The Reese Factor

by Msgr. Michael J. Wrenn


Even before he became editor of America, Father Thomas Reese had demonstrated his ability to manipulate the mass media, and his penchant for questioning Church authority. In the essay that follows, Msgr. Michael Wrenn recalls how the Woodstock symposium, aided by the skillful manipulation of the mass media, formed American opinions regarding the Catechism — long before the work itself became available. This essay is adapted from Msgr. Wrenn 's own book, Catechisms and Controversies: Religious Education in the Postconciliar Years (Ignatius, 1991).

Larger Work

The Catholic World Report



Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, San Francisco, CA, July 2005

Early in May, the news that Father Thomas Reese, SJ, had resigned as editor of the magazine America, under heavy pressure from the Vatican, roused a brief but intense and highly publicized furor. Defenders of Father Reese insisted that under his editorial direction, the weekly magazine published by American Jesuits had not supported dissent from Church teachings; it had, they argued, merely presented both sides of open theological controversies. The Vatican clearly disagreed.

In a distraught editorial that appeared in their May 20 issue, protesting the removal of Father Reese, the editors of Commonweal observed:

American Catholics, including most regular churchgoers, get their news about the church from the secular media, not from church spokespersons or official pronouncements. Most Catholics read about papal encyclicals in the papers; they don't read encyclicals.

If that is true — if the secular media do more to shape the understanding of American Catholics than publications like America or Commonweal (or CWR) — then the influence wielded by Father Reese was greatly magnified by his many contacts with secular reporters. And how did the Jesuit editor use those contacts?

A pattern emerged long ago — even before Father Reese became editor of America.

In December 1989, Catholic bishops all around the world received a draft of what was to become the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The draft was circulated in confidence; the bishops were asked to return their suggestions to the Vatican committee drafting the Catechism.

Almost immediately, and despite the Vatican plea for confidentiality, public criticism of the Catechism began. Father Reese penned a lengthy column, with the revealing title "The Catechism: Non Placet," which appeared in The Tablet in February 1990. In March, America and Commonweal followed up with critical reviews.

By November 1990 — less than a year after the draft had been circulated in secrecy, and before the Catechism was available to the public in any form — an entire book appeared, in which 15 scholars offered their reflections on the Vatican's project. The Universal Catechism Reader was the product of a symposium organized by the Woodstock Theological Forum, under the direction of Father Reese, who also served as the book's editor.

In the essay that follows, Msgr. Michael Wrenn recalls how the Woodstock symposium, aided by the skillful manipulation of the mass media, formed American opinions regarding the Catechism — long before the work itself became available. This essay is adapted from Msgr. Wrenn 's own book, Catechisms and Controversies: Religious Education in the Postconciliar Years (Ignatius, 1991).

The provisional text of the Catechism sent out to all the bishops was plainly marked "sub secreto." The text was not released to third parties, either by the Holy See or by the American bishops' conference.

This did not mean that the bishops could not show it to their own theologians and advisors or be helped by the latter. It did mean, though, that decisions about and control of the composition process was to remain directly in the hands of bishops and not be given over to a group of "Catholic scholars" so that the latter could provide a public critique. If wider consultation had been desired, it could easily have been requested, as it has been requested in the case of some other Church documents. In going directly to the press with their public critique, scholars were clearly treading on someone else's ground and usurping a function that did not belong to them.

How did it come about that a group of Catholic scholars was suddenly offering a public critique of a sub secreto Church document at a press conference? It came about because the Catholic scholars in question did not like or did not agree with what they found in the draft, however they may have come into possession of copies of it; and hence they evidently wanted to use whatever public means were available to them to head off and discredit the document before it even had a chance to be completed and promulgated.

Dissent and the Media

The press and media are generally avid to report disputes, disagreements, and confrontations within the Catholic Church — these things being considered more newsworthy than the Church's humdrum everyday work of reconciling and sanctifying sinners and leading them to salvation. It was therefore not surprising that the press conference called by Catholic scholars criticizing the draft of the Catechism produced a number of stories; another juicy disagreement in the Church was at issue.

Thus it was that, probably for most Catholics, the first public news that a new Catechism was even being prepared came in a story featuring the opposition to that work. This process should be familiar to those who remember how, back in 1968, Pope Paul VI's famous encyclical Humanae Vitae, upholding the Church's traditional teaching against contraception, was first reported to the public in stories that were primarily focused on the theological opposition to the encyclical among Catholic scholars.

It proved that the gathering of Catholic scholars to criticize the new Catechism was something more than just a press conference. It was the product of a full-blown scholarly symposium, consisting of some 15 papers delivered by various experts on various topics. Sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University in Washington, DC, it took place only a little more than a month after copies of the document being criticized could have been received by the bishops of the United States to whom that document had been addressed. The symposium organizers and participants had clearly moved with lightning speed to have put the event on at all — unless they were lying in wait for the Catechism all along, and had access to bootlegged copies.

The longueurs usually encountered in book publishing also seem to have been cut considerably short in the case of this project. For by November 1990 a full-fledged book with the title The Universal Catechism Reader had found its way into print; it consisted of the 15 symposium papers, suitably revised, and edited by Father Thomas J. Reese, SJ, then a senior fellow at the Woodstock Center.

In celebration of this book's appearance, yet another public "Woodstock Forum," featuring Father Reese and three of his co-authors, was held before an appreciative audience at Georgetown on November 28, 1990. Anyone who may have thought the prospect of this Roman Catechism was not timely and newsworthy was clearly mistaken. There turned out to be plenty of interest in the subject.

An Air of Authority

How there could ever be a valid "reader" on the subject of a document that had not yet been completed, much less promulgated, is difficult for an uninitiated observer to credit. The purpose of such a reader in this case seems clearly not to have been to help in the understanding and appreciation of the document it purported to treat. Indeed the reader in question seems to be about what a group of self-appointed theologians and experts think ought to have been in a Catechism. No reader opening up The Universal Catechism Reader will be disabused of this initial impression of asserted competence and omniscience.

Meanwhile, some of the symposium papers that became book chapters had already achieved wide notoriety and diffusion by means of periodical publication. America magazine's issue of March 3, 1990, and Commonweal's of March 9, 1990, published a number of the papers with appropriate fanfare. According to the book's editor, Father Reese, copies of these articles were also sent to all the American bishops and to Episcopal conferences around the world. There was clearly no hesitation on the part of the symposium participants and authors about the legitimacy of their enterprise. A measure of quiet pride even shows through in Father Reese's enumeration of all the press coverage gathered by the symposium and the subsequent publication of papers from it. That few or none of these press stories critical of the Catholic Church, her leadership, and her procedures can really have advanced the cause of the saving faith that the Church represents seems not to have been a consideration.

After all, the Middle Ages are long past; this is America; this was the 20th century — almost the 21st! If the Pope and the bishops ever really imagined that they could succeed in producing a Catechism for the Church on their own terms, then they surely deserved the sharp comeuppance administered to them by the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, America and Commonweal magazines, and their allies. No More than "the best and the brightest" of a decade ago in America could attempt to conduct a war without being undermined by the publication of the Pentagon Papers, could churchmen or any other public figures in 1990 expect to do anything whatever sub secreto. America is a democracy; the First Amendment reigns; it is all going to become public regardless, and the Pope and the bishops might as well get used to it.

A Pre-Emptive Strike

However, those who actually believe the Vatican II teaching that "the Catholic Church is by the will of Christ the teacher of truth" — a "sacred and certain teaching," as the Council Fathers specified in Dignitatis Humanae — may wonder whether the extended media event engineered so successfully by Father Reese and his colleagues had really delivered the last word on the subject of the Catechism for the universal Church or even its "provisional text." What they had attempted, rather, was a "pre-emptive strike" on the document (if another Pentagon reference may figuratively serve here). By ambushing both the process and the product of the Church's universal catechetical enterprise as it had manifested itself to that date, they had evidently hoped to compromise and discredit the final and definitive Catechism before it ever had a chance to be brought out in final, definitive form.

By their own abundant testimony, the draft that had been produced was not to their liking; nor was the process to their liking, either. Bishops actually overseeing and writing their own document — it was unheard of! What would come next! In the view of those who think in this fashion, it was evident that a quite exceptional effort was called for to cast a pall over the whole project before it went any farther. (They probably understood that they could never succeed in derailing the project entirely.) Thus a quite exceptional effort was made.

These detractors themselves signaled the importance of the document that they were trying so hard to neutralize. When had a Church document ever attracted so much attention even before being published? There was evidently more here than met the eye.

What did seem clear at this point is that while the Pope and the bishops may have been following a definite and easily understood agenda in producing a Catechism, at least an important faction of Catholic scholars appeared to have another and different agenda entirely — an agenda that these scholars appeared determined to pursue regardless of what the leaders of their Church may have wished.

In pursuing that agenda, moreover, theses scholars were only too likely to continue to enjoy the free ride courtesy of the mass media. The secular media understood very well that there was another agenda at work here; they understood and favored it, because they knew that the successful pursuit of this agenda would impair the effectiveness of the Catholic Church in carrying out the true mission she has from Christ. It is unfortunate that the Catholic faithful — and sometimes even their bishops — did not always appear as quick as the media to understand the effects of this separate agenda.

Not to Praise, But to Bury

At a public meeting of what was called the Woodstock Forum held on November 28, 1990, at Georgetown University — a meeting apparently held to celebrate the publication of the book The Universal Catechism Reader — several of the Woodstock authors turned out to entertain a large and appreciative audience, presumably made up of Catholics (since otherwise why would they come to a forum on a subject such as the Catechism?). The verb "entertain" is used here deliberately, to describe the prevailing atmosphere of the meeting. The Woodstock authors made it clear that they had not come to praise the Catechism (here there were overtones of what they then continued to term their own "Shakespearean language" — a phrase that was several times repeated, like a leitmotiv, causing titters all night long). Actual laughter greeted such ideas as the characterization of "Christ going around being submissive to his Father," or the notion of "the Christian presenting an unblotted copybook or clean slate at the Last Judgment." One could only wonder: When was the last time any of these people participated in the beautiful liturgy of the Easter Vigil, with its powerful symbolism of the white garment presented to those newly baptized?

What was most striking about the Woodstock Forum was not the familiar arguments that were presented, but the clubby atmosphere of assumed and shared condescension that prevailed — a condescension that was directed toward the institutional Church and her continuing backwardness, when compared to the sophistication that characterized this meeting.

The questions raised from the audience at the end of the session indicated the general level of the whole gathering. A typical question, reduced to its essentials might be stated thus: "How could the Pope and the bishops have been so stupid as to try to issue such a Catechism?" One answer came: "The exclusion of current theological scholarship is too consistent to be accidental." Another answer: "The Catechism is clearly an instrument of the 'restoration."' Other questions came from the audience: "How can this thing be headed off?" "Why don't the American bishops revolt?" To the latter, one sad answer came: "Less than 10 percent of the bishops responding were negative."

Yet another question came from the audience: "What is to be done?" The answer was given:

The Catechism will be accepted in different ways. There will not be an open rejection of it, but if it is not helpful, it will be put on the shelf. Old Church documents never die; they just gather dust. Just as in the case of Humanae Vitae, a teaching is not taught unless it is received.

This last formulation appeared to summarize the fundamental position that was being put forward here. It was perfectly clear how these people were oriented; they were putting forward the view that Church has a right to teach only what they were prepared to accept and endorse. This attitude toward the teaching authority of the magisterium goes considerably farther than even the Protestant claims for "private judgment;" these people did not accept Scriptura, sola or otherwise — or any other standard beyond their own assertions of how things were henceforth to be.

A One-Sided Debate

Father Thomas Reese, moderator of this forum as well as editor of The Universal Catechism Reader, in his introductory remarks at the November meeting, indicated that the remote origin of the whole Woodstock "pre-emptive strike" against the Catechism actually went back to the 1985 Synod of Bishops, which Father Reese had covered as a journalist. Thus it now seems an established fact that the Woodstock group were indeed "laying for" the Catechism all along, from the time it was first mandated by the 1985 Synod.

Father Reese also informed the audience that Pope John Paul II himself had "asked for consultations with bishops and experts," thus strongly implying to the audience at this meeting that the Woodstock scholars too had been included in the request for consultations and thus were legitimate participants, and were doing nothing improper, nor intruding where they did not belong by their multimedia savaging of the Catechism.

If this is true — if the Woodstock scholars were indeed officially asked in some way to participate in the consultations on the Catechism — that was a facet of the process entirely unknown to Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, OP, secretary to the official committee of writers for the Catechism. In the spring of 1990, this writer attended a conference at which then-Father Schönborn delivered "A Report on the Universal Catechism." In conversation he expressed himself as being quite disturbed at the anti-Catechism articles that had, at that time, recently appeared in America and Commonweal magazines. He wondered how "the Georgetown Jesuits" could ever have permitted such an anti-Church initiative.

As I reported at the time, in the newsletter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Father von Schönborn:

expressed his surprise that sections of the provisional text . . . were quoted in periodical articles . . . He stated that doing so was explicitly against the sub secreto nature of the document as well as a violation of the copyright which belongs solely and exclusively to the Holy See. He characterized such actions as unfair and further observed that the readers of the articles could not verify the criticisms of the various sections since the readers could not have had the embargoed text before them. He indicated that criticism can be helpful but not when it is motivated by a desire to exert pressure on popular opinion against the very idea of a universal Catechism. These are totally unfair and counterproductive initiatives.

Father (now Cardinal) Schönborn was right. The Woodstock attack on the Catechism of the Catholic Church was not a legitimate ecclesial act but an open anti-ecclesial act. The theologians and scholars who perpetrated it were in open revolt against the Church and what the legitimate authorities of the Church had ordained. If their outlook and approach are allowed to persist, the Church in the United States will be the loser. Further erosion of the authority of the Pope and the bishops will be the first and most obvious result. The ultimate and more damaging result will be further erosion of the faith in the hearts of the Catholic faithful.

© Ignatius Press

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