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Editor's ouster worries Catholic publications

In the Chicago offices of US Catholic, a monthly magazine, the editor held an emergency meeting yesterday with her staff to discuss coverage of controversy.

In New York, the editor of the biweekly Commonweal magazine arrived at his office to find a blunt e-mail message from a critic declaring, ''You're next."

And at Boston College, the school's president was asked at a faculty lunch to explain whether the ability of professors to question teachings of the Roman Catholic Church is now under threat at the Jesuit university.

The announcement Friday that the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, an oft-quoted commentator on the workings of the Catholic Church, has been forced to resign after seven years as editor of America magazine has sent shock waves through the worlds of Catholic journalism and academia. Reese was ousted after facing five years of criticism from the man who is now Pope Benedict XVI for publishing articles that questioned the Vatican's writings on issues such as same-sex marriage, stem cell research, and salvation for non-Christians.

America magazine, a weekly owned by the Jesuits, is a small but influential publication.

''It would be hard for any Catholic editor not to say, 'Well, if this happened to America magazine, perhaps it could happen to others,' " said the Rev. Pat McCloskey, the editor of St. Anthony Messenger, a 311,000-circulation Franciscan monthly based in Cincinnati. ''I'm afraid that a move like this one will cause more and more Catholic thinkers to say that they want to write for publications that are not identified as Catholic and to teach at schools that are not identified as Catholic, because there is more freedom there."

America's readership of 45,000 includes many Catholic bishops, academics, and writers. It has published a wide variety of opinions, including a piece in 2001 by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI, about the relationship between the Vatican and diocesan bishops. Its 2002 coverage of clergy sexual abuse is included on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the magazine has been under criticism for at least five years from the Vatican agency that Ratzinger ran, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the office charged with safeguarding and promoting church doctrine. The congregation placed the magazine under formal scrutiny for several years, warned the magazine that its coverage of same-sex marriage would be watched, and repeatedly protested about the magazine to Jesuit headquarters in Rome, according to sources who have spoken to Reese.

According to one of those sources, Ratzinger's office objected several years ago to articles debating ''Dominus Iesus," a controversial document written by Ratzinger that suggested that non-Christians are in a ''gravely deficient situation." The Vatican office, the source said, also objected to articles on AIDS prevention and on gay priests, an editorial criticizing the congregation's disciplining of theologians for writings that the congregation viewed as contrary to Catholic doctrine, and a positive book review about Garry Wills's ''Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit," a critique of doctrinal positions of recent popes.

Then, more recently, the congregation criticized a piece by Representative David R. Obey, Democrat of Wisconsin, on the issue of Communion for Catholic politicians who support abortion rights and an essay questioning the church's position on same-sex marriage that was paired with an essay supporting the church's position.

''A lot of people were unhappy with America, including people in Rome," said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, a New York-based journal on religion. He said he knew many Catholics, including bishops, who were unhappy with Reese's stewardship of America, which, he said, ''had kind of a carping attitude toward the pontificate of John Paul II."

''Just as you don't expect Planned Parenthood to give a platform to the prolife position, there's no reason why a Catholic journal should provide a platform for positions that are clearly contrary to those of the church, and that was an editorial error that caused Tom a lot of trouble," Neuhaus said.

A spokeswoman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, said the organization had not protested to the Vatican about Reese or the magazine. But several priests with direct knowledge of the situation said that individual bishops filed complaints with the Vatican or the Jesuit order about articles that appeared in the magazine.

The Jesuits are members of a religious order founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola. Some of the order's most outspoken members have run into trouble for questioning church teachings (three faculty members at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge were questioned by the Vatican in recent years) and for involvement in politics (a liberal Jesuit priest, Rev. Robert Drinan, was forced by John Paul II to step down from his position in Congress in 1980). And in 1981 John Paul II temporarily asserted greater control over the order by appointing a conservative theologian to oversee it, rather than allowing the Jesuits to elect their own leader.

Several of the articles criticized by Ratzinger were written by theology professors at BC, including the Rev. Francis A. Sullivan, who wrote about ''Dominus Iesus"; the Rev. James Keenan, who wrote about AIDS prevention; and Stephen J. Pope, who wrote about same-sex marriage.

In interviews yesterday, BC's president defended his faculty, and the chair of the university's theology department said he would rather resign than ask faculty to rein in their writings.

''There is a concern now about what does this mean for scholars and writers who are Catholic and what does it mean for journals of opinion," said the university president, the Rev. William P. Leahy. ''I know what the answer is for us at BC. We are not directly linked to the Vatican; we operate under principles of academic freedom; and BC is not going to tell individual faculty they can't write whatever it is that they are working on."

The theology department chairman, the Rev. Kenneth R. Himes, said many members of his faculty are concerned. ''The chilling signal sent by this action is that church-related publications will have questions raised about their legitimate autonomy, and therefore the integrity of Catholic journalists and scholarly editors will be impugned," he said.

Several BC faculty members were furious with the turn of events. ''Those responsible for this action apparently do not know their friends from their enemies and are oblivious to the negative effects of such actions on the reputation and standing of the Catholic Church among educated persons," said Lisa Sowle Cahill, a professor of theology.

Another theology professor, Thomas H. Groome, said ''Father Reese's removal must be interpreted as an ominous sign against open discourse in the Catholic Church." And Pope said, ''This certainly is a repressive move."

Catholic editors, particularly those at publications like America that are overseen by religious orders, also are concerned. ''What is happening to America is not an isolated case; it's happening to other Catholic publications all over this country," said Heidi Schlumpf, managing editor of US Catholic, published by the Claretian missionaries. Schlumpf said her publication came under fire from Ratzinger several years ago for a piece about women who wanted to be priests; the magazine settled the case by running an article explaining the church's opposition to women priests.

Publications such as Commonweal, an influential opinion journal produced by lay Catholics, are less vulnerable to pressure from the Vatican because they are independently incorporated and not controlled by a religious order or diocese. Nonetheless, the editor, Paul Baumann, arrived at work yesterday to find the threatening e-mail from a critic.

''It's hard to imagine how any church authority can shut down the sorts of debates that thinking Catholics are engaged in," Baumann said. ''What's most troublesome is that for the ordained, for those theologians who are priests, and for people working in Catholic universities, this will inhibit the honest exchange of views."

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