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Posted May 11, 2005

Jesuit officials say America editor
resigned after Vatican complaints

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

ROME (CNS) -- Jesuit officials in Rome said Father Thomas Reese resigned as editor in chief of America magazine after repeated complaints from then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who objected to the magazine's treatment of sensitive church issues.

Jesuit Father Jose M. de Vera, spokesman for the Society of Jesus in Rome, said Father Reese decided to resign after discussing the situation with his Jesuit superiors, following Cardinal Ratzinger's election as Pope Benedict XVI. Father de Vera denied reports that Father Reese was forced to resign, but he acknowledged that pressure had been coming from the Vatican for several years.

"He tendered his resignation. It was not imposed, contrary to what was written," Father de Vera told Catholic News Service May 9.

"With Cardinal Ratzinger elected pope, I think (Father Reese) thought it would be very difficult to continue his line of openness, without creating more problems. He had been at America magazine seven years and he improved it tremendously, so I think he understood it was time to go," the Jesuit spokesman said.

Father Reese announced May 6 that at the end of the month he would leave America, a New York-based national Catholic weekly magazine of news and commentary run by the U.S. Jesuits. In a statement, Father Reese did not mention problems with the Vatican.

He said he would be replaced by Jesuit Father Drew Christiansen, an associate editor since 2002, widely known for his work on Catholic social teaching and international justice and peace issues.

Father de Vera said that in conversations with Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Jesuit superior general, Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had expressed concern about America's articles on several occasions.

Father de Vera said the articles that drew complaints treated a relatively small number of issues: "Dominus Iesus," the doctrinal congregation's document on Christ as the unique savior; same-sex marriage; stem-cell research; and the reception of Communion by Catholic politicians who support legal abortion.

On these and other questions, America often hosted commentary that represented a broad spectrum of opinions among Catholics, including those who disagreed with some of the Vatican's positions.

"The policy of (Father Reese) was to present both sides of the discussion. ... He wanted to present both sides within the Catholic community. But that did not sit well with Vatican authorities," Father de Vera said.

Father de Vera said that because the articles touched on doctrinal issues the Vatican wanted the Jesuits to write articles "defending whatever position the church has manifested, even if it is not infallible."

Father de Vera also said he thought some of the complaints probably came from Catholics in the United States, and that Cardinal Ratzinger's congregation was reacting to them.

More than a year ago, Father de Vera said, the tension had reached the point that Vatican officials threatened to impose a board of censors on the magazine unless changes were made.

At that time, he said, Father Reese and the Jesuits agreed to set up an internal board that reviewed articles prior to publication. In this way, "the threat of outside censors was dispelled," Father de Vera said.

But even under that arrangement the articles published in America continued to provoke complaints at the Vatican.

"The board has not produced what (the Vatican) expected -- a very strict line, very, very close to whatever was expressed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith," Father de Vera said.

Some church sources said Cardinal Ratzinger's office was believed to have sent a letter in March requesting Father Reese's dismissal. Father de Vera said he was unaware of such a letter and could neither confirm nor deny its existence.

Father de Vera said that after Father Reese discussed the situation with Father Kolvenbach in April he voluntarily decided to resign for the good of the order.

"He knew the situation. He didn't want to embarrass the society, and he didn't want to fight the pope, so he resigned," Father de Vera said.

The Jesuit spokesman characterized the decision as "very prudent, very wise and very generous" on the part of Father Reese. Considering his improvements at the magazine, Father de Vera said, "he resigns in a moment of glory, so to speak."

Father Christiansen said May 6, "Father Reese greatly improved the magazine, adding news coverage, color and the Web edition. His technical expertise, in this age of new media, will be greatly missed. I know I will be calling on his guidance in that and other areas."

In his statement he added, "By inviting articles that covered different sides of disputed issues, Father Reese helped make America a forum for intelligent discussion of questions facing the church and the country today."

Among other issues of church teaching and practice debated in the pages of America under Father Reese were homosexual priests, mandatory clerical celibacy, inclusive language in the liturgy and the appropriateness of some Vatican actions and documents.

During his tenure America's circulation grew and it was frequently quoted in other media. Father Reese, who has written books on how the Vatican and the U.S. bishops operate, is frequently interviewed about church affairs by U.S. print and broadcast media.

Father Christiansen was a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University before he joined the America staff. From 1991 to 1998, he was director of the U.S. bishops' Office of International Justice and Peace, and he continued to serve as an international affairs counselor to the bishops until last December.

His staff work for the bishops included their 1991 pastoral letter on the environment and the design and development of their environmental justice program. He was the lead staff person in the drafting of the 1993 peace pastoral, "The Harvest of Justice Is Sown in Peace," which has provided the basis for the post-Cold War policy of the bishops' conference.

Father Christiansen earned a doctorate in religious social ethics from Yale University in 1982. From 1981 to 1986 he was assistant professor of social ethics at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, Calif., and the Graduate Theological Union there. He also directed the Center for Ethics and Social Policy 1981-86. From 1986 to 1990 he taught theology at the University of Notre Dame and was a fellow at its Institute for International Peace Studies.

He is the author of more than 100 articles on moral theology, ethics and international affairs, just war and nonviolence, Catholic social teaching, and family care of the elderly. He was a co-author of "Forgiveness in International Politics: An Alternative Road to Peace," and he is currently drafting a definitive commentary on Blessed Pope John XXIII's encyclical, "Pacem in Terris."

From 1985 to 1998 Father Reese was a senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center. While there he wrote three books examining church organization and politics at the local, national and international levels.

For the first book in 1989, "Archbishop," he visited every U.S. archdiocese to interview the archbishop and explore the dynamics of his background and leadership and governance styles. The second, "A Flock of Shepherds," investigated the history and structures of the U.S. (then called National) Conference of Catholic Bishops. His third, "Inside the Vatican," has been translated into four other languages.

He also organized two major research projects that resulted in books during that time, one on the history and nature of episcopal conferences and another on a catechism for the universal church.

Father Reese joined the Jesuits in 1962 and was ordained in 1974. He earned a doctorate in political science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1976. From 1975 to 1978 he was legislative director of Taxation With Representation, a tax reform lobby in Washington. From 1978 to 1985 he was associate editor of America.

With his resignation from America, Father Reese also submitted his resignation from the board of directors of the Catholic Press Association.

This was not the first time the doctrinal congregation influenced magazines run by religious orders.

In 1997 Pope John Paul II appointed an Italian bishop to oversee all Italian publications of the Pauline Fathers, including the weekly Famiglia Cristiana, which had a circulation of more than 1 million. It had run articles advocating Communion for divorced-remarried Catholics and arguing against censuring teenagers for masturbation.

The papal action came shortly after the order's superior general reportedly refused demands by Cardinal Ratzinger to rein in the magazine's editorial independence and to submit all articles to advance review by a panel of theologians appointed by the cardinal. The controversy ended with the removal of the magazine's director and, shortly after, his departure as a columnist.

In 2002 a Chicago-based Claretian magazine, U.S. Catholic, ran clarifications of church teaching on women's ordination at the request of the doctrinal congregation. The congregation intervened after the magazine carried a story reporting on the faith and lives of five women who felt called to the Catholic priesthood.