In the Line of Saint Peter

The Vatican vs. Fr. Reese and The Questioning Jesuits

Peter said to Him, “Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” And He said, “Come!” And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came toward Jesus. But seeing the wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” When they got into the boat, the wind stopped.
MT 14: 28-32

When I feel myself beginning to sink under the weight of disturbing news like the recent removal of America magazine’s editor, Fr. Tom Reese, the faith of the ex-fisherman from Capharnaum who became a “fisher of men” is always a great source of consolation. Though St. Peter is remembered for being the “rock” upon which Jesus built his church, in many of the gospel narratives he resembles a sinking stone more than a foundational one, which is precisely why he is so important to me.

Let’s face it, for all of his obvious love and passion, the disciple who was chosen to be the cornerstone was also the same one who so often just didn’t seem to quite “get it.” When Peter rebukes Jesus for prophesizing his death and resurrection Jesus exclaims “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (MT 16: 23). After Jesus uses a parable to criticize the Pharisees for their legalistic faith, Peter, like a stymied calculus student, asks for an explanation to which Jesus replies incredulously “Are even you still without understanding?” (MT 15:16)

As a child of our television-saturated age, my imagination can’t help but picture St. Peter as the Ralph Kramden of the Gospels. Like Jackie Gleason’s famous character from the classic sitcom “The Honeymooners” I see Peter as the loveable lug with a big heart, big dreams and a big temper (cf: his swordplay in the Garden of Gethsemane). And though, like Kramden, he occasionally behaves badly and often gets himself in trouble with the things he says and his passionate—though often misguided—hopes and dreams, we never really doubt his love.

I find great comfort for my own faith journey in the life of St. Peter not because his devotion was unstinting and unquestioning—it wasn’t—but because Jesus so loved and trusted this utterly imperfect man that he gave him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. I presume Jesus knew full well what kind of person he was entrusting this awesome responsibility to and that he could’ve chosen differently if he had had doubts about Peter’s worthiness, but he didn’t. I’ve always looked upon Jesus’ choice of Peter as the Lord’s way of assuring those of us who continue to struggle and doubt that he understands our plight. If Peter’s all-too-human-habit of questioning and wondering did not place him outside the kingdom of heaven then there is hope for us all.

I realized that my faith didn’t require me to check my brain at the door of the church. I was taught instead to trust that God’s inexhaustible love and the depth and wisdom of our faith tradition were strong enough to handle even the most difficult questions.

Recently, Fr. Tom Reese SJ, the editor of the influential Jesuit magazine America, was asked to step down from his post because of pressure the Jesuit order received from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). According to numerous sources, the CDF’s decision was made prior to Pope John Paul II’s death while Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI was still in charge of that Vatican office. Apparently, after years of scrutiny by the CDF, Reese was judged to be unfit to helm the Catholic weekly, not because of any particular heretical opinion he espoused but because, under his leadership, the magazine published pieces that discussed matters that the Vatican considered to be already decided. Issues like women’s ordination, the celibate clergy, homosexuality in the priesthood and denying communion to pro-choice Catholic politicians were all discussed in the pages of America—usually with a careful presentation of the church’s official position on those issues as well. Somehow, according to the CDF, this wasn’t enough, apparently Fr. Reese was unfit to continue as editor because he provided a forum for debate. Essentially America magazine has been found guilty of asking questions.

How sad for all of us who can’t help but engage in the messy human habit of questioning things.

While I’ve only met Fr. Reese briefly, the Jesuit way of proceeding is one I’m somewhat familiar with. It was the Jesuits I met while in high school who helped me realize that our minds were not burdens to be tolerated but gifts from God that we were obliged to use to our fullest. Indeed, St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, had the revolutionary idea in his Spiritual Exercises of using the imagination as a way of moving closer to God. What a wise and beautiful concept: harnessing the imagination—that peculiarly human gift that has been the engine for all innovation from the wheel to the computer chip—to bring us closer to the divine. It was the influence of the Jesuits during those years that helped me to realize that my faith didn’t require me to check my brain at the door of the church. I was taught instead to trust that God’s inexhaustible love and the depth and wisdom of our faith tradition were strong enough to handle even the most difficult questions. Without that, I’m not sure that my faith would have been able to grow up along with me and survive into my adulthood.

I’m forever grateful for that gift from my Jesuit mentors, because, try as I might, my faith has never been free of some measure of doubt. To paraphrase the words of the Jesuit theologian, Karl Rahner ‘we are all persistent questioners.’ Honestly, who among us can say that their belief does not have a shadow side of unbelief? How are we to grow in faith and love if we cannot admit—along with the father of the boy possessed by demons in Mark’s gospel—that we also have our doubts? (Mk 9:24)

While no one would ever mistake the mild, ascetically thin Fr. Reese for the fiery, corpulent Ralph Kramden, the persistent questioning and debate that he nurtured in America certainly has its roots in the discipleship of St. Peter. His removal is clearly the Church’s loss not his.

Not surprisingly, Fr. Reese’s ousting simply raises another question. If Peter were alive today, I wonder if—with his questions and doubts—21st century religious authorities would consider him a worthy enough “rock” upon which to build the church?