An interview with Tom Monaghan's biographer

Perhaps I am prejudiced, but I am not generally interested in the biographies of multi-millionaires. However, Monaghan: A Life by Joseph Pearce (TAN Books) is different. It is not just that Tom Monaghan, the founder of the Domino’s Pizza empire is a Catholic; it is that he views his vast wealth merely as a means to an end – to further an authentic, vigorous Catholic culture in the US. How many very rich men, including Catholics, when asked about their goals in a 2011 interview would simply respond: “My goal is to constantly live within the presence of God”?

His biographer, Joseph Pearce, has made his name by relating the lives of the Catholic and Christian literati, men such as Hilaire Belloc, GK Chesterton and CS Lewis. Inspired by reading this sympathetic biography of a multi-millionaire who never flies first class and who always booked the unpopular middle seat in an aeroplane “because it afforded additional opportunities to evangelise his fellow passengers”, I am keen to know more about such an unusual character.

What does Pearce mean when he writes, “Few people have done more to shape the Church in the US in the last thirty years than Tom Monaghan”? He explains that Monaghan’s influence on the American Church has been “inestimable, due to the millions of dollars he’s spent on multifarious initiatives, including the founding of Ave Maria University, Ave Maria Law School, Legatus (an organisation of Catholic business leaders), Ave Maria Radio and many other worthy projects.”

For a man whose formal education was very patchy, how much has Monaghan been influenced by certain books that he stumbled upon at key points in his life? Pearce points out that “Tom is not a great reader, but for instance, his reading of the section on ‘pride’ in CS Lewis’s Mere Christianity had a mortifying and life-changing effect, inspiring him to focus his life on making his considerable wealth available to strengthening the Church in the US.”

The biography describes a childhood of emotional and material deprivation. How important to his later success were Monaghan’s harsh childhood experiences? Pearce suggests that we should feel a “sense of awe that someone with so many obstacles in his way should have succeeded against all the odds.” He adds: “To be in an orphanage after losing his father and being rejected by his mother, and then to rise to become the founder of one of the largest restaurant chains in the world, as well as owner of a baseball team (the Detroit Tigers) that would win the coveted World Series, would be a dream come true.”

He reflects, “And yet he would progress beyond such worldly achievements towards understanding that he needed to lay down his life and his wealth for the Church.”

What does Pearce think of Monaghan’s self-assessment that “I’ve done a fraction of what I could and should have done”? The biographer replies: “We can all look back on our lives and realise we could have done more. It’s also true that Tom has made mistakes, as he would freely admit. In this sense it’s easy to agree with him. On the other hand, few have done more than he has done.”

What has most impressed him about Monaghan’s personality? Pearce responds: “One of the privileges and joys of writing anyone’s biography is the opportunity it affords to get to know one’s subject much better. I feel this privilege in getting to know Tom. He is flawed, like the rest of us, but I appreciate knowing more of his hidden strengths, as a husband, a father and a friend, as well as his weaknesses. It has been an honour to know him through writing his biography and an honour to make him better known.”

I have decided to pass my own copy of the biography on to a rich Catholic friend. We all need positive role models.