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Issue Date:  May 20, 2005

A priest to celebrate, not sack

The forced removal of Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese as editor of America magazine is tragic. He was forced from his position by his Jesuit superiors after five years of pressure from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

If Reese is the kind of Catholic leader the Vatican feels it must remove from a position of responsibility, then this church is in far worse shape than many of us imagined.

Reese is an exemplary Christian, a model priest and a Jesuit in the best of that order’s tradition of robust thought and dedicated scholarship. A political scientist by training, he has written some of the most authoritative and objective studies of the hierarchy yet published.

Even-tempered and evenhanded in his journalistic treatment of themes, he has done significant work at America magazine in advancing important discussions and honest debate within the church.

Congregation officials told the Jesuits they were responding to complaints from some American bishops, who so far have remained unnamed. If indeed there are bishops who thought the problems they had with America warranted Rome’s intervention, they should at least have the decency to come forward and state their case in public.

Catholics should be forewarned. U.S. bishops, whether as a group or individually -- and we presume a small group, given that the magazine historically has enjoyed wide popularity among the bishops -- now can influence the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to reach deep into a religious order to force change. We saw it before, when U.S. bishops joined others in secret sessions in Rome that ultimately led to a rollback of liturgical renewal that had been underway for decades. We are seeing a new and dangerous shift in the dynamics of the church. Where once bishops at least consulted one another and attempted to act in the name of the national conference, now a few lone actors can cause upheaval of major proportions. Rome is willing to accommodate, and the rest of the conference remains shamefully silent.

The question is not about Rome’s right to intervene, since someone in the end has to decide what Roman Catholicism stands for, but about the standards applied in deciding when, how and against whom action is taken. In this case, most American Catholics cannot help but feel it’s the wrong target for the wrong reasons.

We agree heartily with the point made by Commonweal magazine in its recently posted editorial: “Those calling for the strict regulation of Catholic discourse argue that public dissent from church doctrine creates scandal, confusing or misleading the ‘simple faithful.’ What really gives scandal to people in the pews, however, is the arbitrary and self-serving exercise of ecclesiastical authority. What the CDF has done to Thomas Reese and America is the scandal. Is it possible that not one bishop has the courage to say so? That too is a scandal.”

U.S. Catholics learned one awful lesson above all as they have lived through the pain and embarrassment of the sex abuse crisis -- members of the hierarchy of this church remain above and beyond any reasonable notion of accountability. When it was time to be responsible to the community for the most grievous assaults on the most vulnerable population of the church, they became legalists and relativists of the highest order.

The secrecy that created the scandal of sex abuse is the very same secrecy that allows unnamed bishops to smear the reputation of one of the most respected priests in the public eye. Reese has spent endless hours not only on television as a much sought-after commentator but also as a behind-the-scenes explainer of theology, of the sometimes arcane language of church documents and of church practice to reporters at news outlets across the country. This is the kind of priest the church ought to celebrate, not sack.

* * *

If America magazine is the kind of Catholic publication that Rome thinks deserves a board of censors, as was proposed during the hidden process that led to Reese’s ouster, then we are perilously close to becoming a fundamentalist sect where the proscribed subjects make discussion and debate meaningless.

Those who think the action taken against Reese and America magazine reasonable cite its imitation of American journalism that, they say, sets up faulty dualisms. That is hardly the practice of good journalism, for starters, and secondly, certainly not what occurred at America magazine.

Those same proponents of self-censorship suggest that Catholic publishing, while permitted to describe opposing arguments, should, in effect, never take them seriously. They may be represented in a publication only for the purpose of knocking them down in defense of church teaching.

And if church teaching is to be challenged, they say, it should be done quietly, apparently through polite and discreet channels that, themselves, remain a secret to most. Catholic publications, in such a view, should never be anything but journals of apologetics for existing church positions.

Apologetics certainly have their place, but thoughtful Catholics also need spaces where they can think through the hard questions that faith inevitably generates. Denying them that space does little to protect the truth, and much to foster alienation and intellectual sterility. These are precisely what the Catholic church does not need if it is seriously to challenge what Pope Benedict XVI has described as a “dictatorship of relativism” in the West.

If, in previous eras, Catholic thinkers and activists remained unquestioning of church teachings and the presumptions that undergirded them, we Catholics might still believe the earth is the center of the universe, that women are inferior in mind and body because they are incompletely formed males, that slavery is a social necessity, and that making interest on money lent is a serious sin.

The point is clear. Church teaching changes considerably over time as the institution, often with great reluctance, takes in accumulated knowledge, some of it developed in its own institutions, and allows previous understandings of the world, of nature, of humans and of the church itself to be revised.

* * *

The damaging effects of removing Reese go well beyond the individual. In one bullying move, the congregation has compromised a journal that has been a centerpiece of Catholic intellectual life in the United States. A forum for rational discussion, debate and exchange of ideas now has to look over its shoulder to make sure that Rome will not be offended. Such forced “orthodoxy” serves no one, particularly not the interest of the church.

The reality, of course, is that ordinary Catholics regularly talk about all the “hot-button” issues. No decree is going to stop the conversation and questioning, even as ordinary Catholics go on praying, receiving the sacraments, living ordinary lives of holiness and often performing extraordinary acts of justice and compassion.

Sadly, there will now be fewer Catholic venues in which the debate can be entertained and monitored, fewer religious orders willing to publish material that would set them on a collision course with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Some applaud the decision, saying it brings clarity to how a Catholic publication should conduct itself. What the Vatican move against Reese conveys, however, is fear, not clarity or certainty.

This was not an act to defend truth, for truth was never in danger in the pages of America. This was an act fearful that the truth cannot withstand the challenges that come its way. It’s a debilitating fear for a church to exhibit.

National Catholic Reporter, May 20, 2005

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