Father Thomas Reese, S.J., former editor of the Jesuit biweekly America, has made a curious confession: He’s happy again. Or so he told the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn, who reported Father Reese’s good cheer in her September 27 “On Faith” column. Father Reese is happy, and Sally Quinn is happy for Father Reese, because, as Tom told Sally, “I haven’t been this hopeful about the Church in decades. . . . It’s fun to be Catholic again.”
I’m happy that Father Reese, an old acquaintance and occasional sparring partner, is happy. And I’m glad that Father Reese is having fun again. I just wonder what the heck he’s been looking at in the Catholic Church in the United States, such that he’s spent “decades” being unhappy.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, millions of adult men and women have been baptized as adults or entered into full communion with the Catholic Church, freely professing “all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and professes to be revealed by God.” As Father Reese told Sally Quinn, “we need to take the best thinking of our generations and explain Christianity to our generation.” That seems to have been going on, in no small measure; yet Father Reese seems to have missed it.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, new forms of evangelically robust campus ministry have developed across the United States. Aggie Catholics at Texas A&M produce priestly and religious vocations and great Catholic marriages by the bushel. Ragin’ Cajun Catholics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Cornhusker Catholics at the University of Nebraska run vibrant Bible-study and Theology of the Body programs that draw hundreds of their fellow students into serious reflection on the Word, and on what the Word asks of us today. Young missionaries sponsored by FOCUS (the Fellowship of Catholic University Students) devote their immediate post-collegiate lives to peer evangelization, and do so on campuses from USC to the Naval Academy and Harvard, and at dozens of institutions of higher education in between. Surely a source of happiness, that; surely a reason to be “hopeful about the Church.” But not, it seems, in the Catholic world as seen by the previously disgruntled Father Reese.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, Catholic-studies programs have blossomed on Catholic campuses across the country, led by the trend-setting program at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.; those programs have brought a new depth of serious Catholic intellectual life to the humanities, the arts, professional training, and even the sciences at the schools where they have flourished (which do not, alas, include Father Reese’s most recent base, Georgetown). In those same decades, the Academy of Catholic Theology has been formed to challenge the terminal trendiness and political correctness of the Catholic Theological Society of America, and to respond to the growing number of younger Catholic scholars who have found in the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI rich veins of intellectual material to mine, debate, and refine — unlike, it would seem, the unhappy Father Reese.
In the decades of Father Reese’s unhappiness, the Catholic Church in the United States has produced the most compelling televisual instrument of the New Evangelization available in the world: Father Robert Barron’s Catholicism series, which appeared on many PBS affiliates and is now a staple of parish and campus adult-education programs. But that remarkable accomplishment, it seems, did not help lift Father Reese out of the slough of ecclesiastical despond.