NAPLES, Fla. — Ave Maria University, a Catholic college that calls itself “unambiguously pro-life,” bolstered its reputation by getting a significant donor to publicly declare his pro-life stance.
B. Thomas Golisano, a billionaire businessman from Rochester, N.Y., who ran for governor of New York three times, donated $4 million to build a field house that will bear his name.
Forbes magazine lists Golisano as one of the 400 richest people in America; he founded and operated Paychex Inc. until 2004, when he retired, and owns the Buffalo Sabres of the National Hockey League.
Golisano has donated about $130 million to charity since 1990. In May 2009, he announced in an op-ed piece in The New York Times that he was leaving New York to live in Florida so he could save $13,000 a day in taxes. He now owns a residence in Naples, where Ave Maria is located.
Golisano’s multi-million-dollar donation is not the first such donation by the philanthropist to Catholic institutions.
In 2006, Golisano gave Bishop Kearny High School in Rochester $6 million; in 2008, he gave $10 million to Niagara University in western New York, the largest donation ever received by that Vincentian school.
Golisano also gave $5 million to Nazareth College and received an honorary doctorate from that private Catholic school and from St. John Fisher College, both in Rochester. Ave Maria did not offer an honorary degree to its newest benefactor.
Pro-life bloggers denounced Ave Maria’s naming the field house after the benefactor, claiming that Golisano is pro-abortion. They based their claim on a 15-year-old story in the Times, where reporter Maria Newman quoted a woman at a political rally asking Golisano, “Where do you stand on abortion?” Newman wrote: “Mr. Golisano responded, ‘The country has been very clear that it wants choice, and I’m pro-choice.’”
The reporter did not ask him that question directly. She also named the band that played at the reception Whitebread Panic; the next day, the Times ran a correction, calling it Widespread Panic.
That occurred during Golisano’s first of three third-party gubernatorial runs. In 2002 he garnered 14% of the vote. Some pro-life bloggers have accused Golisano’s Independence Party of being pro-abortion, but the party platform has planks calling for “fiscal conservatism and responsibility,” “political and electoral reform” and “strengthening the family structure.” It goes on to say that moral and ethical standards are an individual candidate’s choice, so “the party will take no formal position on the issues of abortion, the death penalty or school prayer.”
Golisano and his philanthropic foundation have contributed money to pro-choice politicians, as well as to others, and to the Clinton Global Initiative, founded by former President Bill Clinton and dedicated to combating global warming, poverty, AIDS and fostering education.
Patrick Reilly, president of the Cardinal Newman Society, said, “It is clearly problematic … for Ave Maria to honor someone with the public persona of maybe being at odds with the Church, even if that’s only in appearance and not in fact.”
The Newman Society is “dedicated to renewing and strengthening Catholic identity” at Catholic colleges and universities in the United States. It produces The Newman Guide to Choosing a Catholic College: What to Look for and Where to Find It, which recommends Ave Maria as a faithful Catholic college.
Reilly called the naming of a building “an enduring honor,” compared to the fleeting honor of a degree.
When the incident became public, Ave Maria issued the following statement about the pro-choice allegation: “Mr. Golisano advised us that the 1994 statement reported in the Times to the effect that he was ‘pro-choice’ was a misrepresentation of his actual position; that he is in fact pro-life. Indeed, he volunteered that ‘it is precisely because you [Ave Maria University] are confronting the culture that you got my attention.’”
The statement continued: “Mr. Golisano stated at the press conference that he supports the mission of Ave Maria University, which of course is unambiguously pro-life. We take him at his word.”
Nicholas Healy, the college president, said that he is completely convinced that Golisano’s views on abortion are consistent with the teachings of the Church, even if they were not always so.
“You know, there seems to be a strain of Catholicism that wants to be so pure that you don’t associate with anyone who isn’t pure,” Healy said. “And that’s not the way of the Lord. We are supposed to be evangelizing people, winning them over, not treating them like lepers. As you can see, I feel rather passionate about it.”
Reilly said that the college has done the right thing by asking Golisano to publicly declare his pro-life position and by strongly reiterating its own pro-life stance.
Reilly added, “Ave Maria University is a very good institution, and it deserves praise, since it is not its intention to honor a pro-choice politician.”
Paul Barra writes
from Reidville, South Carolina.