By Tom Roberts and John L. Allen, Jr.
Kansas City, Mo. and Rome
Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, editor for the past seven years of America magazine, a premier publication of Catholic thought and opinion, has resigned at the request of his order following years of pressure for his ouster from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The resignation caps five years of tensions and exchanges among the congregation, which was headed at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, the Jesuits and Reese, according to sources close to the magazine who asked not to be identified.
A release from the magazine May 6, which did not mention the forced ouster, announced that the new editor is Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, who has served as associate editor.
Ironically, Reese received the news that the Jesuits found the debate “unwinnable,” according to one source, when he returned to the magazine’s New York headquarters from Rome, where he had covered the conclave that elected Ratzinger as pope.
The news of his ouster brought a range of reaction — from conservatives who voiced understanding of the Vatican action to moderates and liberals who expressed dismay (see accompanying story). In addition, Commonweal magazine posted an editorial on its Web site, www.commonwealmagazine.org, May 10 that is a blistering criticism of the Vatican move against Reese.
“Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, which did so much to enfranchise lay Catholics and to encourage their engagement with the great intellectual resources of the church, it is inexcusable that the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] would censor a magazine as respectful and responsive to the church’s tradition as America. At a time when elites are as polarized as they are now in the American church, Reese’s dismissal will embolden those eager to purge ‘dissenters,’ while making it nearly impossible for a reasoned critique of the agenda of church reformers to be heard by those who need most to hear,” wrote the editors of the biweekly review of public affairs, religion , literature and the arts.
“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.”
Contacted on background, a Vatican official said he could not discuss the case.
Over the course of a five-year exchange between the doctrinal congregation and the Jesuits, the Vatican congregation had raised objections to various editorial choices at America under Reese’s leadership, including:
In every instance, however, the pieces represented just a portion of coverage of the subject in America, which always published opposing points of view.
- An essay exploring moral arguments for the approval of condoms in the context of HIV/AIDS;
- Several critical analyses of the doctrinal congregation’s September 2000 document Dominus Iesus, on religious pluralism;
- An editorial criticizing what America called a lack of due process in the congregation’s procedures for the investigation of theologians;
- An essay about homosexual priests;
- A guest essay from U.S. Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, challenging suggestions that the church should refuse Communion to Catholic politicians who do not vote as a number of bishops believe they should vote.
According to several sources in the United States and Rome, the communication about Reese’s fate was carried on between the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the superior general of the Jesuits, Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, with the content then relayed to Reese’s Jesuit superiors in the United States. Although critics of Reese both in the United States and Rome have occasionally accused him of an anti-hierarchical mentality, supporters noted in their responses to the congregation that over his seven years as editor, America routinely published weighty pieces by prominent members of the hierarchy, at one stage including Ratzinger himself.
In February 2002, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith proposed creating a three-member commission of censors for the magazine, though the idea was never implemented. According to sources, the congregation told the Jesuits that the action was in response to concern from bishops in the United States.
Sources said no bishops were identified by name and that Reese was never directly contacted. According to a source close to the magazine, Jesuit superiors said some bishops were upset that Reese often commented on church matters for general media and that such commentary should be solely the province of bishops.
Reese often made himself available to media during the bishops’ meetings and other special church events to explain aspects of church life and the intricacies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is the author of three highly respected studies of the Catholic hierarchy: Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church; A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.
The entire matter of his disciplining was handled “by chain of command, and the Jesuits were able to hold off for five years, but in the end, saw it as unwinnable. It was either Reese goes or they would appoint a board of censors,” said one source.
America, though clearly left-leaning in some of its editorial stances, was widely viewed as a moderate publication that gave vent to a broad spectrum of views. Among its contributors were top theologians, a number of bishops, and, in one instance, Ratzinger himself in an article published in dialogue with Cardinal Walter Kasper, another German cardinal. Over the years, the magazine has also published dozens of articles by noted conservative Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit.
Though pressure for Reese’s ouster clearly came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to what degree Ratzinger was personally involved in the decision is not known.
Some confusion over whether Reese was ousted or voluntarily left occurred when Catholic News Service reported that Jesuit Fr. Jose M. de Vera, spokesman for the order in Rome, said Reese had decided to resign after discussing the situation with his superiors and following Cardinal Ratzinger’s election as pope.
According to a number of Jesuits close to the situation, Reese, aware of the discussions between the Jesuits and the congregation, indeed decided to resign when Ratzinger was elected Pope Benedict XVI. He reportedly told Kolvenbach and his superiors in the United States of his intent. However, when he informed the staff at America, the other editors “were unanimously and adamantly against it,” according to one source. They asked Reese to reconsider or at least to “take a few months off and rest and then see how the new papacy developed.”
Reese, following that advice, called Fr. Brad Schaeffer, Jesuit conference president. Schaeffer visited Reese the next day and, according to a source knowledgeable about the conversation, “told him that Kolvenbach had received a letter from CDF in mid-March demanding his resignation” and that Kolvenbach “had concluded that fighting it would do no good.” No one who spoke to NCR was able to give the precise language of the letter and NCR was unable to obtain a copy.
Whatever the chronology, it is beyond dispute that Reese resigned because of Vatican pressure.
In the May 6 release, Reese said, “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.”
Christiansen, an accomplished educator, writer and editor, previously was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. He was director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Catholic Conference from 1991 to 1998 and served as counselor for international affairs for the bishops until December 2004.
“I know I am speaking for all the editors in saying that we are sorry to see Tom go,” said Christiansen in the May 6 release. “Fr. Reese greatly improved the magazine, adding news coverage, color and the Web edition. … By inviting articles that covered different sides of disputed issues, Fr. Reese helped make America a forum for intelligent discussion of questions facing the church and the country today.”
Tom Roberts is NCR editor. His e-mail address is email@example.com
John L. Allen Jr is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005