I first came to America in the spring of 2003, when Thomas J. Reese, S.J., the 12th editor in chief, offered me a position as an editorial intern. One of the most talented Jesuits of his generation, Father Reese is a lifelong student of history and politics. So the first thing he did when I arrived was to school me in what this journal is, as well as what it is not, and how our own history informs how we seek to interpret the signs of the times in the present day. Longtime readers will know that it is impossible to really understand what America does without a sense of that history. For this reason, one of my first acts as editor in chief was to inaugurate a new department called Vantage Point, in which we republish articles from our archives that give a sense of how an earlier generation approached the same questions we are asking now, albeit in a different social and political context.
The article by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, S.J., in this issue seems a perfect fit for this month, in which the U.S. Catholic bishops are meeting to discuss what approach to take to the public debate during the 2016 presidential contest. Much that Cardinal Dulles wrote more than 20 years ago is still relevant and useful, even if he departs from our current house style by using political terminology to describe his fellow Catholics. Two years ago, America stopped using terms like “liberal” and “conservative” to describe our fellow Catholics in an ecclesial context, mainly because in our present sociopolitical environment, such terms tend to do more harm than good. That probably was not the case in 1990. That is just one more example of how America seeks to respond to our concrete, present realities while remaining true to what is constant.
This has been a momentous autumn: the papal visit to the United States, the meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome and now the U.S. bishops’ meeting in Baltimore. The sheer volume of content we have produced in print and online is staggering. In the midst of all that, it might be helpful to recall that America exists to provide a forum for catholic opinion. As another of my predecessors, Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., put it in 1975:
As a journal of opinion, this review seeks, in each issue, not only to inform, but also to interpret. The interpretations—the opinions—of the editors can be found in the editorials, including those shorter “current comments.” The views in these unsigned statements reflect not so much a collective statement but rather the result of a collective process…that has emerged from the weekly editorial meeting. Along with these unsigned editorials, individual editors also write signed pieces: articles, columns, reviews. These represent the views of the individual…. The articles we choose to publish, on the other hand, may not represent the viewpoint of the editors either collectively or individually…. Finally, since the most sensitive opinions in each issue are expressed in the book reviews, it should be clear that the reviews do not represent the opinions of the editors.
Forty years on, Father O’Hare’s ground rules still hold: “A Catholic journal of opinion should be reasonably catholic in the opinions it is willing to consider,” he wrote. “Which is not to say that catholic means indiscriminate. It does mean, however, that we will publish views contrary to our own, as long as we think they deserve the attention of thoughtful Catholics.” In other words, if we’ve done our job right, you should find something in every issue that affirms your worldview as well as something that challenges it.