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Friday, June 03, 2005

Blown Gasket Productions Proudly Presents: The Passion of the Reese.

Sr. Joan waxes apocalyptic about the Dark Age Now Descending, and advises that Fr. Tom Reese was fired for our sins.

Station 8: Thomas meets the women of Kansas City.

There's a line in scripture that has plagued me for years. Now I have experienced it.

Nobody talks about the passage much. I, on the other hand, have never been able to forget it. On the way to his death on Calvary, Jesus says to the weeping women of Jerusalem who have come to grieve his impending execution, "Women, weep not for me. Weep for yourselves and for your children." Strange, I thought to myself years ago. Strange. Why a line like that at a time like that?

That's Luke 23:28. Here it is in context. The universal understanding of the passage is that Jesus is warning of the destruction of Jerusalem, and is asking the women to do what he himself did as he entered the City of David for his Passion. Not particularly strange at all, really.

Now I realize that it's not a strange kind of statement at all for a time like that, a time when the innocent are called guilty and the committed are called heretical and the society itself is, as a result, on the brink of losing credibility with the faithful as a result. When the announcement of Tom Reese's withdrawal as editor of America magazine became public, that line from scripture was, in fact, the only thing that went through my mind.

Jumping Judas on a pogo stick. There are times when my rare efforts to understand prominent progressives in the Church bear fruit, and I get where they are coming from. Too often I experience this--total, complete incomprehension. As in "futile to even try." We're not talking mere futility here--we're talking metaphysical futility. This is the "one-legged-cat-trying-to-bury-turds-on-a-frozen-pond" kind of futility that makes you want to go to your happy place for a while.

Let's parse this for a moment: the passage refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, which included the destruction of the Temple. It was, in a very real way, the end of the world as far as first century Judaism was concerned, as, in addition to the horrific death and destruction, it marked the end of a God-ordained form of worship that stretched back to the time of Solomon. The common estimate of the death toll is on the order of 1,000,000.

So, Sr. Joan is comparing the sacking (or whatever) of the editor of a magazine and his replacement by his handpicked successor with the crushing of a nation, the end of an integral and ancient part of its religious identity and the deaths of a million people. Because, you know, it's so embarrassing when we have to talk to our non-Catholic friends about it ("losing credibility," and all that).

"Hysterical," and not in the funny/ha-ha sense, does not begin to describe this complete loss of perspective.

The official announcement, of course, is that Reese "resigned. " "Resigned," in this case, apparently means "decided to go quietly" or was "talked into going" or was "threatened with more serious things than not going," like having a commission of bishops selected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to censor the publication if he remained in his position as editor.

Gosh, you'd think the Jesuits were like some official Church organization with accountability to others or something.

Whatever happens to Tom Reese,

A tenured professorship, most likely. Take it to the bank. Probably even an endowed chair.

Such is the grim fate of American Catholic freethinkers in the age of Exsurge Domine II: This Time, It's Personal. I mean, look at what happened to poor Charles Curran, reduced to rooting through McDonald's dumpsters at closing time and forced to shout "Unclean! Unclean!" every time he passes a Catholic on the street. Unlike Fr. Reese, Fr. Curran was actually subjected to ecclesial sanction and censure. The horror...

The only real question left is whether it will be Boston College or Georgetown.

however much we care about the effect of such a move on an individual -- and there is no doubt that it is some kind of intellectual abuse at the peak of a distinguished career

Oh, dear Lord. Someone get Sister a snifter of Haldol. The only "intellectual abuse" being suffered here is by the benighted readers of FWIS.

-- the truth is that it is we ourselves, the church itself, that will be most damaged by a power play of this kind.

This manipulation of the Catholic press, this assault on the quality and standards of Catholic journalism, will mark the church for years to come. In fact, it runs the risk of making the whole idea of Catholic "thought" an oxymoron.

No--the greatest risk to Catholic thought is to downplay, secularize or attempt to harmonize it with the zeitgeist. Which is precisely what happens when you suggest--as a Catholic editor of an officially Catholic publication--that the Catholic position is not authoritative for Catholics.

Reese's mistake -- his error, his sin, whatever -- sources close to him and the magazine say, lies in the fact that he had the gall to publish two sides of every major issue even though, at the same time, he explained the church's position carefully. He published articles in America that looked at both sides of the communion-for-politicians issue, at both sides of the gay marriage issue, at both sides of the role of Congregation of the Faith, at both sides of the church as institution and religion.

And one can "explain the Church's position carefully" in one place and immediately undermine it in another by suggesting that the former is one among many equally valid positions.

Let's take a gander at one of those above "both sides" issues. No, not the gay marriage question--there's no way one can make a sane Catholic argument in favor of the idea, especially when purely secular ones demolish it. Then again, constantly being in the company of people with advanced degrees without the opportunity to venture into the real world on at least a day pass can't be good for the brain, so perhaps some charity for the "pro-" essayist is in order.

No, I'm going to look at the more difficult question of denying communion to pro-choice politicians, a subject where bishops are allowed considerable leeway.

Yes, in June 2004, America published the essay of now-Archbishop Raymond Burke explaining the steps he took and why he was compelled by canon law to impose the sanction while he was the bishop of Lacrosse, Wisconsin. Note that Abp. Burke didn't do so on a hair trigger--it was a lengthy process that started with reaching out to discuss the matter with the affected politicians.

Then, shortly after that, America solicited (or accepted) the rebuttal of one of the politicos, Rep. David Obey. The magazine published his essay two months later (full version here). In it, Obey lauds his own statesmanship and tells Burke to whiz up a rope. Let's put aside the servile nature of Obey's position: hypothetically, it requires that he never vote his conscience if someone else disagrees, and that obligation only becomes stronger as the number of opponents increase. The notion that the politician must be the fawning servant of the general will should be disturbing to anyone who gives it a moment's thought.

Instead, imagine for a moment that you are Abp. Burke. You have, after considerable thought and prayer, decided that you needed to act on this issue. You tried private counseling, and that having failed, you imposed the sanction. Rep. Obey used his public office to castigate you. Fine--you couldn't have expected less.

But then the American publication of the Jesuit order gives him a pulpit...

Simply must be balanced, Archbishop, old chap, don't you know, what what. Nothing quite like cutting a shepherd off at the knees.

Hmm. I wonder if America plans to solicit a rebuttal from the still-unrepentant B.J. Gaillot regarding the decision of Archbishop Rummel to excommunicate her?

Probably not, and rightfully so.

Reese, professionals across the spectrum say, is a moderate and mild man. No raging anarchist, no raving heretic. He is a thoughtful man, a fair man and a competent one. He is a scholar and writer, a person who examines a subject from multiple perspectives so that others can do the same. He provides the background ideas people need to come to clear, firm conclusions of their own. He is, in other words, a good journalist.

By every account, Fr. Reese is a decent, thoughtful man. Sister's description of him is accurate.

And?

It hardly immunizes him from errors in judgment, even serious ones. And note the one essential adjective missing: Catholic.

Now please note that I'm not saying Fr. Reese is not Catholic. However, if all your putatively Catholic journal does is reflexively present multiple sides of an issue, and in the process puts the official position on the same qualitative level, then there is nothing distinctively Catholic about your publication. Or, even worse, it telegraphs to the world that there is no Catholic position, or that the Church is hopelessly schizoid on crucial issues.

While we're at it, let's also stop pretending that America is some model of balance, shall we? It consistently tilts leftward, turning its bad ear to more conservative voices, the cameos by traditionally-minded Catholics notwithstanding.

As a result of such an ungraceful and professionally groundless ousting, therefore, the rest of us are forced to examine the role of Catholic journalism itself.

Yes, let's. Starting with the concept that Catholic journals have responsibilites and duties far beyond those of secular publications. They are supposed to be more than papist versions of Vanity Fair or Salon. Do that imitation on your own dime.

When someone such as this finds himself under pressure, forced to "resign" from Catholic journalism for being balanced, for being willing to publish other views, the rest of us stand to lose something, too, whether we realize it or not.
What exactly is such a move saying to Catholics, to the world, to those who look to us for honest thought about emerging issues?

For starters? How about "we're not Sybil" or "we're not an endless debating society that fiddles while the world burns"? Because that's precisely what America was saying through its rootless and futile quest for balance.

Catholics: They're like Hamlet, only without the decisiveness and willingness to get past the navel-gazing.

Is Catholic journalism only the catechism and Vatican documents writ large? And if so, how can we call others to dialogue about difficult questions if we are not modeling it in our own publications, among ourselves, in non-contentious ways?

Fingernails across the chalkboard. She'd have something of a point if her own publication didn't consistently respond to those documents with snorts of derision.

Actually, yes, Catholic journalism must start with bedrock Catholic principles, acknowledging their authority and always staying rooted in them.

The Tom Reese resignation may well lead people to assume that Catholicism has simply returned to being -- in fact, has always been -- what they saw the church in the 1950s to be: closed to any other position but its own, no matter how much it says it seeks dialogue.

Then those people would be wrong, now, wouldn't they? Unless this is one of those "I have this friend" ruminations.

It may well signal to the world that we have already decided -- Galileo, and Modernism, the Inquisition and the Index notwithstanding -- that there is no other position but our position on anything, that we know the answers before we even completely understand the question, that we never have to update old answers to meet new insights or information.

Nice to see Sister parroting all of those cliches about mindless triumphalist Catholics I'm used to seeing from consumers of Chick tracts.

It could be seen to say that Catholicism is static, that we have already determined that we never have to rethink the Catholic position on anything from interfaith marriages to fish on Fridays.
It may send the message that no thinking is acceptable whatsoever inside the boundaries of Catholicism, that Catholics are given every answer, they never have to suffer the embarrassing reality of having to come to one together.

"You see, I have...this friend...who's afraid that the Pope is going to fly to KC, order her to wear a habit and pull a Buford Pusser on the offices of the Reporter..."

I'm beginning to think she wrote this without actually breathing. What is it with her generation and the "fish on Fridays" thing? They react to that and the Baltimore Catechism like they'd spent a few weeks on one of Torquemada's racks. It'd be more funny if it weren't so neurotic.

No, Sister, that's not what's going to happen. Even if it did, it would be a damn sight better than the scab-picking mentality of the Reporter, where nothing's ever settled, and ecumenical councils can be trashed on a whim. And again, I'll take her "let's all join hands" mantra seriously when the Rep stops slathering itself with zinc oxide everytime it comes within fifty yards of Catholic orthodoxy.

Without the clear boundaries and limits she so clearly hates, Catholicism will become the religious equivalent of Seinfeld: entertaining once a week, but ultimately a show about nothing.

It may indicate that we are not a self-critiquing institution now, any more than we were when the Reformers tried to question the selling of relics and the practice of indulgences and the chaining of the scriptures.

What's next: the death cookie? The selling of relics--if it was widespread--was hardly an officially-endorsed activity. "Here at Crazy Boniface's--everything must go--starting with this 40% discount on the jawbone of St. Obscurius!"

Last time I checked, we still have indulgences, albeit reformed, and the chaining of scriptures was to prevent the theft of what was in the medieval and renaissance era a priceless item. Hard as that may be to imagine in this era of mass literacy and K-mart Bibles.

It may even suggest that growth in the Holy Spirit is not really our intention, however much we pretend to espouse it.
Indeed we must "weep for ourselves and for our children" if this is a sign of things to come. We have a great deal more to lose than Tom Reese does.

Starting with a coherent train of thought, apparently.

From where I stand, it looks like it's a sad day for Catholicism when America magazine becomes the kind of publication we choose to repress. The purpose of this magazine, for instance, is not to promote pornography or anarchy or hate mongering. the purpose of America is to promote thinking about the issues Catholics confront in society today.

Nice to see that Sister has theological limits that she will not compromise.

But she really isn't suggesting that it is proper to ban discussion of the pornography issue, is she? Perhaps the problem is that not enough poor teenage boys have access to the online version of Juggs? Has she considered that? No--she'd rather stifle the conversation instead.

What kind of close-minded triumphalists would we be if we did that?

But thinking, apparently, is not allowed.

Of course not. Next up is Benedict XVI's first encyclical, no doubt condemning literacy as the tool of the devil.

It seems that they did save America magazine. I'm just not sure why.

Bye, bye Ms. American pie/

Walked my Birkies to the font-y/

But the font-y was dry/

And good ol' girls were drinking chablis and Sprite

Singing this'll be the day that I cry/

This'll be the day that I cry...

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