What really happened to Tom Reese?

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 Reesefrom America magazine. What are the lessons of that episode forJesuit-sponsored publications?
America magazine, underthe competent and dynamic guidance of Fr. Tom Reese, believed that thebest service to a mature Catholic public was to let the two sides of acontroversial question to defend their views. However, thisorientation did not meet the approval of some pastorally concernedpriests who were worried about a negative effect on the faith-growth ofthe Catholics. They expect that Jesuit publications will offer clearstandings to meet the questions of the day, avoiding confusion andrelativism. Unhappily, instead of changing his policy, Fr. Reeseresigned. This episode takes us back to St. Ignatius when he speaksabout 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 forthe Doctrine of the Faith, and that the congregation in turn raisedthese concerns with the superior general of the Jesuit order, Fr.Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

What has confused some observers, however, is whether or notthe Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually sent a letterdemanding that Reese resign, and to what extent then-Cardinal JosephRatzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was personally involved in thesediscussions.

Based on conversations with senior Jesuit sources in Rome May11, I can confirm that a letter was indeed sent by the Congregation forthe Doctrine of the Faith in the early months of 2005, beforeRatzinger's election as pope, to Kolvenbach [italics added]. I have not seen theletter, and therefore I do not know if it contained a direct order toremove Reese, or if it was a more vague expression of a desire to see achange 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.

Grant Gallicho joined Commonweal as an intern and was an associate editor for the magazine until 2015. 

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