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.