Signs of the times

Print edition : June 17, 2005

Fr. Thomas J. Reese. A file picture. - PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY: AMERICA

The resignation of the editor of a New York-based Jesuit journal, under pressure from the Vatican, raises questions about the future of free debate within the Catholic Church.

THE Society of Jesus knew that the debate, if it might be called one, was "unwinnable". Pitted against it was the all-powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican's guardian of orthodoxy, and its head Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, currently Pope Benedict XVI. The CDF wanted the Society of Jesus, a men-only religious order of the Roman Catholic Church popularly known as Jesuits, to sack Fr. Thomas J. Reese as the editor-in-chief of America, the respected and influential New York-based newsweekly published by the United States' Jesuits since 1909. The Jesuits withstood the pressure for five years. But in early May, about a month after Ratzinger was elected Pope, Reese resigned, seven years after he took office.

The CDF objected to America's decision, under Reese as editor, to publish stories critical of the Church's stance on several issues. They included some hot potatoes of contemporary Catholic discourse: homosexuality; the role of condoms in combating acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS); Dominus Iesus, the CDF's 2000 declaration that reaffirmed Jesus Christ as the only saviour; the denial of Communion to Catholic politicians who strayed from Church teachings, primarily the one on abortion; clerical celibacy; and stem-cell research.

But it was never a one-sided attack on the Church's doctrinal positions. America stuck to one of the well-established principles of modern journalism: give both sides of the story. It paired articles supporting official Church perspectives with those that disagreed with them. An essay by U.S. Senator David Obey assailed plans to deny communion to Catholic politicians who supported women's right to legal abortion. Another issue of America carried an article, by Prof. Stephen J. Pope of the Jesuit-run Boston College, questioning the Church's condemnation of same-sex marriage. Both replied to other writers who espoused the Church's teaching on the subjects.

America gave space to writings of important figures in the Church hierarchy, including Ratzinger and the conservative U.S. Jesuit Avery Cardinal Dulles. Ratzinger's article responded to one by fellow German Walter Cardinal Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, on the "relationship between the universal Church and the local churches". And America's editorials, by and large, faithfully adhered to the magisterium.

The CDF first took up the issue, apparently instigated by a few U.S. bishops, with the Jesuit superior-general Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach five years ago. It asked him to rein in the editorial board of the magazine. Ratzinger is said to have personally conveyed his displeasure to Kolvenbach. Fr. Jose M. de Vera, the spokesperson of the Jesuits in Rome, said the CDF wanted America to carry articles "defending whatever position the Church has manifested, even if it is not infallible". Things came to a head in early 2004 when the CDF threatened to impose a board of censors on the magazine. The Jesuits managed to ward off the threat by setting up an internal panel to review articles before publication. But in March 2005, when the late Pope John Paul II was alive, the CDF reportedly wrote to Kolvenbach asking him to sack Reese.

The final blow came with the election of Benedict XVI. De Vera said: "With Cardinal Ratzinger elected Pope, I think [Reese] thought it would be very difficult to continue his line of openness, without creating more problems. ... He knew the situation. He didn't want to embarrass the Society [of Jesus] and he didn't want to fight the Pope, so he resigned."

Archbishop William J. Levada.-LOU DEMATTEIS /REUTERS

Sixty-year-old Reese is a political scientist by training and holds a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of two excellent studies on the Church in the U.S., Archbishop, Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church and A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops. His third and most important work, Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organisation of the Catholic Church, is one of the best primers on the subject and has been translated into four languages. The latter book and its popularity among the laity too played a role in alienating the CDF. It took exception to the book's non-traditional socio-political study of the Church as an organisation, something other than the dogmatic understanding of the Church as the "mystical body" and "spouse" of Christ. Reese is a much-sought-after commentator on Church affairs and frequently appears on prominent U.S. television channels. He was a regular face on television explaining ancient Church practices and rituals after the death of John Paul II and in the run-up to and after the conclave that elected Ratzinger.

In a May 6 statement issued by America, Reese said: "I am proud of what my colleagues and I did with the magazine, and I am grateful to them, our readers and our benefactors for the support they gave me. I look forward to taking a sabbatical while my provincial and I determine the next phase of my Jesuit ministry." Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen, associate editor of the magazine who holds a doctorate from Yale University, replaced Reese.

As expected, the reactions to Reese's ouster pointed to the purported conservative-liberal divide among U.S. Catholics. Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter which broke the story of Reese's exit, told Frontline: "This discipline can only mean that Rome will tolerate nothing more in the way of Catholic intellectual discussion than a rote recitation of themes as they come from the Vatican. This action is a serious blow to Catholic intellectual life in the U.S." Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of the New York-based conservative journal on religion First Things, said: "Just as you don't expect Planned Parenthood to give a platform to the pro-life position, there's no reason why a Catholic journal should provide a platform for positions that are clearly contrary to those of the Church... "

It would be unwise to jump to a conclusion about the future course of Benedict XVI's papacy on the basis of this one incident. But l'affaire Reese has generated a sense of foreboding. In the second week of May, the U.S. Jesuit Conference sacked one of its officials for an article he wrote in its monthly newsletter National Jesuit News. Erik Meder's article, "Strangers No Longer: Who is the Other among us?", appeared in the April/May edition of the newsletter.

Calling for an open dialogue between the Church and homosexuals about homosexuality, Meder said: "The same approximate percentage of the U.S. population is homosexual as is foreign-born: 10 to 15 per cent. The majority of American Catholics are neither. ... When the Other is a migrant, Catholics are urged by the Church to employ a hermeneutic of self-understanding in their encounters with the Other. When the Other is a homosexual, the notion of hermeneutic encounter drops from the scene." Meder's superiors asked him to resign from his post because his article had caused "irreparable harm to the Society of Jesus in the U.S.". Clearly, the Jesuits did not want more uncalled-for attention from Rome.

THE Jesuits are no strangers to controversy and their almost 500-year-old history bears ample testimony to this. Since its foundation, the order has defended its members and has stood up for what it believed in, often at the risk of earning powerful enemies within the Church and in the European courts. Also irking its adversaries was the Society's increasing dominance of European education - it ran a wide network of excellent schools and colleges - and Catholic missionary efforts in Asia and Latin America. Over two centuries of hostilities culminated in the expulsion of the Society from Portugal, France and Spain in the mid-18th century, and its formal worldwide suppression by Pope Clement XIV in 1773. It was restored only 41 years later, in 1814, by Pius VII.

The past quarter of a century has been a relatively bad phase in the history of the Jesuits, founded by the Basque nobleman St. Ignatius of Loyola and some of his friends in 1534 in France. Several of its members, including former superior-general the saintly Basque Fr. Pedro Arrupe, were shabbily treated by the Vatican under the late John Paul II. The Pope rejected Arrupe's resignation from the post, following a debilitating stroke, and the Society's constitution was suspended for more than two years in the early 1980s. A papal representative conducted the order's affairs during this period.

The pressure to crack down on the Jesuits was building up since the early 1970s when the order stressed, in the words of Arrupe, the "inseparability of promotion of justice and propagation of the faith". Inspired by this vision, Jesuits such as the late Fr. Juan Luis Segundo of Uruguay and Fr. Jon Sobrino of El Salvador played a leading role in the development of Latin American liberation theology. Its influence was evident in every field of work of the Society - from education to social service. But the same commitment was blamed for much confusion in the ranks of the order about the role of a priest. It was alleged that the Jesuit priest was more into social activism than spiritual matters and had little regard for papal authority. Popes Paul VI and John Paul I, predecessors of John Paul II, had expressed their "concern" at the Society's alleged "loss of identity" as a "priestly" order.

The Ratzinger-led CDF "silenced" or criticised several distinguished Jesuit theologians, including American Fr. Roger Haight, Belgian Fr. Jacques Dupuis and Indian Fr. Anthony de Mello. A popular writer who tried to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western spiritualities, de Mello was censured 10 years after his death in 1987, for "relativising" faith and thus leading to "religious indifferentism". John Paul II forced American Fr. Robert F. Drinan to step down as a Democrat member of the U.S. Congress in 1980, a post he held for more than a decade. The hero of many a battle for human rights and nuclear disarmament, he represented Massachusetts.

A MUCH-AWAITED Vatican appointment came on May 13, when Benedict XVI announced Archbishop William J. Levada of San Francisco as his choice to head the CDF. Ratzinger held the post of CDF Prefect for close to 25 years. Levada, the first American to hold such a senior position in the Vatican, is expected to take charge in August. He is not a distinguished academic theologian, unlike his predecessor. He is no theological novice either. Levada holds a doctorate from Rome's reputed Jesuit-run Gregorian University and has worked in the CDF for six years from 1976 to 1982. He was a member of the Vatican commission to draft a Catechism for the Catholic Church, a source book on the fundamentals of the faith. Since 2000, he has been a full member of the CDF.

Levada's asset is his rich pastoral experiences as a bishop for about 20 years. (Again, this is in sharp contrast to Ratzinger, whose role as pastor was confined to four years as the Archbishop of Munich.) It should help him better understand the practical implications of doctrinal decisions and disciplinary actions taken in Rome. Levada worked with the California Catholic Conference of Bishops and the archdiocese of Los Angeles before being appointed as Archbishop of Portland in 1986 and Archbishop of San Francisco in 1995. As Archbishop of San Francisco, the unofficial capital of gay activism in the U.S., he has been in the forefront of opposition to same-sex marriages. But, at the same time, he has allowed a city parish comprising largely of gay, lesbian and transgendered members to function without any disruptive intervention from the hierarchy. It indicates, as Prof. Paul V. Murphy of the Jesuit-run University of San Francisco told The Washington Post, someone who is "doctrinally conservative and politically pragmatic".

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