"And the Subdivision Became Flesh and Dwelt Among Us", Part II

Ave Maria clearly represents the logical end-point for a certain style of Catholicism. Because it is such a grandiose and over-the-top project, I think it makes visible a couple of elements of what some commentators have called “neo-conservative Catholicism” (though I am not sure I like that term) that is not always easy to see in the more run-of-the-mill manifestations. The first thing, which I think is symbolized with the Oratory, is the ambiguous relationship it has to “traditional Catholicism.” Everywhere you look at Ave Maria, you see things that are clearly designed to be homages to traditional Catholicism (the church at the center of the town, the Gothic plan of the Oratory, etc.). But the actual implementation is thoroughly new and modern.

The church may be at the center of town, but people are clearly expected to live in “the suburbs”—the subdivisions—and “commute” to work. The Oratory is Gothic in plan but modernist in execution. Compared to my parish in San Francisco, it is almost Protestant in its lack of ornamentation—no niches for statues and private devotions, a pure white backdrop behind the altar with no images. The most intricate design elements, other than the massive crucifix, are the woodcarvings on the confessionals that cover all of the sidewall space of the knave. That’s an interesting theological statement, I think, and one that I am not sure you could find in older Catholic churches. None of this means that it per se bad, but it does undercut the idea that the neo-conservative Catholic movement is simply about returning to pre-Vatican II practices in toto. Ave Marie represents something new, or at least a new synthesis of older elements.

The second thing that can be said about Ave Maria is that it is an example of an idea, seen often in the Evangelical world, which my friend Justin and I have come to call the “Christian Surfing Principle.” Rather than engage the World, or confront the World, the Christian Surfing Principle focuses on creating a parallel version of the World that is basically just like the World, except free of the people that don’t agree with you or you don’t like (it’s called the Christian Surfing Principle because of an article many years ago in the Jacksonville newspaper about the “Christian Surfing culture” as if it were some radical new social phenomenon, when it really was just like regular surfing culture, except everyone was Christian).

Ave Maria is not designed to be some kind of pseudo-monastery—it is just like any of the thousands of similar developments all throughout Florida (complete with that iconic symbol of all things Florida, a Publix supermarket), except that everyone who lives there is a conservative Catholic. The appeal of Ave Maria is “you can live a life that is exactly like the one you are living now, except better because everyone around you will believe in the exact same things you do.” While that may seem like a hopelessly retro idea (I admit it seems that way to me), maybe it is the only way to create an authentic “Catholic culture.” After all, a key part of the old Catholic culture was that everyone around you was Catholic.

One last thing—the more I think about the nickname “The Gyrenes,” the more strange it seems. The “message” of Ave Maria is so consistent that it is jarring to all-of-the-sudden have a reference to something that is completely unrelated to Catholicism. You can’t help but conclude it is a reflection of a bit of a personality cult around Monaghan, which is always troubling.


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