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Thinking with the church

THE LEADERSHIP of the Society of Jesus decided that the Rev. Thomas Reese should be replaced as editor of America magazine. Reese, who was editor for seven years, said he agreed with the decision, but apparently he later changed his mind. Institutions of all kinds make personnel decisions, and sometimes people are unhappy with such decisions. The present instance occasioned a brouhaha in which it is claimed that Reese was removed on the orders of an allegedly oppressive Pope Benedict XVI. Everybody should calm down, take a deep breath, and think again.

America is a Catholic magazine in the service of the church and its mission. It is no secret that in recent years many people -- probably including Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict) -- criticized the magazine for undercutting that mission, which is to present as effectively as possible the teaching of the church. That mission requires intellectual integrity in honestly engaging arguments that question or oppose Catholic teaching.

Catholicism does not pit faith against reason or faithfulness against intellectual inquiry. St. Ignatius Loyola, the 16th-century founder of the Jesuits, gave us the fine phrase ''sentire cum ecclesia" -- ''to think with the church." Thinking with the church requires thinking.

The troubles at America are not about intellectual integrity or freedom. As a priest and editor, Reese exercised intellectual integrity and freedom in committing himself to the church and the mission to which the magazine is dedicated. Unfortunately, under his editorship, America frequently seemed to be unwilling to take the side that, I believe, it is undoubtedly on. The problem was a basic mistake in editorial policy. It was thought that being ''fair and balanced" required publishing on an equal footing articles that supported and articles that opposed the church's teaching, as though the church's teaching was but one opinion among others. The problem was compounded by the fact that such articles dealt with publicly controversial questions such as the moral understanding of homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the exploitation of embryonic stem cells.

On such questions, the church has clearly defined positions. The practice of America suggested to some the magazine's neutrality or hostility to the church's teaching. Not surprisingly, they asked of the magazine, ''Whose side are you on?"

Again, intellectual integrity requires honestly engaging opposing arguments. It does not require providing a platform for opposing arguments. I dare say that an editor working for Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, or the National Rifle Association who regularly turned a publication into a platform for those opposed to the mission of the organization would soon be looking for another job.

Of course, as Catholics understand it, the church's mission is immeasurably more important, having to do with the salvation of souls and the morally right ordering of society. Moreover, it is hardly the case that readers need America in order to be aware of alternative and opposing viewpoints. Presumably, they are reasonably well-informed people with access to innumerable media critical of the church's teaching.

A Catholic magazine -- and it should be obvious that a Jesuit magazine is Catholic -- may decide to publish an exchange or debate between conflicting positions, but there should be no doubt that the magazine is on the church's side. A magazine of intellectual integrity and excitement is a magazine that knows where it stands. As for being fair and balanced, one should always be fair, but balance understood as neutrality is a formula for banality.

Of course, there is a problem if an editor is in fundamental disagreement with the institution for which he works. One thinks, for instance, of someone at NRA who undergoes a change of mind about the merits of banning guns. But we can confidently assume that was not Reese's problem. He not only works for the church; he is solemnly vowed to surrender himself in its service and, as a Jesuit, has taken a particular vow of loyalty to the pope.

As editor, Reese, whom I count as a friend, seriously misunderstood the meaning of fair and balanced. The Society of Jesus decided it would be better for the magazine and for him if he moved into a different ministry. End of story. Unless, of course, one is interested in generating suspicion and hostility against the pope. Needless to say, no faithful Catholic would want to do that.

The Rev. Richard John Neuhaus is editor in chief of First Things, an ecumenical magazine of religion, culture, and public life.

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