The Rev. Thomas Reese, an internationally known expert on Catholic Church politics who has jousted with the Vatican over his progressive views, gives mixed grades to Pope Francis for his efforts to reform the Holy See.
As the pope has launched initiatives to rehabilitate the Vatican, he has opened doors to discussions that his predecessors, St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, “would have come down on like a ton of bricks,” Reese said during a phone interview from his office in Washington, D.C.
Reese will address such issues from 9 to 11 a.m. Feb. 6 at the Franciscan Spirituality Center at 920 Market St. in La Crosse, during a talk titled “Rebuild My Church: Pope Francis and His Vision for Reform.”
The 79-year-old pope’s compassion for the poor, his outreach to those shunned in the church and society, his quest for justice and peace and his advocacy for the environment as God’s creation have generated speculation about whether “the Francis effect” will entice the disenfranchised back to the church.
“That will only happen if, when they go back, they find somebody there like him,” said Reese, who, like Pope Francis, is a Jesuit. “They’re looking for somebody like Francis in the parish. If they don’t find it, they will turn right around and walk out.”
Francis, who drew large, enthusiastic crowds during his visit to the United States last fall, deserves an A for continuing the efforts of Benedict XVI to correct the Vatican’s historically corrupt financial system, Reese said. The pontiff’s progress in changing the culture of the church from top-down clericalism rates a C in Reese’s ledger, and his efforts to change policies and structures is “incomplete.”
Clericalism remains the biggest challenge for the pope, who has modeled humility and preached inclusion, Reese said.
“He hates clericalism, and he doesn’t want the bishops to act like princes,” he said. “He wants priests to empower people, and he’s working very hard for that, but he’s not going to reform if he leaves in the old guard.
“Reform is multi-level. He’s pushing things along, but I have some disagreements,” Reese said. “I don’t think the bureaucracy in the Vatican should be bishops and cardinals. It should be laypeople and priests.
“If they are bishops and cardinals, they are hard to fire,” he said. “Anybody who has done any hiring knows that getting the right person in the job the first time isn’t easy. If the cardinal isn’t doing the job, he won’t be gone.
“If it’s a priest, you can send him back to the parish; if it’s a layperson, you can fire him,” Reese said.
Asked about the pope’s demotion of Cardinal Raymond Burke from heading the Vatican’s highest court after the former bishop of the La Crosse Diocese openly criticized the pope, Reese said continuing pressure from Burke and others on the hard right hampers reform.
“They’re a real pain in the ...” Reese said.
Among other things, Burke has described the church as a rudderless ship with Francis at the helm. He also has challenged the pope’s conciliatory comments about divorced and remarried Catholics and his refusal to condemn homosexuals.
Burke, who has rebuffed several Tribune requests for interviews, has compared gay couples and divorced and remarried Catholics to unrepentant murderers who are kind to other people. He insists that his critiques are intended to defend the office of the papacy.
Burke “is not that old,” at 67, Reese said. “He’s going to be a voting cardinal until he is 80. There’s no question that he’s going to outlive the pope.”
Since bishops generally are in office until they are 75, and many are in their 60s, “Francis will be dead by the time they retire. The longer he lives, the more he can replace,” Reese said.
Despite criticisms from the extreme right, “the polling data is quite clear that even people who self-identify as conservatives” give Francis approval ratings so high that “people in Washington would kill to get them,” Reese said.
The extreme right “has a following in the blogosphere and in certain conservative publications, but not in the pews. They are a minority — a very loud, vocal minority,” he said.
“The conservative elite — the talking heads and people like that — have a following in the thousands,” he said. “In a church of 1.2 billion, that’s not a lot.”
Reese divides the church hierarchy into two groups, saying, “There are no liberal bishops. There is a small group of moderates.”
The others are conservatives, he said, dividing that contingent into two subgroups:
- “Ideologues like Burke, who are intellectually committed to the idea that they are right, and there is no way to change.”
- “Pastoral conservatives, who grew up in conservative families, with conservative bishops and went to conservative seminaries. … They have no pretense of being intellectual like some of the ideologues.”
Prelates in the pastoral camp are “confused, and they are keeping their heads low. They are not in open opposition to the pope. They are loyalists, but they don’t quite get it … that the pope has different priorities, a different vision. He is preaching the same gospel, with different priorities.”
Many priests today studied in seminaries “where professors who were more open were fired and the priests and theologians who trained them told them they were to go out to the pews and kick ass,” said Reese, whose liberal views riled the Vatican when he wrote for America magazine about politics, economics and the Catholic Church from 1978 to 1985 and later, as editor in chief from 1998 to 2005.
“This is like reforming any institution,” he said. “It takes time. You can change all the rules and regulations and organizational chart, but if you don’t change the culture of the police force, or the hospital, or the newspaper, there won’t be reform.”
He suggested that allowing priests to marry would help alleviate the global priest shortage.
“Clearly, John Paul and Benedict made it clear that they didn’t want any gays in the priesthood,” Reese said.
“Pope Francis said, ‘Who am I to judge?’ if they are following the rule of celibacy,” Reese said.
But “he’s not suddenly going to say, ‘OK, we’re gonna have gay marriage.’ That ain’t gonna happen,” he said.
On the other hand, gay marriage in a civil setting is a different issue, he said, adding, “I don’t see why the church can’t say that’s a civil matter. There won’t be gay marriage in the church, but gay and married Catholics in the church is more complicated.”
Reese also advocates decentralizing church authority, saying, “Do all of the decisions have to be made in Rome, or can some be made with bishops groups, individual groups or even parishes?”
The Holy See’s objections to Reese’s writings at America came largely from the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the control of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was elected pope and took the name Benedict XVI in 2005.
Reese, a prolific book author, resigned from America that year and now is a Washington, D.C.-based senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter, an independent, progressive weekly based in Kansas City, Mo.
As a Jesuit himself, Reese sees Francis’ attraction to Franciscan spirituality as dovetailing with the spirituality that Jesuit founder Ignatius Loyola espoused.
Loyola was a soldier injured in battle who “was bored out of his mind” while recuperating, Reese said. The only book he could find was Lives of the Saints, which inspired his decision to “do great things for God” like St. Francis of Assisi had.
“Pope Francis has kept up that tradition for four reasons,” Reese said, noting:
- Francis has a love for the poor, to whom he devoted much of his time as Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he became the Catholic Church’s 266th pope.
- St. Francis also was a reformer. “If you think the church is bad today, you should have seen it in St. Francis’ time,” Reese said.
After St. Francis heard God’s entreaty to “rebuild my church,” he set out to repair the rundown church building he was attending, until God said, “No, I mean the WHOLE church.”
- Francis of Assisi is noted for his love of nature and animals, which also is “high on Pope Francis’ agenda, the great message of loving and protecting God’s creation.”
- Like St. Francis, Pope Francis is a peacemaker who promotes love for and respect of the poor and each other.
“As a whole, that is totally in line with both Franciscan and Jesuit spirituality,” Reese said, with St. Francis’ mission to rebuild the church being a precursor to Pope Francis’ calling to reform it.