Famed Catholic writer Tom Reese, S.J., weighs in on the hot-button issues facing the Church
Tom Reese, S.J., one of the best-known Jesuits in the world, called his brother a few years back to lament Vatican politics and structures that seem stuck in the Middle Ages. Ed Reese, S.J., on the other end of the phone, replied. “Well, it hasn’t impacted our freshman football team yet.”
That one exchange may best capture the difference between these two brother-Jesuits. Eddie, as he is known by his friends and colleagues, has devoted his life to Jesuit high school education, while younger brother Tom has gained an international reputation as a thought leader, reformer and a critic of Church policies and structures. That reputation eventually led to his resignation as editor of America magazine after seven years at the helm due to Vatican pressure over his publication of articles that did not always toe the Vatican line.
Tom’s reputation, though, led President Barack Obama to appoint him in 2014 to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an organization that he chaired until June.
He recently stepped down as a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter to take on a new role with the Religious News Service, the “largest single source of news about religion, spirituality and ideas,” according to that organization’s website. Given Tom Reese’s experience and expertise, he is well suited for this new and expansive role.
Now in residence at Gonzaga High School in Washington, D.C., Tom spoke in July from SCU with Genesis editor Paul Totah ’75 about the important work of helping the Church grow and better serve a changing world.
Q. What is National Catholic Reporter’s mission, and why is that mission an important one? In short, what is the role of loyal opposition, and is NCR’s role the same as America magazine’s role?
A. One advantage of NCR is that it is a lay-owned and operated newspaper and website. The board of directors is practically all lay, so much so that I joke that this is the new Church, one where Father works for the laity. The advantage of lay publications such as Commonweal and NCR is that they give a lay voice to issues facing the Church. These publications are their bully pulpit to talk about Catholic issues. Most importantly, they offer a platform for independent voices and no censorship.
When I was editor of America, I was worried that the Vatican or the bishops would come down on something we published; in fact, the Vatican did come down like a ton of bricks, and I had to resign from America. The advantage of that magazine is people pay attention because they see it as credible given the Jesuit brand behind it. The disadvantage is that if the Vatican says Reese has to go, then Reese has to go. That would never happen at NCR or Commonweal.
Q. Do you think Pope Francis would have fired you?
A. We’re in a very different Church today. In 2015, at the Synod of Bishops on the Family, he encouraged bishops who disagreed with him to speak up with boldness. This comes from the Acts of the Apostles, where Paul comes to Jerusalem and challenges Peter, who wants all Gentiles to be circumcised and follow Jewish laws. That’s an extraordinary thing for Pope Francis to do — to invite the bishops to speak with complete frankness even if they disagree.
Pope Francis was responding to his own experience when he served under the previous two popes. When he came to Rome for the Synod on evangelization, he was told which topics could not be discussed. It was a joke. The Synod was supposed to advise the pope, but the Vatican didn’t want the bishops to say anything the pope had not already said. The bishops could only speak to the pope using the pope’s words to agree with him. It was just like the Soviet legislature.
Today, cardinals disagree publicly with the pope. I have no problem with them doing this. That’s one of the most extraordinary things Pope Francis has done, and that means Catholic publications are also liberated to speak their minds without worrying about the Vatican telling religious leadership to fire their editors.
Q. One topic that earned you the wrath of the Vatican when you were editing America was your support of married clergy. Has anything changed since then?
A. Certainly having an editorial in support of married clergy would not get anyone in trouble today. In fact, the pope is waiting for the bishops’ conferences to request an optional celibacy route to the priesthood. One Brazilian bishop has a huge diocese that includes a large part of the Amazon jungle. He only has 20 priests and needs more. He told the pope that for this to happen, the Church needs to have married clergy. The pope’s response was, “Go back to Brazil and speak to the bishops’ conference and ask them to request it, and I will give it serious consideration.”
The idea of a married clergy is not a doctrinal issue. Even the most conservative Catholics acknowledge that it’s a matter of law, not doctrine, and law can change. In the first 1,000 years of the Church, we had married clergy, and 11 of the 12 apostles were married. If Peter can be married and Jesus picked him to be pope, there’s no reason why we can’t have a married clergy today.
The other issue is women priests, and some argue that it’s a question of doctrine. They argue that the pope, even if he wanted, could not change this. This seems to be the position taken by Pope Francis. Can we still discuss it? That would push Pope Francis to see whether he really is willing to accept people disagreeing with him.
The enforcer of orthodoxy in the Church has traditionally been the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which would go after theologians and writers who said or wrote things in opposition to Church teaching or Vatican policy. It is no longer trying to silence theologians.
In short, if a Catholic publication discussed married clergy, it would get away with it, unless that magazine was published by a conservative bishop.
Q. What about issues concerning LGBT communities, especially in light of Fr. James Martin’s new book — Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion and Sensitivity?
A. The issue of married priests is an either/or situation. If you talk about LGBT issues, you’re talking about a whole range of things. Jim described how the Church and the LGBT community can have a better relationship as the Church can be welcoming and compassionate. He brings up the image of us all as pilgrims walking together, with none of us perfect. That kind of pastoral approach won’t get you in trouble with the bishops. In fact, Jim has two cardinals endorsing his book as he’s a very careful writer.
You won’t find anything about having gay marriage in a sacramental setting, and you won’t see anything in his book about sex outside of marriage being OK. However, he does point out that if you say a gay couple living together can’t go to communion, then you have to say the same thing regarding heterosexual couples or divorced Catholics. And what about other issues? Eventually you get to the point where no one can go to communion. Jim points out that if you only talk about excluding gay people, then you are discriminating. Pope Francis believes that Communion is food for the wounded, not a reward for the perfect.
I think as long as you use the language of friendship, love and pastoral concern for all the people of God, including those in the LGBT community, then you’re OK. But saying that they should also be married in the Church and that there is no difference between gay and heterosexual marriage, that’s crossing a line that Pope Francis and the bishops are not willing to cross.
Pope Francis and the bishops won’t change their mind on these issues, but certainly the pope would be on board with everything Jim says in his book about how we should respect and love and welcome people in the LGBT community.
Q. For many, the Church is still moving at a snail’s pace regarding its attitude toward the LGBT community.
A. Clearly the language that the Church used in the past about gay people is awful. The Church used to refer to homosexuality as “intrinsically disordered.” That is abstract Greek philosophical language based on categories that no one understands. Gay people see it as demeaning, and that vocabulary has to be thrown onto the junk heap of history
Questions also come up regarding how gay marriage should be treated by the state. Here I think the Catholic bishops have been crazy in their opposition to civil gay marriage. I don’t see the rationale. Long ago, bishops accepted that divorced people could get remarried in civil society. If the Church can accept that, then why can’t it accept gay people being married by the state? Having gay marriage be civilly legal doesn’t have an impact on sacramental marriage, and the state cannot tell churches to perform wedding ceremonies for gay people. Basically, the bishops should just shut up, as this fight is over. The bishops lost years ago. To do a rear-guard fight against gay marriage is just stupid.
It’s the same as the battle over legalizing birth control in the U.S. Certain forms of artificial birth control used to be illegal. After the Church lost, it gave up trying to criminalize birth control. The Church should respond to gay marriage the same way. It’s over. You fought, you lost and now you learn to live with it and move on.
Public law, according to Aquinas, does not have to enact the entire moral law. It’s a matter of prudence and keeping order in society. There are good arguments in favor of gay marriage in terms of raising kids, property rights and protecting the rights of people. These are all helpful to society. I could vote for legalizing gay marriage. In any case, that battle is over. The Supreme Court ended that fight.
Q. You have long been an observer of the Vatican. On what areas would you give Pope Francis high marks?
A. I’d give the pope top marks for the way in which he preaches the gospel. This is the most important thing we’re supposed to do as priests and bishops. In the past, evangelization simply meant memorizing the catechism and accepting everything in it. Pope Francis’s central message is that God loves us. This is Christ’s most important message, one central to his parables. Flowing from this, “If God loves us so much, then we should love one another.” That’s the core of the gospel message, not the theology of transubstantiation. Francis’ reorienting the Church around that message of love is extremely important. He was a pastor, unlike Benedict, who was a theologian. Benedict was concerned with how words are defined, which is what you would expect from a university professor. Francis, however, went into the slums, listened to people’s concerns and saw how they needed to hear that God loves them. It’s a powerful message.
I also praise his attempt to change the culture of the Church. He hates clericalism. It’s ironic, given his belief that we should forgive one another, how tough he is when he speaks to priests and bishops. He challenges them and tells them they must change. He reminds them that they aren’t princes but servants of the people of God.
Clericalism has been disastrous for the Church. Too many bishops believe that God put them in charge and that Catholics have to do what they tell them. Father has all the answers, and all you need to do is pay, pray and obey. That might work for illiterate peasants but not for college educated folk who live in a culture that questions everything and that won’t accept statements simply based on the authority of an office.
What he’s calling the bishops and clergy to is conversion. That’s tough, but it’s what the Church is supposed to be about. Sadly, it hasn’t worked yet. A lot of seminarians and young priests and bishops just don’t get it. They aren’t on board with Pope Francis and what he’s trying to do with the Church. Too many are hoping that his papacy will end soon and that we will get back to a pope like Benedict or John Paul II.
Q. And where would you give Pope Francis middle marks?
A. I’d give him a C on reforming the Vatican. It’s a passing grade. The Vatican Bank is pretty much cleaned up, but there is still a need to do more with other aspects of Vatican finances. He is moving in the right direction, even to the point where a couple of people are being prosecuted for misappropriating money from the Vatican Hospital.
Still, he really doesn’t know how to reform the Vatican completely. The most important reform that the Curia needs is for the pope to stop making cardinals and bishops out of the people who work there. Vatican employees should be lay people or simple priests. The current organization of the Vatican is modeled on the royal courts of the 18th century where the king ruled his nation with nobles. The Papal Court is still organized that way. It’s not even a 19th-century bureaucracy yet. Bishops should serve people in a diocese. Vatican bureaucrats shouldn’t be placed between the College of Bishops and the pope.
We see it with Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose term was not renewed. He’s 69. Do you just retire him? We have this idea that if you’re a cardinal or an archbishop, then the Vatican should have a job for you. If he were a simple priest, we’d say, “Thank you for your service. Here’s a plane ticket. Go back to your bishop and find work with him.”
One of Pope Francis’s problems is that he doesn’t want to fire anyone. You can’t reorganize a big bureaucracy without getting rid of some people and bringing in new people. Just look at his communication shop. It’s filled with a staff dedicated to short wave radio who are now being asked to do tweets and post YouTube videos. Some aren’t interested in learning new skills. It’s tough to reorganize unless you tell people this isn’t going to work out any more. You need to offer them severance pay and tell them it’s over.
The other area is the sex abuse crisis. I’d give him a C. He has continued the zero-tolerance policy of Pope Benedict; however, while he understands it on an intellectual level, he hasn’t gone through the gut-wrenching pain that clergy and people in North America have faced with years of headlines and legal cases. I don’t think he gets it on a visceral level. I recommend he meet with victims of sexual abuse at least once a month and listen to them. He should let them tell him their stories and weep and pray with them. I have been totally changed by the little of that I’ve done. Then it becomes no longer an abstraction but a human issue. He needs to do that.
Q. Any failing grades for the pope?
A. Yes. He just doesn’t get women. I wouldn’t give him an F, as he likes and respects women. He isn’t afraid of strong women and can work with them, but he doesn’t have a 21st-century vocabulary when he talks about women. Some feminists, including theologians who love him, cringe when they hear him speak about the complementary and special charism women have. Any man, especially a cleric, who talks about women has to have his head examined. The best thing a cleric can do is shut up and listen.
The women’s issues he is concerned about are those affecting women in the Third World: human trafficking, poverty, unemployment. The glass ceiling women face, where a woman doesn’t become a full professor or full partner in a law firm, these aren’t his issues.
However, he’s capable of working with strong, smart women. When he got out of technical school and became a chemist, his first boss was a woman and a Marxist. She mentored him, and they remained good friends for the rest of her life. Still, he has an inability to understand 21st century feminists. When he wanted to work on human trafficking, he hired a woman lawyer. When I asked her what it was like working for him, she said it was great. “He did whatever I told him.” He needs to bring women like that into the Vatican.
Q. You wrote about the pope’s encyclical, Caring for Our Common Home. What has happened to advance the call to action of Laudato Si’? What worries you about the way the world is responding to it?
A. The environmental crisis is the crisis of the 21st century. We’re talking about the survival of hundreds of thousands of species and the impact on human civilization. This is an extraordinarily moral issue, and for a pope to put the moral authority of the Catholic Church behind the environmental movement was very important.
Some bishops have committed their dioceses to having a zero-carbon footprint. But it hasn’t gotten the same full-court press from the bishops that they gave to fighting the contraceptive mandate of Obamacare. We don’t have a fortnight for Laudato Si’, but we do for freedom of religion.
Environmentalists now recognize that without the support of religious communities, we won’t stop climate change. People aren’t going to change their lifestyles to save baby seals, but they will do extraordinary things for their religion, such as spending centuries building cathedrals. Religion will get people to sacrifice their immediate personal interests for the greater good. Catholicism has traditions such as fasting, doing penance for sins and being called to conversion to live a simpler life. We will have to do these and more on a massive scale if we’re going to save the earth.
Q. You were appointed by President Obama in 2014 to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and you recently completed a year as its chair. What threats are there to religious freedom?
A. The commission is an independent, bipartisan, government commission that surveys the situation around the world regarding threats and attacks on religious freedom and makes recommendations to the President, the State Department and Congress on how to support religious freedom around the world. Our mandate only covers religious freedom outside the U.S., not inside.
We see states like Russia, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia restricting religious freedom and imprisoning people because of their religious beliefs or their desire to practice religion. We also have societal conflicts in Pakistan and Indonesia, where, if you’re accused of blasphemy against Mohammed, a mob will show up and lynch you within minutes without a trial. We see Buddhists rioting against and killing Muslims in Burma and Hindus attacking Muslims and Christians in India. The Central African Republic is a tragedy, with Christians and Muslims indiscriminately killing one another. In Egypt, we have seen some improvement with the government condemning violence against Coptic Christians and using state money to rebuild Coptic churches destroyed in terrorist attacks or mob violence.
We see more and more people talking about religious freedom, and that gives me some hope. Even in Saudi Arabia, the fear of Isis has led the government to moderate its language as it speaks about people of other faiths. But it’s so discouraging to see the speed with which a mob can get riled up and the way that religion mixes with politics.
In Nigeria with Boko Haram and in Syria with Isis, when militants come in, Muslim neighbors suddenly turn on Christian neighbors with whom they have gotten along for generations. They do so, in part, because of fear that if you’re not with Boko Haram or Isis, then you’ll be shot or beheaded. To protect themselves, neighbors will turn on neighbors. I’ve spoken with Christian villagers who had their homes looted after they ran away. It wasn’t Boko Haram — it was often their neighbors doing this. I’ve asked Christian refugees if they wanted to return home after situations cooled, and they told me that they could never live again with people who turned on them in their hour of need. That is so depressing. Places like Rwanda overcame this only after extraordinarily powerful processes of reconciliation. Few people are good at doing that. We spend billions on weapons but only pennies on reconciliation. Without that, things will settle down for a while and then blow up again every decade.
Q. We’ve spoken about the need for tolerance among people of different faiths. How has the Catholic Church encouraged tolerance of immigrants and refugees in the U.S.?
A. The Church has excelled at this from the beginning. Back when Catholics were the immigrants, WASPS, the Know-Nothing Party and the KKK were accusing the Church of bringing impurities into the pure American culture. The language that people are using today against immigrants was used against Catholics in the 19th and 20th centuries. It’s a disgrace to see Catholics attacking immigrants and refugees.
The Catholic Church was one of the great relocators of refugees after the two world wars and the Vietnam War thanks to Catholic Relief Service and the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services. The Catholic Church has been on the side of the angels regarding these issues.
Some bishops, because of their narrow vision on issues of freedom of religion and abortion, are so identified with certain politicians that they are sometimes unwilling to speak out for refugees. I hope this will change with the bishops under Pope Francis as the Church returns to a comprehensive ethic of life that is concerned about the human person from the womb to the tomb and about refugees and migrants as life issues. This is extremely important today when there are more refugees than ever since WWII.
Q. One of the board members for NCR is Teresa Cariño ’09. [Editor’s note: See the story on Teresa in this issue.] Why is it essential that publications such as NCR include the voices of young people such as Teresa?
A. It’s so important that the board include the voices of young women who are bright and articulate and who see things that the guys miss. Young people have to be at the table actively participating in decisions affecting the Church today. I also joke about this little-known secret: Women are already controlling the Catholic Church. Who are the teachers and who is passing on the faith to the next generation? It’s 90 percent women — mothers, teachers, religious education folks in parishes. They are interacting with kids 24/7, while a priest gets five minutes on the pulpit on Sunday. Who are the kids going to listen to? Who will teach children about Jesus and God? It’s women. If bishops don’t understand that, then they are totally blind.
Q. How are you and your brother different men and priests?
A. Eddie and I have different personalities and interests. I taught at SI as a scholastic from 1968 to 1970, one year at the old school and one year at the new school. My first year with seniors was a disaster. I couldn’t keep discipline. My two years teaching was enough to motivate me to get a doctoral degree so I would never have to teach in a high school again.
On the other hand, Eddie loves high school work and totally thrives on it. We’re different in that way but have a great respect for what each of us does. His starting of the Father Sauer Academy to prepare poor kids to thrive during their four years in high school is a terrific model that all of our high schools should imitate.
We’re both doing God’s work, at least we hope we are, and advancing the Kingdom as we preach and live out the gospel. Eddie does it on a personal level with people. I do it from the pulpit of my writing. However, I generally have no idea how a piece of writing was received, while Eddie and others working at a high school or parish get immediate feedback. You know when people stop listening.
When I write a column, it’s read by thousands of people, but it’s the individual one-on-one that changes people’s lives. It’s rare for a column to do that. High school teachers and administrators impact individuals in great ways, whereas a columnist impacts a lot of people in a little way. It’s a different world, too. After I complained about something on the Vatican level, Eddie said, “Well, it hasn’t impacted the freshman football team yet.” There’s a perspective you get from being distant from the Vatican. Some of us get obsessed with ecclesiastical politics, and we need reminders from people on the ground-level that there are more important things.
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