The Heretical Mind Finds a Home
By Tom Bethell
Tom Bethell, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is the author, most recently, of Questioning Einstein: Is Relativity Necessary? (Vales Lake Publishing, 2009).
Sometimes, in the summer, I go to Mass at St. Ignatius Church, on the campus of the University of San Francisco. The church is large but the congregation is usually small. It's a bit like sitting amidst a busload of spectators at an empty stadium. Most of the pews are unoccupied. Almost all of the confessionals have been removed, and most of the Jesuits who once heard confessions have either died or been sent off to the Jesuit retirement home in Los Gatos.
The university itself grows ever more secular. It claims to deliver a "Jesuit education" but it would be a mistake to assume that that is a Catholic education.
One Sunday this past August, Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J., was the celebrant at the church. Until 2005 he edited the Jesuit magazine America, and when he resigned from that position rumors circulated that he had been fired by the new Pope. These days, Fr. Reese, 64, is a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
Fr. Reese's claim to fame is the frequency with which he is quoted in news stories about the Catholic Church. He seems to be in every journalist's Rolodex. For reporters with newspapers like the Washington Post and The New York Times, he is the go-to guy for the adversarial quote, perhaps in nuanced disagreement with a statement by the Vatican; perhaps putting a different spin on it and always a liberal spin.
That Sunday at St. Ignatius, he preached on the famous passage from the Epistle to the Ephesians, in which St. Paul says, "Husbands love your wives; wives obey your husbands." I was immediately curious. How would America's well-known apostle of liberal Catholicism handle that?
Fr. Reese's main point was that "the historical context was different then." In the apostolic age, husbands needed to be told to love their wives because that understanding of conjugal love had not yet penetrated the Greco-Roman culture. "Radical equality" between the sexes came in with Christianity. At the time, "it was the men who would have been upset" by the Pauline injunction, "not the women." He continued in that vein, and probably there was a good deal of truth to what he said. I don't recall that he said anything about wives obeying their husbands.
"People sometimes leave the Church for the wrong reasons," Fr. Reese added. "Taking a single passage and interpreting it in a fundamentalist way can get us into trouble." Then, in what was almost a throwaway line, he referred to "the stupid passage" in St. Paul's epistle.
I wasn't sure I had heard that right — "stupid passage," did he say? I decided to check with him after Mass. Fr. Reese was already receiving visitors at the sacristy door when I got there, and I resolved to keep it non-confrontational. I said something innocuous about the best passages of Scripture being ones that challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.
That was exactly what St. Paul was doing, he replied.
I joked that in his commentaries he often seems to be reaffirming our own conventional wisdom; he's in sync with the newspapers who quote him. He demurred that his oft-expressed "concern for the poor" was not "the dominant sentiment of the culture." His was an unfashionable voice, he believed. I wanted to say that whole tribes of reporters and politicians express concern for the poor on a daily basis. Instead I asked, in a tone that tried to convey amusement rather than shock, "By the way, did you call it a 'stupid passage'?"
"Well, I probably shouldn't have said that," he replied.
We pretty much left it at that. Within the hour he would be giving a talk at nearby Fromm Hall (formerly Xavier Hall). "Catholics and Obama" was his topic. A full audience had come to hear him, and so I joined them. Coffee and doughnuts were available.
Fr. Reese's written remarks were cautious. He told us how Obama had lived with his mother in a poor neighborhood of Jakarta; how he became a community organizer in Chicago, funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development; how he had "fond memories" of Chicago's cardinal archbishop, Joseph Bernardin, who in turn was "strongly pro-life," so much so that he had added a raft of issues to accompany opposition to abortion. He told how Obama himself was a strong devotee of Catholic social teaching.
Occasionally Fr. Reese played it for laughs, as when he referred to the "wafer watch" following Sen. Joseph Biden's nomination for vice president. The upscale audience of San Francisco Catholics responded with a gleeful burst of laughter. Of course, for those who don't believe the Communion host is anything more than a wafer, obsessing about who consumes it really is a joke.
Fr. Reese and his liberal audience were of one mind. But his implicit message as he continued was that we have our work cut out if we are to keep on watering down the faith. The Pope is a conservative, as are many of the younger bishops. The new editor of L'Osservatore Romano, who had recently commented favorably on Obama's Notre Dame appearance, was a bright spot, but a rare one. Meanwhile, eighty U.S. bishops had lined up with South Bend's Bishop John D'Arcy in criticizing Notre Dame's president for inviting Obama to speak.
Here Fr. Reese harked back nostalgically to the "good old days" when archbishops Bernardin of Chicago and John O'Connor of New York would "work out a common policy" on these issues and all the other bishops would go along with whatever they (Bernardin, mainly) decided.
In the question period Fr. Reese was asked who among the bishops seemed, well, more promising. Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Arizona, is the leading liberal hope, and "in the Bernardin mold," Fr. Reese replied. Currently he is vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Reese said later that Bishop Kicanas would be "a real coup for Milwaukee," as a replacement for Archbishop Dolan, who was promoted to New York.
(Bishop Kicanas did not get the Milwaukee job, which went to Bishop Jerome Listecki of La Crosse. Bishop Kicanas was rector of Chicago's Mundelein Seminary in the 1980s when Bernardin ruled the roost and homosexuality flourished there. Kicanas has spoken with studied ambiguity about the status of homosexual priests in the Church, saying, for example, that the Vatican has adopted a "do ask, don't tell" policy.)
Fr. Reese deplored the "approaching train wreck" of the "new translations of the liturgy," which would be upon us by Advent 2010. For one example, the current response when the priest says, "The Lord be with you," is "And also with you." This will be changed to "And with your spirit."
"I don't know why we're doing this," Fr. Reese commented. He foresaw that most people would be unprepared, and priests would be telling their parishioners from their pulpits, "I can't believe we're doing this…."
"This is not going to help the bishops," Fr. Reese added, and perhaps that prospect pleased him. His argument was based on the undoubted truth that liturgical disruption of the familiar is always upsetting. But of course the liberals had no such compunction about their own huge liturgical disruptions in the late 1960s.
Someone asked Fr. Reese if it were true that Pope Benedict had fired him as editor of America.
"It would be more accurate to say that I was the last victim of Cardinal Ratzinger rather than the first victim of the new Pope," he said. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had asked him to resign in March 2005, about a month before its prefect, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, was elected Pope.
Problems arose because America is "a magazine of opinion." In 2004 Reese solicited an article from Raymond Burke, then bishop of La Crosse, about politicians receiving Holy Communion; then he published a reply by the left-wing congressman David Obey of Wisconsin, who disagreed with Bishop Burke across the board.
"The Vatican really doesn't want a journal of opinion like that," Fr. Reese concluded.
When the question period ended, Fr. Reese received an enthusiastic round of applause, and some of his admirers approached the podium for further "dialogue." Fr. Reese stayed right there and welcomed them all.
The most interesting question came from a woman who was distressed about the new Vatican inquiry into the state of women religious in the U.S.
"Why is the Vatican doing this?" she asked.
"Part of it is they [women religious] want the ordination of women," Fr. Reese said. "Well, the Vatican doesn't like that. The other thing is the Vatican would like to see the sisters in habits, with a more traditional lifestyle; that sort of thing. There is paranoia in the Vatican. The way some of them talk you'd think they have witches' covens in some of these congregations."
To be sure, he went on, "these sisters have made mistakes, but you learn from your mistakes."
He complained that the group representing some of the sisters, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, had been meeting with the Vatican Congregation for the Institutes of Consecrated Life shortly before the investigation was announced. "But they didn't even have the courtesy to say let's talk about it and explain what we're about," Fr. Reese said, by now sounding quite indignant. Unlike the "wafer watch," investigating the "sisters" was no laughing matter. "This is not the way you deal with adults. It's not respectful!"
He said the U.S. bishops were not involved in this at all. "They're going to stay away from this one. They'll run for the hills." He got that one right.
He referred back to the last time this happened. John Paul II had asked the U.S. bishops to conduct an investigation, and San Francisco's ultra-liberal Archbishop John Quinn chaired the commission.
"It turned into a love-fest!" Fr. Reese marveled. "Because Quinn liked the sisters and those on the commission were pretty favorable toward them. And when the bishops went to Rome — they have to go there every five years — the Pope asked each individual bishop, 'How do you get along with the nuns in your diocese?' Practically to a man they said, 'I get along with them pretty well.'"
But one bishop told the Pope: "'Well, you know, you've got to ask the sisters about that, how I get along with them.' The Pope didn't like that." Great cries of delight greeted this news of an unnamed bishop who knew how to parry and banter with the Pope.
"So that investigation worked out fine. But this one the Vatican has decided they are going to control. There is paranoia on all sides here."
Nonetheless, Fr. Reese foresaw one more liberal victory. "I think eventually it is going to be much ado about nothing," he said. The nun in charge, a Mother Mary Clare Millea, whom Fr. Reese knew little about, "will go around talking to the sisters. Reports will be written. They will go to Rome, be put in a file cabinet. [Laughter] Typically when Rome does these things it takes five years. How many religious communities are there in the United States? The paper pile is going to be huge! So I think it's a bad idea…."
His last words were almost drowned out by his listeners' war-whoops of delight at the prospect of a Vatican once again thwarted in its search for American orthodoxy.
"So I think the Vatican would be smart to just call it all off and then invite them to come in and say, 'Let's have a conversation and talk about it,'" Fr. Reese said.
Nonetheless, with the number of women religious in the U.S. down to one-third of the mid-1960s peak, and with an average age of about 70 today, the Vatican knows perfectly well that it is addressing a serious problem.
(A side note: In a detailed article three months later, Thomas C. Fox of National Catholic Reporter said that most of the religious congregations are "not complying" with the Vatican investigation. They are filing minimal reports, sometimes including nothing more than a copy of their own constitutions.)
In a way, Fr. Reese's performance was impressive. He is smart, genial, articulate, tactful, and well informed. He knows what the Pope says to bishops in one-on-one meetings, for example. With his San Francisco audience he was skeptical and critical of the Vatican — jocular without quite crossing the line into disrespect for the Church whose doctrines he so confidently and publicly interprets. Yet he plainly also admires the pro-abortion politicians who flout the Church's teaching and scorn her doctrines while posing as practicing Catholics. Public scandal seems not to be an issue for him.
Fr. Reese illustrates the heretical mind in action. I was reminded once again that the heretic is almost always a more dangerous adversary of the Church than the outright atheist. Most atheists pay little attention to the Church. They think religion is nonsense but they don't usually mind because they know they are free to ignore it. Many of them also think that religion is harmless, although that is now changing with the coming of Islamist terror.
The heretic, in contrast, is interested in Church doctrine and wants to change it. He tampers with texts, nibbles away at doctrine, changes wording wherever he can. We have seen how successful the heretical mind has been in recent decades. The goal has been to water everything down — to "add too much water to the wine," as African cardinal Francis Arinze put it a few years ago.
The modern tendency is to reduce sin to syndrome, to attribute misbehavior to "disorder"; to reduce contrition to therapy. As far as liberals are concerned, "You're O.K.!" "And we're all O.K.!" is the mantra that might as well replace the exchange between the priest and the congregation at Mass.
In the past 50 years the Jesuits have been almost overwhelmed by such concessions to worldliness, and so great has been their influence on the Church over the centuries that Rome has seemed powerless to rein them in. In the view of his Jesuit peers, I suspect, Fr. Reese is considered to be quite the moderate, doctrinally.
The heretical mind is imbued not with a disbelief in God but with a resentment of God; and what the heretic resents is that God made the world in one particular way rather than another. The great heretical impulse today is directed toward sex and gender, most recently trying to establish the extreme proposition that men and women are basically the same, differing only in anatomical details that are superficial.
God, such revolutionaries believe, should not have made us so unalterably different, so unequally male and female. He could easily have made us the same and thereby done a better job!
The rotten fruits of this mad dream of gender and sexual equality include same-sex "marriage," women in combat, coed dorms including bathrooms, the attempted normalization of homosexuality, women priests and bishops, and many other follies. Their overall effect will be to destroy the societies that embrace them.
Notice that St. Paul's injunction in Ephesians refers to men and women asymmetrically, and that is the real reason why it so offends the modern mind. Hence also Fr. Reese's unguarded outburst against the Pauline instruction. No, he shouldn't have called it stupid, as he said, but he shouldn't have thought it either, which plainly he did. And in saying what he thought, he disclosed that, beneath the genial surface of the easygoing "we're all O.K." liberal mind, there exists a simmering cauldron of resentment and rebellion.
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