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Beginning of the Purge

They have the right to censure, that have a heart to help: the rest is cruelty, not justice - William Penn

News broke at the weekend of the forced resignation of Fr Thomas Reese, editor-in-chief of the US Jesuits' America magazine. America has been a "fair, informed and moderate intellectual voice", and Reese's "great gift was simply in allowing respectful debate in the pages of his magazine". This tribute is from blogger Andrew Sullivan, who heads his comment with the apt and chilling observation The Purge Begins. Enough said.

Reese's forced departure so early in the new papacy makes it look like there's going to be no room for free thought and discussion, and that we're speeding down the road towards totalitarianism, perhaps faster than we thought. It's years since discussion of women's ordination was suppressed. Now it's discussion itself that is being snuffed out.

Reese's successor Fr Drew Christiansen is in for a bumpy ride, if his press release tribute to Reese is anything to go by.

"[Fr Reese's] technical expertise, in this age of new media, will be greatly missed. I know I will be calling on his guidance in that," he says. "By inviting articles that covered different sides of disputed issues, Fr Reese helped make America a forum for intelligent discussion of questions facing the Church and the country today."

Christiansen indicates that he himself lacks Reese's expertise with technology, implying that he is more at home in the field of fostering intelligent discussion, which he appears to endorse. That suggests he's the wrong man for the job, and it's only a matter of time before Christiansen shares the fate of his predecessor.

We sincerely hope we're wrong on this, but the message from Reese's forced resignation is that discussion is a no go zone. But that the efficient use of technology to disseminate information, is another matter. The age of the Internet, and its facilitation of the constant flow of information may have promoted superficial discussion. But it has arguably made it more difficult to engage in penetrating and genuinely fruitful discussion. It's no wonder that the Vatican has become an enthusiastic promoter of new media, as a perfect means of uncritically disseminating the distilled teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other documents. Think about Catholic media in terms of the role of propaganda in a totalitarian state.

Reese's forced resignation signals not only that discussion is off limits, but voices of moderation within the Church are on notice. During the last papacy, liberals were shot down, one after another. But those who were perceived as bland, or discrete, or genuinely moderate, were safe, as long as they did not openly reject Church teaching. It's debatable whether Reese was at all left of centre. He was a moderate who believed in giving all sides a say. In fact, he was simply following the practice taught to young Jesuits since the time of their founder St Ignatius Loyola. This involved the necessity to listen to what one's adversaries have to say as the first step in the process of winning them over to the Church's way of thinking.

One of the most interesting responses to the forced resignation was that of Philip Lawler, the editor of the conservative Catholic World News electronic service who told the New York Times that nothing Reese said publicly was at odds with Church teaching.

"I cannot think of a single thing I heard that would have put him in jeopardy," Lawler said.

But in his own publication, Lawler goes on to explain that it's no longer good enough to refrain from criticising Church teachings. However it's becoming compulsory - in Rome's eyes - to take an almost militant stand in defence of them.

"For years, prominent Catholic journalists and scholars have adopted a similar approach to Church teachings: insisting that they are not denying a given doctrine, but merely raising questions that must be addressed," he says. "Since they never take a firm stance that is at odds with official Church teachings, these clever publicists have avoided ecclesiastical sanctions."

The paradox is that the Jesuit tradition that Reese has been following is heavily influenced by the military mind of the Order's founder Loyola, who was a soldier by profession. The Jesuits were famously described as 'papal stormtroopers'. It's less well known that they specialised in respectful dialogue with the enemy, rather than confrontation.

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