Following Editor's Ouster, Some Catholic Theologians in U.S. Expect More Papal Scrutiny

By ANDY NEWMAN

New York Times

May 15, 2005

After a busy week in which the Vatican forced out the prominent American editor of a Roman Catholic magazine, then put an American in charge of enforcing church doctrine for the first time, many Catholic intellectuals in the United States are feeling the spotlight of papal scrutiny swinging this way.

It is safe to say some of them welcome the attention more than others.

"Oh, boy," the Rev. Robert F. Drinan, a Georgetown professor and former congressman from Massachusetts, said with a sigh upon learning that the archbishop of San Francisco, William J. Levada, was going to Rome as chief doctrinal officer.

Father Drinan, a Jesuit, was already ruing the departure of the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, the editor of America, a small but influential Jesuit weekly, and one of the sought-after commentators during the recent papal changeover. Father Reese resigned May 6. Several Catholic officials in the United States said that his dismissal was ordered in March by Archbishop Levada's predecessor at the doctrinal office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI.

Cardinal Ratzinger was said to have received complaints from American bishops about articles in the magazine that questioned official church positions on gay marriage, stem cell research and salvation for non-Christians.

Bernard Prusak, chairman of the theology department at Villanova University, said Father Reese's ouster raised "concerns about the kind of theological dialogue that we should have in the church."

"Catholic theology has to explain what the official teaching is," Dr. Prusak added, "but it also has the responsibility to probe new data and raise new questions."

Archbishop Levada, as head of the American bishops' committee on doctrine, had a role in affirming the Vatican's official condemnation of the Rev. Roger Haight in February. Father Haight's 1999 book "Jesus, Symbol of God," considers, among other things, the possibility of non-Christians being saved without Jesus' help. He has been banned from teaching at Catholic universities.

Some conservative Catholic thinkers said they were seeing signs of a long-overdue housecleaning.

"Pope Benedict XVI is clearly attending to lots of administrative and housekeeping concerns in the church," the Rev. Joseph Koterski, the chairman of the philosophy department at Fordham University in New York City, said Friday. As for Father Reese's removal, Father Koterski said: "There's a great desire for clarity about church teaching. A religious magazine that offers itself as a Catholic magazine does have to have clarity about what the church holds and why it holds it, and not simply be a lobbying force for changing position."

What else is on the pope's agenda for the United States, a bastion of what he has called the "dictatorship of relativism," remains to be seen.

Some liberal theologians said they feared the enforcement of a requirement, urged by Pope John Paul II and approved in 1999 by the American bishops but never fully put into practice, that professors of Catholic theology at Catholic universities obtain a certificate of doctrinal purity from the local bishop.

But the Rev. Joseph Fessio, a conservative Jesuit and provost of Ave Maria University in Florida, said the nation's bishops lacked the unity to make the policy stick. "John Paul II was pretty clear about what he wanted and hoped and desired," he said, "and I haven't seen many changes in the theology departments of Catholic universities." Father Fessio added, "A pope can't do everything."

Others said that although Archbishop Levada's decades of experience in the American church would incline him to focus attention on it, fears that he would be an unforgiving hardliner were unfounded.

James T. Bretzke, chairman of the theology department at the University of San Francisco and a self-described moderate who declared Father Reese's removal "dreadfully unfortunate," said Archbishop Levada was "balanced, careful and nuanced" in his dealings with the university.

"He believes in academic freedom," Professor Bretzke said. "He recognizes that this is the role of the university."

John Jones, editorial director of Crossroad Publishing, an independent house that publishes books on Catholicism by authors across the political spectrum, including Cardinal Ratzinger himself, said the Vatican's doctrinal office, known formally as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had actually been relatively quiet under John Paul.

"By historical standards, it would be not be surprising if any papacy, Ratzinger or any other, would take a more active interest in reviewing Catholic titles," Mr. Jones said.

The Rev. Raymond Schroth, a professor at St. Peter's College in Jersey City, said he and his fellow Jesuits, the church's largest religious order and traditionally among the most independent-minded, had grown accustomed to periodic crackdowns.

"This is sort of a cyclic thing," he said. He noted that America had had its editor removed at the Vatican's behest once before, in 1955. The editor, the Rev. Robert C. Hartnett, had annoyed the church hierarchy for years with his sharp criticisms of Senator Joseph McCarthy.