Critics call editor's ouster an ominous sign for U.S. church : Tuesday, May 10, 2005
May 10 2005 by Kevin Eckstrom

Critics call editor's ouster an ominous sign for U.S. church : Tuesday, May 10, 2005
Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Critics call editor's ouster an ominous sign for U.S. church

By Kevin Eckstrom
Religion News Service

Is the Rev. Tom Reese, the respected editor of a Jesuit magazine, the latest casualty in a simmering battle between the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the United States?

From most accounts, Reese was ousted as editor of America magazine on May 6 because some U.S. bishops and Vatican officials had grown impatient with his policy of allowing open debate on controversial topics.

Those who were already worried about heavy-handed leadership by the Vatican say firing Reese sends an ominous signal that the American church is headed for a trip to the principal's office.

"Is Rome's definition of faith simply a matter of absolute assent to every utterance that comes out of Rome and we're all supposed to obey and not question?" asked Tom Roberts, editor of National Catholic Reporter, an independent liberal-leaning newspaper.

Roberts said the Reese case revived the two most feared words in journalism and academia: "chilling effect."

During the final days of Pope John Paul II and election of Benedict XVI, Reese was a sought-after commentator on the church. He was widely respected for providing a candid assessment of both men while never betraying his loyalties to the church.

His supporters say his grievous sin was not that he wandered off the theological reservation. Rather he, like many American Catholics, devoted too much time and ink to the three D's - debate, dialogue and discussion - that some interpret as a threat to church teaching.

As editor for seven years, Reese opened the magazine to all sides of an issue, granting equal space to each. In many ways, the back-and-forth was reflective of the magazine's name and the country that prides itself on robust, respectful debate.

By almost any measure, Reese was no raging radical but nonetheless cherished the Jesuits' independent streak. The editorials sometimes leaned slightly left of center, and Reese sometimes expressed dismay at the Vatican's move toward centralized authority, but overall the magazine enjoyed a solid reputation for balance.

Even Benedict contributed an article in 2001 when he was known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the church's doctrinal policeman and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

But, according to the National Catholic Reporter and other media outlets citing unnamed sources, church leaders (including the pope himself) were angered by articles on gay priests, contraception and politicians who supported abortion rights. They were especially concerned that a magazine run by a religious order was sometimes airing the church's dirty laundry.

After several years of complaints - primarily from Ratzinger's old office - Reese was pulled off the magazine. A Jesuit spokesman in Rome told Catholic News Service a resignation "was not imposed" and Reese knew "it was time to go."

Either way, some say the action only adds to Benedict's reputation as a hard-liner who intends to lead his American flock with a firm hand. "This is going to confirm for a lot of people the worst fears and the lowest opinions of what they had of Benedict," said David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church."

In the past, Ratzinger let it be known he was not pleased with similar articles in other publications. The Rev. Leonardo Zega, also a Jesuit and the former editor of Famiglia Cristiana, Italy's largest circulation weekly, said Ratzinger firmly alerted his superior "without harshness."

"In all sincerity, it doesn't seem to me that Father Thomas espoused issues that were too open-minded or off the rails of the church," he told Italy's Corriere della Sera newspaper. "His open-mindedness, if any, consisted in confrontation, in open dialogue."

Some conservatives, meanwhile, say the problem is really much ado about nothing. Phil Lawler, editor of the conservative Catholic World Report, downplayed talk of a crackdown, saying the new pope has no intention of stifling discussion or debate.

"There has been a spectacular degree of debate and dissent - name any Catholic college - and to say that there are curbs on that sort of dissent now is completely at variance with the facts," he said.

The larger question for the U.S. church now is how much room there will be for such an open dialogue. Jim Fisher, the co-director of the Center for American Catholic Studies at Fordham University, said the implications of the America case go to the heart of Catholic identity.

"If a magazine that puts forth dialogue and several points of view is seen as in opposition to the church, does that somehow put every Catholic who is an advocate of dialogue and discussion ... in opposition to the church?" he said.

Linda Pieczynski, a spokeswoman for the liberal group Call to Action, said the hierarchy seems "fearful of a thinking laity" and predicted that rank-and-file Catholics will not accept blind loyalty.

"I'm not just going to accept something because someone says this is the way it has to be," she said. "You can only suppress these ideas, you can't make them go away. They'll rear up in another way."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - Peggy Polk contributed to this story with reporting from the Vatican.)

5/10/2005 12:00:00 AM by Kevin Eckstrom | with 0 comments

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