March 27, 2007
The Domino effect
Mad Tom Monaghan’s bid to Catholicize the world—OK, Corkscrew Swamp, Florida—hits a minor glitch:
Domino’s Pizza magnate Tom Monaghan is using a large slice of his fortune to build a Catholic university in southwest Florida, exciting conservative Catholics with his dream of an academically first-class institution that is solidly orthodox.
But along the way, he has produced lots of controversy — first over his plan for a surrounding town in which contraceptives would not be available, then over his insistence on transplanting a successful law school from Michigan to the new campus on the edge of Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp.
Last week, Monaghan caused consternation even among ardent supporters by summarily firing, then quickly rehiring, a renowned Jesuit priest who is a friend, former student and English-language publisher of Pope Benedict XVI.
The sudden dismissal of the Rev. Joseph Fessio as provost of Ave Maria University sent shock waves through conservative Catholic circles, where he is revered as a defender of orthodoxy. It set off the first-ever student protests at a school that is supposed to be a paragon of obedience to authority.
… “Institutional suicide” was the immediate res-
ponse of Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, a conservative online news service, when he learned Wednesday that Monaghan had summoned Fessio to a meeting that morning and told the priest to clean out his office and leave the campus by the end of the day.
Monaghan could use his millions to try to attract a top-flight replacement, Lawler acknowledged. “But,” he said, “if you’re a tenured professor at another Catholic university and you see this happening, you say to yourself, ‘If it could happen to Father Fessio, it could happen to anyone — so what’s my incentive for going to work at Ave Maria?’”
… The university announced the firing in a terse statement, citing “irreconcilable differences over administrative policies and procedures.”
… Fessio, meanwhile, said he was caught completely by surprise. “Tom Monaghan and I have had our disagreements, but they’ve been disagreements among friends,” he said in a telephone interview. “I asked for a reason, but I was not given one.”
… Not quite 24 hours later, the university issued another brief statement. Expressing esteem for Fessio’s “great gifts and abilities,” it announced that he “has agreed to continue a relationship with us” and would become theologian-in-residence.
Fessio said by telephone that he would no longer have any administrative responsibilities and agreed to stay on “for the sake of these wonderful students.” The outpouring of support — which he said included donors threatening to stop giving and parents inquiring about pulling their children out of the university — “was very gratifying,” he said. “It had all the advantages of dying without being dead.”
… An Ave Maria official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisal if identified, likened the firing of Fessio to Monaghan’s dismissal of Bo Schembechler as president of the Detroit Tigers shortly before Monaghan sold the baseball team in 1992. “He’s very loyal to the people who work for him, but if he loses confidence in you for any reason, then it’s like a light going off,” the official said. “Sometimes he’s his own worst enemy.”
(Click on the image to see a lower-fat version of Ave Maria’s logo.)
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