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A Jesuit editor resigns: Why? May 07, 2005

Yesterday Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times called, to ask me what I could tell her about the resignation of Father Tom Reese, the longtime editor of America magazine. Somewhat abashed to have been caught completely out of the loop, I confessed that her phone call was my first whiff of the story.

So now you know the truth: When American Jesuit leaders have a hot news scoop to pass along, they don't call CWNews first.

But Jesuit officials apparently did speak to the Times, and today's headline story indicates that the pressure for Father Reese's resignation came from the Vatican.

Glancing quickly at the story, most readers will conclude the Pope Benedict XVI has begun a crackdown. But according to the Times account, the orders from Rome were given in March, a full month before the current Pontiff was elected. An account in the National Catholic Reporter goes further, saying that the Vatican had been pushing for an editorial change at America since 2002.

If the final Vatican demand for the replacement of Father Reese came in March, why are we only hearing the announcement in May? Good question.

Back in March, you may recall, Pope John Paul II was very, very sick. American Jesuit leaders may have decided to delay their response to the Vatican directive a bit, to see whether the winds from Rome might be shifting. (This would not have been an unprecedented ruse, by any means. Keep in mind that Jesuit leaders in the US stiff-armed Rome for a full decade before finally acceding to a direct order that Father Robert Drinan should not serve in Congress.) But when John Paul died, and a new Pope was elected, he was the very man who had pressed for the Reese ouster-- then Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict. So the editorial change has now been made public.

(Father Reese will be replaced as editor by Father Drew Christiansen. If the Times is right, and this move was planned in March, we might now want to take another look at an article by Father Christiansen that appeared in March in Civilta Cattolica, the authoritative magazine published by the Jesuits in Rome and vetted by Vatican authorities.)

As time passes, we may learn more about the background maneuvers that led to Father Reese's resignation. For now we have the simple facts: he has resigned, and his resignation was prompted by pressure from Rome.

Are the rules changing?

The departure of Father Reese is an important event. He has been not only the editor of a national Jesuit magazine, but also-- in fact, far more importantly-- a source for other journalists working on stories about the Catholic Church. During meetings of the US bishops' conference, Father Reese consulted constantly with journalists from secular media outlets, giving them his interpretation of the events unfolding before them. During the month of April, when thousands of reporters clogged the streets of Rome to cover the funeral of John Paul II and election of Benedict XVI, the Jesuit from America was ubiquitous: appearing on network newscasts, providing authoritative-sounding quotes for newspaper stories, offering background analysis for journalists uninformed about Catholic affairs. His influence as a commentator and guide for the secular media far exceeded his influence as editor of America.

In her New York Times story, Laurie Goodstein noted by surprise at the news that Father Reese had been ousted. She quoted me as saying:

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.

That quotation is accurate enough as it stands. But if you emphasize the word "single," you have a better understanding of my intent:

I cannot think of a single thing I heard that would have put him in jeopardy.

Do you see the distinction? The Vatican's dissatisfaction with Father Reese was caused not by any one outrageous statement, but by a pattern of commentary and editorial policy over the course of years.

Father Reese was circumspect in his public remarks. He never rejected Church teachings on controversial topics; he only said that the topics deserved more discussion. He never actually said that he favored the ordination of women. He never voiced his own disagreement with Humanae Vitae or Dominus Iesus-- in fact there is no conclusive evidence that he did disagree.

For years, prominent Catholic journalists and scholars have adopted a similar approach to Church teachings: insisting that they are not denying a given doctrine, but merely raising questions that must be addressed. (As Diogenes notes in his nearby "Off the Record" commentary, there are many other important questions which liberal Catholics never raise; the list of the questions kept in play, as compared with those swept under the rug, is itself instructive.) Since they never take a firm stance that is at odds with official Church teachings, these clever publicists have avoided ecclesiastical sanctions.

If the Vatican has now signaled that this posture is no longer acceptable, that would be an important shift in policy. And note once again that the move against Father Reese was made before the election of Benedict XVI. If we are seeing a new attitude taking shape in Rome, it is an attitude likely to characterize this entire pontificate.

The forced departure of Father Reese does, however, leave some fascinating questions unanswered. If a Jesuit editor cannot take a neutral attitude in disputes between the Church and her critics, why can the president of a Jesuit university take that same attitude? Why can a theologian, teaching at a Catholic institution, promote ideas that have been condemned by the magisterium? Why can a bishop recruit religious-education directors from among the readers of a publication that champions theological dissent?

If the Vatican saw reason to precipitate a change in the editorial policy of America magazine, there is equal and greater cause for change in the direction of many Catholic parishes, schools, universities, and, yes, even dioceses across the US today.