By the time this week’s column appears, more of the dust may have settled on the enforced editorial change at America magazine, and additional information may have become available.
As of this moment, however, it seems clear that there had been pressure on the Jesuits, applied from both sides of the Atlantic — in the Vatican and among a handful of U.S. bishops — to correct perceived imbalances in the editorials and articles that have been published in the Jesuits’ highly respected weekly magazine over the past few years.
When the news first broke via an e-mailed press release from the America offices, those who had been completely out of the loop, including this writer, did not even suspect that Father Thomas Reese’s departure as editor in chief was other than voluntary.
I expressed surprise and astonishment when informed of the reports that Father Reese had indeed been sacked.
I can think of no Catholic in the public sphere who is more moderate, more responsible or more restrained in his judgments and statements than Father Reese. Indeed, he often bent over backwards to avoid even the appearance of opposing official church teachings and policies.
For all of his care and judiciousness in educating the public about the Catholic Church, Father Reese reaped not a vote of thanks from church officials, but a pink slip.
Some years ago, one of the best-read columnists in the Catholic press, a prominent priest-sociologist, used to complain about clerical envy. If memory serves, the columnist was referring to the sentiments that many parish priests might have felt toward highly visible priests like himself — author of many books, popular on the lecture circuit, frequent guest on television and oft-quoted in the press. There may well have been priests who would have liked to see him taken down a peg or two.
One suspects that there is at least some measure of clerical envy involved here. Father Reese has been one of the most public faces on the U.S. Catholic scene, not only as editor in chief of America magazine but also as an author of several books, a much sought-after source for major newspapers and magazines, and a frequent contributor to network and cable-television programs. He was all over television during the month of April, from the time of Pope John Paul II’s final illness through the election of Pope Benedict XVI.
By any reasonable standard, Father Reese’s public comments have always been fair, informed, balanced and consistently respectful of the Catholic tradition. “Controversial” is the last adjective that most people would use to describe him.
But perhaps it wasn’t the “controversial” part that was most bothersome, but the “public” part. Why is it that, when the major media outlets need some objective and straightforward illumination of breaking developments in the Catholic Church, they seek out people like Father Reese rather than bishops?
There are two reasons. First, many bishops are uncomfortable with the media and limit their availability to carefully crafted press releases. Second, when bishops do speak to the media, they tend to be guarded to a fault. They engage in what media people call “spin.”
Among the possible fallouts from this action are these two: first, the U.S. Catholic Church may lose one of its most credible and effective spokespersons with the capacity to explain and interpret developments in the church to a wider public; and second, others like him may be less inclined to step into the breach.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.