What makes a journal of opinion?

Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

Displaying that frequently maddening and occasionally helpful habit of the Jesuit to begin every significant utterance by precisely defining his terms, Robert J. Hartnett, S.J., wrote these words in the spring of 1949: “A journal of opinion is a magazine which has a definite, coherent outlook in terms of which its editors and contributors analyze and reach judgments about current events and trends.” With these words, the seventh editor in chief began his homage to America and to the whole genre of opinion journalism, which was then enjoying its heyday.

By the mid-20th century, journals like The New Republic, Christian Century, The Atlantic and, of course, Commonweal and America were setting the agenda for our national conversation. Their influence was so great that in 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. decided to launch a movement that would challenge the postwar political consensus, he thought he needed a magazine to compete successfully: Voila! National Review was born.

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Mr. Buckley could rely on the fact that National Review would be commercially viable because most of the political elites who subscribed to journals of opinion at that time read more than one. People read not only deeply but widely, and the general consensus was that this made for a healthier, more informed public debate.

Not so much these days. Many folks now get their news and analysis only from social media, which, for all its benefits, tends to obscure or eliminate the role of curator of public opinion that journals of opinion were invented to play. That is mainly because print is the most effective mode of presenting the parts of a whole, that “coherent outlook” Father Hartnett referred to. Yet on social media, this important context is often missing. By reading an author in isolation, instead of as one article among many, as a print reader might, we can miss the forest for the veins in the leaves of the trees.

Many folks now get their news and analysis only from social media, which, for all its benefits, tends to obscure or eliminate the role of curator of public opinion that journals of opinion were invented to play.

To wit: Last year, America published a fine essay by Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, which recounted his spiritual journey and how he came to hold a generally libertarian approach to economics. It set off a minor protest. I received many emails and direct messages through social media complaining about the fact that we had published the article, that it was inconsistent with Catholic social teaching and, in the readers’ minds, represented a significant editorial shift on America’s part.

But here is the interesting bit: Most of those complaints were registered by people who read the article only online on social media. Our readers who saw it in print, where it appeared along with several other articles, which offered different topics and perspectives, saw it for what it was: one voice among the many voices in the conversation America hosts every day.

We will have authors in our pages who disagree with each other. And there will be a few with whom you disagree.

No one who regularly reads America’s editorials would mistake Mr. Brooks’s position for America’s. As a corporate body, we are practically allergic to ideologies of any kind, whether they originate with the political left or right. In that sense, the “definite, coherent outlook” that informs our work is decidedly nonideological. It is rather Catholic and Jesuit, in that order. What does that mean in 2018? Given the hyperpartisan, polarized politics in both the church and the world, and given that most people no longer have the inclination or resources to read widely, our task is to host a conversation, in one place, that includes a variety of opinions. That means we will have authors in our pages who disagree with each other. And there will be a few with whom you disagree.

Our definition of success is when an issue of America has something that affirms the reader, that challenges the reader and that nourishes the reader. In other words, when we publish an opinion, it is because we think it is worth hearing, not necessarily because we agree with it.

In the end, Father Hartnett’s definition of a journal of opinion is accurate—as far as it goes. But the vision provided by another of my predecessors as editor in chief, Thurston N. Davis, S.J., is what truly animates our work today: “In the pages of America,” he wrote in 1959, “a reader will find a hundred paths that crisscross the complicated world of contemporary affairs. But through it all, and written between every line, is the conviction that in all its diversity and change, the world of man is God’s world and that he who does not labor to return it to God redeemed in some small measure by his tears and worry and dedication has missed the meaning of man’s job on Earth.”

I would tweet that, but it is more than 240 characters.

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J Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

No one who regularly reads America’s editorials would mistake Mr. Brooks’s position for America’s

Amen and that is the problem with America. The article was so rare for America that no one would expect it to be America's position. It was token. America has many positions and nearly all are based on emotion. I would not describe the America positions as coherent. For that they have to be evidence based and not emotional.

Stanley Kopacz
4 months 1 week ago

America regularly publishes opinions by neoliberal and even libertarian articles. This is not tokenism but opening topics for discutation. Of course, you will not be satisfied until America agrees totally with yourself and perhaps has a statue of Von Hayek front center in the chapel with 100% beeswax candles aburning.

J Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

Actually I’m a believer of the Judeo/Christian God and one sign of His presence is the natural law. He made us desire freedom. Combine this desire for freedom with the morality of Catholicism and you have much of His guide for us. Most of the editors and authors here act as if they are unaware of the natural law.

You should read more. Hayek also understood the natural law but is a little hard to read. I recommend Adam Smith. He has amazing insight into human nature. Jerry Muller of Catholic university has great publications on him.

Your counting is off substantially

Stuart Meisenzahl
4 months 1 week ago

Father Malone
You extoll the printed word as the best method of engaging in discussion while correctly critiquing the social media short circuiting context .
Yet the Editors persist in featuring in highlighted characters, color and quotes: "Tweet This" links.
I suggest that the you thereby contradict the very basis of your argument.

Similarly while the Editors studiously claim ideological purity,they just as studiously ignore the fact that the Great ArrupeMotto..."Men for Others" has been seized as the personal motto of the Left Social Warriors to the point where it is now used to justify Abortions. If you are going to claim ideological purity then you had better start policing your own trademarks lest you be justifiably accused of a lack of such purity. And in fact you seem to have willingly allowed yourselves to be so co-opted for so long that you have infact adopted an ideological position. To adopt your own metaphor :you have caught the disease to which you claim to be allergic .

Jeffrey More
4 months 1 week ago

"[T]he 'definite, coherent outlook' that informs our [i.e., America's] work is decidedly non ideological."
Good one, Father. I'm glad to see that the Jesuit sense of humor I came to appreciate during my four years at Regis H.S. fifty years ago is still alive and well.

Jeannette Mulherin
4 months 1 week ago

Well then, I'll be looking forward to an article on the women priest movement any day now. After all, with your desire to present opposing views and your claim to be unencumbered by ideology, there'd be no reason to stay silent on such an important issue, would there?

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

Amen Jeannette. That is perhaps my biggest complaint with America. They hint around the sin of sexism our church supports but they do not attack it even by supplying articles with a truly opposing belief on the subject of women's priestly ordination. This was a major problem with a recent survey they put through too on women, in general, in the church with CARA.

Over all, however, I am thankful for "America" it is one of the few online Catholic Opinion Magazines that still has a comment section like this one.

NCR (National Catholic Reporter) has chickened out and no longer has a comment section for its articles. I believe their true reasoning is they don't like it when the organization, Future Church has its stand, pushing married male priests before women are ordained priests gets attacked by people like me. NCR often has articles on pushing no more celibacy for only married male priests. NCR is now a highly Future Church membered magazine on its staff. Future Church, as an organization, is ok with sexism as long as it is their kind of sexism.

Crux, sadly, was also taken over by the Opus Dei like, Knights of Columbus who only now report Catholic news once it is watered down and censored to ultra conservative, appropriately sexist, and dull as a door nail insightfulness, and of course no one can comment on this site anymore either. It is a great sleeping tool if you have insomnia though.

Anne Chapman
3 months 4 weeks ago

There was a dramatic change in America's spectrum of opinions and articles after Benedict forced Thomas Reese out of his position as Editor, with the threat that if Reese did not step down, all future issues would have to be sent to Rome for "approval" (read "censorship").
Not only does America not publish articles by theologians that promote women's ordination, the very few articles written by women are overwhelmingly by "conservative" women such as Simcha Fischer, Helen Alvare etc. It avidly promotes NFP even though around 95% of American Catholic women have rejected NFP as being harmful to their marriages. I have never seen an article that dissents from the church's teaching on contraception - a teaching that its own birth control commission recommended by changed.

The America I read now is with the Pope on social justice issues, and with the official teachings of Rome on women's ordination, contraception, and sexuality in general - IOW, very conservative.

With Francis as Pope, perhaps America might get a little more bold in publishing articles of particular concern to women that represent dissenting views from Rome's views. To the best of my knowledge, Francis had not silenced any theologicans, priests or women religious since taking office - a welcome turnaround from Benedict's era, when so many of the church's best thinkers were silenced.

One of the things I miss about America under Reese - many topics had two articles in the same issue taking different viewpoints, so that if the reader wanted to compare the ideas in them, they could read them together, and not have to go back looking for an article in an issue months earlier that had a different viewpoint. Very often in an issue that had already made it's way to the paper recycling plant.

Fran Rossi Szpylczyn
4 months 1 week ago

Fr. Malone, As a reasonably longtime print subscriber and reader, allow me to respectfully say I am not sure I would agree with your point about only reading the online content and having a point of view. Fr. Malone, As a reasonably longtime print subscriber and reader, allow me to respectfully say I am not sure I would agree with your point about only reading the online content and having a point of view.

As someone who has never contacted the magazine, I nevertheless have watched a decided shift in the nature of the other points of view now appearing in your pages. Your intentions are fair enough and I have no actual gripe with them. What I am challenged by is the notion that nothing has changed when in fact, so much has changed - at America as well as in the church and world around us. It is at tumultuous times like these that I would look to America to offer me content that would indeed challenge me intellectually and spiritually, as well as encourage me. More and more I find that either way I am left wanting, and that the journal is not what it once was. This particular set of changes and your defense of them in this editorial is very sad to me.

Jason McKean
4 months 1 week ago

Fr. Malone- Like a few others, I was curious about your statement that America (to paraphrase) is allergic to ideology. It wasn't clear to me what you meant by the term ideology. Could you share more?

Jill Caldwell
4 months 1 week ago

Amen, Father Matt. I can always count on America for the whole story - not just what may comfortable and agreeable. The well informed Catholic is exposed to many opinions, positions and ideas. Jesus was well-informed and calls us to be the same. Only then can we make the informed choice to follow Him.

Nora Bolcon
4 months 1 week ago

I pick at "America" somewhat commonly so this is perhaps a good chance to thank them.

For all my complaining, I am thankful that you allow for a wide range of differing viewpoints and recognize that many self avowed Catholics believe differently on various matters. This is especially true of matters of social justice and politics in and out of the Church.

I believe if we asked 20 different self-avowed Roman Catholics the same list of questions, we could very likely get 20 fairly differing, but sincere and caring answers. This does not mean that I believe there does not exist right and wrong answers on certain topics but hindering dialogue does not cure unrighteousness and making room for it sometimes does.

"America" does need to get more courageous in its allowance for honest dialogue and articles regarding same treatment and sacraments, starting with priesthood, for women. Fighting for women to be made only deacons that can't promote to priests, bishops and above is just another from of sexism, and a fight for women to gain a no-authority ministry that our parishes would be better off if the tasks were given to trained lay ministers instead.

So I genuinely do thank you "America" for two very important things:
The first: That you have kept your comment section like this one still going and have not acted like our babysitters while doing so.
The Second: That you have allowed a pretty wide range of fairly controversial articles, and have taken even some risk, I would bet, already in doing so with the leadership in our church.

We do need you to be even more bold and courageous in the future. Women priests are the hardest topic to allow in the form of articles and dialogue within Catholic Media currently because the continuation of this abusive bias is so obviously sinful and unchristian that the mere mention of this truth terrifies the leadership of this church. Any good Psychologist will advise you, whether individuals or groups of people, the sin that is most self destructive is the one we are least able to talk about as this will always be the one that will keep us from healing if we do not face it and work to cure it first before all other sins, and with the grace of God.

Righteousness or Justice must be defended and fought for where missing by those who hope to realize its presence in their lives.

The fight for righteousness is always very risky so we must always fight humbly and with love, even against those who fight hardest against our cause for justice but still not let this become a reason to fight weakly and do this always keeping our faith in God's protection.

Vince Killoran
4 months 1 week ago

AMERICA is doing a fine job in providing a capacious number of perspectives. I might yell at my computer screen when I read them (and throw the magazine across the room), but that's okay.

Joseph Flood
3 months 3 weeks ago

I was surprised that Stephanie Slade's article in the current edition is not clearly labelled as an opinion piece. I guess the magazine has its own editorial point of view, but an article that cites only sources that gird its opinion does not help us discern the truth. Can we look forward to a rebuttal from a non libertarian point of view? Certainly private sector philanthropy has left many unsolved needs among "the least of us". A pejorative phrase, no?

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