Last week, Peggy Steinfels posted on John Allen’s interview with Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, culling from the brief, but fascinating exchange the question, What’s a magazine for? In reading Kolvenbach’s response to a question about Tom Reese’s departure from America last May, I was struck by a curious discrepancy between Kolvenbach’s version of the story and one aspect of it reported last May by Allen. Here’s the Q&A from the March 17 Word from Rome:
One early controversy of his papacy centered on Fr. Tom Reese
from America magazine. What are the lessons of that episode for
America magazine, under
the competent and dynamic guidance of Fr. Tom Reese, believed that the
best service to a mature Catholic public was to let the two sides of a
controversial question to defend their views. … However, this
orientation did not meet the approval of some pastorally concerned
priests who were worried about a negative effect on the faith-growth of
the Catholics. They expect that Jesuit publications will offer clear
standings to meet the questions of the day, avoiding confusion and
relativism. Unhappily, instead of changing his policy, Fr. Reese
resigned. This episode takes us back to St. Ignatius when he speaks
about sentire cum ecclesia (feeling with the church). …
Did the initial concerns about America come from the United States rather than the Vatican?
Yes, from clergy outside the Jesuits in the United States, including some in senior positions.
By contrast, here’s what John Allen reported about Reese last May:
Everyone acknowledges that over the last five years, concerns about certain articles published by America on topics as diverse as condoms, gay priests, the 2000 Vatican document Dominus Iesus,
and pro-choice Catholic politicians have reached the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith, and that the congregation in turn raised
these concerns with the superior general of the Jesuit order, Fr.
What has confused some observers, however, is whether or not
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually sent a letter
demanding that Reese resign, and to what extent then-Cardinal Joseph
Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was personally involved in these
Based on conversations with senior Jesuit sources in Rome May
11, I can confirm that a letter was indeed sent by the Congregation for
the Doctrine of the Faith in the early months of 2005, before
Ratzinger’s election as pope, to Kolvenbach [italics added]. I have not seen the
letter, and therefore I do not know if it contained a direct order to
remove Reese, or if it was a more vague expression of a desire to see a
change in direction at America. The Jesuit sources said, however, that the thrust of the letter was clear — that Reese’s position was no longer tenable.
The bit of news in Allen’s interview is that Kolvenbach confirms what was long suspected: complaints about America came from U.S. clergy, “including some in senior positions.” This conforms to what sources have told me.
But Kolvenbach’s explanation of Reese’s departure does not. On his telling, “some pastorally concerned priests” are the main actors. Does it seem plausible that a few “pastorally concerned priests” could effect Reese’s departure? Doesn’t it make more sense that the CDF acted on complaints from senior bishops, as several sources reported?
Most important, what happened to the letter from the CDF to Kolvenbach that clearly said Reese had to go? What about the period of scrutiny the magazine underwent in 2002, when the CDF ordered it to shape up or face direct episcopal oversight? What about the 2003 all-clear given to America by the Vatican, informing the magazine that the scrutiny was over, after America responded to the CDF’s concerns? None of this features in Kolvenbach’s version of events.
Rather, he makes it sound as though a simple disagreement over editorial policy occasioned Reese to reconsider his position as editor. That isn’t how it happened.