The Lessons of America


"Appalling." So the Catholic journal Commonweal pronounced the resignation this week, under Vatican pressure, of the Rev. Thomas Reese, S.J., editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
editor in chief of America

The incident, Commonweal's (lay) editors claimed, will reinforce "the still-widespread impression that the Catholic Church is a backward-looking, essentially authoritarian, institution run by men who are afraid of open debate." Other observers made similar pronouncements, seeing a form of censorship in the deposing of Father Reese or an evil omen for the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI.

But such claims are misguided. Father Reese, a political scientist who edited America for seven years and was a frequent media commentator on Catholic affairs, is an eminently friendly, fair and decent human being. A villain he is not. But there was a problem with his editorship, and it points to a conflict over the obligations freely assumed by clerics in the Roman Catholic Church.

The recent history of the Society of Jesus sheds light on these obligations. Formerly known as an elite band of ultra-orthodox defenders of the faith, the Jesuits in the past four decades have increasingly cast themselves as the church's loyal opposition. Some individual Jesuits have continued to play the defender role, but many have not.

The magazine America underwent a similar transformation. Where it formerly defended the church's doctrines and policies with unblushing tenacity, it came to prefer dissent. During Father Reese's tenure, it implicitly took issue with the church on matters such as same-sex marriage, fetal stem-cell research and a Vatican declaration five years ago underscoring the unique redemptive role of Christ and the Catholic Church. America didn't say flatly that the church was wrong about such things, but in one way or another suggested as much, giving space over to critical views.

Such an editorial policy may sound perfectly proper — even laudable, in keeping with the spirit of a free press. But America isn't like most other magazines. Catholic priests are public officials of the church, with a duty to reflect its teachings and policies in word and deed. This duty may seem archaic now, after several decades in which numerous clerics and others affiliated with the church have routinely questioned the magisterium of the pope and bishops. Yet the traditional model remains the norm.

Thus editing a religious magazine is, for a priest, analogous to preaching a homily. Catholics rightly expect to hear their church's teaching expounded from the pulpit, and they have the same right to find it upheld in the pages of a Catholic journal edited by clerics and published by a religious order. Parallels are easy to find in other fields. Junior officers do not have the right to lecture the troops on the folly of the strategy and tactics devised by senior officers. Diplomats are not free to criticize their governments' policies before their foreign counterparts. And public officials of the church have no right to undermine its authoritative doctrine and policy in the eyes of the Catholic people.

That doesn't mean marching in lockstep. Differences in approach and emphasis are welcomed, and there is ample room for spirited debate over truly open questions, such as the conditions under which capital punishment is allowable. But the fundamental obligation, for the editors of America and other such publications, is to represent the church faithfully and to convey its teachings loyally.

Lay people are in a different situation. They have church-related obligations, of course, but they are not, so to speak, officially teaching the public on behalf of the church. When a lay editor of a lay journal advances a heterodox view, after all, no one is likely to take it for anything except what it is — a personal opinion at odds with the church's doctrine or policy.

Later this month, Catholic journalists from around the country will gather in Orlando, Fla., for a convention of the Catholic Press Association. The Reese affair will no doubt be topic No. 1. It would be a good time to acknowledge — faithfully, loyally — the special role of journals under clerical and religious control.


Russell Shaw. "The Lessons of America." reprint The Wall Street Journal (May 13, 2005).

This article reprinted with permission of The Wall Street Journal © 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.


Russell Shaw is a writer and journalist in Washington and a contributing editor of Crisis magazine and Our Sunday Visitor national newspaper. His books include Personal Vocation: God Calls Everyone By Name, Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church, Good News, Bad News: Evangelization, Conversion, and the Crisis of Faith. He is editor of Our Sunday Visitor's Encyclopedia of Catholic Doctrine.

Copyright © 2005 Wall Street Journal

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