Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Millionaire's Vow of Poverty

Last week I wrote about Tom Monaghan, founder and former owner of Domino’s Pizza, whose devout Catholicism led him to develop a town in Florida called Ave Maria for the purpose of establishing a spiritually robust stronghold of family values and religious observance. I suggested that these kinds of religious enclaves seldom “perform” as anticipated (due to human sinfulness) and, moreover, they are not a faithful response to Jesus’ example of going into the world to love and redeem it.

But I also said there were some admirable elements of this story. First is the transformation in Monaghan’s life that led him to this vision. Recall the Domino’s phenomenon. Founded in 1960, it grew into the country’s second largest pizza chain. Monaghan became fabulously wealthy (net worth of about $1 billion) and proceeded to collect antique cars, buy a yacht, and purchase a professional sports franchise (the Detroit Tigers). Ho hum. We’ve heard this story before. Self-made rich guy buys toys.

But in the early 1990’s, while reading C.S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity, Monaghan reached the chapter titled “The Great Sin,” dedicated to the perils of pride. “That chapter hit me right between the eyes,” Monaghan recalls. “I thought, ‘If pride is the greatest sin of all, I’ve got to be the greatest sinner of all.’” He did not sleep that night. The next morning he took what he calls a “millionaire’s vow of poverty.” He halted construction of a new mansion, sold his extravagant collection of luxury cars, stopped flying first class, and began looking for ways to put his wealth to good use. Since then, he has parted with almost half of his billion dollar fortune, mostly through religious philanthropy. You may quibble with his choice of projects, but I find this to be an inspiring example of the gospel bearing dramatic fruit in someone’s life.

The second thing I find commendable is Monaghan’s motivation, or part of it at least, to establish the town of Ave Maria. He is disturbed by what he regards as the failure of western civilization to resist Islamic fundamentalism. Nicholas Healy, of like mind to Monaghan, and president of Ave Maria University, the town’s centerpiece, describes the “virtual collapse of Europe” as “one of the most profound and unsettling developments of our century.” Monaghan wants to help the United States overcome its morally corroded secularism and become a people of vibrant faith whose moral strength and clarity helps to rebuild a “religiously dynamic West” that recognizes the dangers Islamic fundamentalism poses. This, too, I find commendable. To be a “religiously dynamic” country is not to be a theocracy, but to be a people whose spiritual vitality and commitment lends itself to a moral vision which recognizes the great struggles of our time and gives serious attention to them.

Europe, it seems to me, gives us a view of what a less religious and more secular minded America would look like. Monaghan does not find that to be a promising picture. Neither do I. Which is why I commend a millionaire who stops collecting toys and starts trying to make a difference.


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