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No Room For Dissent?

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 31, 2005

On the Sunday after Pope Benedict XVI was elected, I attended Mass at a parish whose pastor I like and respect, even if we have rather different political views. Since it was not my regular parish, I hadn't seen him for a while. So we greeted each other warmly and, in light of our new pope's strongly conservative views, closer to my friend's than mine, I asked him: "Please pray for us liberals." He laughed and assured me that I had nothing to worry about. Pope Benedict was now head of the entire church, he said, and knew he had a task different from his old one as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the guardian of church orthodoxy.

I appreciated my friend's openness. After all, he could have said it was time for my kind of Catholic to join the Episcopal Church across the street. But I suggested that because Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict, is a person of integrity, I did not expect him to shelve his old self quite so easily.

Not long after, word came that the Rev. Tom Reese had been forced to resign as the editor of America magazine, the Jesuit weekly, at the end of a process begun under then-Cardinal Ratzinger. It seems that Reese was too willing to invite Catholics to his pages who did not agree with the totality of the Vatican's views. Not, mind you, that he didn't give top billing to the official view. Cardinal Ratzinger himself once wrote for Reese's magazine. But Father Tom, a moderate by temperament, was a bit too willing to broaden the community of discourse.

Liberal Catholics -- and many moderates, too -- were aghast. "For those who had hoped that the pastoral challenges of his new office might broaden Benedict's sympathies, this is a time of indignation, disappointment and increased apprehension," the editors of Commonweal, a lay Catholic magazine (with which I've had a long association), wrote. "If the moderate views expressed in America, views widely shared by the vast majority of lay Catholics, are judged suspect by the [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith], how is the average Catholic to assess his or her own relationship to the church?"

Fay Vincent, the former baseball commissioner, made his own assessment. A couple of weeks ago he resigned from the board of trustees at the Jesuit-run Fairfield University and refused to accept an honorary degree from Sacred Heart University to protest what happened to Reese. "I'm really worried that some Catholic organizations, especially universities, are at some risk," Vincent told a local newspaper, according to the Associated Press. "How can you call yourself a university without free debate?"

Now there's a case to be made that those who don't like what's happening always have the option of, well, crossing the street to another church, or another magazine. The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, once a liberal Lutheran pastor and now a conservative Catholic priest, makes a forceful case for clear boundaries. Writing in the Boston Globe, Neuhaus argued that because America is "a Catholic magazine in the service of the church and its mission," it has a special obligation to uphold orthodoxy as defined by the pope. That's especially true, he said, on "publicly controversial questions such as the moral understanding of homosexuality, same-sex marriage and the exploitation of embryonic stem cells."

"On such questions, the church has clearly defined positions," Neuhaus wrote. "The practice of America suggested to some the magazine's neutrality or hostility to the church's teaching. Not surprisingly, they asked of the magazine, 'Whose side are you on?' " That last question is a good one, relevant to all traditions and not just to Catholics. I answer it differently from Neuhaus not only because I failed to see hostility toward the church in Reese's magazine, but also because I think we see tradition differently.

The Catholics Reese's magazine spoke to, and often for, are loyal to their tradition but also understand, as the philosopher Michael Walzer has put it, that "traditions are sites for arguments." Traditions stay alive by nurturing a spirit that is at once loving and critical. If every question is kept open, there are no answers. But if too many questions are closed, the answers the tradition offers become steadily less compelling, less fresh and less persuasive.

"Tradition is the living faith of the dead," wrote the great religious historian Jaroslav Pelikan. "Traditionalism is the dead faith of the living." Father Reese stands for a living faith serene enough to argue with itself. I worry that's why he was asked to leave his post.

postchat@aol.com


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