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Living up to the noble Greek vision of man as one who looks upwards, Tom Monaghan seeks for the meaning of life in that which is beyond his own egocentric “self,” gazing beyond the gutter to the stars and to the God who made the stars…

Tom Monaghan

Tom Monaghan

We’re all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars. —Oscar Wilde

When Tom Monaghan, the founder of Domino’s Pizza and former owner of the Detroit Tigers, approached me to write his biography I will confess that I had severe misgivings. As someone who had been on the faculty of Ave Maria University, which he had founded, I felt that I was, at one and the same time, too close to the subject and yet also too far from him.

On the one hand, I owe a great personal debt of gratitude to Mr. Monaghan. If he had not founded the university, I might never have come to the United States. I might still be in my native land, an impoverished writer eking out a meagre living in England’s green but infertile land. On the other hand, I experienced at first hand the growing pains at the university and saw many of my friends become embittered towards Mr. Monaghan as he made decisions with which they disagreed vehemently.

Any doubts that I might have had about writing the book were assuaged considerably after I picked up a copy of James Leonard’s, Living the Faith: A Life of Tom Monaghan, a volume which has to be one of the most vitriolic biographies ever written. Throughout its almost four hundred sprawling and largely self-opinionated pages, the author makes little or no effort to either sympathize or empathize with his subject, preferring instead to sit in supercilious judgment, passing sentence with barely-concealed scorn on every aspect of Tom Monaghan’s life and beliefs. As I read this biography, I was appalled by the pride and prejudice of the author and by the catalogue of rudimentary factual errors which protruded with irritating regularity from its pages.

Although Mr. Leonard was raised as a Catholic and educated at Catholic schools from kindergarten through high school, he lost whatever faith he had shortly after graduation. “I left the Church after I graduated,” Mr. Leonard writes in the preface to his book, “went back after I got married, and left for good when I got divorced.” After his lapse from the practice of the Faith, he claims to have read the Bible a few times, as well as the works of the Church Fathers and the Gnostic scriptures, before proceeding to read “the founding documents of most of the rest of the world’s religions, and several shelves of books on religion after that.” These facts are presumably given to the reader to establish Mr. Leonard’s credentials; to let us know that he knows what he’s talking about. Unfortunately, however, his book proves all too embarrassingly that he doesn’t. On the very first page, he misquotes the words of the Hail Mary, probably the most famous of all Catholic prayers and, as the main prayer of the rosary, the most oft-cited by practicing Catholics. He then states that the words are those of the Archangel Gabriel, omitting to mention that some of the words that he (mis)quotes are not those of the angel but are spoken by Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth. Two pages later, Mr. Leonard tells us that a miter is “the ancient papal head-dress recently readopted by Pope Benedict XVI.” This simply beggars belief, displaying an ignorance that would embarrass the average eighth grader. A miter is, of course, the traditional headdress of all bishops of the Catholic Church, and, for that matter, all bishops of the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Church.

A few pages later, in another eyebrow-raising display of arrant nonsense masquerading as knowledge, Mr. Leonard quotes from the Book of Revelation: The Lamb that was slain is worthy to receive power and divinity and wisdom and strength and honour, to Him be glory and empire for ever and ever. This passage from scripture, according to Mr. Leonard, “praised Jesus in terms reserved at the time for Roman emperors.” One wonders when any Roman emperor was praised as the Lamb who was slain!

One more example of Mr. Leonard’s ignorance of the Catholic faith, in which he was clearly not educated, in spite of his many years at so-called Catholic schools, is his observation that he saw people in the Ave Maria Oratory “admiring the Stations of the Cross.” Astonishingly, for one who claims to have been a Catholic for a large chunk of his life, Mr. Leonard seems unaware that Catholics do not “admire” the Stations of the Cross, as though they were tourists in an art museum; on the contrary, they wander from one Station to the next, meditating on the suffering of Christ and praying for forgiveness of their sins.

These egregious and grimly humorous examples of Mr. Leonard’s ignorance of the Faith are offered as an illustration of his book’s woeful inadequacy as a life of Tom Monaghan. The very title of Mr. Leonard’s book, Living the Faith, serves to highlight its woefulness, even though it is meant, sardonically and ironically, as an expression of its deep-rooted cynicism. How can an author who is so patently ignorant of the Faith, the Thing that animates and motivates everything that Monaghan does, have any understanding of one who is “living the Faith” or at least trying to live it? Isn’t there an abyss that separates the biographer from his subject, an abyss that is truly abysmal in terms of the injustice inherent in the bitter fruits of his labour? Isn’t this what happens when one allows one’s pride and prejudice to sit in judgment of people and things of whom and of which one knows nothing? “Pride,” wrote Chesterton, “is the falsification of fact by the introduction of self.” Mr. Leonard’s book is spoiled by the fact that he is always getting in the way, obscuring the facts of Tom Monaghan’s life with the incessant introduction of self-opinionated judgmentalism.

To be fair to Mr. Leonard, he seems to have had an inkling of this dilemma in his pondering, towards the end of the book, of Pilate’s words to Christ: Quid est Veritas? What is truth? Having discussed “the profundity of Pilate’s question,” Mr. Leonard confessed the problem that he faced: “While I could get the facts of his life right, getting to the truth about Monaghan the man would be much more difficult because our definitions of truth might not be the same.”

At this juncture, and speaking as one who has written many biographies, I would respond to Mr. Leonard that it is the job of a biographer to understand his subject, especially his subject’s most deeply held beliefs, and not simply, Pilate-like, to wash his hands of the necessity of doing so. If one doesn’t know anything about the Faith that one’s subject is living, it is preposterous and prideful arrogance to write a book about him called “living the Faith”! Either learn something about the Faith being lived or have the honesty and integrity to leave well alone.

Although Mr. Leonard’s ignorance of the Faith would be enough in itself to justify the dismissing of his biography of Tom Monaghan, it should also be stressed that the biography is also careless and inaccurate in its reporting of the facts. Contrary to his claim that he “could get the facts of [Monaghan’s] life right,” Mr. Leonard all too often gets the simplest facts wrong. Once again, a few examples will suffice.

The tone for the lackluster approach to factual accuracy is set in the very first paragraph of the Prologue to the biography in which we are told that the town of Ave Maria is to the west of the Oratory and “the University of Ave Maria” is to its east. In fact, at the time that  Mr. Leonard was writing, the town was to the north and south of the Oratory and the university campus to the west. Also, the name of the university is Ave Maria University (AMU), not the University of Ave Maria (UAM). Several pages later, still in the Prologue, Mr. Leonard describes his first impressions of the town of Immokalee, about five miles from Ave Maria: “The first thing I saw when I entered town were gigantic billboards promising ‘Las Vegas Style Gambling,’ although the casino itself was a pair of whitewashed trailers bolted together and mounted on cinderblocks in a muddy parking lot.” This is well-written and reads like the lines of a novel. Unfortunately it is also as fictional as a novel. The Seminole Casino Hotel is anything but a pair of whitewashed trailers, as a simple google search of “Immokalee casino” would have revealed.

The most amusing example of  Mr. Leonard’s failure to check his facts is his account of a class given at Ave Maria University by the internationally acclaimed theologian, Michael Waldstein. Having correctly remembered the names of Thomas Aquinas and Emmanuel Kant, Mr. Leonard remarks that “Waldstein then went on to criticize Desmond Hume… the Scottish Enlightenment philosopher,” confusing the philosopher, David Hume, whom Waldstein was obviously discussing, with Desmond Hume, the character in a recent ABC television series! Having little or no grasp of either theology or philosophy, and having precious little humility, Mr. Leonard’s conclusion at the conclusion of the class was that Dr. Waldstein and his students had reduced everything to “Catholics = Good” while “Non-Catholics = Suspect or Worse”: “That meant Aquinas beats Kant, theology beats philosophy, and faith beats reason. To me that reduced all their discussions to profound superficiality.” Needless to say, Dr. Waldstein, who received his Doctorate in Theology from Harvard Divinity School and who had taught at the University of Notre Dame prior to teaching at Ave Maria University, has never believed that theology beats philosophy, nor that faith beats reason. As a Thomist theologian, he believes, with Aquinas and with the Church, that theology and philosophy are equally valid paths to truth and that faith and reason are united in an indissoluble marriage. This is his position as it is the position of the Catholic Church. In contrast, Mr. Leonard, who apparently doesn’t know which Hume is who, clearly had no idea what was being discussed in the class that he attended. Rather than admitting with a humble frankness that he was out of his depth, he passes judgment from the position of ignorance. His claim that Waldstein’s scholarship and erudition could be reduced dismissively to the level of “profound superficiality” was itself an example of extreme superficiality expressed in the language of profound superciliousness.

Knowing that he knows little or nothing about Aquinas, Kant or Hume, we learn that Mr. Leonard “lowered the windows and turned up Neil Young” as he drove away from class and that, a little later, to clear his head (his words, not mine), he picked up Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ. Neil Young and Nietzsche, along with John Lennon, are also listed in the acknowledgements at the beginning of the book as being amongst those without whom the volume would not have been possible. Perhaps any further comment on the extent of Mr. Leonard’s grasp of the great conversation that has animated civilization for the past three millennia would be superfluous.

Sadly, the most egregious thing about  Mr.  Leonard’s travesty of a book is that it was published by the University of Michigan Press. In early 2008, Ellen McCarthy, an editor at the press, had commissioned Mr. Leonard to write a full-length biography of Tom Monaghan. The fact that an allegedly reputable university press should commission such a book is intriguing, suggestive perhaps of the University of Michigan’s adversity towards the Catholic philanthropist on its doorstep and its desire to have a cudgel with which to beat him. Yet how could any reputable press, especially one with academic pretensions, publish something so tacky, trite, and trivial, and with so many embarrassing errors of fact? One would be tempted to call it shameful if it weren’t so grimly laughable.

Why, one might reasonably ask, have I spent so much time discussing, criticizing, and ultimately condemning a previous biography of Tom Monaghan as a means of raising the curtain on my own biography of him? It is simply that  Mr. Leonard’s debacle of a book served to energize my own labours. If I hadn’t read his book, I would not have proceeded with the writing of mine with such a sense of passion and purpose. Tom Monaghan, for all his faults, does not deserve to be treated the way that Mr. Leonard treats him. This being so, Mr. Leonard’s must not be the last word on the subject.

It’s not that I intend to counter  Mr. Leonard’s “hackiography,” in which Mr. Leonard seeks to hack his subject to pieces, by writing a hagiography, which depicts the pizza-billionaire-turned-philanthropist as a saint, so squeaky-clean that he needs oiling! On the contrary, I made it clear to Mr. Monaghan that I was not interested in writing such a book and, for his part, he made it clear to me that this was not the sort of book that he desired to be written. My own book does not avoid controversy or the seeming contradictions inherent in Mr. Monaghan’s character: the quiet, somewhat shy and introverted man who founded and owned Domino’s Pizza and who bought the Detroit Tigers; the independent innovator who is derided as a “rigid conservative”; the ascetic pursuer of the simple life who was notorious for splurge-spending on fast cars, airplanes, and boats; the billionaire who desires to give his fortune away.

The fact is that Tom Monaghan is an enigma whose life is a string of paradoxes. My own book seeks to understand the enigma and to solve the riddles that his life poses. In order to do so, it was necessary to move beyond the view from the faithless and materialist gutter that James Leonard’s disfigured portrait presents. We need to see Tom Monaghan through his own eyes, to understand him as he understands himself; only then can we step back and make an objective judgment about the man and his life; only when we have plucked the plank of pride and prejudice from our own eye can we dare to see the mote in the eye of the other.

Like the rest of us, Tom Monaghan is in the gutter. He is a sinner and is prone to the weaknesses that plague sinful men. Yet, unlike the materialist or the seeker after self-gratification, he is not face down in the gutter, believing that there is nothing but the squalor in which he finds himself. Living up to the noble Greek vision of man as one who looks upwards (anthropos), Monaghan seeks for the meaning of life in that which is beyond his own egocentric “self,” gazing beyond the gutter to the stars and to the God who made the stars. Those wishing a deeper understanding of this most enigmatic of men should not look at him in the gutter but with him at the stars. This is why, if we wish to see beyond the surface of Tom Monaghan’s life to the core of his being, the depths of his heart, we need to understand that his own heart marches to the beat of the Sacred Heart which gives it life. My own life of this most remarkable of men hopes to capture the beat of his heart.

Monaghan: A Life by Joseph Pearce is newly-published by TAN Books.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. Joseph Pearce deserves great respect, bordering on deference, for his many wonderful works over the years, as Christian apologist, historian, and especially biographer. He has added greatly to our understanding of truth, beauty, and human character.

    That said, I think it important to point out that the biography he attacks, by James Leonard, actually is highly favorable in its treatment of Tom Monaghan. Mr. Leonard certainly gets many, many things wrong in his book, as I pointed out several years ago in my own review. His treatment of the Church and of conservatism are frankly egregious. Almost as egregious, however, is his white-washing of the deplorable actions of Mr. Monaghan himself. Too many Catholics for too long have looked the other way as this man has destroyed careers, personal lives, and entire, important institutions out of selfishness, pride, and personal pique. After establishing Ave Maria University and Ave Maria School of Law (where I taught for several years) and attracting people to each institution on the promise that they would be serious Catholic enterprises, he proceeded to treat each institution (and its faculty) as his own personal property.

    Mr. Pearce, like me, has moved on to bigger and better things; we have no reason to hold grudges in the matter. That said, we owe it to Catholic educators and the faithful public in general to make certain they know the truth about Mr. Monaghan’s actions and character, both as a lesson as to the pitfalls of power and as important information in planning their own futures. Two promising Catholic institutions of higher learning were destroyed, along with the careers of many good, faithful men and women, to serve the whims and foolish desires of one man. Ave Maria University has had the good sense and fortune to separate itself from Mr. Monaghan, though it still struggles mightily to survive in the aftermath of the disastrous move from Michigan to the swamps of Florida, and many instances of high-handed conduct. The Law School, sadly, has not been so wise or fortunate.

    The cause of genuine education, as of faithful Catholicism and wise conservatism, cannot be served by any attempt to minimize the very severe harm this one man has done through his misuse of money and power. Thankfully, having squandered the vast bulk of his fortune on a Florida land deal, Mr. Monaghan is not in a position to do the kind of harm again that he already has done. But any honest assessment of his character and legacy must be far more critical than Mr. Pearce indicates he will present. I hope the reality of his biography is more true to the facts than is foreshadowed here.

  2. Joseph Pearce; My compliments on an insightful article. I look forward to reading your biography of Tom Monaghan. I find Bruce Frohnen’s comments lacking in depth and understanding. He also appears to put the cart ahead of the horse, having not read your biography.

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