The edifice complex: When the God business meets real estate
By Pat Morrison, NCR contributor
Ever since Homo sapiens first stood in awe before the power of nature and turned a boulder on end to worship the Deity, weve had an almost genetic penchant for building things to and for God.
It happens all along the religious spectrum, of course, this business of getting God involved in real estate. But some recent construction on the Catholic landscape has raised eyebrows and concerns.
Church is not usually the first word that comes to mind when you say Malibu, but its in Malibu that Mel Gibson, film star and director of The Passion of the Christ, is building his own religious compound, complete with the 9,000-square-foot Holy Family Church. Its bankrolled by a $14 million foundation created solely to support the church project.
Admittedly, wealthy people have the right to spend their money as they wish. And, some would argue, better a church than wasting obscene dollar amounts on millionaires bling. But whats troubling about Gibsons church is that its proprietary, peculiarly his own -- and comes eerily close to becoming a Church (as in denomination) as well as a building.
Gibson is well known for preferring Roman Catholicisms good old days. Hes not alone in that. But he also publicly avers that the Church of Rome (including all popes since John XXIII) is effectively schismatic because of the Second Vatican Council, the teachings of which he rejects.
Gibsons Holy Family Church appears on a Web site for California independent Catholic churches; its pastor, the Most Reverend Tourkom Saraydarian, lists his religious affiliation as the Aquarian Education Group. Ironically, Gibson, described by the media for years as a devout Catholic, has pretty much moved himself outside mainstream Catholicism.
Making the larger headlines is Tom Monaghans personally funded $400 million development of a totally Catholic city around the campus of his Ave Maria University near Naples, Fla.
In 1999 Forbes magazine ranked Monaghan, founder of the Dominos Pizza chain and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, 271 on the list of Americas 400 richest people. His estimated net worth is $950 million.
Unlike Mel Gibson, Monaghans quest to build the City of God on a 5,000-acre tomato field hasnt taken him outside established Catholicism. Monaghan is known to move in influential church circles, including the Vatican, and his fervent devotion to his faith easily outmatches his money; in fact, its reported he has donated more than half of his net worth to charities, many of his own making.
But Ave Maria University with its eponymous surrounding city is clearly Monaghans favorite child. Anchored by a 65-foot crucifix, the cornerstone of the campus will be a 60,000-square-foot oratory. According to published reports, the church would be the largest fixed-seating Catholic church in the nation, with room for up to 3,500 worshipers. Last year in Boston, Monaghan told the Boston Catholic Mens Conference that in Ave Maria, Masses will be celebrated all day long beginning at 6 a.m., seven days a week, and home owners will have the benefit of private chapels for personal devotion within walking distance.
But whats troubling critics of the Ave Maria Catholic city -- and theyre both numerous and vocal -- is not its religiosity but its exclusivity. They worry it will become a kind of Catholic gated community.
Were going to control all the commercial real estate, Monaghan told the Boston audience. Operating out of its totally Catholic philosophy, no business ventures contradicting church teaching or practice would be allowed. In a March 3 interview with ABC-TVs Good Morning America, Monaghan backtracked from earlier statements that contraceptives and condoms, pornography and X-rated cable TV and Internet would be banned in the town (projected population 35,000, including 5,000 students living on campus). Now, he said, the items wont be forbidden, but it will be suggested businesses not carry them.
A continued major sticking point for watchdog groups is the fact that Ave Maria will also have its own urgent care center affiliated with Naples Community Hospital. As of March 19, plans were still in place for the clinic to have a policy of non-availability of contraceptives, abortion or abortion referrals. In an interview with the Bonita Daily News, Ave Maria University president Nicholas Healey defended the healthcare policy, saying we have to teach our students a moral vision. This is part of our theology
The idea of living with like-minded individuals who share ones religious philosophy and values is certainly not novel. Religious orders, the Amish, Hasidic Jews and Buddhist monks have been doing it for centuries. But theres a rather significant difference between forming community and walling oneself off from a pluralistic society, between living ones faith and policing others morality.
Erecting structures, even cities, for God, can be a laudable undertaking. Its the corollaries of the original intent that can get problematic. Its not that far of a move from I, a creature, want to honor the Creator by erecting this building to My gods bigger (and better) than your god! A further downturn occurs when the believing individual or community decides they have exclusive rights to the divinity franchise: If my building dedicated to God (or my theological viewpoint) is here, yours cannot be.
Although theyre very different from each other, both Gibsons and Monaghans construction projects raise major questions about what it means to be a Catholic in the world. Living and praying among only our own -- even when you have the money to ensure it -- can mean the loss of vitally enriching opportunities to understand diversity and grow in tolerance. Its difficult, after all, to practice the Christian call to be leaven in society when youve withdrawn from it. Or bought your own.
Pat Morrison, former NCR managing editor, writes from St. Cloud, Minn.