Crossing the Bar-The Column of the Legal Education Committee

Crossing the Bar--Innovating through Tradition: The Ave Maria School of Law

by Francine Cullari

Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me.

And may there be no moaning of the bar,When I put out to sea…

I hope to see my Pilot face to face, When I have crost the bar.

The title of this Legal Education Committee column has a number of applications to the law, but the first and last lines of Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar are particularly helpful in understanding the arrival of The Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor.

Thomas Monaghan, the school’s founder, is above all a devout Catholic. After amassing a fortune from Domino’s Pizza and the Detroit Tigers, he is now using the considerable sales proceeds of the businesses, reportedly more than $1 billion, to "do important work."1 His "clear call" is to have an impact, however small or large, on the future of society through education, mass media, and community projects.

To date, he has opened four Spiritus Sanctus elementary schools in Michigan and one in Honduras. He has donated part of Domino Farms in Ann Arbor for the Father Gabriel Richard High School. His Ave Maria College in Ypsilanti is working on a joint venture with St. Mary’s College to create Ave Maria University. He is looking into various graduate programs and operates a Catholic radio station in Ann Arbor.2

Monaghan created a law school in his education initiative for a number of reasons. First, he has had a mixed experience with attorneys and has found some of them to be less ethical than he expected. Second, he is pro-life and wants to educate attorneys who can challenge pro-choice and other laws counter to natural law and Catholic tradition. Third, Ave Maria may provide a standard for education at all levels, demonstrating that an adherence to traditional values is not inconsistent with highly proficient and respected members of society.3

Monaghan is not alone in returning to traditional Catholic education. More than 100 "private Catholic independent" schools operate in the United States; most opened within the last decade. Parents have defected from public and Catholic schools they consider either academically weak or doctrinally defective. At the college and university level, Jesuits met last summer for five days of soul searching on the future of Jesuit schools.4 Prodded by Pope John Paul’s 1990 encyclical Ex Corde Ecclesiae, on Catholic identity in higher education, Catholic institutions and bishops have been intensely discussing a return to the original mission of Catholic education.5 Isolated efforts are under way, but no clear sense of how to change exists.6 Some educators fear that shifting the focus to religious identity may undermine emphasis on academic excellence. Ave Maria intends to focus on both.

Monaghan’s Ave Maria Foundation is financing The Ave Maria School of Law with a $50 million commitment. The school will seek other sources of funding as well. A private loan program for students is available and if the school is accredited, federal loans and grants will be available. Tuition is $19,750 a year, which is slightly above the median for private Midwest law schools.

The first class, which matriculated in August, 2000, had 218 applicants of which 111 were accepted and 75 enrolled. The median LSAT is 158 (79-80th percentile) and median GPA is 3.33. Those statistics put Ave Maria in the top 45 law schools for degree of difficulty in acceptance. The University of Iowa, which is ranked 21st in law school education, has similar medians.7

Eventually, the school expects each new class to reach 150, with a total enrollment of 400-450. Students from 45 states and Australia, Canada, and Korea applied, with 31 states and Canada represented in the class. Twenty-five percent of the students are from Michigan. Students need not be Catholic and need not divulge their religion. Ave Maria has actively solicited minority students and offered scholarship money, with one Hispanic, three African-American, and one Asian student in the class. One highly qualified African-American woman had narrowed her selection to either Ave Maria or Harvard.

A number of the board members at Ave Maria are pro-life activists. Two members of Notre Dame University Law School, Monaghan, and Dean Bernard Dobranski, former dean at the Catholic University Law School and the University of Detroit Law School, sit on the board. Dean Dobranski named Thomas More, Supreme Court Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas (all Catholic), and Robert Bork, former Supreme Court nominee and an educator at the school, as lawyers students should emulate.

Of 37 religiously-affiliated law schools, 27 are Catholic. Three new Catholic law schools are in Seattle, Miami, and St. Paul. The Catholic law schools take various approaches to their identity. Some are insular, adhere strictly to their mission, and are not particularly concerned about their reputation in the secular community. Some want the respect of outside critics; curriculum and philosophy may be downplayed to maintain secular respect. A third group, referred to as having an engagement approach, operates in a secular setting but within a certain tradition, though not strictly.

Ave Maria has adopted the engagement philosophy. It will adhere to its mission, but plans to earn the respect of the secular community by having highly-qualified students and a curriculum that produces high quality attorneys in the technical sense. It will not deviate from its mission to provide a highly ethical lawyer grounded in natural law principles, but it is very conscious of the need to have highly competent graduates who pass the bar exam. It will have practice exams on a regular basis and a bar exam preparation service, such as BarBri at the school. Beyond the exam, it will require core courses to be two-thirds of the curriculum, when the trend at law schools is to increase electives.8

Is there disagreement from the "bar"? In some circles, yes, from the standpoint that another law school and more law graduates are not needed. The number of accredited law schools has grown from 147 to 180 since 1971. Ave Maria does not pretend that another standard law school is needed. What is does claim is that a different kind of law school and a different kind of lawyer is needed. Patrick McCartan, chairman of the board at Notre Dame University and managing partner at Jones Day in Cleveland, with 1,300 lawyers in 22 cities, said he agrees that the more a law school declares a commitment to law and values or law and ethics is to the good.9

Some Catholic professors at other schools also disagree. Fr. Robert Drinan, former dean at Boston College School of Law, former U.S. congressman, and now professor at Georgetown University Law Center, charges Ave Maria with a holier-than-thou attitude. He reports that Georgetown has a full-time chaplain and nun, daily mass, a beautiful chapel, publishes the prestigious Journal of Ethics, and fosters public service. He teaches social justice in the context of his international law course. He asked, "what else would a student want from a Catholic school?"10

Quite a bit more, according to one incoming Ave Maria student. He wants an environment that offers just what Ave Maria is offering: Catholic underpinnings for every area of the law, professors who will explain the relationship between natural law and secular law, and professors who can answer questions from a Catholic perspective.

A devout Catholic graduate of another Catholic university law school stated that he barely knew his school was Catholic and certainly did not feel comfortable raising issues in class that related to his religious values. Working for a top-tier Fortune 500 company, he finds it difficult in his life and law practice to live up to his Catholic values without raising eyebrows. He had hoped that his legal education would give him a better foundation for meeting challenges to his ethics in a legal setting.

How will Ave Maria integrate natural law and Catholic tradition into its curriculum? It will be apparently the first law school to have every course include the Judeo-Christian foundations and natural law related to the subject.11 Educators at Ave Maria regularly hold discussions to that end. For example, in employment law, the rights of the worker pronounced by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical Rerum Novarum will be covered, such as remuneration sufficient to maintain the wage-earner in reasonable and frugal comfort.12 Some courses, such as evidence, will not lend themselves to the inclusion of any natural law tradition.

Other Catholic schools generally offer a separate course(s) related to their perspective and tradition, but Ave Maria will integrate the concepts into as many classes as possible. The dean is careful to point out, however, that Ave Maria is not a seminary, but is first and foremost a law school with a particular mission. The goal is to produce lawyers who will not only practice law with a different purpose but with a different method. The dean said, "The rule of law must be grounded in the belief that there is an objective moral order, and that will be our mission." 13

To be taken seriously, Ave Maria has to be accredited. Dean Dobranski has served on an ABA accreditation committee but has now resigned. He and other staff members are intimately familiar with accreditation requirements and plan to work diligently to meet each standard.14

Members of the bar repeatedly complain about the decline in professionalism, ethics, and civility. Perhaps the graduates of Ave Maria will be refreshing. I was taught in a comparative religion course that two virtues taught first by Jesus Christ are humility and love of one’s adversary. Perhaps Ave Maria will encourage the former in its students and perhaps its critics will consider the latter.


1. Fr. Robert Drinan, Pizza Bucks Back Hyper-Catholic Law School, National Catholic Reporter, May 7, 1999; interview with Bernard Dobranski, Dean and Professor of Law, The Ave Maria School of Law, June 23, 2000.

2. Dean Bernard Dobranski, supra.

3. Id.

4. Pamela Schaeffer, Jesuit Educators Offer No Guarantees for Future, National Catholic Reporter, July 16, 1999.

5. Thomas Monaghan funded a conference addressing Ex Corde issues this year for educators and Catholic bishops.

6. For a detailed history of the secularization of 17 parochial colleges and universities, see James Tunstead Burchaell, CSC, The Dying of the Light: The Disengagement of Colleges and Universities from Their Christian Churches (1998).

7. U.S. News and World Report,

8. Dean Bernard Dobranski, supra.

9. Pamela Schaeffer, Wanted: Different Kind of Lawyer, National Catholic Reporter, August 13, 1999.

10. Interview with Fr. Robert Drinan, Professor, Georgetown University Law Center, July 9, 2000.

11. Dean Bernard Dobranski, supra.

12. Pope Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, Papal Encyclical, May 15, 1891.

13. Dean Bernard Dobranski, supra.

14. Id. For an evaluation by incoming students, see Jim Suhr, Domino’s Founder Hopes to Change Law with Catholic School, Flint Journal, August 26, 2000.

All columns are the opinion of the writer and do not represent the position of the Legal Education Committee.

Francine Cullari is a sole practitioner in Grand Blanc, past president of the Genesee County Bar Association, member of the Representative Assembly and five State Bar committees, and raises funds for Access to Justice. She is a columnist for the Flint Journal.

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