Archives  | NCROnline.org 

Send This Page to a Friend

 Writer's Desk 

April 4, 2006
Vol. 4, No. 01


The edifice complex: When the God business meets real estate

By Pat Morrison, NCR contributor

Dear Reader of Writer's Desk,

We need your help. We are pleased to make available -- at no charge -- Writers Desk. But we cannot do all we need to do without your financial assistance.

Please take a moment to consider contributing to the Friends of NCR campaign. National Catholic Reporter is a nonprofit organization. Contributions are tax-deductible in the United States.

Contributions may be sent to:
National Catholic Reporter
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO   64111

Make checks out to: NCR

If you wish, you may print a form for submitting your donation. You may also use this form for credit card donations.

Print a Contribution Form


Donate Now Online

Ever since Homo sapiens first stood in awe before the power of nature and turned a boulder on end to worship the Deity, we’ve 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 what’s troubling about Gibson’s church is that it’s 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 Catholicism’s “good old days.” He’s 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.

Gibson’s 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 Monaghan’s 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 Domino’s Pizza chain and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, 271 on the list of America’s 400 richest people. His estimated net worth is $950 million.

Unlike Mel Gibson, Monaghan’s quest to build the City of God on a 5,000-acre tomato field hasn’t 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, it’s 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 Monaghan’s 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 Men’s 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 what’s troubling critics of the Ave Maria “Catholic city” -- and they’re both numerous and vocal -- is not its religiosity but its exclusivity. They worry it will become a kind of Catholic “gated community.”

“We’re 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-TV’s “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 won’t 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 one’s religious philosophy and values is certainly not novel. Religious orders, the Amish, Hasidic Jews and Buddhist monks have been doing it for centuries. But there’s a rather significant difference between forming community and walling oneself off from a pluralistic society, between living one’s faith and policing others’ morality.

Erecting structures, even cities, for God, can be a laudable undertaking. It’s the corollaries of the original intent that can get problematic. It’s not that far of a move from “I, a creature, want to honor the Creator by erecting this building” to “My god’s 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 they’re very different from each other, both Gibson’s and Monaghan’s 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. It’s difficult, after all, to practice the Christian call to be leaven in society when you’ve withdrawn from it. Or bought your own.

Pat Morrison, former NCR managing editor, writes from St. Cloud, Minn.
Copyright © 2006 The National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO 64111 TEL:  1-816-531-0538 FAX:  1-816-968-2280