In March of last year, Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza, promised that Ave Maria, the planned community he is developing near Naples, Fla., would be a Roman Catholic haven in secular America. “We’re going to control all the commercial real estate, so there’s not going to be any pornography sold in this town,” he said. “We’re controlling the cable system. The pharmacies are not going to be able to sell condoms or dispense contraceptives.” Monaghan backed down a bit this month, saying that birth control will be permitted, though not sold to students at the town’s Catholic college. But his history of donations to conservative Catholic organizations suggests that he’s spending his $250 million to seed a town of 20,000 that is, if not quite a theocracy, then as close to it as he can manage.
If history is any guide, however, the odds against building a Catholic oasis are pretty daunting. For Ave Maria to thrive as a model Catholic town, Catholics of various backgrounds will have to settle the new city. But to build a city rather than a small cult of religious zealots in the United States takes people who have more than just beliefs in common. They also need to share a culture.
In 19th-century Minnesota, for example, evangelical Lutherans divided into ethnic camps. The Swedes kept apart from the Norwegians, and the Germans from the Finns, even though they all practiced nearly identical faiths. Norwegians favored St. Olaf College in Northfield. Swedes went to Gustavus Adolphus in St. Peter. In the 20th century, as wars pulled people off farms and younger generations left behind their parents’ languages and cultures—speaking Norwegian, eating lutefisk—formerly distinct towns came to seem blandly American. Their old cultures survive only in Garrison Keillor monologues.
Strong cultural unity seems to be a defining trait even for the most religiously orthodox communities, which would seem best suited to rally around doctrine alone. Hasidic Jewish sects, which since World War II have created insular neighborhoods, emphasize the slight differences in clothing or worship style that separate a Satmar Hasid from a Lubavitcher from a Gerer. To an outsider, quarrels among these dynasties may seem like the narcissism of small differences—after all, aren’t they all ultra-Orthodox Jews? But the religious often place cultural differences ahead of religious similarities. That’s why the upstate New York village of Kiryas Joel, populated almost entirely by Satmar Hasids, doesn’t attract Lubavitchers.
Seen in this light, Catholics may be particularly ill-suited to building a Catholic town. Often, the most observant Catholics intimately bind their piety to their culture. Italian Catholicism is very different from, say, Latin American Catholicism, with different saints’ days and festivals, and both traditions might seem alien to an Irish Catholic. The church promotes itself as the universal faith, but it has always recognized ethnic divisions. Fifty years ago, Lithuanians, Poles, and Italians all heard the Latin mass, but they frequently did so in parishes divided according to the worshipers’ native tongues. These affinities persist, most strongly among immigrants, who comprise an outsized share of the devout. It’s hard to imagine many Nigerians or Mexicans moving to a planned community in a very white part of Florida to worship in Tom Monaghan’s church.
Even nonimmigrant, native-born Catholics, the old-stock Irish, Italians, and Germans, may prove reluctant to take the Ave Maria plunge. As John McGreevy shows in his book Parish Boundaries, there’s a strong geographical dimension to American Catholic piety. Unlike Protestants and Jews, Catholics get assigned to a house of worship. Though some still attend the old ethnic parishes, most are sent to the church that’s close by. If one Catholic asks another from the same town where she lives, the answer may be “St. Mary’s,” for her parish. This parish loyalty, McGreevy explains, helps account for the violence that greeted attempts to integrate Catholic neighborhoods in the 1960s and ‘70s. Protestants and Jews who feared integration could always go to the suburbs and commute back to their old church or synagogue (or move the congregation with them). But for a Catholic, leaving the neighborhood also meant leaving the parish. In Boston in 2004, Catholics waged a sit-in to protest parish closings—a reminder of how important geographic loyalty remains.
Many American cities and towns, of course, do have relatively uniform religious characters. Salt Lake City is definitely Mormon; cities like Memphis, Tenn., and Dallas are strongly Southern Baptist; and Dearborn, Mich., has become a well-known Muslim enclave. Grand Rapids, Mich., has retained some of its Dutch Reformed character because it is the home of Calvin College; the presence of a university will similarly aid Monaghan’s plans for Ave Maria. And if Monaghan were to court a specific group, like Mexican Catholics or African Catholics, he might have some luck. But it’s hard to envision thousands of Catholics, of all stripes, whose distress about living in a godless part of America will overwhelm their attachment to their community of worship. Like American voters who hate politicians but love their own Congress member, even disgruntled Catholics usually love their own parish.