A Conversation with Seattle U Honorary Doctorate Recipient Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J.


Jordie Simpson

The statue of St. Ignatius, located on Seattle University campus.

Fr. Thomas Reese, S.J. is a towering figure in Catholic journalism. He was Editor-in-Chief of America Magazine during the late years of the pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II,  a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter from 2015 to 2017 and has been writing about the contemporary Church since the mid-1970s. He now writes for the Religion News Service. He is well known for challenging the institutional Church to discern and respond to “the signs of the times” in the spirit of the Second Vatican Council and for his analysis of the Church’s interaction with the wider world. 

Seattle University will be rewarding Fr. Reese with an honorary doctorate along with his brother Fr. Edward Reese, S.J. during the 2022 graduate commencement ceremony June 12. The following is an edited version of an interview with Fr. Reese conducted May 27.


AZ: You are receiving an honorary doctorate from Seattle University for renowned journalism and scholarship. Could you tell me a bit about how that came about and what it means to you to be receiving it alongside Fr. Edward Reese? 

TR: Well, I just got contacted by the university and it was kind of a surprise. They were asking me to come and receive an honorary degree and to give the commencement address. I’m really happy to be honored by Seattle U. It’s a great school and an honor to be able to talk to students. 

AZ: And you’ll be receiving that honor alongside Fr. Edward. 

TR: Yeah well, you get two for the price of one I guess! Despite the fact that we are brothers, we’re very different, he’s on one side of the continent and I’m on the other, and that’s been pretty much all our lives as Jesuits. He has devoted his life to working with high school kids, first as a teacher, then as an administrator and now as president of Jesuit high schools for a few decades. I’m very proud of what he does—I couldn’t do it. High school is a time where young people are forming their own identity and dependent of their parents, they’re starting to experiment and starting to think for themselves, so the opportunity to guide them during this critical time is, I think, really unique. I have great admiration for people who are in high school work. 

AZ: At the graduation ceremony in which you’ll be receiving that honor, you’ll be on stage with Seattle U’s first lay president. As vocations to ordained religious life decrease, Jesuit universities have increasingly looked to lay partners in the mission to take leadership roles. Do you think that an increasing amount of lay leadership of Ignatian institutions has the potential to change the character of Jesuit education in the future, and if so, how?

TR: I think there’s a good news and bad news aspect of this—the good news is that it shows that Catholic education has succeeded. The Church has trained laity who can step into these roles.  The ’50s was just the beginning of Catholics getting educated and joining the middle class. We came to this country as poor immigrants and we still have a number of immigrants coming to this country who need educational assistance for upward mobility. But now, large portions of Catholics have reached the middle class and are having an impact on our country. They are not only taking leadership positions in politics and industry, but also in education and the Catholic Church itself. 

The decline in vocations is very disappointing to most priests and bishops in the Catholic Church—there may be another way of looking at it, and that is that it’s God’s way of telling us that we have to declericalize the Church. That this is the age of the laity, that it’s time for them to step forward, us to step aside and for them to take their leadership role in the Church. I think that’s what’s happening in Jesuits schools across the county, especially with more women presidents of Jesuit colleges, universities and high schools. My brother spent twenty years at Brophy Preparatory in Phoenix, Ariz. and he was succeeded by a woman president. Fantastic! So it’s a new world. 

The caveat on that is that if you look at the Protestant colleges and universities that went from clerical to lay control, the religious aspects of them pretty much disappeared. Most of these Ivy League schools started as religious schools and now they’re purely secular. They may have a divinity school connected to them that’s over on the edge of the campus, but it’s not at the heart of who they are. That’s a challenge Jesuit schools are going to face in the decades ahead—can they maintain a Jesuit identity without Jesuits, can they maintain a Catholic identity without the clergy in control? Of course that doesn’t mean they’re imposing their religion on other people, because our schools often have large amounts of non-Catholic students, but is Catholicism presented in an attractive way, is it presented as an open religion, as an ecumenical one and one sensitive to inter-religious dialogue and conversation? 

We believe with Pope Francis that God is a compassionate and loving God and that churches should be field hospitals, not country clubs. We have a moral obligation to be concerned about the poor, oppressed, marginalized, the environment and that protecting children is more important than protecting people’s unlimited right to buy any gun. The challenge of Catholic universities is how do you prophetically proclaim your values without appearing to force people to accept as doctrine everything that we say? It’s a delicate balance, it’s a dance and that’s what the Jesuits have tried to do since the Second Vatican Council, and it’s what our institutions have to continue to do when we’re no longer there. That’s really hard because it takes buy-in by administrators, but also by the faculty, students and parents, and that’s a free buy-in that you cannot compel. So it’s an opportunity, but it’s also a challenge. 

AZ: Some on the more progressive end of the spectrum in the Church argue that the decline in youth who identify as Catholic and the decline in vocations to religious life are due in part to the poor choices of members of the Church hierarchy, who seem to have generally embraced a set of culture-war values which were most recently exhibited by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in San Francisco, Calif. From your perspective as a Jesuit who had personal tussles with more conservative clergy including Cardinal Ratzinger, do you agree that these more conservative tendencies of the two previous papacies before the current Holy Father, as well as the general conservative direction of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have made the faith less appealing to young people?

TR: It is a complex question. Why is there a decline in vocations? When I entered, my entrance class had almost 50 first-year novices just in California. Now, if on the whole west coast we can get 10 [in a year] we’ll be dancing for joy. Of those that enter, they’re not all going to stay all the way through, so there’s been a real decline. The decline started before John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so you can’t blame it all on them. The conservatives will blame it on the Second Vatican Council and say ‘if we just stayed in the Church of the 1950s, everything would be fine.’ Well I don’t think so, in fact I think a lot left because the Church was trying to stay like the Church of the 1950s. If you look at public opinion polls, most Catholics, including conservative Catholics, like Pope Francis. They and non-Catholics love Pope Francis. The difficulty is when people go into a Catholic Church, they don’t hear Pope Francis from the pulpit. What they hear is boring or it’s a diatribe on some culture war issues that young people aren’t interested in and find repugnant. 

So you have to get them into Church. When I was growing up in the ’50s we thought if we didn’t go to Church on Sunday, we were going to go to hell— nobody believes that anymore, so you can’t force them into Church. We used to have the highest Church attendance rate in the country, better than Protestant churches. Now Catholics go to Church at a lesser rate than Protestants, mainly because most of the Protestants are evangelicals and tend to go to church. I agree with my liberal friends that much of what the bishops are emphasizing is turning-off young people. On the other hand, if people are leaving us and joining the evangelicals, that doesn’t fit with the liberal view of what is happening. The data shows that about half of people who leave the Catholic Church become unchurched, the ‘nones,’ and the other half become Protestant, two-thirds of which become evangelicals. Well, those people are not leaving the Church for a more liberal experience. I think they are leaving the Church for a more biblical and entertaining religious experience, because one thing you can say about evangelicals is that they aren’t boring. The preaching and music are not boring, and they know how to market their Sunday services to the people. Catholic priests have been spoiled because we had a monopoly—you had to come to us for salvation if you were Catholic—no one believes that anymore. We’re like the old IBM, if you wanted a computer, you had to come to us. Well, then this thing called Apple came along, and these other Silicon Valley startups came around, and they ran circles around IBM. This is what’s happened to the Catholic Church. The evangelicals are much more entrepreneurial. If you can’t get people into Church you aren’t going to get vocations. 

AZ: Does that mean to attract people back to the faith we will need to decenter the Eucharist and start having evangelical-style concerts for masses? Does it mean that the felt banners and guitars of the post-Vatican II era that conservatives so dread are the way to go, and that we should further emphasize a celebratory liturgy? Or is there another way to go? 

TR: Christianity has to be enculturated into local culture. We learned that in Asia and in Africa, you can’t just impose a European model of what Catholicism is on African or Asian culture. The same thing is true in the U.S., but the U.S. is a multicultural environment. There’s not one answer to how we should present Catholicism in the U.S.. You have to look at each congregation and parish, you may have a different kind of mass at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., 12 p.m., 5:30 p.m., 7 p.m. and a different Saturday night vigil, because you’ve got different kinds of people, especially if you have Hispanic, Vietnamese and Black Catholics in your parish. Each of those populations is going to require a very different kind of ministry and presentation of Catholicism. We’re not used to that, we think that one size fits all, and it doesn’t, we have to learn that. We train our priests that if they memorize the catechism of the Catholic Church, they will have the answer to every problem that arises in their parish, and they don’t. We do not train priests to be creative, we train priests to follow rules, so it’s tough. It’s especially tough if you limit ordination to celibate men—you’ve just cut off about 90% of the population for the priesthood! We know that there are lots of married men who would be interested in being priests, we see married men functioning very well in other Christian churches, we know that there are lots of women who would like to minister, and we see that in Protestant churches that women are doing fantastic work as ministers, so we have to look at this situation and say ‘is God trying to tell us something here?’ He seems to be calling these people to ministry, and the bishops are saying no, and then we’re surprised that there are so few priests in the Catholic Church. 

AZ: My next question is a bit more about Catholic media. The Bishops recently made the choice to end the domestic work of the Catholic News Service. You’ve written about how this leaves less choices for impartial Church news and may amplify the voices of would-be Fox hosts like Raymond Arroyo. You wrote “the rise of the EWTN empire is also a challenge to Catholic progressives. Why are they incapable of running and funding an equivalent media empire?” Can I ask you that same question? Why do conservative American Catholics seem to have louder voices in Church media today? 

TR: Conservative donors believe that ideas are important. We see this, not just in the Catholic Church, but in other places as well. Conservative donors have been funding institutes and centers that push either libertarian values and other movements in American society as a whole. Rich liberal people are more interested in feeding the hungry, giving money to schools, and that kind of thing. They don’t fund think-tanks, and they aren’t funding Catholic publications either. I was editor of a Catholic publication, and there were very few foundations that you could go to to ask for money and you never secured major funding. If you got $50,000 you danced for joy. 

The other thing is that progressive Catholics think that if you’re right if you write a brilliant column that explains it all, you will convince everybody. Well no progressive Catholic publication has ever gotten more than 40 or 50,000 subscribers, so they aren’t marketing something that people want to buy. I think the genius of Mother Angelica was that she marketed something that people wanted! Conservative Catholics wanted piety, they wanted devotions, they wanted something that fed their spiritual soul. After the Second Vatican Council, I think that the progressives kind of dropped a lot of the devotional practices and a lot of the things that respond to the people’s emotional needs, and felt that liberation or progressive theology would solve it all. 

This is one of the genius aspects of Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. He went to the slums of Buenos Aires and sat in people’s houses and listened to them. Progressives aren’t good at listening. One of the dangers of progressives is that we write about the poor without ever listening to the poor. That’s what you need, to get down there and find out what they want. I had some friends, for example, who were community organizers, and they’re much better at this because they have to listen. They were Jesuits, and they started this organizing group in Oakland, and they wanted to demonstrate with the poor and march to City Hall. So they went down and were smart enough to say ‘what do you people want?’ Well, there were two things they wanted. There was a porno shop in their neighborhood and they wanted it closed. Well, this was the last thing that the Jesuits were thinking about. The second thing they wanted was a stop sign near the school, so the kids wouldn’t get run over. So that’s where they started–with what the people wanted. I think so often people in the Church, either intellectuals or priests, progressives or conservatives, come to the people and say ‘this is what you want, this is what you need,’ instead of sitting down and saying ‘how can I help you, what are your concerns, hopes and dreams?’ 

We don’t do market research, and we don’t do beta testing. For example, when we reformed the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council we simply it rolled-out all over the world at the same time, without ever testing it. People liked having the liturgy in English, but it was not rolled out well. The priests didn’t know how to explain it, and there was no preparation for it. When they published a new translation of the Mass, there was no beta testing of the various translations to see which translation would work best with the priests proclaiming it. It was a bunch of people in a closed room talking about what they thought would work best as experts without sitting down with the people. 

These are the kings of things that the Catholic Church could learn from the secular world. I’m not saying that every issue is negotiable, but how you present the faith, how you try to teach that, what’s the best method of bringing people to an awareness that everyone is our brother and sister, has to be considered. I think what the Church needs to do is get young people in college and just out of college and brainstorm what we can do to help make the Church more attractive. You see people like Jim Martin who works at America Magazine and fell into a ministry to LGBTQ+ people. He listens to people, he knows how to present the Catholic Church in an attractive way and a non-judgmental way and if we had more of that, if we could clone him and Pope Francis, we’d be in great shape. But I don’t see a lot of Pope Francis’ or Jim Martin’s coming out of seminaries today. 

AZ: That leads me into a question about the seminaries. A 2021 survey showed that younger Catholic priests are markedly more conservative than their older counterparts who identified more with St. Pope John XXIII’s vision of the Church than St. Pope John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI’s. In thirty years from now, this will be the generation from which new American Catholic bishops are selected. Does this mean that the Church hierarchy in the US is going to become more aligned with conservative white Protestantism, or is there hope that the reforms of Francis will break through this deluge of conservatism in American seminaries? 

TR: As a social scientist I’m a pessimist, as a Christian I have to be an optimist–I believe in somebody who rose from the dead and in the power of the spirit. 

In a sense, I know where all these seminarians are coming from because I went through a very conservative seminary my first four years, and I was a very conservative Catholic when I entered–I was a Barry Goldwater Republican and a Pope Pius XII Catholic. It was a tough transition, and I feel very sympathetic toward seminarians who thought that Pope John Paul II and Benedict were perfect and that they would chart the course for this Church for the rest of this century. To suddenly have Pope Francis come in is a culture shock for these young seminarians and priests. They’re thinking, ‘what the hell is going on?’ I’ve been there and done that. So it’s sad that this has had to happen again. And the problem was that when John Paul became pope, I think he panicked. He was afraid that the Church was headed toward total chaos, because bishops and laypeople were disagreeing with things that came out of the Vatican, and theologians were disagreeing with what the Vatican was teaching, and he felt that it was essential to restore order in the Church after the Second Vatican Council. So he brought in Cardinal Ratzinger to remove and fire all of the progressive teachers in the seminaries, and to put in their place conservative ones who would simply preach the Vatican line. They had over thirty years to do this, and Pope Francis has had a very short amount of time. And I think John Paul and Benedict were much more ruthless in the way they did this, removing seminarians and professors, than Francis has been. He believes more in conversion and that people can change, which as a Christian I believe and as a social scientist I don’t. 

I don’t know where the Bishop’s Conference will be in ten years, and for young people that seems like an awfully long time to wait, and a lot will depend on who follows Pope Francis. But it is clear that if there are not changes in the Church, then all of these prophecies about the Church becoming a smaller Church with fewer people will come true. Some conservatives will say that is good, but that has never been the tradition of the Catholic Church, we have always been the big tent, that’s why we are Catholic–which means universal. I think that the Church is going to change a lot in the future, and I know how I’d like to see it change, and in my life I’ve seen things move a lot slower than I’d like to see them happen. At the same time, if I look back to the way the Church was when I graduated from college, the Church is very different today than it was back then, so we have to celebrate the progress the Church has made while at the same time acknowledging that it hasn’t gone far enough and that people are frankly disappointed. 

AZ: This will be my last question. As a journalist and as a Jesuit you see your fair share of bad Church news in a given day, and you have reported through a very tumultuous period in contemporary Church history. What are your sources of hope and inspiration in difficult moments? 

TR: Well, the first thing I would say is that we are always surprised by sin and stupidity in the Church, but we really shouldn’t be. If we read the scriptures, we see that they are not a story about a holy people who are rewarded for being holy by God. The scriptures are a story of sinner after sinner experiencing the compassion and mercy of God. Every leader in the Old Testament, Moses, David, all of them screwed-up. We look at the New Testament, where Peter denies Jesus and the apostles run away during the crucifixion, and only a few women remain with Jesus. So we should not be surprised by sin in the Church. Certainly if we look at Church history, we should not be surprised by the Church doing stupid things. 

We speak of the Holy Catholic Church, well that’s more of a hope than a reality–it’s what we want to be and what we should be. If you want a pure and sinless community to be involved with, good luck finding it. I don’t think you’ll find it in any religious or secular group. The story of humanity is crawling up from the mud and trying to get better and better at every age. Sometimes we succeed and sometimes we fall, and it’s always hard to know which we are doing at the time. In some ways the world is much better–we certainly are much more sensitive on how we treat women and racial minorities, but we see that we’re still killing people both in wars and in our schools. The Church is part of that reality, but it was founded by Jesus to be a place of hope, and Jesus taught us how to do it, but it’s not easy and what we’re called to do by the Gospel is to be Jesus in our times. Too often we are like the apostles who didn’t quite get it, and when we are like Jesus we should not be surprised when we are crucified. So if you are looking for a Church in which everything works smoothly and everyone is good, this ain’t it. But if you are looking for a Church in which the Spirit is trying to get in, and in which many people are trying to do the right thing, this is it. We have to recognize and love one another, because they will know that we are Christians by our love, not our fights.