By Arthur Jones
Those who serve or have served as editors of Catholic publications have very decided views on Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese’s forced departure, and the secrecy surrounding what transpired and the grounds for the decision.
At U.S. Catholic magazine, published by the Claretians, executive editor Meinrad Scherer-Emunds said, “The forced resignation of Fr. Tom Reese from the editorship at America magazine is a sad, disappointing and to some degree shocking development.
“It causes great concern for the editorial freedom and mission of Catholic publications in general and for publications that are owned and supported by religious orders in particular. Here at U.S. Catholic magazine we have the utmost respect for Father Tom and his leadership at America magazine. During his tenure we have experienced him as a most supportive colleague and friend and have on several occasions sought out his counsel and used him as an important professional resource.
“Father Tom is no loose cannon and no flaming liberal or radical,” said Scherer-Emunds, “but a trusted and knowledgeable expert on a broad range of Catholic issues. In his job at America magazine he has proved himself as a moderate and extremely fair-minded editor who has taken meticulous care to balance any articles on controversial topics with perspectives from all different viewpoints. That always included a clear representation of the church’s teaching on any given issue. That, nonetheless, he is being forced out for providing that kind of forum for intelligent debate on issues of concern to American Catholics today sends a chilling message.
“Regardless of their positions on the various issues within the articles that caught the attention of the Vatican, few American Catholics support a prohibition of a discussion of these important church issues. I don’t know whether, after he became pope, Benedict XVI put any further pressure on the Jesuits to enforce this order. But its execution in early May does make one wonder if the much-touted reinvention of Cardinal [Joseph] Ratzinger from doctrinal watchdog to a ‘kinder, gentler Pope Benedict’ is for real.
“I also find it troubling that the decision that led to the resignation of Father Tom seems to be accompanied by restrictions that prevent him, the staff of America, and Jesuit officials to state clearly and with attribution what exactly happened. Why are those involved required to talk off the record? The lack of honest conversation about the process is unfortunate and does not bode well for an adult conversation about the issues that were at the heart of this conflict.
“Unfortunately, the recent developments at America magazine are part of a larger pattern. America magazine is not the only publication that has been subjected to an investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that put pressure on the superiors of religious orders to get their publishing ministries ‘in line.’ Feel free to mention our own experience of 2002.” (See “Vatican takes U.S. Catholic magazine to task,” NCR, Dec. 13, 2002, which resulted from the magazine’s publication of a cover article headlined “Call waiting: Women who want to be priests.”)
Peter Steinfels is the author of the recent book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, which views the U.S. Catholic church as going either into a steep decline or through an unprecedented transformation. Steinfels, a former senior religion reporter for The New York Times, former editor of Commonweal, and a current Times columnist, said, “I think Tom Reese did a terrific job as editor of America. I think he made the magazine lively. I think he had a range of perspectives in the magazine that disconcerted people all across the spectrum of Catholic opinion, and that was good.
“He developed the magazine’s Web site, and in terms of the Web site and his own role as a commentator, he was extremely valuable to other people in the media in providing accurate information in a timely fashion about Catholic events.
“Often, when there’d be something in the news, Tom would send out an alert with the pertinent canon law references and so on. I think those, and his commentary, which was from an independent source and generally judicious, was a real service to the Catholic church. I think this is a distressing and counterproductive development.”
Asked if he thought the timing of Reese’s ouster was a strong signal from a new pontificate, Steinfels continued: “I have big question marks about that. This was clearly something in the works for a long time. Stories were out there a while ago that, after examining complaints [against Reese], things were OK. A lot of people are saying Tom is either the last casualty of Cardinal Ratzinger or the first casualty of Benedict XVI.
“Bottom line: I’m waiting for a series of signs, including important appointments, before reaching any clear conclusion [on the direction of the new pontificate]. It’s at most a straw in the wind.”
Our Sunday Visitor, a weekly newspaper, carried its opinion in an editorial headlined, “What we need from the Catholic press,” and with a second headline that declares: “The church is not about opinion, but about truth.”
“As editor of America, Father Reese pursued a point-counterpoint style with regard to some of the most controversial issues of the day. It is a model of journalism that is deeply American: Its assumption is that every issue has two sides, and if we hear what advocates of each side have to say, we can make up our own minds about the issue. This model assumes not objective truth, but rather that decisions are best made by weighing various arguments and coming to our own conclusions,” the editorial states. It asserts, for instance, that an argument defending gay marriage — a position that is “simply wrong from the church’s perspective” should not be given equal status with the argument that gay marriage is illicit.
“Catholics have little problem finding arguments that debate or dissent from church teaching. They find them in the secular media from which they draw most of their information about the church and the world,” Our Sunday Visitor editors write.
“What they need is for the Catholic press to be faithful to its mission: To engage society itself in debate about the critical questions of human existence and offer Catholics the tools to intellectually challenge the culture while defending Catholic teaching and the Gospel.”
A similar point of view was advanced by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a noted conservative and editor in chief of the monthly magazine First Things.
Neuhaus said there was significant displeasure with America magazine among some in the curia, though he declined to name names.
“Do I know that there were people in positions of influence in the church who had, for a considerable time, been expressing their displeasure with some things that were being done? Yeah, I know that and I have no doubt that [Jesuit Peter-Hans] Kolvenbach knew it and so forth, and that in all the things they have to take into consideration they decided that it would be better for the magazine and Tom that he do something else.
The principal reasons for discontent, he said, “and I consider Tom a friend, let me underscore — but I think he made a big editorial mistake in this respect: that he thought being balanced and fair required the publication of freestanding articles that were clearly in opposition to church teaching and policy.”
In Neuhaus’s opinion, “Catholic publications with intellectual seriousness” are obliged to engage alternative and opposing positions, but not in a way that suggests that a position supporting church teaching and one opposing it “are somehow on an equal footing and that the magisterial position is simply one opinion among others.”
A 1990 instruction to theologians from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then headed by Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, said that “Catholic thinkers and intellectuals do have a legitimate, critical role to play in the refinement and explanation of the church’s teaching,” said Neuhaus, “but there are certain things you don’t do if you want to play that role: You don’t publicly agitate, you don’t take a neutral position with respect to the magisterium, and it just wasn’t clear to a lot of people that that was America’s intent.”
All discussion of important and controversial issues, especially controversial ones, according to Neuhaus, should be aimed at convincing others of the church’s teaching, of “gaining assent” for the teaching, even if a writer or a publication provides opposing arguments.
Helen Osman, president of the board of directors of the Catholic Press Association, said, “Personally, if what I am reading is the complete story, I am saddened that this is where the dialogue has gone. I do hope that the congregation and the Jesuits continue to discuss their concerns in the spirit of Christian charity.” She said it was unknown whether any action would be taken by the association, of which America is a member. Reese is a member of the press association board.
John Wilkins, retired editor of The Tablet of London, said, “I am shocked that Fr. Tom Reese has been forced out of the editorial chair of America. For years I have been a reader and admirer of the journal. During Reese’s editorship it has seemed to me to exhibit all the Jesuit virtues — intellectual daring, engagement with the world, courteous encounter with opposing views, all based on an obvious Catholic orthodoxy.
“As editor of the London Tablet, I considered that America set a standard I had to emulate.
“There are basically two ways of running the Catholic media. They can be controlled, like L’Osservatore Romano. In that case they are transmission belts for the authorities, giving the official line, and they are read for this reason. Or, they can be free, subject to marketplace pressures. What one then expects from them is balanced information and a forum for debate and discussion. They have to reflect public opinion in the church, which, according to Pius XII, is essential to its life.
“Tom Reese seemed to me to get the best of both worlds. I’m alarmed that some American bishops and Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, did not think so.”
Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal, said that Reese’s firing is “bewildering. It seems to me hard to justify by anything we can readily ascertain. It strikes me as terribly implausible that America under Tom’s editorship was in the business of undermining Catholic teaching. If anything, quite the opposite.
“It’s very disturbing,” he said. Since America is a church-sponsored and church-funded magazine, he added, “it would appear that the hierarchy wants stricter control over what goes out in that magazine. They feel they’ll get that by removing Tom Reese.”
Asked if this was an augury of the new pontificate, Baumann said, “I don’t know. I hope not. I’d hate to think that’s the case. One of the reactions I think is most interesting is that a good many people one might describe as very middle-of-the-road or even somewhat conservative on theological issues, on issues of church reform, have expressed to me real shock over this.
“This is the sort of thing, it seems to me, that in some ways can radicalize people with otherwise very moderate views.”
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. NCR editor Tom Roberts contributed reporting to this article.
National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005