Pursuing the Truth in Love: The mission of 'America' in a 21st-century church
Editor’s note: On Sept. 3, 2020, Matt Malone, S.J., coauthored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with Senator John Danforth calling for renewed civility in political discourse. This essay from 2014 inspired that piece.
The mission of America, wrote its first editor in chief, is not only to “chronicle events of the day and the progress of the church” but also to “stimulate effort and originate movements for the betterment of the masses.” When John Wynne, S.J., penned those words in 1909, he was expressing one of the venerable teachings of St. Ignatius Loyola: “Love manifests itself more in deeds than in words.” America has never been content to play the role of the aloof interpreter of events. We aspire to something more: to be contemplatives in action at the intersection of the church and the world. Thurston N. Davis, S.J., editor in chief from 1955 to 1968, put it this way: America is “a weekly raid on the City of God in order to publish, in the City of Man, a journal that talks common Christian sense about the world of human events.”
Yet while America’s mission remains constant, the challenges we face today are unprecedented. It is no secret that the vanguard of the digital revolution has toppled the ancien régime: a billion tweets, for example, will be sent in the five days it takes to process and print this issue of the magazine; more than 10 billion pieces of content will be added to Facebook in that same period. Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, once rightly regarded as the Ford and Chrysler of news magazines, have virtually disappeared.
America will not meet a similar fate. Like most magazines, we will probably stop publishing an edition in print someday, but that day is not anytime soon. For a variety of reasons, America is better positioned than most to meet the challenges of the digital age; we also have a talented staff and the most loyal readers in publishing.
The most important challenge we face, moreover, is neither technical nor financial; it is existential. It is also the most important challenge facing the Catholic media at large. In fact, if the Catholic media are to have any reasonable hope of meeting the serious technical and financial challenges we face, then we must first reckon with a more fundamental question: Who are we?
For America, indeed for all Catholic media, questions of mission and identity were more easily answered in times gone by. Throughout much of American history, when the church in the United States was relegated to a social, cultural and sometimes a literal ghetto, the need for a uniquely Catholic press was obvious. Today, thanks be to God, Catholics are no longer second-class citizens. At the same time, however, the public square has less space for overtly religious perspectives than at any previous time in American history. The last two decades have also seen the emergence of an increasingly moralistic and dogmatic secularism among the nation’s political class. The twin scandals of sexual abuse and ecclesiastical mismanagement have further enfeebled the church’s public witness.
The complex problem is simply put: While we may have solved the problem of the relationship between the church and the state, the problem of the relationship between the church and the political remains. Solving that problem, or at least presenting credible solutions to it, is the pre-eminent task of the Catholic media in the United States.
The View From Here
Another of my predecessors, Joseph A. O’Hare, S.J., editor in chief from 1975 to 1984, bequeathed a warning to his successors: “Beware of metaphysical traps!” So I will not attempt to answer the question “Who are we?” on behalf of the entire Catholic media; that would be futile as well as presumptuous. My aim is more modest: to answer the question on behalf of America, to state simply what we believe. Yet while "we are a people who respect belief," Father Wynne wrote, "we value action more." Any discussion, then, of America's identity and mission neccesarily involves some analysis of the contemporary social and political context.
From our window overlooking the public square we see many of the same things you see. Chief among them we see a body politic sickened by the toxin of ideological partisanship. As the theologian Willian T. Cavanaugh has observed, American political discourse is dyadic; it oscillates between certain dualisms: left and right, liberal and conservative, public and private, secular and religious. These dyads structure and sustain conflict. While this kind of thinking may or may not be helpful in our secular, civic discourse, it is a mortal threat to the ecclesiastical discourse for it reduces the one to the many. When we conceive of the church in predominantly secular, political terms, then it is no longer in principle the church; it is no longer a communion but a polis composed of factions. As a result, the terms and the tenor of the ecclesiastical conversation become increasingly indistinguishable from those of the larger culture. For our part, the Catholic media become the ecclesiastical equivalent of the cable news lineup: everybody has a favorite outlet, and more often than not it is the one that caters best to our pre-existing views.
If the Catholic media are to make a meaningful contribution to solving the problem of the church and the political, then we must first reckon with how we have been complicit in this subtle secularization of the church in the United States. America is no exception. We too must return to the basic question: Who are we?
Who Are We?
America is not a magazine, though we publish one; nor is America a Web site, though we have one of those as well. America is a Catholic ministry, and both of those words— Catholic and ministry—are carefully chosen. We are not journalists who happen to be Catholic, but Catholics who happen to be journalists. That is not to denegrate or neglect the good and valuable work that the non-Catholics on our staff do every day; it is simply to express our fundamental commitement. America does not labor in the service of mere speech, words with a lower case w; nor are we in pursuit of some idealizaed, dreamy, Platonic-sytle discourse. Rather, we labor in the service of the Word with an upper case W, the self-communication of God in Jesus Christ.
Admittedly, these words "might sound a bit pretentious," as Father Davis once said about a similar statement of his own. Journals of opinion are constantly at risk of taking themselves too seriously. America is no exception here either; we freely admit that some of our opinions can have a preachy, eat-your-peas quality. Still, it is nonetheless true that America’s fundamental commitment is to God in Jesus Christ. This must be so if we are to fulfill the purpose envisioned for America by its founders: to furnish “a discussion of actual questions and a study of vital problems from the Christian viewpoint.” The Christian viewpoint involves a constitutive element that a Catholic media ministry like ours must constantly bear in mind: “Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion,” says “Communio et Progressio,” the 1971 pastoral instruction on the means of social communication. “At its most profound level, it is the giving of the self in love. Christ’s communication was, in fact, spirit and life.” This sentiment is also expressed in America’s motto: Veritatem facientes in caritate (which we loosely translate, “Pursuing the truth in love”). America, then, is also a ministry in the service of the truth. In the Catholic tradition, truth is ultimately a person, whose name is Jesus Christ, the one who is both the mediator and the content of revelation, “the way and the truth and the life.” Without this personal dimension, truth becomes strictly propositional and therefore incapable of sustaining an authentically human moral framework.
It is now possible to see better how America’s fundamental mission and identity—who we are—relate to the question of the church and the political in the 21st-century United States. For they suggest certain political positions, not in a partisan or policy sense, but in the sense of our basic orientation to American political life.
First, since our principal point of reference is Jesus Christ and his body, the church, then our principal point of reference is not civil society, and it is not the state. We are not, moreover, by any stretch of the imagination, disinterested observers of civil society and the state. America, Father Davis once wrote, is “deeply committed...to the moral law of God as this is promulgated through the universal forum of human conscience,” and, “on a wide and varied field of subjects, to the principles enunciated by the Popes, the Vicars of Christ, and in the major statements of the American hierarchy.” Further, while we may incorporate the insights of the secular sciences and secular culture into our analyses of ecclesial events (in fact, the integrity of our work requires it), we understand these events first and most importantly in terms that are proper to the church herself. In other words, America seeks to understand and interpret the church principally through theology, not politics.
Second, America examines secular politics through theology. When we analyze the church in categories that belong more to secular politics than to theology, then we inevitably debase the church’s intrinsic identity. Similarly, when we neglect theological categories in our analyses of secular politics, then the church’s prophetic mission is further removed from its source. The solution to the problem of the church and the political, therefore, is not for the church to retreat from the public square, but to assume a more robust presence there. The church is not merely one more private actor organized for public action. The church makes truth claims that are per se public claims. While the church and state must remain separate, then, the separation of the church and the political is inconceivable.
Third, America understands the church as the body of Christ, not as the body politic. Liberal, conservative, moderate are words that describe factions in a polis, not members of a communion. It stands to reason, moreover, that America’s fundamental commitment precludes certain self-conceptions. Since the word of God is incoherent when it is separated from the church and its living teaching office, America could never envision itself as “the Loyal Opposition.” Nor do we understand the phrase “people of God” as a theological justification for setting one part of the body of Christ against another. The people of God are not a proletariat engaged in some perpetual conflict with a clerical bourgeoisie. It is obvious to us, moreover, that a preoccupation with episcopal action, whether it bears an ultramontane or a Marxist character, is nevertheless a form of clericalism. None of this is to say that America cannot bring a critical eye to ecclesiastical events; this is, in fact, our very purpose.
Fourth, as St. Paul reminds us, “There is neither Jew nor gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Accordingly, there is no faithful Catholic voice—“liberal,” “conservative,” “moderate,” male, female, gay, straight, young, old, clerical or lay, American or not—that is not welcome in the pages of America. There is no quarter of the church, moreover, in which America is not at home. The prevailing notion that Catholics cannot work together, worship together or reason together, simply because we hold different worldly philosophies or vote differently or have different habits of dress or liturgical tastes—such a notion has no place in the body of Christ. Partisanship is the stuff of parliamentary politics, not sacramental life.
Fifth, America’s fundamental commitment means that we view ideology as largely inimical to Christian discipleship. Revelation is humanity’s true story. Ideologies, which are alternative metanarratives, invariably involve an “other,” a conceptual scapegoat, some oppressor who must be overthrown by the oppressed. Only the Gospel’s radical call to peace and reconciliation justifies a radical politics. Catholic social teaching is not the Republican Party plus economic justice, nor is it the Democratic Party minus abortion rights. Yet neither is it some amalgamation of the two. Catholic social teaching is far more radical than our secular politics precisely because it is inspired by the Gospel, which is itself a radical call to discipleship, one that is subversive of every creaturely notion of power. There is more to Christian political witness than the tired, quadrennial debate about which presidential candidate represents the lesser of two evils.
Sixth, our fundamental commitment means that we are not beholden to any political party or any special interest. “America will aim,” wrote Father Wynne, “at becoming a representative exponent of Catholic thought and activity without bias or plea for special interest.” Admittedly, we do harbor one bias: a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. “The poor,” however, “are not ‘special parties’ and they usually have no ‘special parties’ to speak for them,” wrote Father Davis in 1959. America believes that the work of social justice is a constitutive element of Christian discipleship. We also share with the Society of Jesus the conviction that “the faith that does justice is, inseparably, the faith that engages other traditions in dialogue, and the faith that evangelizes culture.”
Seventh, America’s fundamental commitment means that what we communicate is inseparable from how we communicate it, since both are inseparable in the one we seek to serve. We must not be afraid to speak the truth. But if truth is ultimately a person, who is love, then no statement, however factually accurate, can ultimately be called truthful if it is not spoken in charity. This is precisely what it means to say, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal”(1 Cor 13:1).
We Are Christians
Every Christian ministry, as a participation in the one ministry of Christ, is necessarily a ministry of reconciliation. Through our media ministry we seek to address the problem of the church and the political by generating content that bridges the divides created by faction. That means we must generate content that applies the insights of the Second Vatican Council to the 21st-century church, that bridges the generational divide between those who came of age with the council and those who have come of age with the Internet. It means generating content that is nonideological, that bridges the partisan divide, that finds its dynamism and credibility in the scandal of the Gospel rather than in some self-affirming worldview. It means generating content that is postmodern, being unafraid to proclaim the final inadequacy of every metanarrative except for revelation. It means generating content that builds on the work of John Courtney Murray, S.J., respecting the distinction between church and state, as well as the relative autonomy of culture, but also building bridges between public and private and religious and secular.
Addressing the problem of the church and the political is critically important not only for the credibility of the church’s public witness but also for our spiritual well-being. If the church is to find its distinctly American voice and the Catholic media are to survive and prosper in the digital age, then we must remember who we are: members of the body of Christ, the truest res publica. We love our country. We cherish our country’s freedoms, and we are grateful to share in its abundance. The United States is our home, and “the object, scope and character of this review,” as Father Wynne wrote, “are sufficiently indicated in its name.” Still, a Christian’s true home is the city of God. Our hope lies not in worldly utopian dreams, but in the saving love of Christ; our communion is revealed and realized anew in the Eucharist, not in the paraliturgies of the nation-state. We are disciples of Jesus Christ, not subjects of any Leviathan.
America aspires to nothing more than to live up to the fullest meaning of our motto, to pursue the truth in love, for as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has written, “The only strength with which Christianity can make its influence felt publicly is ultimately the strength of its intrinsic truth.” The fundamental truth of Christianity is personal, the person of Jesus Christ, the one for whom love and forgiveness and justice are the only standards of human action. The political witness of Christians, then, is the witness of sinners who are loved and forgiven and are ever ready to love and to forgive in turn. Only in this way is Christianity “credible.” If you ask us, therefore, whether America is a philosophical or theological journal, we will answer: “We are Christians.” If you ask us whether America is modern or postmodern, we will answer: “We are Christians.” If you ask whether we are liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, we will answer: “We are Christians.” If you ask whether we have really said anything at all, we will answer: “We have said everything.”