Santa Clara University

After America
-- Interview by Deepa Arora, SCU media relations director
-- Photos by Charles Barry

When the world was mourning the death of Pope John Paul and all eyes were on the Vatican and the choice of the new pope, Thomas J. Reese, S.J., was on national television networks and in newspapers explaining the significance of the historic moment. In the New York Times, on CNN and on the BBC, Reese, a widely recognized expert on the Catholic Church, talked about the Conclave, the Papacy, and the future of the Catholic Church and helped viewers and readers to become a part of the historic moment. A political scientist, a scholar, and a priest, Reese’s insight and anecdotes about how popes are elected and bishops appointed provided a revealing look at the culture of Vatican life and bureaucracy.

Editor of America magazine, a leading Jesuit weekly and Web site (, from June 1998 to May 2005, Reese is a renowned Jesuit scholar. He is author of, among other books, a trilogy examining church organization and politics on the local, national, and international levels: Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church; A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church.

Born in 1945, Reese entered the Society of Jesus in 1962, and is a classmate of SCU President Paul Locatelli, S.J. He was ordained in 1974 and earned a master’s degree in political science from St. Louis University, a master of divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology, Berkeley, and a Ph.D. in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.

On sabbatical at SCU until June 2006, he sat down with Santa Clara Magazine to share his thoughts about the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI, the tension between the Vatican and U.S. Catholics, and how a young priest from Alhambra, Calif., who once thought he was a terrible writer, became the go-to person to explain the intricacies of the culture of the Vatican and the Catholic Church.

Q: Did you predict the election of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as pope?

A: I avoided predicting who would be elected. People would ask me to predict, and I would refer them to an Irish betting site! But I did talk about what the characteristics of the new Pope would be. I believed that we would see much more continuity than change, and we got that. Cardinal Ratzinger was Pope John Paul’s closest theological adviser and they were very close in thinking.

Quote from Thomas Reese

Q: Can you compare and contrast the styles of Pope John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI?

A: In theology and church policy they are very similar, but there are big differences in their personalities. John Paul was a man who grew up in Poland under the Nazis and a church that was under persecution. He did a lot of work with students as a young priest. His experience, growing up in a town where there were both Catholics and Jews, with whom he played soccer, led to his role in improving the relationship between Catholics and Jews during his papacy.

His experience led up to his papacy and allowed him to play an extraordinary role in the fall of Communism, through his support of Solidarity and the Polish freedom movement. John Paul was the most important world leader in the second half of the 20th century.

Growing up in the ’50s, I remember bomb drills at school and going under my desk. One of the reasons I studied political science is that I believed that unless we could find a way out of the Cold War, there was a high probability that we would blow ourselves up!

On the other hand, Benedict XVI grew up in Germany and was a teenager during World War II. He experienced the reconstruction of Germany after the war. His experience as a priest was that of a university professor. They had very different personalities. He is much more reticent, more shy. John Paul had been an actor, and when he came into the room, he would dominate it. Before he became pope, when Cardinal Ratzinger entered the room, you might not even notice him.

Neither of them is what you would call an administrator. Both were much more involved in the realm of ideas, professors, not CEOs. But the pope is in charge of an organization with thousands of bishops and more than one billion members. It was a challenge for John Paul and it will be an even greater challenge for Cardinal Ratzinger.

Thomas Reese (front row, right)
Thomas Reese (front row, right) and colleagues at the Santa Barbara Novitiate in Montecito in 1964. Next to Reese in the front row is Marlo Prietto, S.J., the former director of campus ministry at SCU.
Q: How does the Vatican view the United States?

A: There clearly is a European bias in the Vatican against the U.S. They see Americans as cowboys, not intellectual, looking at the short term, and being crazy about money and sex. When John Paul was first elected, he had negative views about the U.S. He thought the church was in chaos, he didn’t understand the U.S., and had been told that people didn’t like him. But that changed after his first visit. When people came out in large numbers to cheer and pray with him, he began to see more of the riches of the U.S. church. Every Mass he celebrated he saw all sorts of ethnic groups, and they weren’t killing each other like in Europe. He saw that the U.S. had these extraordinary Catholic institutions, hospitals, and educational institutions. He began to see the richness of the church in the U.S.

Q: What about its view of U.S. Catholics?

A: You’ll hear criticism that Americans practice cafeteria Catholicism, where we pick and choose what we believe. We may have invented the term, but the Italians have been practicing this for centuries! You ask an Italian, “Are you a Catholic?” “Yes, I am.” “Do you go to church on Sunday?” “I am not a fanatic.” They are Catholic but voted for the communist party. Italy has a falling birthrate not because they are not practicing sex, they are practicing birth control! The difference between the church in the U.S. and the church in Europe is more cultural than theological.


Q: What do you think is the reason for the cultural difference?

A: Looking at the educational system in Europe versus the one in the U.S. might give us an answer. Europe is still very much a lecture system—where the teacher tells a student what happened during the French Revolution, for example. The student will totally master and memorize what he is told and be able to talk about it at length.

You ask an American about the French Revolution and they’ll say something about Marie Antoinette and the guillotine. In a European history class, you would never have a student raise his hand and say, “I disagree with you on the causes of the French Revolution.” That would be unacceptable. In Europe, students are there to absorb what the teacher says; to challenge the teacher is boorish and impolite. In the United States, there are a lot of classrooms like that! But ideally, we try to train students to ask questions, think creatively, and integrate what they learn in one class with what they have read in another class.

The people in the Vatican see themselves as teachers. They pronounce, teach, and we are to listen, take notes, not question, not challenge. Americans don’t do it that way. In Italy, the students will say “yes, professor,” but do what they want. That’s also what the Catholics in Italy do. If the priests preach something they disagree with, they either won’t go to church, or they’ll go home and do what they want, but they won’t argue with the priest.

If something doesn’t make sense to American Catholics, they are going to ask questions, discuss it, argue about it. The Vatican takes this as insulting, challenging, disrespectful; we just think it’s part of normal conversation! Americans and Europeans also have a different view of law. Americans see the Ten Commandments as a minimum for salvation; in Europe they see them as an ideal to strive for.

While I was in Rome doing research on my book in 1994, we were fighting about altar girls in the U.S. In Rome, I’d walk by a vestments store and see a female mannequin dressed as an altar server in the window…yet church law said we couldn’t have altar girls. I followed John Paul out to a parish in Rome where he was making a visitation, and I saw a server with a very long pony tail and I thought, “Gee, that boy has long hair,” and then she turned around …The Pope had altar girls at his masses in Rome while we were fighting in the U.S.

Q: Do you see the two approaches as coming together, or will this tension continue to coexist?

A: It’s going to be a continuing challenge for Europeans to understand America. The fact that American culture is becoming the global culture will lessen the differences. Younger people around the world are going to become much more like Americans, and things will change.

Q: So what’s the scenario for U.S. Catholics? What is their identity?

A: When my father was growing up in the Catholic Church in the ’20s and ’30s, if you ate meat on Fridays, you went to hell! If you disagreed with anything, you had to leave the church. I don’t think anyone believes that any more, but the question is: What are the core values in Catholicism, and what are its cultural adaptations?

Everyone draws the line at a different point. It’s not either/or, but a continuum of policy and issues and practices…the gospel and scriptures are central, but

America magazine
Cover of the June 17-24 2000, America magazine
(Reprinted with permission of America magazine)
how do you interpret them? The scriptures condemn usury—that was culturally determined to the times, but that doesn’t mean that banks can’t charge interest today.

We see at different points in the church history where it has discerned something different from an earlier century. The church today is not the same as it was in the ’30s and ’40s, let alone in the 13th century, and it shouldn’t be. But how do you adapt the church to the culture of its time? Every culture has good and bad…we want to adapt Catholicism to African culture and there are some wonderful things in African culture—but in some African countries they have multiple wives and circumcise women.

The discernment process is not easy—historically we know that the hierarchy has been very slow to permit change. The hierarchy has a role, but so do theologians and the community—the process requires discussion, prayer, until the church comes to a consensus on which way to go. In the old days, when the laity was uneducated, decisions could be made by the clergy; they were the only people who could read and write. Today it is a much more complicated process that should involve everyone especially people from other fields—geneticists, scientists, psychologists.

The world is changing at an extraordinary pace today. The Vatican is used to saying that it thinks in centuries, but I don’t think we can do that any more, or the world will pass us by. We are at a critical point in the church history. In the 19th century in Europe, the church lost men because it was on the wrong side of the democratic movement, the labor movement, workers’ rights ….it made wrong political choices and men stopped going to church.

In the U.S., the challenge today is with women. The more educated and involved they are, the more alienated they are becoming from the hierarchy. The clergy is still operating on the patriarchal model. And it is going to be disastrous for the church.

Lots of girls grew up angry at the church because the bishops, the Vatican, would not let them be altar girls. Now they are saying that women can’t be priests. You can argue all of those things one way or the other, but the fact is that a lot of women feel they are being sidelined and badly treated by the church hierarchy. These kinds of conflicts are alienating a lot of women in the church today and this will be disastrous because there is a secret that neither the feminists nor the Vatican know. And that is in reality the women run the church today.

Q: Can you explain what do you mean when you say “women run the church”?

Thomas Reese, S.J.
Thomas Reese, S.J., presides at the noon liturgy at the Mission Santa Clara.
A: They have been running the church for a few decades. You go to any parish today—who are the employees? Women. The volunteers are all women. Who is doing the religious education? Who is passing the faith to the next generation? Women. Women are already running the church, and neither the feminists nor the Vatican has noticed.

If women become anticlerical, their kids are going to be anticlerical! Is the son of a woman who was badly treated by the church going to become a priest? No! “My mother can’t go to communion because she is divorced and remarried. Are you saying my mother is a bad person?” If a kid has to choose between his mother and the church, the church will lose!

If we don’t resolve this issue, it will be as devastating to the church in the U.S. as the loss of European men was to the church in the 19th century. It will be more devastating because we will lose men and women in the next generations. What is the solution? We can become more Italian and shrug our shoulders and say the church is mine and I am not leaving it. Or we can have more open conversation and listen to one another.

Q: What was your childhood like and what were the formative influences growing up?

A: My mother was a teacher, a feminist before her time. My dad was involved in social work and worked for church organizations. Between my mother’s concern for students and my father’s sensitivity to social justice, there was a belief in service to people in my family.

Q: Why and when did you become a Jesuit?

A: Because of my second grade teacher! One day she asked, “What is the most important job?” Kids said fireman, policeman, president of the U.S., but she said the most important job was to be a priest! I decided that was the job for me. My vocation was founded on pride, arrogance, and clericalism. Luckily, my Jesuit formation cured me of that.

Q: Suppose you hadn’t become a priest. What path would your life had taken?

A: In high school, I was very good in math, not good in English, so of course I ended up making my living as a writer. If I hadn’t become a priest, I would have gone to Santa Clara and probably would have ended up in computers in Silicon Valley. Or I might have gone into politics. I was a Goldwater Republican in high school; then I got educated!

Q: If you weren’t good in English, how did you become a writer?

A: I went to the University of California, Berkeley, to study political science and ended up doing a dissertation that was published as a book, The Politics of Taxation.

After my dissertation, I became legislative director of Taxation with Representation, a Washington-based tax reform lobby. The organization had a magazine called Tax Notes. One day, the editor asked me to write news stories about what was happening in Congress on taxes. He was a professional journalist and took me by the hand and taught me how to write like a journalist, as opposed to writing like a scholar. I learned how to write by writing. Soon after that I started writing on politics and economics for America magazine.

Q: What do you see as the role of America magazine? What’s the need?

A: America was founded in 1909, and today is a weekly and a Web site. We needed a magazine that commented on current events as opposed to one that was simply pious and devotional, or purely scholarly. A magazine that covered issues of war and peace and justice and stood up for Catholics in the U.S. America has continued that tradition over the years. It took a strong stand against Joseph McCarthy, it was a strong supporter of the United Nations, articulated the church’s teaching about justice, racial justice. It had a definite role to play and became seen as the intelligent voice of Catholicism in the U.S. America is the most widely read Catholic magazine among journalists.

When I became editor, I wanted to continue that tradition. Since the Second Vatican Council, the magazine had also become a strong voice for the reform of the church and very strongly supported a greater role for the laity, ecumenism, the changes in the liturgy, improvement of relations with the Jewish community. America is a journal of opinion. I published articles that talked about controversial issues in the church and gave a variety of views on the subjects. We provided a forum in the magazine. We published things we agreed with and things we disagreed with—the goal was to encourage dialogue and discussion in the hope that it would educate people and also lead to more clarity and understanding of the issues.

The difficulty we ran into is that many people in the church don’t want a journal of opinion. They want a journal that reflects only their opinion.

Q: Many scholars and professors dislike dealing with media—you enjoy it. How did that come about?

A: I think of it as an important ministry.…It is a service to the church. We educate students, why not journalists? It was also a way to get America magazine better known so we could sell subscriptions. We increased the circulation by more than a thousand each year at a time when the circulation at most Catholic publications was going down.

Q: What was it like to witness a historic moment—the election of a new pope?

A: One of the reasons I became ever-present in the media was because I would talk to reporters. I would return their phone calls. I explained things in depth but could also speak in sound bites. If I didn’t know the answer, I usually knew someone I could refer them to. There were many times I would talk to reporters and never get quoted just to make sure they understood the issues. I made myself available. But I knew that if they had a choice between quoting me and the cardinal, they would quote the cardinal! Most of the time, they couldn’t get through to the PR person for the cardinal.

When I was working with CNN, we were located on the Janiculum Hill, one of the hills in Rome that overlooks St. Peter’s Square. It was an extraordinary feeling. For me, having researched the Vatican, being there at the conclave was the opportunity of a lifetime to talk to people involved and be able to help explain what was going on.

Some people were surprised how I could be on so many networks at the same time, but many of the obits for Pope John Paul were taped months and years in advance.

I enjoy journalists; they are fun people. But I am enough of a realist to know that you could be on the front page of the New York Times one day and at the bottom of a kitty litter box three days later.

—Deepa Arora is the media relations director at Santa Clara University.

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