An office run by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, known now as Pope Benedict XVI, recently showed his power to censor and shut down debate in March, just before the enforcer Cardinal went into campaign mode to succeed Pope John Paul II.
The voice he silenced was that of Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ. Reese used to be the editor of a publication called America, a journal of Catholic thinking published in New York. America is a moderate-to-liberal Catholic publication, one that touched issues that the more right wing Church hierarchy would rather leave alone. Recent America articles featured competing viewpoints on gay rights, dialogue with Islam, punishing legislators who advocate abortion rights, and other hot-button issues. America wouldn’t take a side on these issues, leaving it to readers to see the various arguments in the magazine and decide for themselves.
Apparently, leaving an open door to competing theories was too much for Cardinal Ratzinger and the censors at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an organization he headed. The Congregation, an office Ratzinger was appointed to by Pope John Paul as an enforcer of Church theological conservatism, found Father Reese to be out of theological line, for reasons that were not publicly disclosed when it forced his resignation as editor.
Laurie Goodstein, in Saturday’s NY Times, wrote about the silencing of this well-known Jesuit and the new Pope’s potential preference for removing critics. Today’s Times carries another piece, by Larry Rohter, on the struggle to bring Catholic theology under Rome’s central authority, this time involving both the US and Latin America, where half the world’s Catholics dwell.
In the context of a larger piece on Latin America’s theological divides, Rohter writes about Rev. Gustavo Gutierrrez. Gutierrez is a Peruvian priest who’s seminal advocacy for and leadership of the liberation theology movement has forced his writing and teaching to be done away from his flock (and superiors), largely from the ivory towers of Notre Dame University. Gutierrez recently became a member of the Dominican order, giving up his status under the Peruvian hierarchy in an effort to insulate himself from Church reprisals against his theology of a “preferential option for the poor.”
The signs are in the air that no longer will it be sufficient for critics of the hierarchy to respect Church authority under the new Pope. Now, perhaps the right to merely disagree is too much freedom for an insecure ideological leader to allow beneath him.
This writer’s experience in Central America makes it impossible to see such a development without thinking of the millions of poor who worship in the Church while toiling in the elites’ fields there. Poor Catholics, and the theologians who minister to them, are now being asked to consider their religion separately from their moral understanding of a world where they are kept in poverty, focused solely on a more private, censuring morality, focused on private behavior, not public courage. Whether Pope Benedict can lead for long in this direction without walking alone remains to be seen.