Saturday, May 14, 2005

The enforcers

Via Andrew Sullivan, this is a distressing report from John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter on how the forced resignation of Jesuit Thomas Reese from the magazine America - apparently for doctrinal incorrectness -- was engineered at the highest levels:

What has confused some observers, however, is whether or not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith actually sent a letter demanding that Reese resign, and to what extent then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, was personally involved in these discussions.

Based on conversations with senior Jesuit sources in Rome May 11, I can confirm that a letter was indeed sent by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the early months of 2005, before Ratzinger's election as pope, to Kolvenbach. I have not seen the letter, and therefore I do not know if it contained a direct order to remove Reese, or if it was a more vague expression of a desire to see a change in direction at America. The Jesuit sources said, however, that the thrust of the letter was clear -- that Reese's position was no longer tenable.

I also do not know if that letter was signed by Ratzinger. What I can report with certainty is that over the past five years, Ratzinger personally raised the concerns about America in his conversations with Kolvenbach. Like other religious superiors, Kolvenbach meets with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to discuss cases involving members of his order, and it was in the context of those routine conversations that America arose.

I can also confirm that one other Jesuit publication, the German journal Stimmen der Zeit, has also generated concerns from the doctrinal office to the Jesuits, though that case is described as "on-going" and no conclusions have been reached.

Of course, people will reach different conclusions about all of this. Some will see it as an overdue assertion of discipline with regard to publications officially sponsored by religious orders, while others fear an attempt to choke off reasonable, adult discussion of difficult issues. However, one should make no mistake that while Pope Benedict will strive to be a man of forbearance and dialogue, his will also be an uncompromising pontificate on what he perceives as matters of faith -- and Fr. Reese will probably not be the last Catholic to find that out the hard way.

The Pope made a show of humility and expansiveness when he took over. There is something refreshing about having a new face and name in the position. But the honeymoon is quickly ending. Benedict was and remains an enforcer, and the apparatus of doctrinal enforcement is only going to expand now. John Paul managed to overcome many of the contradictory feelings Catholics in the West had about him through the force of his personality and by advancing universal ideas that transcended the doctrinal details of Roman Catholicism. Not this guy.

This gets into an interesting issue – the nature of faith and belief and the distinction between the two. Consider the broad definition of faith as the servant of clarity and grace, an encompassing way of orienting oneself in the world - in Christianity, via a relationship with God. Faith cuts across domains of culture, individual psychology, history. Define belief as something more limited – trust in an idea, a guidepost on the path of faith. It’s a mistake to conflate the two. (Are you listening, Bill Frist?) Beliefs are useful - sometimes benevolent, sometimes dangerous. They can change the world. But an inflexible attachment to beliefs is always going to get you in trouble at some point. Churches are dynamic organisms. Individuals grow and gain – or lose – perspective. If a church places all its energy into enforcing a set of beliefs, building an inflexible structure for thinking and behavior, stripped of debate and dialogue – faith will suffer.