The Senselessness of Silencing Debate

The dismissal of a respected magazine editor shows the Catholic Church's leaders are afraid of intellectual inquiry.

BY: the editors of Commonweal magazine

 

Reprinted with permission of Commonweal magazine

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American Catholics, including most regular churchgoers, get their news about the church from the secular media, not from church spokespersons or official pronouncements. Most Catholics read about papal encyclicals in the papers; they don't read encyclicals. It therefore behooves the hierarchy, if it wants to communicate with the faithful (or re-evangelize them), to act in a way that does not lend credence to the still-widespread impression that the Catholic Church is a backward-looking, essentially authoritarian, institution run by men who are afraid of open debate and intellectual inquiry.

It is safe to say that the Vatican's shocking dismissal of Rev. Thomas Reese as editor of the Jesuit magazine America has left precisely such an impression with millions of Americans, Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

No intellectually honest person could possibly claim that Reese's America has been in the business of undermining church teaching.

It is hard to judge what is more appalling, the flimsy case made by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)-apparently at the instigation of some American bishops-against Reese's orthodoxy and stewardship of America, or the senselessness of silencing perhaps the most visible, and certainly one of the most knowledgeable, fair-minded, and intelligent public voices the church has in this country. As a political scientist who has written extensively on how the church's hierarchy works, Reese has for years been a much-relied-on source for the mass media in its coverage of Catholic issues. During the recent conclave, his visibility increased exponentially, with millions of television viewers being introduced to him on PBS, CNN, and other networks. Not surprisingly, he showed himself to be lucid, succinct, and nonideological. In a church with a more confident and magnanimous hierarchy, Reese's prominence would be seen as a great asset, not a threat. Instead, Reese's dismissal, following so closely his increased exposure during the conclave, has become front-page news. As a consequence, the first thing many Americans are now likely to associate with Pope Benedict XVI's papacy will be yet another act of Vatican repression. Does this mean that the zeal with which then-Cardinal Ratzinger harried theologians while head of the CDF will continue during his papacy?

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