What would JFK teach? Ave Maria U story continues

The last time we checked in on Thomas Monaghan, the former czar of Domino's Pizza, his newborn Ave Maria University was rolling out ambitious Phase 1 plans for a campus and surrounding town near Naples, Fla. The headline grabber was a 60,000-square-foot, 150-foot tall sanctuary for 3,300 worshippers that looked like a stack of gigantic metal-and-glass mitres for bishops. I mentioned that Ave Maria was causing a heated debate between mainstream, that is progressive, Catholic educators and a new tribe of conservative, pro-Rome educators who are starting a small wave of highly traditional Catholic schools. I like to call these institutions the "new old Catholic colleges" as opposed to the mainstream "old new Catholic colleges."

Reporter Burton Bollag of the Chronicle of Higher Education recently dug into this side of the story. Here is one of the money paragraphs from his feature story:

Dissatisfied with existing Catholic higher education, the new colleges aspire to train graduates who will raise a strong and orthodox Catholic intellectual voice in the debates over stem-cell research, gay marriage, and other social issues. They strive to maintain a conservative campus life, where students and faculty members attend Mass frequently, premarital sex is strictly forbidden, and gay support groups have no place.

The assumption, of course, is that the mainstream Catholic campuses -- to one degree or another -- represent an agenda that is the mirror opposite of this one. Either that, or they are environments in which people may practice this older, more orthodox, brand of Catholicism in private. But surely few would be so bold as to stand up in public and loudly proclaim this faith, let alone say that Rome has declared it to be the faith once delivered to the saints.

There is more to this story than millions and millions of dollars worth of education assets. In the end, this debate starts to sound very, very familiar to anyone who has covered the battles over the faith status of politicos such as Sen. John "Call me JFK" Kerry.

There is that question again. Who are the true Roman Catholics? The Catholics who support the teachings of Rome or those who oppose them or, at least, do not want to see those teachings advocated or enforced?

Mainstream Catholic educators are often peeved by perceptions that Ave Maria and the other new institutions set themselves apart not just from secular colleges, but from most Catholic ones, too. "What bothers us," says Monika K. Hellwig, a former professor of theology who is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, "is that they think we're not properly Catholic."

That would seem to be the issue. Those who support Ave Maria and the other "new old Catholic colleges" would, of course, state the issue differently. They would say the key is whether the Vatican thinks the progressive American Catholic schools are "properly Catholic." And there is the rub. Once again, the American bishops stand in the line of fire. Who will advocate the teachings and policies of the Vatican? Does anyone dare do that? As Bollag's article notes:

In 1990 the Vatican attempted to restore a degree of the church's authority over Catholic higher education when Pope John Paul II issued Ex corde Ecclesiae -- literally: from the heart of the church. After its release, American bishops said Catholic theologians had to seek a mandatum certifying that they were teaching "authentic Catholic doctrine." The controversial order appears to have been largely ignored.

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