Calling Father Reese

On Silencing the Messenger

I had just taken my seat at the Diocese of Brooklyn’s annual World Communications Day lunch when religion journalist David Gibson told me that Rev. Thomas Reese had been pressured into resigning as editor of America magazine. This major news story had been developing for some time.

Vatican pressure to remove Reese from the Jesuit-run weekly began five years ago, according to a source who asked not to be identified, when some U.S. bishops complained to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that Reese was quoted so often in the media. They thought bishops should have been quoted, the source said.

If these bishops believe that clamping down on Reese will alter the way the Catholic Church is presented in the media, they’re wrong. Journalists aren’t going to stop seeking out independent commentators such as Reese. There are obvious journalistic reasons that reporters are more likely to quote someone like Reese than a bishop. “Too many bishops will not talk, or will not talk honestly, about the issues and the dynamics that face them,” Gibson, author of The Coming Catholic Church and board member of the Religion Newswriters Association, told me a few days after our lunch. “Talking honestly about the process is seen as being disloyal.” Ari Goldman, a journalism professor at Columbia University and a former religion writer at the New York Times, said he has quoted Reese because he explains the inner workings of the church well. Many bishops don’t understand how to deal with reporters, Goldman said. “Everything is nuanced and everything is laden with history, context, theology-things we need, but can’t always use on deadline.”

Reese, who holds both a PhD in political science and an MDiv, is particularly good at explaining the church’s internal politics without losing sight of the church’s theological teachings. This expertise is reflected in his three well-received books that examine the bishops and the Vatican. Well before he became editor of America in 1998, Reese developed a reputation among reporters for being knowledgeable, fair, accessible, and patient with our lack of theological training. Perhaps most important, he is widely viewed as being a credible source of information about the church.

“We went to him because he’s a man of the church and also an independent voice,” said Goldman, adding, “If he was a danger, it’s because he wore a collar and he was a moderate.” Beyond that, said John Dart, news editor of the Christian Century and former religion writer at the Los Angeles Times, it’s standard journalistic practice to seek out a variety of views. “For the larger picture, you want not a representative of the institution but somebody who has an analytical approach,” he said. That’s not to say access to bishops isn’t valued. Under Reese, America, in fact, often ran articles by bishops, providing them a national forum. “Bishops generally accepted our invitation to write for us, and submitted things on their own,” said the Rev. Drew Christiansen, who succeeded Reese as editor on June 1.

In many ways, Reese’s credibility often served the church hierarchy well. For example, his coverage of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal provided a balanced, reliable Catholic response that was watched closely by religion writers at major newspapers. One result of the scandal is that newspapers began to take a more probing look at the Catholic Church; Reese’s resignation can only deepen their skepticism.

“Reporters are already a suspicious lot,” Goldman said. “This [Reese’s removal] will make them even more. If anybody thinks that this is going to make journalists stop calling Tom Reese, then this is foolish. This gives him a greater platform....He’s still going to be a go-to guy. I don’t know what they accomplish.” The Vatican’s dismissal of Reese will affect reporters more directly than would the silencing of some distant theologian. “I think simply on a human level, it’s a real blow to the coverage of the Catholic Church because Fr. Reese was enormously accessible, very personable, and that rare honest broker,” Gibson said. “Just on a personal level, there’s going to be resentment there.”

That doesn’t mean the Vatican should worry about reporters’ reactions while making doctrinal decisions. But the Catholic Church has made a major effort to be a player in the world of media. The decision to crack down on Reese and America for providing complete coverage (rather than solely a defense of the Vatican position) of complex matters, such as stem-cell research and sanctions for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, sends a message that the church is not ready for a media that values the free exchange of ideas.

It doesn’t have to be that way. At the lunch where I’d first heard about Reese’s resignation, Brooklyn Bishop Nicholas DeMarzio spoke of an uplifting message Pope John Paul II issued on January 24 to prepare for the church’s celebration of World Communications Day, calling it the late pope’s “last
will and testament” to journalists. I later looked it up on the Vatican Web site and found this passage:

“While it is true that the truths of the faith are not open to arbitrary interpretations, and that respect for the rights of others places intrinsic limits upon the expression of one’s judgments, it is no less true that there is still room among Catholics for an exchange of opinions in a dialogue which is respectful of justice and prudence.”

Dialogue respectful of justice and prudence. That sounds a lot like the media ministry of Thomas Reese.

Published in the 2005-06-03 issue: 
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Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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