Under the Glass places both the secular and religious media’s coverage of the Church and other issues of importance under a magnifying glass to uncover what is hidden between the lines.
February 11, 2009

Fr. Thomas Reese: Why Pope Benedict should call me

Fr. Thomas Reese recently wrote an article for the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post entitled: Benedict Undermining His Own Legacy.


The title alone is a great teaching moment on how self-proclaimed analysts should be taken with more than a grain of salt when they show up with sycophantic predictions. This Under the Glass will not fall for that temptation. But it must be said that Benedict’s legacy is under no threat whatsoever, and that his outstanding Magisterium will long survive the memories of the pundits who predict the contrary.


In his blog posting, Fr. Reese takes on a subject everyone is well aware of: the media and the internal disaster that followed the Vatican’s decision to lift the excommunication of four bishops belonging to the St. Pius X Society, including Bishop Richard Williamson, who a few days before the announcement, appeared on a Swedish TV station denying the extent of the Holocaust.


The main problem with Reese’s piece is that it pretends to be an analysis of the situation from the perspective of an expert, when in truth, it has to be taken for what it is:  a one-sided rant from someone who sees the opportunity to take a swipe at the Pontificate he has disliked from the very beginning. Thus he writes:


As one who believes that the Catholic Church should be a big tent with room for different views, I do not criticize the pope's attempt to reach out to the Lefebvrites. In my view, lifting the excommunications was a judgment call, and I would defend the pope's right to make that decision. My disappointment is that while the Vatican is enthusiastic in wooing the right, it has no patience with the left. Only the right side of the cafeteria is open.


Is that supposed to be an analysis?


Further reading of Fr. Reese’s piece, does not produce a golden nugget of insight, only disappointment for the reader looking for analysis. The few things he has to say have already been much better explained by analysts like John Allen or Sandro Magister, who unlike him, have sufficient command of the Italian language and the Vatican culture so as to provide credible –even if debatable- explanations of what really brought about the event Magister coined “the double disaster.”


The lack of Vatican knowledge and the pretention of having some previously unheard of insight bring Reese to say:


This latest controversy and others that preceded it (like his Regensburg address) point to a fatal systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: He does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations.


Does not consult? Let’s check the facts. If there is something this Pope constantly does, it is, precisely, to ask for opinions, much more than any of his predecessors. As a matter of fact, many complain –fairly or not- that the slow decision making process is due to the spirit of academic “peer review” that has shaped the Pope’s mind.


Reese seems to forget that, before the Pope wrote the Letter to the Chinese Catholics, or published Summorum Pontificum, he convoked two extraordinary consistories and two meetings of the heads of the Roman dicasteries, just to consult opinions.


Benedict XVI is also the first Pope to introduce a daily hour of “open discussion” at the synods.


So, who is this non-consulting Pope, Reese describes?  Certainly not Benedict XVI…


Unless of course, these consultations do not count as such for Fr. Reese, since they come from members of the Roman curia, cardinals and bishops around the world. For him, these distinguished churchmen probably don’t count as “experts” who may “challenge” the Pope’s views.


Conclusion: What the Pope needs is Tom Reese. Better yet, several of them.


And what would this Vatican á la Reese look like? Here he goes:


The pope needs a good chief of staff who would make sure this kind of thing does not happen(...) Most large American universities have more sophisticated media offices than does the Vatican, which is the headquarters for a 1.1-billion member organization(...)The Vatican needs a sophisticated and modern communications strategy.


In other words, the Vatican should look like Georgetown University or Boston College: prestigious places with highly paid experts who prevent anything relevant from happening, except for keeping the secular media happy. Such a suggestion of how the Vatican should run can only come from Planet Academia, where the air is thin and no one knows where food comes from.

Reese’s Vatican would have absolutely nothing relevant to say, nothing controversial to teach, or any counter-cultural message of conversion to announce. It would be reduced to a respectable NGO capable of uttering some nice words about peace and ecology…


Of course, it seems that for Fr. Reese, that would be a small price to pay, if the goal is to look like a real American institution, with a chief of staff and all its trappings. 


So much for those who think that Americanism is dead.


But don’t take it from me. This is what Fr. Reese finds relevant from the Pope’s pontificate:


The sad thing is that Pope Benedict is saying and doing many great things, but these media disasters are undermining his papacy. His words about peace, justice, refugees and the economic crisis are not being heard.


Pope Benedict has written an encyclical on Charity, another on Hope –two of the theological virtues - an Apostolic Exhortation on the Eucharist, a book on the divine nature of Christ, and has insisted that the core of the Christian message to the world is a personal encounter with Christ. His commitment to fight what he constantly calls “the dictatorship of relativism” with the power of the Truth is expressed in his Pontifical motto “Cooperatores Veritatis, Collaborators of the Truth…


And all that Reese finds relevant in the Pope’s teachings are words that Ban ki-moon could deliver at any time?


And thus, Reese concludes:


Benedict wants to be a pastor and teacher, but he needs people who know how to run an organization and communicate in the 21st century, and he does not have them. The Vatican's model for the papacy is still the absolute monarchies and royal courts of the past. That model simply will not work today.


There may be, indeed, some outdated practices at the Vatican. But the model is not of the absolute monarchies and royal courts: the model is a unique one, based in the Catholic belief that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ, and that no board of experts can replace his power to bind and loose (Mt. 16).


A Church governed or highly controlled by a board of “experts,” who would decide collegially what the Pope should do is not a model for the 21st Century. It is a vintage 19th century Enlightment model.


We don’t need to elaborate on the consequences of the belief that “experts” should run the world.


It suffices to say that if some of the institutions which Fr. Reese is associated with are to be seen as models of how the Church should run, he is making the perfect case for those who believe the Vatican is far better off staying just where it is right now.

Alejandro Bermudez

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


Follow us:

Check out Catholic News Agency Polls on LockerDome on LockerDome