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Pizza bucks back hyper-Catholic law school


Puzzlement and annoyance were the reactions of persons in legal education at the announcement that Thomas Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, will establish a new institution called the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor, Mich. Monaghan, who recently sold Domino’s Pizza for a reported $1 billion, expects to invest up to $50 million in the new school.

The school’s highly professional press release did not quite say that the 24 existing Catholic law schools in America are not Catholic enough, but that was clearly implied. Members of the board of the Ave Maria School of Law echo these sentiments, suggesting that Ave Maria will somehow be more Catholic than the 24 existing Catholic law schools, 14 of which are Jesuit.

Fr. Michael Scanlan, president of Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, asserted that there is a serious need for a school such as Ave Maria. Jesuit Fr. Joseph Fessio, founder of Ignatius Press, said that Ave Maria offers an extraordinary opportunity for students. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia is one of the advisers to the school. He flew to Michigan at least once in the recent past to consult with the founders.

Monaghan asserts categorically that Ave Maria will conform to Pope John Paul II’s Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which exhorts Catholic colleges and universities to strengthen Catholic identity and tighten hierarchical control over teaching theology. He makes no mention of the difficulties that most bishops and most of the leaders of America’s 230 Catholic colleges have had with that document.

The dean-designate of the new school is Bernard Dobranski, currently the dean of The Catholic University Law School in Washington. I spoke on two occasions with Dobranski about his aspirations. He is familiar with the Michigan scene since he is the former dean of the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. He is optimistic about the new law school, indicating that money is not a problem.

I spoke also with Monaghan’s top aide. He was sanguine but not willing to expand on the objectives of the school beyond the flattering press release. When I suggested that the announcement hinted at criticism of existing Catholic law schools, he backed away without disputing my assertion.

The first professor to be hired at the new school is Robert Bork. Former Judge Bork is not identified with any religious tradition. He will not move to Michigan, but will retain his full-time position at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

I have spent 33 years as a professor and administrator at two Catholic law schools, Boston College Law School and Georgetown University Law Center. I know legal education and especially the problems and aspirations of the 24 Catholic law schools. No one would deny that these schools could theoretically be more Catholic, but most of these law schools have strong local and regional reputations. Many of them have trained the dominant lawyers and judges in their communities.

Some in Catholic legal education deem Ave Maria an affront. Some also think that the new school is essentially a political statement by a very conservative group of people who are utilizing Catholicism as a justification for their political convictions.

The new law school will be a part of a new two-year Ave Maria Junior College that is seeking accreditation from Michigan. The projected law school will, therefore, not be really affiliated with a university! That’s an essential requisite for any law school if it wants to be taken seriously in the academic world.

Law schools are not mere instruments where the faith can be proclaimed. The Catholic church founded law faculties at the first great universities of Bologna, Italy; Oxford, England; and Paris. Law has always been a part of universities that teach everything from architecture to zoology. All of the 24 Catholic law schools are attached to universities. They interpret their mission with the religious order or the university of which they are a part.

Ave Maria will almost certainly continue its boast that it is more Catholic than any other Catholic law school. It will be self-righteous. By generous scholarships, it will invite students to attend a law school billed as more loyal to the church than any other. It will mock other law schools as too secularized and, in essence, unfaithful to the magisterium.

At the risk of rising to the bait in a premature way, let me talk about Catholicism at Georgetown University Law Center. This school, established in 1870, and now ranked in the top 12 out of 180 law schools, has three full-time Jesuit lawyers on its faculty. Georgetown pays a full-time chaplain and a Catholic nun as well as a part-time Protestant chaplain and a part-time Jewish chaplain to give spiritual counseling; the Law School has daily Mass for students and a beautiful chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is preserved. Georgetown Law School publishes the prestigious Journal of Legal Ethics, the nation’s premier journal in this field. The Catholic and Jesuit ideal of engaging in public service is prominent in every expression of the mission of Georgetown University Law Center.

It would be nice if Catholic legal educators could welcome Ave Maria to their ranks. That will not happen. The school will have to struggle for accreditation from the American Bar Association and then from the American Association of Law Schools. It will not be easy.

Many in Catholic higher education will think of Ave Maria as an irritant and a distraction from the heroic struggle in which Catholic colleges and universities are engaged to retain and enhance their academic and professional ratings. Ave Maria will be a “holier than thou” institution that will deride the competition and seek to buy talent with money from its billionaire patron.

On the other hand, perhaps we can hope that the Ave Maria School of Law will be a reminder to all persons engaged in Catholic higher education that a heavier emphasis on religious values can always be useful.

Jesuit Fr. Robert Drinan is a professor at Georgetown University Law Center.

National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999