Last week, the esteemed American Jesuit magazine America announced that its editor-in-chief, Thomas Reese, was being replaced. It's become clear that Reese was forced out by Vatican officials unimpressed with the magazine's discussion of debates on everything from gay marriage to the ordination of women. Bob talks to National Catholic Reporter editor Tom Roberts about the prognosis for dissent in today's Church.
BOB GARFIELD: Anybody tuning in to pope coverage last month was treated to a rotating cast of experts speculating in the lead up to the conclave and analyzing the outcome. One of the most frequently quoted was Father Thomas Reese, based in Rome those few weeks, as the eyes and ears of America - America magazine that is. For seven years, Reese was editor-in-chief of the 96 year old Jesuit-run weekly, until last week, when the magazine announced that he was being replaced. The decision to oust him was actually made in March by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That's the office charged with overseeing issues of religious practice, and headed at the time of the firing by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, soon to become Pope Benedict XVI. Under Father Reese, America has examined same-sex marriage, condom use in the Age of AIDS, religious pluralism and the role of gays and women in the church - journalism very much in keeping with the Jesuit tradition of critical thinking and inquiry. Reese isn't the first Jesuit to be punished for upholding that tradition. As Tom Roberts, editor of the National Catholic Reporter, reminded us, such questioning was especially unwelcome during the papacy of John Paul II.
TOM ROBERTS: One of the first things he did as pope was move against the Superior General of the Jesuits worldwide, and that was Father Pedro Arrupe, and had him removed. It was a bold and almost, I think, unprecedented move. It was deeply disturbing to a lot of the Jesuits. So the Jesuits, for the entire period of John Paul II's papacy were kind of on the hot seat, and we have to understand that this action against Father Reese was in the making for five years. Jesuits in Rome were discussing him and what was going on at America magazine, and that was in March, some time, that we understand that final word came down - it's over. Reese has to go.
BOB GARFIELD: Clearly this is a repressive move by the Vatican, and yet the rotary club does not countenance, in its international rotary publications, articles condemning the central precepts of being a rotary club member, nor does any organization, including the WNYC in-house newsletter, entertain hostile commentary about the management of WNYC. Doesn't every organization have the right not to air its dirty laundry within its own published material?
TOM ROBERTS: Well, boy - you used the word "condemn" - the equivalent of condemning teachings of the Church. I don't think America magazine ever got even close to that. I think within any community there is the right to want information and, too, discussion of the rules, if you will. You know, I don't think that America magazine was irresponsible or getting anywhere near being irresponsible about its questions about church teaching. What it was doing was reflecting first of all the real lived experience of Catholics and the questions they have about women priests, about ordination, about even people with, you know, gay children.
BOB GARFIELD: Theologically the questions may have been fair game. Organizationally, though, I can see how they're problematic.
TOM ROBERTS: Well, they may be problematic, but you know - is the community large enough to accept this kind of criticism? I think Catholics have to understand that the Church is not today as it existed when Jesus walked the earth. It's evolved enormously and changed dramatically over centuries, and I think that that change has not come because people have been silent. It came because of a lot of public questioning. I mean our history as Catholics is just replete with figures who were condemned in one century and heralded as Fathers of the Church in the next. I mean if the proscription against this kind of discussion were to have been in place for a long, long time, then we might still be a community that believed the earth was the center of the universe. We might still be a community that believed that slavery was perfectly justifiable.
BOB GARFIELD: Does this suggest that Pope Benedict XVI is going to squelch all sorts of dissent about the church, its teachings, its doctrines, its practices, its secrecy and so forth?
TOM ROBERTS: I don't know what it portends. Most of the publications that are either owned by a religious order or attached to the church I think will be extremely cautious in this period. If America magazine, which is very measured and balanced and treats topics fairly, is the kind of journal that Rome thinks should have a board of censors, as it threatened to do during this process, then I think we're skating very, very close to becoming a fundamentalist sect, where, you know, discussion and debate is so narrowly proscribed that you're acting out of fear rather than out of curiosity and scholarly discovery. And I think that there's something not only un-Catholic about that, but certainly un-Christian. I don't think Christianity is the kind of faith that is built on fear of discovery or fear of curiosity.
BOB GARFIELD: In the eyes of the Vatican right now, anyway, Tom, can you be a good Catholic and a good journalist?
TOM ROBERTS: I guess that's - depends on who in the Vatican is looking at you [LAUGHS]. I think that the Vatican would probably say yes. Its idea of journalism might be a bit different from the American version: that journalism may have often an adversarial role with authority. I think that's where the agreement might break down, because you know, we're always, if you will, agitating for more accountability. We want to know who's making decisions and how decisions are made. We want to know where the money is being spent, and that so far is not something that's available within the Church.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Commonweal magazine, published by lay Catholics, certainly had a bee in its bonnet this week. They called Father Reese's dismissal "shocking" and "senseless," and that's just where they got started.
TOM ROBERTS: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: National Catholic Reporter, your newspaper, also a lay publication - how will it affect you?
TOM ROBERTS: You know, people are glad that there's still one or two of us left who are independent, who can accommodate this kind of discussion. I hate to, you know, use this moment to say that it's going to affect us in a good way, because it's an awful way to - have anything good happen to you. I know - I've known Tom Reese for 20 years. He's really a model priest, and he's a - just a very, very good human being. He has done more as an individual to rationally and understandably explain the Church to the general culture than I think any individual in this country, and if Tom Reese is the kind of priest that you want to remove from his responsibilities while we have all this other junk going on in the priesthood, and we have a cardinal in Rome who clearly embarrassed the Church publicly - and I'm talking about Cardinal Law - that caused great scandal for his mishandling of the sex abuse crisis, and he's given a place of honor during the interregnum, and a very public mass - then something is out of whack.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom, thank you so much for joining us.
TOM ROBERTS: Pleasure to be with you.
BOB GARFIELD: Tom Roberts is editor-in-chief of the National Catholic Reporter. [MUSIC]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, a newspaper instigates an on-line sting, and everyone's favorite man on the street.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media, from NPR. [MUSIC] [FUNDING CREDITS]
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