Friday, March 03, 2006

The Teens of Ave Maria

Catholic Herald 3 March 2006

What will life be like for families who move to Ave Maria, the proposed Catholic city which the pizza millionaire Tom Monaghan is building on Florida farmland? Centred round a new university, Ave Maria could potentially provide that blissful sense of freedom to express faith blended with intellectual curiosity which you get at a good family retreat. Heady but supportive, principled but not hidebound. That would be the ideal.

Predictably, Monaghan’s proposal to exclude contraceptives and abortion from his town has already been attacked by local busybodies as an assault on human rights. How dreadful, they say, for women who find themselves stuck in the middle of Ave Maria and suddenly requiring an abortion. They will have to suffer the profound human rights indignity of getting the car out and driving all the way to Miami, a town far more in tune with human rights, apparently, being plentifully stocked with lethal drugs, guns and abortions.

Yes, it seems the ability to obtain a lunchtime abortion and a snort of coke within a half-hour drive of one’s home is a human right. This will come as interesting news to inhabitants of rural English villages, who can no longer post a parcel or buy a bag of frozen peas, let alone obtain an abortion, without having either to wait for the once-a-day bus, or drive themselves into the nearest market town and negotiate the change-hungry pay-and-display parking ticket machines. It will also come as interesting news to the millions of Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic, who live an inconvenient distance from their nearest place of worship, since freedom to worship is surely still a basic human right.

But, back to Ave Maria and its sun-kissed streets. Will it work? Americans make a lot of fuss about separation of church and state, but church and town planning have a long history of collaboration. Previous generations of immigrants regarded the continent as a vast blank sheet on which to design perfect communities. There are many examples in the USA of more or less thriving communities formed around a religious ideal: not all of them have ended up, like the Shakers, as a “reference” for fitted kitchen designers.

Perhaps the best known are the Amish, Mennonite and other communities known under the delightful umbrella title of “the plain people”. There are up to 18,000 of them living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, alone. Everyone loves them because they drive horses and buggies, their menfolk have amazing beards and they are generally picturesque. Then there is Salt Lake City, of course, the Mormon settlement. Unless you are an Osmond fan, the Mormons are not picturesque, therefore less popular.

Hmm…maybe if Ave Maria can be made picturesque…. any chance of flying Tom Monaghan over to Wales, to have a look at Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s ersatz Italian fishing village, Portmeirion? If Ave Maria were to resemble this delicious flight of old European Catholic cultural fancy, it would surely become beloved of its visitors – and, more importantly, an enchanting place to raise children.

However I fear Ave Maria will look like every other American town, with long boring avenues of suburban homes too far from the shops for walking. For the president of its new university, Nicholas J. Healy, in criticising the religious flabbiness of the West’s response to the angry new face of Islam, has particularly harsh words for us old decadents here in Europe, sitting stunned with disbelief at demands for Bradford to become a monoculture ruled by Sharia law.

But I wonder - how will Dr Healy avoid his town being simply another monoculture? With no secular yoke against which to chafe, will it not become an empty shell – a Little World of Don Camillo, but with no communist mayor? Is it not the very dissidence of the American Catholic Church which has drawn live wires such as Tom Monaghan into its fold?

And, raised in Ave Maria, what will the teenagers have to rebel against? Teenagers raised in a ramshackle European-style city, will, with guidance, develop a clear view of Christ’s truth, because they can see its opposite. Raised only among the godly, they will strain at the leash.

Will there be, ten years down the road, a furiously frowning adolescent stumping about Ave Maria’s sunny streets proclaiming crossly that he is “the only Protestant in the village”?

1 comment:

Theo C said...

I guess the idea is also to create a little oasis against the storm. Many of the Ave Maria students were formerly homeschooled and with a heavy uncompromised Catholic vision of faith and values. Such an all-Catholic community seems like a logical extension of such an approach. There will always remain plenty of dissenters to face, as well as a secular world that sees true Christians as a sign of contradiction to its own aims.

Those who condemned homeschooling will also attack Ave Maria. They argue that we have worked too hard to make Catholics mainstream to go back to a siege or ghetto mentality. But even the cowboys and homesteaders had to sometimes circle the wagons when attacked by indians and renegades.

Toleration can go too far and we can compromise our souls in the process. It is time for the youth prized by Pope John Paul II to take their place as the heralds of a revigorated Catholicism that will not play dead.