Tom Reese and the Future
The Bishops Apart
PHILADELPHIA – Beat writers rarely have it easy. From cop checks to bedroom suburbs and city councils, every news-worthy niche requires an immersion into an often long and nuanced institutional culture. But ask any seasoned writer the toughest niche of all to cover, and the Catholic church is the seemingly universal reply. It’s not news that the best of journalists often get tripped up trying to master two thousand years of intertwining history, ritual and politic under the guillotine of deadlines, with nary an expert around when needed most.
Given this degree of difficulty, the religion beat suffered a body blow with last week’s resignation of the Rev. Thomas J. Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America. The departure of Father Reese, the pre-eminent scholar of church politics who decoded its twists and turns for a generation of reporters, capped years of tension between the Jesuits and the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith over the nature of the magazine, but even more in regard to its editor’s activities in the secular press.
Under its former head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – the body formerly known as the “Holy Office of the Inquisition” (a name it retained until 1965) maintained a reputation for cracking down on what it interpreted as theological dissent. However, the America case is unique because its trail began not
in Rome, but in the magazine’s backyard. What is more, the articles cited as unorthodox had little to do with the penalty.
According to the National Catholic Reporter, which broke the story behind Father Reese’s ouster, the initial momentum for a Roman clampdown on the magazine came not from Cardinal Ratzinger’s office but from unnamed American bishops who complained that the priest’s role as media commentator on church affairs “should be solely [their] province.” While even respectable Catholic conservatives have admitted to finding none of Father Reese’s insights as to the church’s inner workings controversial, the story’s statement makes plain that his chastisement is but the latest victory for a group of American bishops eager to reassert their authority following the devastating exposure of cover-ups of clerical sex abuse by bishops and their inner circles.
The America decision marks a new low for those prelates who, eager to impose their guilt for their lack of oversight on others, have capitalized on the abuse scandals to settle personal vendettas with priests who have never been accused of a single violation of celibacy. This “pass the buck” strategy extends the cycle of mistrust and further damages the relationship which binds the two groups, a tie singled out in Catholic theology as sacrosanct.
Following closely on the heels of last year’s drive in certain dioceses to bar pro-choice Catholic politicians from Communion, and the US bishops’ adoption of a watered-down policy of “fraternal correction” for prelates accused of unsavory deeds, moving Father Reese is just another step toward pushing lower clerics – usually the “middlemen” between rank-and-file Catholics and the bishops – closer to their parishioners and further from the hierarchy for whom they work. Such discord among the ordained is not what Rome desires of any local church, let alone its American branch, which has long been seen as wildly off the page, both in terms of its doctrine and practice.
Like most religions based around divine revelation, Catholicism claims the deposit of absolute truth – Benedict XVI came to the papal throne last month denouncing the relativism of Western society. Father Reese’s critics claim that, under his leadership, America gave a platform to articles which wrongly critiqued that
truth and opened it to debate.
But such a charge ignores a crucial pillar of Catholic theology: the “sensus fidelium,” or “sense of the faithful,” which holds that the church’s members will instinctively know what is true from what isn’t. This principle alone should render any interference in the popular judgment from Rome or American bishops superfluous. That such intervention has occurred is a counterintuitive indicator that the church lacks the trust in its teachings for them to be persuasive solely on the basis of merit. It is that relativism of confidence which is, by far, the most worrisome outcome of this sad episode.
In a 2003 address to religion beat writers gathered in Seattle, Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, then the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, emphasized “the importance of the media having expert, knowledgeable and professional personnel to report on religion.” Bishops are known to hold grudges about news stories being taken out of context and lacking accuracy in terms of church policies and procedures.
But next time a story seen as inaccurate comes around, the American hierarchy has no excuse to continue its cycle of blame. Father Reese was always the point-man who ensured that accuracy, and the bishops will have no one to blame for his absence but themselves.