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Catholic Editor's Exit A Surprise

The resignation of the editor-in-chief of one of the top Catholic publications in the United States, reportedly under pressure from the Vatican in reaction to articles debating church teaching, is sparking concern among some American Catholic moderate and liberal circles.

The Rev. Thomas Reese, a widely respected expert on the Catholic Church and the Vatican who edited the Jesuit magazine "America" for seven years, is being replaced by his deputy, the Rev. Drew Christiansen.

Announcing Reese's exit Friday, Jesuit officials said the Vatican has received complaints about articles Reese published on touchy issues such as same-sex marriages and stem cell research.

Jesuit officials in Rome and the United States, who spoke on condition they not be identified, said some American bishops had contacted the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith about articles in the magazine over the years that had presented both sides of controversies over sensitive church issues.

An official with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith - the bailiwick of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the new Pope Benedict XVI, for decades - declined to comment on the matter.

Reese is based in New York where the magazine is edited. He was in Rome for the election of Benedict, who enforced a hard line on church doctrine and silenced theologians who diverged from it in his 24 years as Pope John Paul II's orthodoxy watchdog.

While in Rome, Reese met with his superior who mentioned there had been complaints about a couple of articles, a Jesuit official in Rome said. The official said Reese had left Rome with the idea he would resign.

"Was he forced out? There's no question he was forced out," says New York Times religion columnist Peter Steinfels, who says Reese's ouster could silence moderate voices within the church.

Steinfels says the question now is "whether the center can hold in American Catholicism," with a well-informed discussion of controversial issues. "That's really what Father Reese and the magazine offered," says Steinfels.

In addition to his work at "America," Reese has long been a familiar face and voice on TV and radio - often commenting on Catholic matters, including possible choices for pope as the College of Cardinals began the conclave that ended with Ratzinger's election.

In a CBS News interview on April 18th, Reese - asked about the possibility of the German cardinal succeeding John Paul II - said plainly: "He's a polarizing figure in the church - no question."

In "America," the following week, Reese wrote: "A church that cannot openly discuss issues is a church retreating into an intellectual ghetto."

The Vatican has had a sometimes tense relationship with the Jesuits, some of whose members in the past have questioned papal pronouncements on birth control, priestly celibacy and the ban on women priests.

The magazine had made a point of publishing broad points of view - including some that clashed with church teaching - irking some Catholics in the United States and Rome, the officials said.

Some of the hot button issues included gay priests, stem-cell research, whether Catholic politicians can be denied communion if they support abortion rights, and same-sex unions.

The magazine also wrote about a Vatican document that outlined the idea that divine truth is most fully revealed in Christianity and the Catholic Church in particular.

The document "Dominus Iesus" was issued in 2000 by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith - the office that was headed by German Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI last month.

Critics complained the document could set back Church efforts to reach out to other Christians and believers outside the Church.

When contacted Friday, Reese said only that his tenure ends on June 1 and that he would move immediately to California and continue in his Jesuit ministry.

He said he was "proud of what my colleagues and I did with the magazine, and I am grateful to them, our readers and our benefactors for the support they gave me. I look forward to taking a sabbatical while my provincial (regional boss) and I determine the next phase of my Jesuit ministry."