Trying to take the Catholic pizza magnate’s university seriously

textMy first full-time job in journalism was working as a copy editor, which meant that I spent much of my trying to write good headlines to go over news stories. One of the first rules I learned was this: Don’t put a funny headline on a story unless you think there is something truly funny about the content of the story.

Which brings us back to my local newspaper — the Palm Beach Post — and its page-one story today about the giant plans for Ave Maria University in Collier County, Fla., near Naples. The driving financial force behind the Ave Maria (Latin for “Hail Mary”) story is Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza.

There are a lot of big facts about this story, and this project has generated strong opinions on both the left and right sides of the Catholic-education aisle. The key story this week was the announcement of the Phase 1 construction plans, including 15 buildings at the heart of what will eventually be a campus and the new town of Ave Maria. The centerpiece of Phase 1 is a glittering, 60,000-square-foot, 150-foot tall sanctuary that will seat 3,300 worshippers.

In its local print edition, the Post used this headline: “Church built with pizza dough: Extra large.” The online version had a variation on the same laugh line: “Ex-pizza magnate’s church to be extra large.”

The content of the story is, I guess, more serious than these headlines, but focuses totally on the size and novelty of this project. The basic idea is that some very strange and very rich Catholics are building a very large and bizarre church out in the middle of nowhere for reasons that are very mysterious.

Readers that are interested in matters of faith, or even higher education in general, are left with lots of unanswered questions, such as: Why would a university, as its first move on the academic chessboard, build a sanctuary of this size? Why will the sanctuary contain 14 confessionals? Why do the school’s leaders think it is going to be such a massive success? What does this say in an age in which most Catholic schools are going “mainstream” and, thus, downplaying religious rites and roots?

To find the answers to such questions, readers would need to head across the Everglades to the Naples Daily News. In fairness, this is a local story for this newsroom (which I should note is operated by Scripps Howard, the news service that carries my column) and, thus, will receive more attention. But even daily news reports can at least hint at some of the faith elements in such a story, and reporter Dianna Smith does so.

For example, the chancellor of Ave Maria is a conservative Jesuit, Father Joseph Fessio. He notes that the sanctuary will be built facing east because, in Smith’s paraphrase, the “east is where newness comes from.”

“Catholic churches here have always been built facing the east,” Fessio said. “We (designed) this church facing the rising sun. Our whole lives should be oriented toward the sun.”

By the way, I would be willing to bet that what the priest said next was that churches have traditionally faced east toward the “risen Son.” But, that’s the kind of detail that is hard to work into most news reports.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • James Freeman

    It looks like some sort of fruitloop mosque; it’ll be hotter than Hades in the summer, and the acoustics will be horrible.

    Oh . . . the first Category 3 hurricane will take care of all the above shortcomings.

    Other than that, what a GREAT idea!

    I swear, I really don’t know which wing of the Catholic Church needs to get over itself worse, the Mahony Mafia or Angelica’s Avengers.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I am not a fan of this modernist style, myself.

    But come on. You think any professional architect is going to do a design in South Florida and not think about sunshine, heat and hurricanes?

    My big question was this: If a school is holding itself up as a center for ancient, orthodox Catholic values — premodernism, in other words — why make your chapel a shrine to modern architecture?

  • Anonymous

    Terry,

    Thankfully, the story doesn’t bother trying to answer the most interesting of the 5 W’s: Why? Instead, it’s filed neatly under the News of the Weird category.

    And isn’t calling Mel Gibson a “faithful Catholic” a tad simplistic? Why mention him at all? Does every story about the Roman Catholics now have to have an obligatory reference to Gibson, just like how all golf stories lead with Tiger Woods?

    Disclosure statement: My former managing editor (a wonderful person whom I hope was not involved with the pizza pie in the sky story) now works at The Palm Beach Post.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    On the Mel Gibson reference: That was what shoved me over the edge in my attitude toward this particular Post story. The paper has a way of doing this.

    Now there is a valid story here if the school is planning a media department and there is evidence that Gibson has been approached as a donor, speaker or something else.

    But why bring this in out of the blue.

    And, oh, are you the same empty space/anonymous writer as the House O’ Bishops thread? I’m trying to keep track. Do you have a reason not to have a name?

  • Ed Jordan

    I am not a Catholic myself, but I found a few sentences in this story reprehensible — especially this one: “All of this godly grandeur is planned for fall 2006 on the still-to-be-built Ave Maria University campus on 1,000 acres, 10 miles south of the impoverished farming community of Immokalee.”

    Why is this kind of bias allowed in a news story?

    For one thing, “godly grandeur” (after the previous sentence’s description of a “60-foot, red-tinted glass cross with a 40-foot figure of Christ”) is a sarcastic remark — the intent of the two sentences is certainly to slant the story against the new church.

    And then, to tack on the phrase “10 miles south of the impoverished farming community of Immokalee” is also judgmental and biased — and cowardly.

    Why cowardly? If the reporter, Larry Keller, were going to make this implicit criticism of the new school, he had ample opportunity to confront university president Nicholas J. Healy Jr. with the proximity of poverty during the interview. Why didn’t he do it? Either (1) Keller didn’t want to give Healy a chance to respond; (2) Keller isn’t even aware of his own bias; (3) Keller didn’t formulate his criticisms until he got back to his computer, and at that point it was too late or he was too lazy to call Healy back; or (4) Keller is a coward.

  • Ed Jordan

    I am not a Catholic myself, but I found a few sentences in this story reprehensible — especially this one: “All of this godly grandeur is planned for fall 2006 on the still-to-be-built Ave Maria University campus on 1,000 acres, 10 miles south of the impoverished farming community of Immokalee.”

    Why is this kind of bias allowed in a news story?

    For one thing, “godly grandeur” (after the previous sentence’s description of a “60-foot, red-tinted glass cross with a 40-foot figure of Christ”) is a sarcastic remark — the intent of the two sentences is certainly to slant the story against the new church.

    And then, to tack on the phrase “10 miles south of the impoverished farming community of Immokalee” is also judgmental and biased — and cowardly.

    Why cowardly? If the reporter, Larry Keller, were going to make this implicit criticism of the new school, he had ample opportunity to confront university president Nicholas J. Healy Jr. with the proximity of poverty during the interview. Why didn’t he do it? Either (1) Keller didn’t want to give Healy a chance to respond; (2) Keller isn’t even aware of his own bias; (3) Keller didn’t formulate his criticisms until he got back to his computer, and at that point it was too late or he was too lazy to call Healy back; or (4) Keller is a coward.

  • Dev Thakur

    Orthodox Catholic values do not equal “premodern.” Orthodox Catholic values are eternal, not Tridentine or Medieval. So if the priests are solidly orthodox, the homilies are orthodox, the liturgy is orthodox, students attend Mass on Sunday, they go to Confession, etc., and if the architecture is reverential, I see no contradiction whatsoever.

  • James Freeman

    Terry,

    You can find any number of churches designed by professional architects where the acoustics are awful. NOT a good thing.

    Furthermore, remember that the Astrodome (presumably built by professional architects) was built with a transparent roof and a natural-grass playing field. The glare made it nearly impossible to field routine fly balls, and when they painted over the plexiglass to solve that problem, the grass died.

    And the world was given AstroTurf.

    Furthermore, please explain how a glass building in Florida will not be either A) hotter than Hades or B) EXTREMELY expensive to air condition.

    I suppose you could use thermal glass, but think how expensive THAT is for just the windows in your house.

    And come hurricane season, I wouldn’t want to be the guy in charge of encasing the church in plywood on about 36 hours’ notice. ;-)

  • http://www.jonswerens.com Jon Swerens

    Terry,

    I wrote the “empty space/anonymous” note on this thread. I don’t know why my name did not appear below it. My apologies.

  • Sean Gallagher

    Having a church facing the east so that it would face the ‘rising Son’ sounds like it would come more from an evangelical pastor who schedules a ‘Sonrise service’ for 6:00 am on Easter Sunday morning.

    As for the tradition (now largely ignored) in the Catholic Church or ‘orienting’ its churches, I’d recommend reading this short article from the online edition of the 1917 Catholic Encyclopedia.

    That having been said, I think that it is curious that a church that large, made largely of glass, would be built in a land that seems to attract quite a few hurricanes.

  • Sean Gallagher

    Oops, I just that link didn’t go through. Here’s the web address for that article:

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/11305a.htm

  • http:members.aol.com/browne Don

    Another article on Tom Monaghan and the new Ave Maria University near the small town of Immokalee is at: http://members.aol.com/kq4ym/avemaria.html


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