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James T. KeaneOctober 03, 2023
Composite image by James T. Keane (iStock)

In the late summer of 1965, just a few months before the close of the Second Vatican Council, a new name began to appear in the pages of America. Writing a column called “The Press,” S. J. Adamo covered an unusual beat for the magazine: journalism, particularly the Catholic kind. This meant a focus on Catholic diocesan papers around the country, but also a fair amount of ink devoted to more national outlets, like America, Our Sunday Visitor and the brand-new National Catholic Reporter.

Employing a conversational and sometimes cheeky tone, Father Adamo would write his column for the next eight years, amassing an impressive body of work and legions of fans—and more than a few enemies among Catholic journalists and academics (and a bishop or two).

At first, I thought S. J. Adamo was just a pen name for some scheming Jesuit; the moniker sounded too clever by half, and he began to appear in America’s pages only after Xavier Rynne became famous for his pseudonymous “Letters from Vatican City” during Vatican II. But no, Salvatore J. Adamo was the real deal: A priest of the Diocese of Camden who served as executive editor of the Catholic Star-Herald from 1962 to 1977, he also wrote a weekly column on religious topics for the Philadelphia Daily News for 30 years; in between, he wrote for the National Catholic Reporter, Jubilee and other Catholic journals, including his America column, which ran from 1965 to 1973. He also authored a 1968 book, While the Winds Blew: A Fresh and Richly Balanced View of the American Catholic Church Today.

He lamented in a 1970 column that ever since writers like John Leo and Garry Wills and Rosemary Radford Ruether had taken their talents to secular outlets, “all the hellzapoppin’ suddenly subsided.”

Father Adamo was no stranger to controversy—in fact, he seemed to revel in it. When he was fired from the Catholic Star-Herald by Bishop George H. Guilfoyle in 1977, he wrote all about their conflict in an op-ed in The New York Times. The bishop, he wrote, “simply could not accept the truth that a newspaper must deal in real news. Instead, he wanted a propaganda sheet that I steadfastly resisted until a few weeks ago, when he fired me. Only in Russia is journalism in a worse state.”

Ironically, one of Adamo’s longest assignments as a priest was a 17-year stint (1967-84) as the rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Camden, right under Bishop Guilfoyle’s nose. He served at parishes across South Jersey before and after that assignment, retiring in 1995. He died in 2001.

His America columns were notable for their broad reach—he seemed to read every diocesan paper nationwide every week—and also for their witty asides. And, truth be told, for the occasional purple prose. Adamo once described a Catholic editor’s attempt to revitalize a dying diocesan paper thus: “He has tried to make a respectable woman out of what had become an almost hopeless strumpet.”

A consistent advocate for a free press, for higher professional standards in Catholic publication and for more in-depth coverage of secular news, Adamo also advocated for a national Catholic daily newspaper run by laypeople to replace the innumerable bishop-dominated diocesan weeklies then current (“All that the Catholic press needs is an increase in quality not a decrease in quantity.”). He also wasn’t above reveling in intramural Catholic squabbles, noting once that “a good fight helps the blood circulation and occasionally clears the head. It also sells papers.”

He lamented in a 1970 column that ever since writers like John Leo and Garry Wills and Rosemary Radford Ruether had taken their talents to secular outlets, “all the hellzapoppin’ suddenly subsided.” He was glad that year that “a new journalistic brawl has exploded in the Catholic press. It involves the noted priest-sociologist and prolific penman, Fr. Andrew M. Greeley, and an assorted number of opponents that include John Deedy, Peter Steinfels and Philip Nobile, all of Commonweal. Evidently Fr. Greeley has been stung by their sniping.”

When Jacob Javitz ran against Paul O’Dwyer for a Senate seat from New York in 1968, Adamo had no time for either “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

He wasn’t kidding. Greeley—who relished a good church feud as much as Adamo—was furious that Deedy had mocked the speed with which he produced books, and none too happy that Steinfels had penned a satire for Commonweal that included a secret agent, “Ajornaminski,” who when in the United States “went under the alias of ‘Andrew N. Greely.’” Adamo was happy to reprint Greeley’s response from his own syndicated column: that Commonweal “has become insufferably dull, indeed one of the best cures for insomnia since sheep.”

In 1973, Adamo reported another internecine church contretemps, this one between Albert Nevins, M.M., and the theologian Richard McBrien. When Nevins, a Maryknoll priest writing for Our Sunday Visitor, criticized Father McBrien’s theology, the latter asked the Catholic Press Association to censure Nevins. McBrien, wrote Adamo, “claims his theological reputation has been ripped to shreds unfairly by the mountain lion from the West.” That earned a letter to America from McBrien, criticizing Adamo’s “light-hearted manner” on a serious topic.

Politicians also earned a clever poke or two over the years: When Jacob Javitz ran against Paul O’Dwyer for a Senate seat from New York in 1968, Adamo had no time for either “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

Nor could the bishops always escape Adamo’s wry commentary over the years. When Cardinal McIntyre of Los Angeles engaged in a full-scale war with the Immaculate Heart Sisters over their post-Vatican II renewal efforts, Adamo was not shy in calling McIntyre’s behavior “bullying.” In 1972, he criticized the archbishops of New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Philadelphia for “a major blackout of meaningful religious news.” It was all “part of the curial strategy,” he wrote, “to turn back the Church clock a century or so.” A 1971 column on secular coverage of church politics asked “So, what will it profit the Church if it saves its schools and its authority and its celibate clergy, but loses its sheepfold?”

And when, in January 1972, Father Adamo penned a survey of Christmas greetings from various Catholic periodicals, it was vintage Adamo. Full of wit and wisdom, it included just a touch of malice in the penultimate paragraph:

Many diocesan editors, including myself, did not fail to feature their bishop’s Christmas message on the front page. But all of us were surprised in our zeal by the St. Louis Review. There the entire front page was devoted to Cardinal Carberry’s message in large script. Unfortunately, big print can not magically produce great thoughts. The effort, however, was admirable.

Father Adamo was no stranger to controversy—in fact, he seemed to revel in it.


Our poetry selection for this week is “Little Brother,” by Jennifer M. Phillips. Readers can view all of America’s published poems here.

Also, this summer the Catholic Book Club is reading and discussing Mary Doria Russell’s novel, The Sparrow. Click here for more information or to sign up for our Facebook discussion group.

In this space every week, America features reviews of and literary commentary on one particular writer or group of writers (both new and old; our archives span more than a century), as well as poetry and other offerings from America Media. We hope this will give us a chance to provide you with more in-depth coverage of our literary offerings. It also allows us to alert digital subscribers to some of our online content that doesn’t make it into our newsletters.

Other Catholic Book Club columns:

The spiritual depths of Toni Morrison

What’s all the fuss about Teilhard de Chardin?

Moira Walsh and the art of a brutal movie review

Leonard Feeney, America’s only excommunicated literary editor (to date)

Happy reading!

James T. Keane

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