News of the resignation of Jesuit Father Thomas Reese as editor of America Magazine has prompted a debate on the role of Catholic media. Although Father Reese was not asked to resign, certain editorial decisions he made prompted the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to complain to his superiors in the Jesuit order.
During his seven years as editor of America, Father Reese has given space to diverse views on many issues that are controversial within the Catholic Church.
In some cases, writers expressed their views on issues that are open to debate within the Church. For instance, the magazine published articles presenting conflicting views on the legitimacy of the war in Iraq — George Weigel contended that the war was justified while an editorial condemned it. Most notably perhaps, America was the arena in which two cardinals of the Roman Curia — then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Cardinal Walter Kasper — discussed the relationship between the universal Church and the local Churches.
But the magazine also gave space to theologians who questioned or outrightly opposed teachings of the Magisterium. Both faithful and dissenting views on issues such as same-sex marriage, stem-cell research and abortion rights were given equal weight.
That exchange of opposing views on any given issue is a common practice in the secular media. As Americans, we are used to debating everything, particularly in the political realm. Social Security reform, tax cuts, the war in Iraq, embryonic stem-cell research, same-sex marriage, abortion, euthanasia and budget cuts are just a few of the issues currently being discussed in our country.
Pluralism is at the base of our secular society. Conflicting views are ultimately reconciled by those in authority. While every politician should ideally base his decision on concern for truth and justice, practical experience suggests that those values are frequently cast aside when expedient.
However, the Church is a different kind of society. The Second Vatican Council defines the Church as the “body of Christ,” with different members and a hierarchical structure, led by the pope and the bishops, whose task it is to serve the whole body by teaching, governing and sanctifying their flock. “He willed that their successors, namely the bishops, should be shepherds in His Church even to the consummation of the world.”
The Deposit of Faith handed on to the Apostles by Christ is entrusted to the bishops in communion with the Holy Father. The heritage of our faith is entrusted to the whole Church, but the task of interpreting it “has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church [the bishops] alone.”
Every individual has the right to believe as he wishes. Christian doctrine is to be proposed, not imposed. Catholic theologians, as individuals, may have views opposing the teachings of the Church. Ultimately they will have to be accountable for that to God. The real question is whether they can use the teaching position given to them by the bishops to oppose or question the Church’s teachings. The answer provided by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter Ex-Corde Ecclessia is clear: “Catholic theologians, aware that they fulfil a mandate received from the Church, are to be faithful to the Magisterium of the Church as the authentic interpreter of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.”
Reflecting on his own role as pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI said May 7 that he, “must not proclaim his own ideas, but constantly bind himself and the Church in obedience to God’s Word in the face of all attempts to adapt that Word or to water it down, and in the face of all forms of opportunism.”
Even 40 years after the Second Vatican Council concluded, many Catholics remain insufficiently educated in their faith. The most important task ahead is evangelization and ongoing formation of adults, a formation that fully embraces the teachings of the Church as passed on to us by the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him.
Catholic media, including America, has a very important role in educating Catholics in their faith and in explaining in an intelligible way the “reasons for our hope” so that the splendor of the truth may shine.