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What's a magazine for?

I wonder if you'all saw this item in this week's Word From Rome: John Allen interviews the Jesuit General Hans-Peter Kolvenbach. Among Allen's questions and Kolvenbach's responses are the following.

Allen: One early controversy of his papacy centered on Fr. Tom Reese from America magazine. What are the lessons of that episode for Jesuit-sponsored publications?

Kolvenbach: 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).

Allen: Did the initial concerns about America come from the United States rather than the Vatican?

Kolvenbach? Yes, from clergy outside the Jesuits in the United States, including some in senior positions.

Steinfels: Most issues have three or four sides, not just two. How can the Catholic church and its tradition have a credible presence in U.S. culture if it can't even talk about two sides of a controversy, much less three or four.

America has, in fact, held up well under its new editor, but if the head of the Jesuits and other senior clergy, i.e., U.S. cardinals and bishops, think that debate and contestation are not among the tasks of Catholic journals and intellecutals, their heads are deeper in the sand than I believed possible. Not to toot Commonweal's horn, or NCR's, but there is considerable virtue in publications that are willing and able to grapple with the dark issues of the day by presenting more than one side of an issue precisely because they know there are mature Catholics reading their pages.

More than liberals or conservatives, what the Catholic church needs are writers, editors, intelllectuals who make it their business to sustain a credible Catholicism.

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.



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Bravo, Margaret! You have hit the nail on the head. I would like to make an addition, however, with the question:What is a Catholic education for? So I would add "there is considerable virtue in Catholic schools that are willing and able to grapple with the dark issues of the day by presenting more than one side of an issue precisely because they know there are mature Catholicstudents in their classrooms. And to your list I would add professors and teachers.

Margarets comment reminds me of a column by Ted Schmidt from the March 16, 2006 issue of the Catholic New Times titled Papal saint-making?In it he makes reference to the British journalists Margaret and Peter Hebblethwaite (opps! I just recognized the synchronicity in those names) and an interview Peter gave just after John Paul IIs death. Very early on in the pontificate, somebody said something that was absolutely prophetic, that four theologians would be chosen for the axe, each in a different field and each representing a different interest Edward Schilebeeckx (Christology), Hans Kung (Ecclesiology), Leonardo Boff (Liberation theology), and Charles Curran (Moral theology) were all affected.Hebblethwaithe continued, The most interesting thing was that the errors were not in these people; they were condemned for their OPINIONS, (emphasis mine) and that was something new in the church. You do not condemn people for their opinions. You condemn them for their errors IF you demonstrate they have perpetrated errors. Seems to me there are all together, too many in the church, too willing to use the same tactic.

The editor in me can't help pointing out, John, that Peter Hebblethwaite must have made that comment after the death of John Paul I.

Yes indeed Margaret. A closer reading states Hebblethwaite died in 1994 and Ted Schmidt wrote: "In an interview released AFTER John Paul's funeral,..."

So, there are some highly-placed clergy in the U.S. who think Catholic intellectual journals that present more than one side of a story spread confusion and relativism among their readers. It makes you wonder not only what these clergy think such magazines are for, but who on earth reads them? If getting more than one point of view on a controversial topic will have a negative effect on the faith-growth of American Catholic readers, they must be an impressionable and easily-led lot. That doesnt sound like the implied readership of America, NCR, or Commonweal. Even the disheartening news that some of our cardinals and bishops would prefer to see valued Catholic journals of opinion turned into propaganda machines is unlikely to have such a negative effect. Sad to say, it isnt at all surprising.

Most of these bishops fail to realize that their diocesan newspapers are so ineffectual because they toe the party line (depending on the bent of the Party, of course) to the point that anyone who really gives a damn about Catholic news will find news elsewhere!My local diocesan rag is good for about a 2 second glance and then a toss to the recycle bin. I don't pay for it; in fact, I'm not even a registered parish member in this diocese. But somehow my name got on their list. Talk about subscription inflaction!

The positive thing about the Reese fiasco is the revelation that bishops actually read America. My picture of them is at dinners and at other cameo performances--sad to say. As far as the words of the present head of the Jesuits, I would give no significance at all except to say that he gives the usual loyalty to Rome remarks that O'Malley just rendered in his Globe interview. The Jesuits will be themselves as always.Thinking again about the Reese ouster by Rome, the surprise is that it did not come sooner. I still remember glorying in my chair at that prophet editorial on Due Process of April 2001 in which Ratzinger was stingingly blasted for unreasonableness and stupidity. That editorial will be admirably cited for a long time by the church in the future. In another time the Vatican would have had it stricken from the history books.

Nice job, Peggy! This is exactly what the church needs to hear and your prophetic voice continues to challenge us as church.However, we need to remember that the surest sign of being a prophet is that you are very nearly always in trouble. Looking at all sides of the issue is indeed a very dangerous thing to do--and yet we should be called to do that so we have a church that indeed is continually on the search for the truth and not one that falsely claims it has already landed there and has nothing left to learn.

The entire debate about Fr. Reese (and many others) would take a significant step forward if we could simply ban the term mature from any and all discussions on the matter. It is ridiculously condescending and implies that only those toting graduate degrees can really understand the complexities of faith and culture.The term embodies a sort of leftist answer to fundamentalism. Its akin to hearing a fundamentalist Calvinist, for instance, tell you, well, if you could only read the Greek of the New Testament, youd see just how much in error you are. All mature Christians, some would say, can read Koine Greek. Forget about the fact that the function of Church is to help mediate the faith, so that you dont have to read Greek, or for that matter, you dont have to consider three or four or five sides to every issue. Im very much in favor of inquiry, and I think it is a very good thing to consider as many sides to an issue as possible (especially those you disagree with). Im also a believer in the idea that those who disagree with the Church have a duty to make their opinions known (thats why I read Commonweal). However, I also feel that if you dont have the time, ability, or inclination to exhaustively explore every issue, and you choose to rely on the Church, you shouldnt be dismissively labeled, immature.At the heart of the Reese affair, as Kolvenbachs comments seem to hint towards (although even he uses the dreaded m-word), is the hierarchys misunderstanding of what America Magazines role is in mediating the faith. Its not whether or not Reese (mature faith and all) was punished for allowing debate and contestation, but whether or not America Magazine was the proper forum for it.

MDMack, you wrote:However, I also feel that if you dont have the time, ability, or inclination to exhaustively explore every issue, and you choose to rely on the Church, you shouldnt be dismissively labeled, immature.>>After about the fifth reading of your post, I think I understand what you're saying. (Talk about time, ability or inclination) You make a good point, though it may be incomplete. After all choosing to "rely on the church" can damage many children, among other things. There is a simpler way, I suggest. For example, one might ask why bishops and cardinals still insist on dressing like Roman senators and soldiers and then insist on doing the same with the Catholic people of Indonesia. Or to the present bishop of Rome why he insisted that each representative of churches in that famous ecumenical prayer service in Assissi, pray separately so that it would not confuse the Catholic God with their god.I mean I am with you that everyone does not need to spend the time that many of us fools do in unearthing the fallacies of Rome. We can, however, use our eyes and our common sense. The Italians have been doing that for years.

The other day, my son Karl send me a message to which was attached this comment regarding the Jan. 27, 2006 issue on the role of Theologians. (Luke Timothy Johnson). I think in many ways Karl gets to part of the reason for O'Brien Steinfels' questions, if from a rather unorthodox direction.Karl Borst wrote:I actually meant to write you about the Theology in Catholicism issue. Basically, while it was a decent article, it missed the key point that religion has nothing to do with theology, just as political theory has nothing to do with actual politics. Theology is about asking questions. Religion is about enforcing specific answers to those questions. Theology is like asking, in business, what makes a brand? Religion has decided on its brand and works hard to make sure every division (shall we say) stays on brand. Yes, religion likes to say that it is an environment of thought, of inspiration and of a willingness to listen. Yeah. And banks say that they care about their customers. Of course brands do change. When new management gets involved and looks at the problems of a company and why it is losing mindshare, that new management often redefines the brand image, while claiming to remain in the spirit of the values of the companys founders. The metaphor is directly applicable to Catholicism and, to be honest, is barely a metaphor.

In the On-line issue of the National Catholic Reporter Dated April 7, 2006, Fr. Richard P. McBrien ("Gay adoption raises larger questions") makes this comment:But the purpose of a column, including this one, is to stimulate thinking about current topics, to offer a few guidelines for ongoing discussion and at the same time to express a personal viewpoint designed to encourage readers to fashion their own opinions and their reasons for them.Unfortunately, there are still many Catholics who believe that such columns have no place in the diocesan press or in parish publications. For such Catholics, a diocesan paper is merely a house organ, the bishops vehicle by which he communicates with his flock and insures that they will be exposed to no ideas, opinions or even news stories that might disturb their faith or lead them to question church teachings and policies.

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