What really happened to Tom Reese? (part 2)

"Given enough time, some disputes do get clarified," Fr. Richard John Neuhaus writes in the May issue of First Things (regrettably, the "Public Square" is not available online). He is referring, of course, to the discussion of Tom Reese's May 2005 departure from America magazine, as discussed in John Allen's interview with Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Jesuits (I mentioned it a few weeks ago).

"The New York Times depicted it as a sign of the reign of terror to come," Neuhaus explains, "and the editors of Commonweal went ballistic in their protest against the ham-fisted oppression of Rome. I suggested everybody should calm down." (Indeed, Fr. Neuhaus often suggests that course, especially when his opinions are on the receiving end of pointed criticism. When the subject is the continuing decay of the Jesuits, however, it seems quite another matter.) The Times piece is online here, and the Commonweal editorial is available here. I can't speak for the Times, of course, but I can report that the Commonweal offices are still recovering from the rage-fueled violence against various office accoutrements committed by the editors upon learning of Reese's removal.

But, back to the subject at hand.

Neuhaus goes on to say that, beyond cautioning against overexcitement, he suggested "that there were serious problems with the way Fr. Reese was running the magazine; that we should not dismiss his claim that he had voluntarily resigned; and that, in any event, if he was fired, it was the Society of Jesus that did the firing."

Which is where Allen's interview comes in. Neuhaus quotes Kolvenbach's carefully worded response to Allen's question about l'affaire Reese. Here's the full exchange:

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?
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.

"If one credits the account of Fr. Kolvenbach, and I do," Neuhaus argues, "that should put an end to claims that Benedict forced the removal of Fr. Reese."

Except that it doesn't. Unfortunately, Allen failed to press Kolvenbach on the existence of a letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (at the time headed by then-Cardinal Ratzinger) to Kolvenbach insisting that Reese had to go. Allen himself reported this in his May 13, 2005, "Word from Rome":

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. 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.

It's hard to believe that Neuhaus missed this report. (Allen mentioned the letter again here, likely after the May First Things went to press.) Likewise, it's perplexing that he wouldn't have learned this from other reputable sources. It's not as though Vatican involvement in the affairs of America magazine was theretofore unknown. In 2002, the CDF informed America that if the magazine didn't mend its ways, a board of bishops would be installed to oversee its operations. Not that these countervailing events would alter Neuhaus's view, he assures us: "I would not have been upset if he [Benedict] had done so [fired Reese]."

No, his real target is the current administration of America. "Finally, one notes with regret that there has been little discernible change in the editorial direction of America. The magazine's recent and apparently univocal editorial rejection of Rome's instruction on homosexuality and the priesthood is a troubling case in point." (Never mind Neuhaus's own concerns about the way the pope is handling the issue.)

Quite apart from Neuhaus's exaggerated characterization of the editorial, one wonders whether he can produce any other cases in point to demonstrate America's failure to change. That would require more consistent reading than Neuhaus's judgment evinces.

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

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