Ave Maria Town: Roman Catholic...and un-American?

Ave Maria Chapel.jpgAve Maria Town in southern Florida is the newly-constructed enclave of pure-land Catholicism founded and funded by former pizza magnate Tom Monaghan, and it has drawn its fair share of criticism since construction began in 2005. Even many conservatives are uneasy with the throwback Catholicism that Mongahan wants to recreate in a soup-to-nuts, town-and-gown town that features a "traditional" university--but one that tried to fire the Ratzinger protege and blue-ribbon conservative, Jesuit Fr. Joe Fessio. (Student and other protests led to his re-hiring.) Early reports were that Monaghan and his development partners would ban anything un-Catholic, like porn and cable TV--and non-Catholic residents--though those strictures were apparently overstated.Now, a well-reported and well-written investigative piece by the local paper, The Naples Daily News, has uncovered a disturbing legal twist to Ave Maria--namely, that its own residents have no say in their own affairs because the five-member board will be controlled in perpetuity by Monaghan and the developer, Barron Collier:

When Kathy Delaney moved a year and a half ago with her two teenage sons from Maryland to Ave Maria, she believed certain rights remained unalienable.Elections, she thought, followed the rule she'd known all her life: Her vote counted as much as anyone's. Delaney could only assume the government of her new town operated the same."I was even thinking, wouldn't it be great," Delaney said. "We could actually have our own mayor."

Actually, no. When Monaghan et alstarted the development on 11,000 acres of former farm fields they alsowrote and lobbied for a state law--that passed--allowing themunique power to control the town forever through a five-member board on which they would always have a majority. As the story relates:

The law gives Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos. more power than any Florida developer in at least 24 years, power perhaps not seen since the days of the early 20th century land boom. The law makes landowners, not registered voters, the ultimate authority in Ave Maria. The law ensures Monaghan and Barron Collier Cos., as the largest landowners, can control Ave Maria's government forever."I thought at some point we would be able to have a say in how the town ran," Delaney said when approached by the Daily News and shown the government's structure.

The series, "Ave Maria - A Town Without a Vote: Now and forever," ran in three parts, from Saturday to Monday, and it is the kind of in-depth reporting that I fear will disappear if (when?) newspapers do.Ave Maria also, unfortunately, feeds into the oldstereotype that Catholics are more comfortable with divine right hierarchy than open democracy--that you can't be a good American and a good Catholic. Yet as the series notes, Ave Maria may be in the American tradition of land barons more than it is in the Catholic tradition--at least of the past century, and especially under John Paul II--of holding up democracy as the political ideal, as long as it is accompanied by civic virtue. Maybe Monaghan doesn't trust his own good Catholic residents?PS: Looking at photos in the series, I was struck for the first time--though I've seen it before--by the town church, crafted in the shape of a bishop's mitre. I don't know why, but this time it really bothered me, as if it is a church dedicated to the worship of a bishop. Yes, we have bishops good and bad, but none I know (I hope) would feel remtoely comfortable with that. Perhaps no coincidence that the local ordinary, Bishop Frank Dewane, had to postpone dedication of the church due concerns over its canonical status and cooperation as part of the diocese.

David Gibson is the director of Fordham’s Center on Religion & Culture.

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