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Theological Notebook: On Thomas Reese Resigning from America

I am embarrassed to discover that late last week, Thomas Reese, SJ, the editor of America, a Catholic magazine of opinion, was pressured into resigning at the end of a long confrontation with Vatican officials. During his tenure, certain articles that had raised questions or staked out positions critical of Vatican statements had drawn a number of complaints. America is a journal of opinion in which a notable variety of opinions are offered. I can think of no other Catholic magazine where one might find so many "liberals" and "conservatives" publishing. Yet it was the "liberal" articles that drew fire here, having sparked complaints from readers, the American hierarchy and some Vatican officials. Given the politics of such things, I would not be surprised if it was certain readers--perhaps looking for such articles to report--who brought the pieces to the attention of those in the hierarchy. I am embarrassed to admit that such juvenile politics are not unheard of in American Catholicism, where trouble can be made for others whose Catholicity is found lacking, by reporting on them to higher officials and demanding that "something be done."

Anyone who has read my journal has long been aware--particularly since the last presidential election--that I am very reluctant to use the terms "conservative" and "liberal" because: A) I think that they have the effect of creating what they purport to describe: a mere polarity, a dualistic two-party view of a reality that is always much more complex; and B) that given the "there are only two opinions to be held" reality thus created, that the mere use of the two words (particularly in the press) then substitutes for "analysis," and that by simply declaring whether any given person or view belongs to either your party or the opposing one, enough has been communicated upon which to base any reasonable decision: as a result of this our press is not only polarized but fails to contribute the kind of commentary of depth or nuance needed for either the health of a democracy or for clear individual thinking. Nevertheless, perhaps because I am a product of this society or perhaps because of a lack of imagination on my part or even perhaps because there can be something useful in a stereotype, at times I find that I seem to have no option but the use of the damnable pair of words. Here, I find that it has been typically the tactic of certain of the American Catholic 'Conservatives' to engage in the politics of reporting on those with whom they disagree (or as they would allege, who "dissent from the teaching of the Church," which neatly absolves themselves of any responsibility here as a moral agent). American Catholic 'Liberals,' in my experience, tend to simply dismiss what is written in journals such as Crisis or First Things if they should disagree with them. At worse, they might publicly make fun of the "dissent" of such "conservatives" as the Neo-conservative Catholics like George Weigel or Michael Novak (the other Michael Novak) when they would break from the Pope's position, such as when they took it upon themselves to justify Bush's War with Iraq, against John Paul II's condemnation of what seemed the United States' determination to wage war at all costs. I have to say in the strongest possible terms that I see the tactics of "telling on" one another to higher-ups in the Church hierarchy to be utterly repugnant. That is a process that allows an accuser to stay anonymous, that strips the accused of an opportunity to either question an accuser or to defend themselves in front of one, and that allows an accuser (and whatever sympathetic ear they may eventually find) to entirely cast "the problem" in terms congenial to them. It is sub-American in its denial of due process. It is sub-Christian in its lack of honesty and charity. It is a political process of evil, familiar to us as the standard operating procedure of the Soviet Union and like regimes, and anyone engaging in it within the Church ought to be subject to the excommunication of law that they evidence in heart.

I am, in the inadequate and all-too-often distorting terms of our times, "conservative" enough to be a Christian, a believer in the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and a Catholic one at that: part of the family of the ancient Church of the West. I am also "liberal" enough to not have to engage in any kind of politics of force. Why is that? It is because of that "conservative" belief. Since I think that the thing really happened and is true, I have no need to play any kind of politics of power because I actually believe. And I know--in depth--the evidence for that belief. God does not need me to be "muscle" for the truth. I am only asked to be a witness of it and to learn from it. In a culture busily engaged in denying Christianity by ignoring it to death, I will no doubt be alarming enough. But I can only be a witness to Christianity insofar as I try to be a follower of Christianity. It is difficult to try to hold to a code of perfect morality, particularly when one of the things you believe is that no human can hold to that standard. But it does not excuse us from the effort. And our failure teaches us compassion for one another's failures.

Because of what compassion I can muster, and because of my belief in the truth of what Christianity teaches, there is absolutely no justification for me or for anyone else to engage in such low politics of the suppression of conversation, particularly about non-creedal questions. I don't need to. Yes, of course the Church has the right and even the duty to not allow people to speak in its name when such persons are not representing the Church's actual beliefs. But there is nothing in what was written in America--not even the critical comments regarding the document Dominus Iesus--that came anywhere close to a denial of Christian faith. Asking whether one can clarify a teaching of the Church better than it may be currently understood is a faithful question, not an attack on faith. The real attack on faith here is by anyone who does not have the faith that Christianity can survive without their political heavy hand interfering. That amounts to a denial of the power of the truth to be the truth. For Christianity--if true--will best be defended in open, honest exchange, like that of Paul's in the philosophical courts of Athens, where truth can becomes clear in spite of all human intervention.


I include the article from The New York Times reporting on the resignation of Reese, cautioning only that any subtext of "the new Pope starts a purge" to be unrealistic, given the long-term nature of the Vatican's tension with Reese.

Vatican Is Said to Force Jesuit Off Magazine

May 7, 2005

An American Jesuit who is a frequent television commentator on Roman Catholic issues resigned yesterday under orders from the Vatican as editor of the Catholic magazine America because he had published articles critical of church positions, several Catholic officials in the United States said.

The order to dismiss the editor, the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, was issued by the Vatican's office of doctrinal enforcement - the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - in mid-March when that office was still headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the matter, said. Soon after, Pope John Paul II died and Cardinal Ratzinger was elected pope, taking the name Benedict XVI.

America magazine, a weekly based in New York City, is a moderate-to-liberal journal published by the Jesuits, a religious order known for producing the scholars who run many of the church's universities and schools. The Jesuits prize their independence, but like everyone in the church, even their top official, the Jesuit superior general in Rome, ultimately answers to the pope.

In recent years America has featured articles representing more than one side on sensitive issues like same-sex marriage, relations with Islam and whether Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should be given communion. Church officials said it was the publication of some of these articles that prompted Vatican scrutiny.

Father Reese, in a statement yesterday, confirmed his departure but gave no indication that he was resigning under duress: "I am proud of what my colleagues and I did with the magazine, and I am grateful to them, our readers and our benefactors for the support they gave me. I look forward to taking a sabbatical while my provincial and I determine the next phase of my Jesuit ministry."

Catholic scholars and writers said in interviews yesterday that they feared that the dismissal of such a highly visible Catholic commentator was intended by the Vatican as a signal that debating church teaching is outside the bounds.

Some Jesuits said that within the last two years they had received spoken or written warnings from then-Cardinal Ratzinger's office about articles or books they had published.

Stephen Pope, a moral theologian at Boston College who wrote the article critical of the church's position on same-sex marriage, said of the dismissal: "If this is true, it's going to make Catholic theologians who want to ask critical questions not want to publish in Catholic journals. It can have a chilling effect."

Father Reese, who is 60 and has been editor of America for seven years, is a widely regarded political scientist. He has written several books that examine the Roman Catholic Church as a political institution as well as a religious one, a rather secular approach that was not appreciated in Cardinal Ratzinger's office, an official there said in an interview last month.

Jesuit officials said Father Reese was informed of his ouster just after he had returned from Rome, where he had been interviewed by nearly every major American news outlet covering the pope's funeral and the elevation of Cardinal Ratzinger to pope.

He is being replaced by his deputy, the Rev. Drew Christiansen, a Jesuit who writes often on social ethics and international issues, and whom Father Reese recruited to the magazine in 2002.

Catholic experts said yesterday that they were stunned to learn of Father Reese's dismissal. "I'd think of him as sort of a mainstream liberal," said Philip F. Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, a news outlet on the more conservative end of the spectrum. "I think he's been reasonably politic. I watched him during the transition, and I cannot think of a single thing I heard that would have put him in jeopardy."

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith first complained to Jesuit officials about the magazine four years ago, the church officials said, after America published a special issue with articles criticizing "Dominus Jesus," a document on interfaith relations and the supremacy of Catholicism that had been issued by the Congregation.

Dominus Jesus was broadly denounced by many Catholic and non-Catholic theologians who said it would undermine decades of bridge-building with other faiths, and even with other Christian denominations.

"They were just reporting what a lot of people were saying, they weren't stirring up trouble," said the Rev. Mark Massa, a Jesuit who leads the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University. "I can't think of anything they've reported that was scandalous."

Cardinal Ratzinger's office also complained to the Jesuits about articles America had published on gay priests and on the work of the Congregation itself. The Congregation threatened either to order the dismissal of Father Reese or to impose a committee of censors to review the magazine's content, but backed down after discussions with the Jesuits, church officials said in interviews yesterday.

The magazine then began to more regularly solicit articles examining a single issue from a variety of viewpoints. In 2001, it published a piece Father Reese had solicited from then-Cardinal Ratzinger as a response to an article by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German who works in the Vatican, that had criticized the Vatican and in particular the Congregation as failing to give local churches and bishops sufficient autonomy.

"For a long while," Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, "I hesitated to accept this invitation because I do not want to foster the impression that there is a longstanding theological dispute between Cardinal Kasper and myself, when in fact none exists."

Then in 2004, the Congregation took issue with two more articles: one by Professor Pope of Boston College on same-sex marriage, which criticized the Congregation for issuing a document that he argued dehumanized gay men and lesbians; and one by Representative David R. Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, who bristled at bishops who would deny communion to Catholic politicians like himself who support abortion rights.

In both of these cases, Father Reese published opposing viewpoints. Mr. Obey's piece was actually a response to an earlier article in America by Archbishop Raymond L. Burke, now of St. Louis, who had called for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights to change their positions or be denied communion.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of another Catholic journal based in New York, First Things, which is more conservative than America, said yesterday, "It would be fair to say that during the pontificate of John Paul II that America apparently saw itself or at least certainly read as a magazine of what some would describe as the loyal opposition. And, needless to say, there's dispute over the definition of 'loyal' and the definition of 'opposition.' "

But Father Neuhaus added that he considered Father Reese a friend who was always "fair-minded" even when they disagreed.

At the Jesuits' American headquarters in Washington, a spokesman, the Rev. Albert Diulio, said Father Reese and his provincial had jointly agreed on the job change. But he said he did not know if Father Reese had resigned under duress.

The Rev. Thomas Smolich, who as the Jesuit provincial of California is Father Reese's supervisor, said he was discussing with Father Reese about what he would do next. "Tom is a very talented guy," he said. "There are many things he could do in Jesuit and Catholic ministries, in a university, in journalism of some kind."

After the election of Pope Benedict XVI, America ran an editorial that said: "A church that cannot openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto."

Edit: I also here add the Catholic News Service story on the matter.

Jesuit officials say America editor resigned after Vatican complaints

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Jesuit officials in Rome said Father Thomas Reese resigned as editor in chief of America magazine after repeated complaints from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who objected to the magazine's treatment of sensitive church issues.

Jesuit Father Jose M. de Vera, spokesman for the Society of Jesus in Rome, said Father Reese decided to resign after discussing the situation with his Jesuit superiors, following Cardinal Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XVI. Father de Vera denied reports that Father Reese was forced to resign, but he acknowledged that pressure had been coming from the Vatican for several years.

"He tendered his resignation. It was not imposed, contrary to what was written," Father de Vera told Catholic News Service May 9.

"With Cardinal Ratzinger elected pope, I think (Father Reese) thought it would be very difficult to continue his line of openness, without creating more problems. He had been at America magazine seven years and he improved it tremendously, so I think he understood it was time to go," the Jesuit spokesman said.

Father Reese announced May 6 that at the end of the month he would leave America, a New York-based national Catholic weekly magazine of news and commentary run by the U.S. Jesuits. In a statement, Father Reese did not mention problems with the Vatican.

He said he would be replaced by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, an associate editor since 2002, widely known for his work on Catholic social teaching and international justice and peace issues.

Father de Vera said that in conversations with Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Jesuit superior general, Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had expressed concern about America's articles on several occasions.

Father de Vera said the articles that drew complaints treated a relatively small number of issues: "Dominus Iesus," the doctrinal congregation's document on Christ as the unique savior; same-sex marriage; stem-cell research; and the reception of Communion by Catholic politicians who support legal abortion.

On these and other questions, America often hosted commentary that represented a broad spectrum of opinions among Catholics, including those who disagreed with some of the Vatican's positions.

"The policy of (Father Reese) was to present both sides of the discussion. ... He wanted to present both sides within the Catholic community. But that did not sit well with Vatican authorities," Father de Vera said.

Father de Vera said that because the articles touched on doctrinal issues the Vatican wanted the Jesuits to write articles "defending whatever position the church has manifested, even if it is not infallible."

Father de Vera also said he thought some of the complaints probably came from Catholics in the United States, and that Cardinal Ratzinger's congregation was reacting to them.

More than a year ago, Father de Vera said, the tension had reached the point that Vatican officials threatened to impose a board of censors on the magazine unless changes were made.

At that time, he said, Father Reese and the Jesuits agreed to set up an internal board that reviewed articles prior to publication. In this way, "the threat of outside censors was dispelled," Father de Vera said.

But even under that arrangement the articles published in America continued to provoke complaints at the Vatican.

"The board has not produced what (the Vatican) expected -- a very strict line, very, very close to whatever was expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," Father de Vera said.

Some church sources said Cardinal Ratzinger's office was believed to have sent a letter in March requesting Father Reese's dismissal. Father de Vera said he was unaware of such a letter and could neither confirm nor deny its existence.

Father de Vera said that after Father Reese discussed the situation with Father Kolvenbach in April he voluntarily decided to resign for the good of the order.

"He knew the situation. He didn't want to embarrass the society, and he didn't want to fight the pope, so he resigned," Father de Vera said.

The Jesuit spokesman characterized the decision as "very prudent, very wise and very generous" on the part of Father Reese. Considering his improvements at the magazine, Father de Vera said, "he resigns in a moment of glory, so to speak."

Father Christiansen said May 6, "Father Reese greatly improved the magazine, adding news coverage, color and the Web edition. His technical expertise, in this age of new media, will be greatly missed. I know I will be calling on his guidance in that and other areas."

In his statement he added, "By inviting articles that covered different sides of disputed issues, Father Reese helped make America a forum for intelligent discussion of questions facing the church and the country today."

Among other issues of church teaching and practice debated in the pages of America under Father Reese were homosexual priests, mandatory clerical celibacy, inclusive language in the liturgy and the appropriateness of some Vatican actions and documents.

During his tenure America's circulation grew and it was frequently quoted in other media. Father Reese, who has written books on how the Vatican and the U.S. bishops operate, is frequently interviewed about church affairs by U.S. print and broadcast media.

Father Christiansen was a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University before he joined the America staff. From 1991 to 1998, he was director of the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, and he continued to serve as an international affairs counselor to the bishops until last December.

His staff work for the bishops included their 1991 pastoral letter on the environment and the design and development of their environmental justice program. He was the lead staff person in the drafting of the 1993 peace pastoral, "The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace," which has provided the basis for the post-Cold War policy of the bishops' conference.

Father Christiansen earned a doctorate in religious social ethics from Yale University in 1982. From 1981 to 1986 he was assistant professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., and the Graduate Theological Union there. He also directed the Center for Ethics and Social Policy 1981-86. From 1986 to 1990 he taught theology at the University of Notre Dame and was a fellow at its Institute for International Peace Studies.

He is the author of more than 100 articles on moral theology, ethics and international affairs, just war and nonviolence, Catholic social teaching, and family care of the elderly. He was a co-author of "Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace," and he is currently drafting a definitive commentary on Blessed Pope John XXIII's encyclical, "Pacem in Terris."

From 1985 to 1998 Father Reese was a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center. While there he wrote three books examining church organization and politics at the local, national and international levels.

For the first book in 1989, "Archbishop," he visited every U.S. archdiocese to interview the archbishop and explore the dynamics of his background and leadership and governance styles. The second, "A Flock of Shepherds," investigated the history and structures of the U.S. (then called National) Conference of Catholic Bishops. His third, "Inside the Vatican," has been translated into four other languages.

He also organized two major research projects that resulted in books during that time, one on the history and nature of episcopal conferences and another on a catechism for the universal church.

Father Reese joined the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained in 1974. He earned a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976. From 1975 to 1978 he was legislative director of Taxation With Representation, a tax reform lobby in Washington. From 1978 to 1985 he was associate editor of America.

With his resignation from America, Father Reese also submitted his resignation from the board of directors of the Catholic Press Association.

This was not the first time the doctrinal congregation influenced magazines run by religious orders.

In 1997 Pope John Paul II appointed an Italian bishop to oversee all Italian publications of the Pauline Fathers, including the weekly Famiglia Cristiana, which had a circulation of more than 1 million. It had run articles advocating Communion for divorced-remarried Catholics and arguing against censuring teenagers for masturbation.

The papal action came shortly after the order's superior general reportedly refused demands by Cardinal Ratzinger to rein in the magazine's editorial independence and to submit all articles to advance review by a panel of theologians appointed by the cardinal. The controversy ended with the removal of the magazine's director and, shortly after, his departure as a columnist.

In 2002 a Chicago-based Claretian magazine, U.S. Catholic, ran clarifications of church teaching on women's ordination at the request of the doctrinal congregation. The congregation intervened after the magazine carried a story reporting on the faith and lives of five women who felt called to the Catholic priesthood.

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Contributing to this story was Jerry Filteau in Washington.
Tags: media, theological notebook

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