic University of New Jersey", began a Gay Marriage Course last September.
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written by debby, January 18, 2011
my oldest daughter graduated from Ave Maria this past May. not only is her Faith "in tact," but she is a daily Communicant, goes to Adoration & Confession often, fasts weekly....you get the picture. she will also tell you that several of her friends - mostly boys - who also attended Ave became atheists while there. this is not Ave's fault. the academic formation is sound, the student life is growing, the professors are among the best (she LOVES and stays in touch with many of them!). parents must not assume that any school will "take care of" their child's faith. at one point, it must become his/her own. that often comes only thru the pain of struggle, doubt, pain, trial. what i think is important is to remember that although God the Father calls men and women to use their gifts of teaching and evangelism in the secular society everyday, to be a Professor at an ivy or other pagan arena is a far cry from being a student at one. as a parent, where to send your child to college is something that can only be discerned in prayer, knowing your child and of course, eliciting his/her cooperation. 17+ years of formation of the Faith in your own home may not be enough, but it may! my oldest is grateful for her Ave education. she has made the most wonderful life-long friends anyone could ask for, and there is a whole community of future saints who pray for their friends who have "intellectually" wandered away from Christ. they will come back. i highly recommend Ave Maria University to challenge and grow your young person, just keep praying for their personal relationship with Jesus to deepen and don't assume anything, and bring your bug repellent!
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written by Louise, January 18, 2011
Prof. Arkes,

Is there an apologetics course at Amherst such as Monsignor Ronald Knox gave to Catholic students entering Oxford? I am reading "In Soft Garments" by Knox. it is the series of lectures he gave to incoming Catholics between 1926 and 1938, addressing the secular, anti-Christian propaganda that they will be forced to encounter from faculty and students, alike. Maybe a social Catholic organization is not enough (making an assumption here, that there is one).
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written by Lauri Friesen, January 18, 2011
This type of argument is very common among Catholics. I know that in my family we most often disagree over whether the Mass should be predominantly about worship and praise or about fellowship and community. (I really dislike the handshaking and the wandering children.) I also have spent my adult life praying for a religious vocation and life away from this world, and have been routinely denied that. So, I think that God's plan is bigger than all of us and our purpose is to do His will to best of our abilities. If we must live in this world (whether at Harvard or the local Wal-Mart), then we must do so as Catholics. I struggle, though, not to envy those who are invited to live in truly Catholic communities, away from the so much of the strife and pain and to accept and even welcome the life I have been given.
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written by John McCarthy, January 18, 2011
Reading this essay by Professor Arkes, I was reminded of an obit that I read recently for Ralph McInerny written by one of his Notre Dame students, Christopher Kaczor, in the latest issue of the ND magazine. Dr. Kaczor, now a professor at Loyola Marymount, writes that at the Catholic college which he attended the Communist Manifesto was required reading for three different courses, but not once was he even referred to read anything by Thomas Aquinas.
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written by Will, January 18, 2011
As an alum of Ave Maria School of Law, I can tell you that there is a dark side to the Ave Maria project. If you dissent, even if you support the overall goals, the school and related organizations attack you.
On the plus side, I am still a faithful catholic.
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written by debby, January 18, 2011
dear lauri friesen,
i hope you will allow me to share something that helped me with this "envy" you speak of. i mean no offense, only hope to encourage and possibly assist you in your journey toward Heaven.
the Lord impressed upon me awhile back that there were 3 evil spirits that i had been "inviting for tea" a little too often. they had become "familiar spirits" and i needed to go thru a radical prayer exercise to "bring every thought captive under the obedience of Jesus Christ" to stop entertaining these inclinations to think in this way. the 3 spirits coming as thoughts which became habits were these:
the spirit of Comparison, the spirit of Competition, the spirit of Contention. opening the door to Comparing "my life" or where God has me to anyone else leads to his friend Competition entering soon afterward. entertained too long, and they run and get Contention, then His peace is gone and even my confessions can become so self-absorbed that i forget Him. i have found that if i thank Him for His unconditional love for me as i am, and purposely OUT LOUD thank Him for every situation that is making me discontent, whether small or key concerns(from my job to my kids/husband), in very little time, His love breaks through and i am able to pray with my Lord, "not my will, Thine be done."
and if it is any consolation, even in "truly Catholic communities" there is much strife, pain and trial. in fact, i know that it is often much harder to cultivate genuine deep rooted Faith, Hope and Love in the midst of these environments. you see, those communities are full of sinners and those 3 spirits run around the playground of their hearts there as well. (CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters elucidates this so well.) i pray you can be not only at peace but truly grateful for God's call on your life, the fact that He is crazy about you where you are. Fiat & Magnificat!
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written by Martha, January 18, 2011
Yes. It is true, and sadly true that there is much faith lost in those mighty secular halls of most colleges and universities, and not even the most prestigious of universities. But, there is also faith returned in the form of those who would never attend a religious institution, brought to Christ by those infiltrators. I say GO INFILTRATORS! But I also say GO, you wonderfully brave religious institutions who dare to simultaneously stand against and in the World. May we have more of both.
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written by Aeneas, January 18, 2011
Nice article. I myself would like to go to Ave Maria, but alas, it's too far away for me (from my home that is). Still though, I think we need more of the institutions around, the infiltrators are not enough. I think it's more than just the secularist universities that pull kids away from thier faith, its the culture in general. I mean so much of our current culture is at odds with the faith. To be catholic today, means to be at odds with the culture at large, so I think that's the trick. When a young person can't accept that reality, that's when he throws away his faith to instead embrace the current culture, rather than the church. That's something that happens at more places than just the universities. Plus, lack of overall perspective on life hurts the average young person as well.

Regarding what Will said, this "dark side" at Ave Maria (if true), is pretty much true of any university or college. While I never went to Ave, I just don't imagine them 'attacking' dissenters the way the usual uber leftist/hyper-secularist university does.
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written by Douglas, January 18, 2011
The question posed by this piece is interesting and debatable, a lot can be said about it. I think the author is basically right, and would just note that the risks inherent in a "Catholic ghetto," comforting as that may be, are underestimated by many. Moreover, for those not entering the cloister, even if we can attend Ave Maria, we cannot all live in Ave Maria Town all of our lives.
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written by Hadley Arkes, January 18, 2011
Our readers today offered one of the rarest of days, when the commentaries from our readers actually helped to extend the subject of the essays, and illuminate other parts of the landscape. Every concern registered here seemed to me eminently plausible, and every argument seemed to be aptly answered. I want to thank our readers warmly for what they've set down today. Louise raised a fine question about a course on apologetics at Amherst. We can’t count on a department of Religion to do that work, but something close to it may be done in the days ahead by Chris Clark, a fine young woman who has become the Catholic advisor. (By the way, that book by Ronald Knox is one I haven’t seen. I’ll try to hunt for a copy.) I very much appreciate the encouragement from Martha for those of us who are in schools such as Amherst, though I appreciate at the same time the point made by Debby, that it is far easier to be a professor at places like Amherst than to be a Catholic student. And yet many Catholics at Amherst and Princeton are firming themselves up as they stand against the currents of a hostile culture; and that may be the strongest thing to be said on our side: that we may be preparing people to get clearer on their moral grounding while they come to know the people and the currents they will have to encounter.
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written by Intellect, January 18, 2011
I live in Ave town, my children are attending the K-12 Academy here and I too, am a graduate student of Harvard.

I grew-up in the NY metro area, my parents were staunch Irish-catholic and deeply democratic, union supporters. They moved us out of NYC to seek a "better life" in Northern Westchester. They pushed me to get a better education and to always remain true to my Catholic faith. For that I am grateful -- but also aware of my own burden as a parent.

This is why I uprooted my own family from one of the country's most liberal college towns (often cited as one of the country's greatest places to live) to bring them here. After moving, I've had my share of scorn from folks who think I'm some religious nut moving to Ave. But I tell you I have lived in many places, blue-state and red, Northern and Southern, Eastern and Western. In all that, I've never experienced the kind of peace and joy in people which I have experienced here.

When I tell most people that, 80% immediately get defensive with me telling me I live in a "bubble" -- 20% about keel over in envy for their own kids and lives. But its like the Eucharist. It doesn't much matter to me whether someone believes it or not -- it is truth.

We moved here while our kids are in K-12 because of one simple belief we have. We believe that from the ages of 0-10, we have about 85-90% "influence" over our children's character and development. From about 11-12, that goes down to about 50%. After 12 years of age, the children's surrounding culture (school, neighbors, television shows, books, music, etc) take that 85-90% primary influencing role and we get a mere 5-15%.

If you follow that logic, and you consider all the places you could ever raise your kids -- whether Seattle or Chicago, Dallas or Cambridge -- nothing comes close to the culture in Ave. It was a no-brainer for us and we moved here for the kids.

The surprising thing is the effect this place has had on my wife and I. We thought (sin of pride?) that we had come to a point of maturity in our lives and thought we had learned all we "needed" to know about our faith, our marriage and our own happiness. After being here a year and-a-half, I now understand how blind I was.

When you can recognize that your neighbors are giants in their practice of their Catholic faith; when their humility and joyfulness shines through every encounter you have with them; when you watch their children debating with yours about the merits of cardinal virtues; well, I could go on and on.

Suffice it to say, we are in awe of what is happening here.

We came here for our kids. But God apparently had other plans. To all my neighbors, the students, the religious, the professors -- tonight, as each night -- I will close my day with a prayer of petition asking that God continue to bless Ave Maria and all those in it.
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written by Maree, January 18, 2011
From experience I know that Satan works ten times as hard in places like Ave Maria and is barely present in Princeton or Havard so readers please take note!
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written by R.M., January 19, 2011
To make corrections to the hell-bent course of American society (or world society in general), both infiltrators & solidly Catholic institutions are necessary.

What is important is that people in both categories be mutually supportive of one another. Let us remain united in our common purpose for a better, more Christ-centered life for all and not divided by differences within each situation.

I think a similar example might be found amongst those who prefer the extraordinary Tridentine rite and the ordinary roman Catholic rite of liturgical celebration. Both have beauty and both have claim to the one thing that can singularly transform life - the Eucharist. However, there is so much division amongst these groups within the Catholic faithful.

The evil forces (devil, Satan, etc.) that do not want forward movement on important social and religious issues within society are well at work to divide the faithful. Please, please let us always be centered on what or WHO unites us - Christ!!!
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written by Victoria, January 19, 2011
I have never been to Ave Maria, so cannot speak on that specifically.
I was raised in a very sheltered environment with other homeschooled Catholic children. Being sheltered and well-educated fortified me to live my faith independently at a public university. Did I have trials and failures? Absolutely. But did I come out on the other side clinging to the faith that my family and friends taught me? Yes. I know that Catholics and other Christians fall away while in school. Many will come back, especially with vigilant prayer. Do not despair on that point.
Regarding an all-Catholic town:
I believe that living in a community like Ave Maria could be beneficial, but it would have to tolerate perpetual, honest dialog that is free from an attitude of condescension and censure. It must be guided by its local diocese and closely monitored for orthodoxy. A community like this can too easily become legalistic and lose its original spirit of love and support.
Eventually, every Catholic has the obligation, in one way or another, to go out and preach the Good News to all nations. One cannot do that in a community that has already heard it.
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written by TeaPot562, January 19, 2011
Our oldest granddaughter graduated from Thomas Aquinas College in Calif. in May 2009. During the reception afterward, we saw numerous families with 5 or more children. (We have 5 adult children; our 3 married daughters have given us 12 grandkids.) We found this evidence of obedience to the Churhc's teachings quite edifying. Even when evil pervades the world, God's grace abounds!
TeaPot562
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written by Marcus, January 22, 2011
Maree,

Though I would agree with you that Satan works overtime in a place like Ave, I have to disagree with your statement that Satan is barely present at places such as Princeton and Harvard. Satan is very much at work but his power and influence are merely not recognized.

You may be elucidating the wonderful point about Satan's greatest achievement - convincing us he doesn't exist.

As a graduate of a Catholic university (Franciscan University of Steubenville) I know firsthand the way in which Satan works in such holy places. He feasts on your spiritual confidence - those who go to such institutions may expect to be sin-free and so we fall even harder and our faith is shaken when we do sin.

However, in no way am I saying that these are reasons for not sending your child to a Catholic college or university! On the contrary, I believe these are the best placed to send your children. One could argue day and night over the pros and cons but the simple fact remains that a genuine Catholic university fosters and sustains our Faith, introduces us to wonderful, life-long friends, and prepares us to witness to Christ's love.

God bless,
Marcus
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written by Other Louise, January 22, 2011
I think that given the choice, a Catholic should attend a (truly) Catholic university because of the recognition of the unity of truth etc which will enable education in the fullest sense of the word, but in many cases this does not happend for a variety of reasons and in those cases, what a grace it is for those students to find professors like Hadley Arkes. It is important to have Catholics everywhere.
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written by FromAMom, April 25, 2011
From a mom whose daughter will be going to Ave Maria beginning this fall, I want to thank all who gave their input on the University and the town. When we visited, there was a peace there that we didn't experience at other campuses. In the two days we spent there, my daughter's already strong faith grew. (Yes, in two days!) Ultimately that's the most important thing in life.

I was hoping we made the right choice. The input here gave me some confidence that we did. It's great to read the experiences of those who have been there and live there.

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