“Five years ago, I would have been afraid of saying anything like what the pope said in his [recent] interview,” says the Rev. Tom Reese. “I’m ecstatic. I haven’t been this hopeful about the church in decades.”
Father Reese had good reason to be afraid. One of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s last acts before becoming Pope Benedict XVI was to fire Reese, who was then editor in chief of the Jesuit magazine America, which published the Pope Francis interview last week. Ratzinger fired Reese while Pope John Paul II was dying in 2005. It wasn’t the editorials in America that riled Ratzinger. “I never had an editorial about abortion, women priests or gay marriage,” he says. “That would have been touching the third rail. It was mostly a dialogue.”
How things have changed. As it turns out, Reese was ahead of his time, espousing for years the views that Francis espouses. And he paid the price for it. Put another way, it is clear to Reese that Francis would not have been Benedict’s choice to succeed him.
According to Reese, the Vatican had indicated its displeasure at the magazine for five years before Reese was fired. Officials accused him of being anti-hierarchical. But the “high point of my career,” Reese said, was two articles he published by Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of ecumenics. Kasper challenged Ratzinger on church theology. Reese submitted the galleys to Ratzinger, who wrote a response. “That was the kind of communication I wanted to have in the magazine,” he says. Big mistake, it turns out. Ratzinger was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the watchdog of the Vatican. Word came from Rome: “Reese has got to go,” he says. “I was running a journal of opinion, and they only wanted one opinion. They wanted an echo chamber of what was coming out of the Vatican.”
Once fired, Reese went to the Woodstock Theological Center, which closed in June. He is now on sabbatical before returning in January to a job with the National Catholic Reporter. The church won’t be able to fire him this time. It’s an independent publication, unlike America.
“Francis is saying: ‘Get out in the streets and do something. You’ll make mistakes. That’s fine,’ “ says Reese. “Staying in the sacristy is killing the church. We need to get out to the people, not wait for them to come to us.” He says the most important challenge is “how to preach the gospel in a way that is understandable and attractive. . . . We need to take the best thinking of our generation and explain Christianity to our generation. That will take hard work and [require] experimentation. In the last three decades, the church has been unable to have these discussions. Now we’ll be able to.”
“I’m very optimistic. Already I’ve seen tremendous change in the attitude and the culture of the church. This church sees leadership as service. They don’t want bishops to think they are princes,” Reese says. “We’ve been burying the lead. The important thing is compassion for others, concern for the poor, the simplicity of the church.” What people don’t need, he says, “is leading with rules and regulations, admonitions and finger wagging.” Francis is “not afraid of change, and discussion. He has respect for the history and the tradition of the church. But instead of seeing the past as some idealized state we must return to, we learn from that and now we move into the future. It’s a journey of faith.”
Today Reese thinks that “we’re going back to where we were after the Second Vatican Council, before things closed down. Things got more open to discussion and debate.” Now he says there is hope for reform.
“Pope Francis has even said we don’t have an adequate theology of women,” Reese says.
“Today I don’t think there would be a problem with an editorial calling for optional celibacy,” he says. Before Francis became pope he wrote a book called On Heaven and Earth, says Reese, in which he talked about “celibacy being a law, not a matter of faith, that could change.” For instance, Reese says now that he would feel “much freer to write or talk about supporting optional celibacy.”
“It’s fun to be a religion reporter again,” he says. “For a while it felt like being on the crime beat. It’s fun to be Catholic again.”