Interview with Thomas Reese, SJ

Thomas Reese, SJ, is an American Jesuit priest, author, and journalist. He worked in Washington as a writer and lobbyist for tax reform from 1975 to 1978. He was an associate editor of America magazine from 1978 to 1985 and editor-in-chief from 1998 to 2005. He was a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center from 1985 to 1998 and 2006 to 2013. He is the author of a trilogy on the organization and politics of the Church: Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church (1989), A Flock of Shepherds: The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (1992), and Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church (1996). In 2014, Reese was appointed by President Barack Obama to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission that reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

Isn’t it a tragic irony that democracy is under such a serious threat in a country that was seen for decades as the world’s foremost defender and promoter of democracy? What led to this situation?

Democracy is never easy. So are the values of “liberty and justice for all.” Setting one group against another, especially poor whites against Blacks, has been a frequent part of American life. In addition, some liberal elites have a disdain for religious and traditional values, which then causes a kickback.

How is it that Donald Trump has the trust and support of so many Americans even after they saw all that he did and how often he lied during his term as the U.S. President?

His supporters feel threatened and disenfranchised, and he feeds these fears and resentments to the point that they believe he is the only one who can protect them. They are fed lies by him and his supporters in the media. “I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation,” Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress explained in his 2016 defense of Trump.

Another thing that non-Americans find hard to understand is the number of innocent Americans, including students, who die year after year, as a result of gun violence. You don’t see this anywhere else in the developed or developing world. Why has the country been unable to find a solution to this problem that has been festering for many years?

American TV and movies have, for decades, given us a steady diet of movies where a good guy with a gun defeats bad guys with guns. For many men, having a gun is part of their masculinity. Plus, the National Rifle Association has a good propaganda machine and many members who will vote against any politician wanting to restrict guns.

Let us come to the Church in the U.S. Is it true that the U.S. Church is as hopelessly divided as the American society? Is it true that Trump has the support of a large number of U.S. Catholics, including bishops? 

The Catholic vote was split evenly between those supporting Trump and those supporting Biden. Among white Catholics, 57% backed Trump and 42% backed Biden, according to VoteCast. Among Hispanic Catholics, VoteCast shows 67% backed Biden and 32% backed Trump. My guess is that the bishops, who are mostly white, voted like white Catholics. The bishops who got the most media attention were those who attacked Biden for his position on abortion.

Trump’s supporters feel threatened and disenfranchised, and he feeds these fears and resentments to the point that they believe he is the only one who can protect them.

Pope Francis has talked about the power of ideology to make people blind to reality. If it is the ideology that makes the American society and the Church so hopelessly divided, can a majority of Americans be ever mobilized to see and do what is good, what is right for their country and the Church?

In American politics, there are ideologues on the right and the left. Most Americans are more pragmatic, but the ideologues make more noise. Historically, the ideologues overplay their hand and people turn against them, but this can take time.

In the church, the conservative ideologues felt supported by the papacies of John Paul and Benedict. Now they feel betrayed and disenfranchised by Francis. The left, who were silenced and condemned under these papacies, is impatient with Francis because they have an agenda they want him to implement. The average Catholic is more supportive of the liberal agenda, but is also disillusioned by the sex abuse crisis and the clericalism of the clergy.

My guess is that the bishops, who are mostly white, voted like white Catholics.

What percentage of U.S. Catholics would admire Pope Francis and share his vision for the Church?  

According to the Pew Research Center, “The pope’s favorability also has remained steady among U.S. Catholics, with 82% of Catholics in both the March 2021 and February 2020 surveys saying they have a favorable opinion of the pope.” There are, however, partisan differences: “In the latest survey, 90% of Catholic Democrats expressed a favorable opinion of the pope, compared with 73% of Catholic Republicans and GOP leaners.”

How did the first and the second phase of the Synod go in the U.S. dioceses?

I am not sure because they have received very little media coverage. One gets the impression that the synodal process is not a priority of the U.S. bishops.

Lastly tell us about American Jesuits and Jesuit institutions. What are the challenges that they face at present?

American Jesuits are enthusiastic for Pope Francis and his agenda, but we are suffering from a lack of vocations. We can no longer staff our schools and other ministries. It is painful to acknowledge that we cannot do all we used to do, let alone do new things. We have to figure out how to hand our institutions over to the laity in a way that continues their mission. Our high schools have been more successful at that than our universities.