A New York Priest Falls on His Sword

Events outpace the written word, showing no mercy for the self-assured. Writing on the Web site Counterpunch.com, Greg C. Estabrook recently suggested that the new Pope might emulate his immediate namesake, Benedict XV, who was “known for three things-putting an end to an intellectual witch-hunt run by his predecessor, Pope Pius X; reversing Pius’ anti-liberal politics; and working strenuously for an end to [World War I].”

We can safely assume that Benedict XVI will follow in the shoes of those fishermen who advocated peace rather than war. But when it comes to ending witch hunts and reversing anti-liberal politics, the incumbent Pope appears to be more Pius than Benedictine. Less than a full month into his pontificate, Benedict XVI has presided over the forced resignation of Father Thomas Reese, a distinguished journalist, author and intellect, as editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

The magazine, nearly a century old, is based on West 56th Street and is one of three influential, intellectual Catholic periodicals published in New York. (The others are Commonweal, edited by lay Catholics, and First Things, written by Father Richard John Neuhaus.) The Jesuits who write for and edit America are a vital part of Catholic intellectual life in New York. One former editor, Joseph O’Hare, went on to become the president of Fordham University; another, Father George Hunt, runs the Archbishop Hughes Institute on Religion and Culture at Fordham.

Father Reese was, during the recent Papal funeral and conclave, perhaps the most visible priest in the United States. Smart, amiable and articulate, he was much in demand during television coverage of the events in Rome. His assessments of the deceased Pope and his successor were reverent, witty and thoughtful.

Here let me declare my interest: I’ve been a regular contributor to America since 1996, when the magazine lowered its standards of scholarship and intellect to admit a lowbrow from the pews. I was recruited by Father Reese’s predecessor, Father Hunt, a literary critic and student of John Updike’s work. Father Reese kept me on when he succeeded Father Hunt. I consider Father Reese a friend.

As a journalist and as a Jesuit, Father Reese believes in discussion and inquiry, as opposed to rote recitation of the party line. Three years ago, he published a sharp exchange of views between two German cardinals: Walter Kasper, who was president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the inevitable Cardinal Ratzinger, who was then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The pieces were inside-the-Appian-Way stuff, not meant for the average layperson. But it was clear that Cardinal Kasper disagreed profoundly with his colleague, so much so that Cardinal Ratzinger had no choice but to defend himself without conceding that the two men were at odds.

By presenting both sides of a theological dispute, Father Reese served his church, his vocation and his magazine well. So well, in fact, that earlier this spring-during his final days as chief enforcer of Catholic doctrine and tradition-Cardinal Ratzinger decreed that Father Reese would have to go. As luck would have it, Benedict XVI happened to agree.

Editorial changes at a magazine like America, even with its storied history of editors and writers, usually are not the stuff of front-page stories in The New York Times. But this one was, and rightfully so. Father Reese’s forced resignation sent a message-not only to the Jesuits of the United States, not only to those of us in the pews who support the church with prayers and money, but to the great Catholic universities and colleges. These institutions of inquiry and debate could be next. If they are viewed as insufficiently orthodox, if they invite a speaker on campus who is not pro-life regardless of the topic under discussion, they risk being stripped of the right to call themselves Catholic. They might as well close.

These institutions of Catholic higher education have produced an intellectually inquisitive laity that wishes to ask questions and foster discussion. American bishops, often far removed from the lives of the people they serve, have discovered that they cannot simply dictate belief anymore. What’s more, these leaders have squandered their claims to moral authority by covering up the church’s sexual scandals. Is there a Catholic who didn’t cringe upon hearing Cardinal Bernard Law call down God’s wrath upon the Boston Globe for publishing its exposé of priestly predators?

This sort of behavior has done little to persuade today’s Catholics that they ought to accept the word of their bishops on questions of morality. Last year, several bishops attempted to intimidate Catholics who supported John Kerry, a pro-choice Catholic, by suggesting that they were unworthy of receiving Holy Communion. They were ignored.

American Catholics who prefer discussion to browbeating, inquisitiveness over inquisition, owe Father Tom Reese their prayers and their thanks. He has mine.