What's a magazine for?

I wonder if you'all saw this item in this week's Word From Rome: John Allen interviews the Jesuit General Hans-Peter Kolvenbach. Among Allen's questions and Kolvenbach's responses are the following.

Allen: One early controversy of his papacy centered on Fr. Tom Reese from America magazine. What are the lessons of that episode for Jesuit-sponsored publications?

Kolvenbach: America magazine, under the competent and dynamic guidance of Fr. Tom Reese, believed that the best service to a mature Catholic public was to let the two sides of a controversial question to defend their views. However, this orientation did not meet the approval of some pastorally concerned priests who were worried about a negative effect on the faith-growth of the Catholics. They expect that Jesuit publications will offer clear standings to meet the questions of the day, avoiding confusion and relativism. Unhappily, instead of changing his policy, Fr. Reese resigned. This episode takes us back to St. Ignatius when he speaks about sentire cum ecclesia (feeling with the church).

Allen: Did the initial concerns about America come from the United States rather than the Vatican?

Kolvenbach? Yes, from clergy outside the Jesuits in the United States, including some in senior positions.

Steinfels: Most issues have three or four sides, not just two. How can the Catholic church and its tradition have a credible presence in U.S. culture if it can't even talk about two sides of a controversy, much less three or four.

America has, in fact, held up well under its new editor, but if the head of the Jesuits and other senior clergy, i.e., U.S. cardinals and bishops, think that debate and contestation are not among the tasks of Catholic journals and intellecutals, their heads are deeper in the sand than I believed possible. Not to toot Commonweal's horn, or NCR's, but there is considerable virtue in publications that are willing and able to grapple with the dark issues of the day by presenting more than one side of an issue precisely because they know there are mature Catholics reading their pages.

More than liberals or conservatives, what the Catholic church needs are writers, editors, intelllectuals who make it their business to sustain a credible Catholicism.

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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