Resignation does not mark purge of liberals
Those who wish to portray the resignation of Fr Thomas Reese as the start of an assault on intellectual freedom under Pope Benedict XVI must grapple with several inconvenient facts. Firstly, while much else about the case remains unclear, it seems certain that the decision to end the priest’s tenure at America was taken before the new Pope was elected. Secondly, the pressure for Fr Reese’s departure appears to have originated in the United States, rather than in Rome. And thirdly, although the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was clearly involved, it has not yet been established that the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was the driving force behind the action against the Jesuit priest.
This has not stopped some commentators, notably Andrew Sullivan, from claiming that Pope Benedict has “fired” Fr Reese. Ever since the new Pope walked on to the balcony of St Peter’s critics have been waiting for an opportunity to declare the start of a papal “crackdown” on liberal Catholics. But this, surely, is not it.
Fr Reese is a widely respected author and Vatican analyst. By all accounts he has greatly improved America since he took over the editorship of the American Jesuit magazine seven years ago. If we were to view Fr Reese’s forced resignation purely in terms of press freedom, then it would be as outrageous as Andrew Sullivan asserts. Would the Vatican, we might ask, dare to tell the editor of the Economist or Newsweek what he should or shouldn’t publish?
But as long as we view publications such as America in purely secular terms we will never grasp why the Vatican may have considered it necessary to take action against Fr Reese. But let us imagine, for a moment, that a prestigious scientific journal begins to print articles stating that the theory of evolution is false, that gravity does not exist and that the Pythagorean Theorem is wrong. The scientific community would quickly pour scorn on the editor and loudly demand his resignation. The editor might respond that he published the articles next to others that restated the traditional scientific orthodoxy. But prominent scientists would argue that this merely put crank theories on the same level as well-attested truths.
When we apply this imperfect analogy to the case of Fr Reese, we begin to understand the concerns of the Vatican and the American bishops. They fully expect that magazines that trade on their ties with the Church will treat Catholic teaching as the truth, rather than as one respectable opinion among many.
This is not to say that there is no space within the Church for intellectual debate. As the American commentator Michael Novak argued powerfully in a recent essay, it is a myth that the Catholic Church requires blind obedience among the faithful. Catholic theologians are indeed called to be explorers, “to go into new terrain, to test whether their path is safe for the whole body of the faithful”. At the same time, and surely Fr Reese himself would not dispute this, the pastors of the Church must ensure that when theologians go astray they do not take large sections of the faithful with them.
In practice making such judgments is extremely difficult and the Pope and his advisers must proceed cautiously in a spirit of prayer and charity. Fr Reese’s tenure at America had been under scrutiny for at least five years. If the Vatican’s intention had been simply to crush intellectual debate then it would surely have insisted on the priest’s resignation back in the year 2000. It seems to have allowed the case to drag on so that Fr Reese could step down after a long tenure with his honour intact. The fact that the affair has now become a cause célèbre suggests that there are some in the Church who are intent on launching hostilities against Benedict XVI on the thinnest of pretexts.