American Catholics, including most regular churchgoers, get their news about the church from the secular media, not from church spokespersons or official pronouncements. Most Catholics read about papal encyclicals in the papers; they don’t read encyclicals. It therefore behooves the hierarchy, if it wants to communicate with the faithful (or re-evangelize them), to act in a way that does not lend credence to the still-widespread impression that the Catholic Church is a backward-looking, essentially authoritarian, institution run by men who are afraid of open debate and intellectual inquiry.
It is safe to say that the Vatican’s shocking dismissal of Rev. Thomas Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America has left precisely such an impression with millions of Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
It is hard to judge what is more appalling, the flimsy case made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)—apparently at the instigation of some American bishops—against Reese’s orthodoxy and stewardship of America, or the senselessness of silencing perhaps the most visible, and certainly one of the most knowledgeable, fair-minded, and intelligent public voices the church has in this country. As a political scientist who has written extensively on how the church’s hierarchy works, Reese has for years been a much-relied-on source for the mass media in its coverage of Catholic issues. During the recent conclave, his visibility increased exponentially, with millions of television viewers being introduced to him on PBS, CNN, and other networks. Not surprisingly, he showed himself to be lucid, succinct, and nonideological. In a church with a more confident and magnanimous hierarchy, Reese’s prominence would be seen as a great asset, not a threat. Instead, Reese’s dismissal, following so closely his increased exposure during the conclave, has become front-page news. As a consequence, the first thing many Americans are now likely to associate with Pope Benedict XVI’s papacy will be yet another act of Vatican repression. Does this mean that the zeal with which then-Cardinal Ratzinger harried theologians while head of the CDF will continue during his papacy?
For those who had hoped that the pastoral challenges of his new office might broaden Benedict’s sympathies, this is a time of indignation, disappointment, and increased apprehension. For those who know Reese and his work, the injustice of the CDF’s action is transparent. No intellectually honest person could possibly claim that Reese’s America has been in the business of undermining church teaching. If the moderate views expressed in America, views widely shared by the vast majority of lay Catholics, are judged suspect by the CDF, how is the average Catholic to assess his or her own relationship to the church?
It is even more troubling to learn that the CDF insisted on Reese’s removal despite his compliance with the congregation’s own demands that America publish articles of a more apologetic nature defending controverted magisterial teachings. In 2003, apparently, the CDF informed Reese that he had indeed corrected whatever imbalance it had detected in the magazine’s content. According to news stories, more recent articles in America questioning the church’s position on same-sex marriage and the status of prochoice U.S. Catholic politicians precipitated the latest CDF action. Both of the articles cited, however, were in response to other pieces in America defending magisterial teaching. Evidently, the CDF insists that any church-sponsored publication aimed at the educated faithful confine its activities to catechesis.
The reaction to the CDF’s removal of Reese has been widespread and impassioned among the Jesuits and in the Catholic academic world. Certainly the church’s reputation has been badly damaged, especially among those in the secular media who knew and had every reason to respect Reese. As a consequence, it will be even harder for the church’s views to get a fair hearing. Those who love and cherish the Catholic priesthood are equally appalled, seeing how callously someone like Reese, who has devoted his life and contributed his enormous talents to the church, is treated. It is possible to ascribe the incredibly maladroit timing and handling of this decision to Vatican incompetence, arrogance, or obliviousness. More worrisome, however, is the suspicion that Reese’s dismissal was carried out in precisely this way to send an unmistakable message. If that is the case, then the self-defeating demand for unwavering docility coming from those now in charge in Rome—and increasingly from members of the American episcopate—is only exceeded by their insensitivity and recklessness.
The audience for intellectually serious Catholic publications like America, where theological, ethical, political, and aesthetic questions are explored and debated, is shockingly small: some estimate not more than 200,000 potential readers among the nation’s 65 million Catholics. Why are Catholics so incurious about the intellectual challenges and satisfactions of their faith? Certainly one reason is that the church has historically taken a dim view of the questioning intellect, and especially of the public expression of such questions. Another reason is because the demand of bishops for editorial control deprives much of the Catholic press of credibility. Forty years after the Second Vatican Council, which did so much to enfranchise lay Catholics and to encourage their engagement with the great intellectual resources of the church, it is inexcusable that the CDF would censor a magazine as respectful and responsive to the church’s tradition as America. At a time when elites are as polarized as they are now in the American church, Reese’s dismissal will embolden those eager to purge “dissenters,” while making it nearly impossible for a reasoned critique of the agenda of church reformers to be heard by those who need most to hear it.
Those calling for the strict regulation of Catholic discourse argue that public dissent from church doctrine creates scandal, confusing or misleading the “simple faithful.” What really gives scandal to people in the pews, however, is the arbitrary and self-serving exercise of ecclesiastical authority. What the CDF has done to Thomas Reese and America is the scandal. Is it possible that not one bishop has the courage to say so? That too is a scandal.
This editorial will appear in the May 20, 2005, issue of Commonweal.