America's Politics

Reading the Mission of a Magazine

Magazines of all sorts have been struggling to find their way in the digital age and in an increasingly fragmented cultural environment. Journals, like Commonweal, that have a special relationship to Catholicism, or to some other religious tradition, are no exception. Subscribers to established journals of opinion tend to be older, and this seems especially true for magazines such as Commonweal, Christian Century, America, First Things, and the National Catholic Reporter. But it is also true for the New York Review of Books, the Nation, National Review, and even for circulation titans like the New Yorker. Attracting a new generation of readers and supporters is crucial to the survival of the sort of vigorous opinion journalism and political debate traditionally fostered by “little” magazines. And so, preserving a magazine’s identity while communicating a compelling vision of its purpose and future may be more important today than ever before.

In that context, it has been particularly interesting to read the mission statement of Matt Malone, SJ, the newly appointed editor of America, about the challenges facing his magazine and the Catholic media at large. In “Pursuing the Truth in Love: The Mission of ‘America’ in a 21st-Century Church,” Malone makes a compelling case for America’s unique character as a Catholic ministry as well as a forum for intellectual and theological deliberation. It is refreshing to come across such a passionate declaration of how a magazine like America should meet its twin obligations of illuminating church teaching while at the same time welcoming the discordant views of Catholics themselves on issues both political and theological or ecclesial. In tackling that problem, Malone is especially concerned with the politicization of the church. He attributes this, at least in part, to what he characterizes as a “body politic sickened by the toxin of ideological partisanship” and a “public square [that] has less space for overtly religious perspectives than at any previous time in American history.”

Even allowing for rhetorical emphasis, that analysis of the broader political situation seems both overdrawn and incomplete. Politics, as the saying goes, ain’t beanbag, and partisan strife is more the rule than the exception in American history. Nor would anyone who watched even a few of the Republican Party’s interminable 2012 presidential debates conclude that religion—and specifically Christianity—had little purchase on our common political life. If religious voices have been marginalized in the way Malone suggests, it is sobering indeed to be reminded that Catholics are the largest self-identified religious group in Congress—making up 30 percent of the House of Representatives. Something more than partisanship must explain why the church’s views fail to gain traction with the larger public, let alone with those in the pews. Yes, hostility to Catholicism exists in certain media, academic, and liberal quarters, but an openly antagonistic attitude toward religion remains a sure road to political oblivion in this stubbornly religious country. America’s mission statement is silent about which party and what politics might be more responsible for those partisan toxins. Pronouncing a plague on both political parties ignores the fact that it is currently a faction within one party, the GOP, that is doing everything in its power to obstruct the operations of government, a situation that has even Republican leaders perplexed and paralyzed.

Malone’s more pressing concern is with what he perceives to be the destructive influence of secular political ideology on Catholic unity. “We view ideology as largely inimical to Christian discipleship,” he writes, arguing that “our secular, civic discourse...is a mortal threat to the ecclesiastical discourse.” In an effort to combat this “factionalism,” America will no longer allow writers to use the terms “liberal,” “conservative,” or “moderate” “when referring to our fellow Catholics in an ecclesiastical context.” That editorial experiment will bear watching.

Factionalism can indeed be a threat to the church (or to the country), but honest disagreement is not always destructive of ecclesial communion; in fact, it is often constitutive of it. As John Courtney Murray, SJ, once wrote, “disagreement is a rare achievement, and most of what is called disagreement is simply confusion.” Paul took on Peter in the most direct way on the question of whether the promises of Christ could be extended to the uncircumcised. The church as we know it would not exist but for that bit of factionalism. The number of such disagreements throughout the church’s history is hard to exaggerate. In fact, church unity is more often threatened when not enough room is made for the airing and resolution of honest disagreement. Nor does it do any good to pretend that the contemporary church is actually a community of harmony and virtue simply because ideally it should be. American Catholics belong to the church, but also to many other communities and organizations. They cannot, and should not, leave those attachments behind at the church door, nor should they regard their political commitments as peripheral to their Christian witness. Quite the contrary. For example, while America’s mission statement confesses a “bias” for the “preferential option for the poor and vulnerable,” it asserts that the poor have no “special parties to speak for them.” Maybe not, but that doesn’t mean that all parties speak for the poor equally, or equally well.

“Pursuing the Truth in Love” is a bracing and welcome call to Christian discipleship, but it tends to draw too stark a dichotomy between a Catholic’s religious identity and his or her secular political responsibilities. Malone, for example, refers to “the tired, quadrennial debate about which presidential candidate represents the lesser of two evils.” The dismissive tone about electoral politics is striking. Millions of politically engaged Catholics, on both sides of the ideological fence, still believe that democratic politics is about a good deal more than the lesser of two evils, and that political involvement, despite its compromises, is no obstacle to Christian discipleship. Tiring of the messy trade-offs of politics is understandable, but it’s no answer to our discontent, for history has issued a sure warning that the alternatives to democratic discord are far worse. The nation’s current political impasse calls for a renewed commitment to the practice of politics, not to Christian detachment. The Catholic Church has been too eager to despair of representative democracy in the past, and must be ever vigilant in guarding against that temptation today.

Malone writes that “our principal point of reference is not civil society, and it is not the state,” but rather the gospel. Amen. Yet a principal point of reference does not preclude other morally binding commitments. In making the gospel known, Christians will most often act as members of civil society and citizens of the state. Not just as Americans, but also as Catholics and Christians, we have a large stake in the success of our democracy. Historically, the churches have played an indispensable role in compelling the liberal state to live up to its promises about human dignity and freedom, whether the issue was slavery, civil rights, eugenics, economic opportunity and fairness, abortion, religious freedom, voting rights, gender equality, or war. As the commemorations of the 1963 March on Washington remind us, the language of social justice, which is fundamental to biblical religion, is essential to the health of democracy itself.

Criticizing the theologian Stanley Hauerwas’s radical critique of American democracy in these pages, the philosopher Jeffrey Stout insisted that the churches condescend to or retreat from the political realm at their peril. “Christians have every reason to concern themselves with the integrity of the church and with the question of what way of life it is meant to exemplify,” he wrote (“Not of This World,” October 10, 2003). But that focus should not entail an escape from the duties of citizenship or from the influence serious Christians can wield in their roles as government and business leaders. “Christian ethics has traditionally taken all of these roles as falling within its scope, and made it its business to evaluate existing social arrangements in light of stringent standards of justice and love,” Stout wrote.

In pursuing the truth in love, those stringent standards should apply both within the Catholic community and beyond it. Ideology is not always the enemy of Christianity; liberal democracy is an ideology itself, and it represents not a threat to the church but a welcome and necessary partner. There is no need to choose between fidelity to Christ and our secular democratic hopes. That at least has long been part of the mission statement of this magazine.

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I publicly disagreed on the America site with Malone's decision and direction for the magazine.  Still, I think it is a bit odd for Commonweal to comment on it now three months later.  It appears opportunistic and tacky to say the least for Commonweal to be taking a cheap shot at Malone so late in the game.  Is competition between Catholic opinion magazines so steep that Commonweal has to stoop so low to get the upper hand?  Commonweal should be ashamed to have published this editorial.

I have to say that I have been blissfully ignorant of Matt Malone's decisions for America Magazine, imposing a kind of Catholic mindthink.  Curious that this Jesuit publication, called America for God sake, is now engaging in an effort to limit the First Amendment free speech of US Catholics?  What's wrong with this picture?

I understand that Fr. Matt is rather on the young side and has spent his formative priesthood under the repressive Wojtyla/Ratzinger conservative regime of almost 40 years where independent thought is always suspect, if not to be feared.  Now that Papa Francesco, a fellow Jesuit, espouses tolerance and inclusion, perhaps Malone is trying to keep the conservatives and moderates in line?

I don't get it.  Is Malone suggesting that fractionalism is in some way foreign to the Catholic historical experience?  Like partisan politics is not inimical to the Catholic Church?  [Not that he would ever say so himself, but the example of the marginalization of peace activist Bishop Thomas Gumbleton is not lost on many of us sheeple.] Rather, partisan politics is a constitutive element as in all human societies - I believe it is even healthy.  It is how humans discern the parameters of the choices before us. 

Of course there are conservatives among US Catholics - mostly they are called hierarchs.  Of course there are liberals among us - mostly they are called Sisters or Democrats.  What's the big deal? 

I have to say that the one group I don't have much tolerance for are the moderates - conservatives for all their infuriating mindlessness are essential to preserving the tradition.  Moderates always impress me as the perpetually wary person who is hedging his bets about which way the political winds will blow.  I guess my visceral disdain for moderates is because my sainted sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Adelaide, would often challenge us quoting scripture:  "So, because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spew you out of my mouth."

Perhaps Malone should first apply these principles of bland lukewarm non-fractionalism  to the Jesuits? I don't know how ideologues like Ignatius Loyola would take to that, but it's worth a try, I suppose.  

A few years ago I had a consultation involving Jesuits that opened my eyes about the virulent political dynamics within and among Jesuits vying for internal dominance within their own community - the Jesuits don't play bean bag politics!  [Didn't the Jesuits in Argentina a couple of decades ago dump their provincial Jorge Bergoglio consigning him to teaching high school science for years until he was rescued from obscurity by JP2, due in part to his ambivalent role in the military junta's mistreatment of some fellow Jesuits?]

Malone may be pining for the days when Catholics appeared more monolithic to the general public?  Some older wise Jesuits maybe should help Fr. Matt to understand that sitting around singing Kumbaya by us progressives back in the day came at the cost of being stigmatized and marginalized by the rest of the Catholic community.

As a subscriber to both Commonweal and America I find this editorial and the apparent directional differences between these two generally agreed to be moderate to liberal voices in both politics and religion enlightening. However, one "beef" I have with the Commonweal editors, although I generally agree with most of the stands taken by the magazine in both areas, is that they give a virtual pass to almost anything the Democratic Party does and proposes, while attributing to the Republican Party virtual sole blame for our sociey's problems. I am not a Republican; but an independent and have been for more than 12 years, and I see grave shortcomings in both parties, with the almost lockstep approval of anything that advances "abortion on demand" and anything pro-gay, especially the problematic advancement of so-called "gay marriage" by the Democrats, with usually nary a meaningful descent by Commonweal editors, as a shortcoming of the magazine. If Commonweal and other more liberal Catholic organs and institutions would call the Democrats to task on issues clearly opposed to Catholic moral teaching, perhaps we would see more "pro-life" Democrats, and therefore more chance for real compromise on life issues in this country.

america is a jesuit magazine.  jesuit.  and many people are confused about that, including jesuits...

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