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Robert David SullivanDecember 29, 2021
A word cloud shows the most-used words in the most-viewed stories from the past yeah in America (Credit: Robert D. Sullivan)

We began this year with the hope for relative calm after the news avalanche of 2020—a year dominated by the beginning of a global pandemic, a U.S. presidential election and a reckoning with the long history of racism in the United States. But just like too many buzzed-about TV series, our big news stories never seem to reach any kind of conclusion.

Some of the most widely read stories in America still concern the Covid pandemic (and now the Covid vaccines), the election of 2020 (and the ongoing effort to discredit election results) and racial justice. The past year also brought new topics of debate within the U.S. Catholic Church, including the Latin Mass, the U.S. bishops’ document on the Eucharist and its implications for pro-choice politicians like Joe Biden, and the tense relationship between Pope Francis and certain Catholic media outlets in the United States.

In fact, the most-viewed story in America this year came from our Vatican correspondent, Gerard O’Connell, on Pope Francis’ description of “a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope,” widely assumed to be the Alabama-based EWTN. (And it is not surprising that readers were drawn to a first sentence like this: “When a Jesuit in Slovakia asked Pope Francis ‘How are you?’, the pope stunned them with his answer: ‘Still alive, even though some people wanted me to die.’”)

Some of the most widely read stories in America still concern the Covid pandemic and vaccine, the election of 2020 (and the ongoing effort to discredit election results) and racial justice.

After this dramatic moment, America readers wanted to know more, turning to Associate Editor Colleen Dulle’s explainer on the pope’s “beef with EWTN” and the 40-year history of the network founded by the charismatic Mother Angelica. Senior Editor J.D. Long-García then cautioned against polarization in the Catholic media (asking, “Is it a good idea to try to protect Francis from his critics?”), but another Catholic journalist, Austin Ivereigh, weighed in to write that the pope was properly safeguarding the unity of the church by responding to the attacks on him: “when schism rears up ahead, a pope has no choice but to act.” No one thinks that this will be the end of the story.

The second most widely read story of the past 12 months was a quizzical look at the 2020 Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, which featured a “figure wearing a Darth Vader-esque helmet coming to adore the Christ child,” but number three concerned the more alarming presence of violent protesters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6—part of an apparent attempt to stop the certification of last year’s presidential election, won by Joseph R. Biden, Jr. As editor at large James Martin, S.J., wrote, some U.S. Catholic leaders (many appearing on EWTN) were complicit in what is now called the Jan. 6 insurrection, not only by spreading false claims of election fraud but by casting last year’s election “in terms of pure evil and pure good” and saying that fighting a Democratic administration, “by any means necessary, is an absolute moral imperative.”

So we can expect both the last and the upcoming national elections to be topics of debate in 2022, along with the continuing fights over vaccine mandates and the decades-old discontent with the Second Vatican Council. At least we can hope for the occasional story that leaves us all on the same page. And this year, we could all agree: Ernest Hemingway is not a good role model for anyone.

The top 25 America stories of the year

Listed below, in chronological order, are the 25 most popular articles in America from Dec. 1, 2020 through Nov. 30, 2021. Only content original to America magazine is counted; the top 25 were determined by total reader time, or the number of website visitors for each story multiplied by the average amount of time spent reading the story.

Dec. 12, 2020—Why Is Darth Vader in the Vatican’s Nativity scene?, by Colleen Dulle:

Contemporary cultural figures like this year’s astronaut have often been included in the Vatican’s Nativity scenes, which have been displayed in St. Peter’s Square each year since 1982. This is not the first time one has raised eyebrows: In 2017, the set included a nude male figure meant to represent clothing the naked, a work of mercy. Because of the terracotta figure’s sculpted muscles and glazed finish, some compared it to a “Ken doll.”

Dec. 23, 2020—Millennials Confront True Meaning of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ (A Parable), by Joe Hoover, S.J:

“And the very title of the song, ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas.’ We thinking these poor Africans just because they’re all hungry and dwelling in sand are unable to read a calendar let alone count to 25 and thus are totally in the dark about it being Christmas. It’s othering the Africans to think that. Everything’s othering with you all, isn’t it?”

We can expect both the last and the upcoming national elections to be topics of debate in 2022, along with the continuing fights over vaccine mandates and the decades-old discontent with the Second Vatican Council.

Dec. 31, 2020—How the forgotten middle verses of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ reveal its deeper meaning on memory and gratitude, by Christian Linger:

When our past experiences call to mind those with whom we have walked through thick and thin, these memories not only comfort us in isolation, but also draw us together.

Jan. 4—The Biblical case for forgiving student loan debt, by David Lay Williams:

…when Jesus declared that it was “year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk 4:19), which indicated it was time to release Jews from their debts, among other provisions, he naturally found a receptive audience among the debtors—and a less receptive audience among the city’s elite, some of whom ultimately arranged for his execution.

Jan. 12—How Catholic Leaders Helped Give Rise to Violence at the U.S. Capitol, by James Martin, S.J.:

Archbishop Viganò predicted that the election of Mr. Biden would usher in a near-Satanic age characterized by “ecumenism, Malthusian environmentalism, pansexualism and immigrationism.”

Feb. 11—Explainer: Your bishop said it’s time to come back to church. Is it a sin if you don’t go? by Michael O’Loughlin:

“If you’re truly, truly afraid of catching the virus, then you stay home,” Bishop Thomas Freyer said…. “If you’ve gone out to lunch, if you’ve gone out to dinner, then you’re not truly afraid.”

March 12—The Vatican restricts Traditional Latin Mass and suppresses private Masses at St. Peter’s Basilica, by Gerard O’Connell:

It strictly limits the celebration of the extraordinary form of the Latin rite in the basilica, making clear that its usage is not intended to be the norm.

March 21—Vatican sources suspect Pope Francis was distancing himself from CDF statement on same-sex unions in address, by Gerard O’Connell:

According to three sources, it was significant that Francis called on Christians and the church to give witness to Jesus “not with theoretical condemnations but with gestures of love.”

April 8—Communion for the divorced and remarried, papal critics and family life: Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ at 5 years, by Colleen Dulle:

The second and more visible outcome of “Amoris Laetitia” is that it galvanized resistance to Pope Francis and his magisterium among his opponents in the church. The pope foresaw that some Catholics would be uncomfortable with his shift away from blanket rules and toward case-by-base discernment….

April 9—Ernest Hemingway was a brilliant writer and a terrible person. Discuss, Angela Alaimo O’Donnell:

Over the course of six hours, the three-part series insists that viewers hold in tension this seeming contradiction without trying to resolve it. We are forced to face the troubling fact that the gods of art often use the least worthy among us to be their vessels, and despite the constant barrage of evidence revealing our hero’s awfulness, hour by hour, we are expected to get over it.

May 19—The Crisis in Catholic Theology, Grant Kaplan:

Father Lamb and Father O’Meara worried that the lack of first-rate programs at Catholic universities would lead the most promising theologians to Protestant or secular universities for study. “The trend,” Father Lamb wrote, “is for Catholic theology departments to hire more and more of their faculty from Protestant and state programs….”

June 4—Jordan Peterson is telling young white men what many of us already know: Neverland is a lie, Elizabeth Grace Matthew:

Like most women, Wendy senses that Neverland has no real place for her (there are no other “lost girls” for a reason), so she leaves of her own volition. Peter knows that Neverland is made in his image, so he relinquishes the possibility of an adult relationship with Wendy and stays there.
One more young white man who desperately needs Jordan Peterson’s rules.

July 2—‘The Chosen’ is the Jesus TV show your very Catholic aunt keeps telling you to watch. And you should, Mary Grace Mangano:

…what I appreciate about “The Chosen” is that its creators acknowledge that we can never fully grasp his divinity. But Jesus’s humanity? Yes, that we can understand. And that is what this show captures so well.

July 16—Pope Francis restricts celebration of the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass in new decree, Gerard O’Connell:

Francis’ decision as pope to overturn in this way the decisions of his two predecessors is extraordinary. One would have to go back to the Second Vatican Council to find such a precedent in the modern history of the church.

July 16—I once fell in love with the Latin Mass—which is why I understand why Pope Francis restricted it, Zac Davis:

It made me bitter and arrogant. It made me think I had the more ancient, therefore holier, therefore better way to practice my faith. I would make jokes about the “Novus Ordo” and speculate about the day the church might even do away with vernacular liturgy, considering it a failed experiment. In one example I find particularly galling and embarrassing, when I attended my regular, non-Latin Mass, instead of praying the liturgy I would actually sit there and count all the deviations from the rubrics that I could notice.

July 19—Making sense of Pope Francis’ new restrictions on the Latin Mass, James Martin, S.J.:

Some have rejoiced in greater freedom for the celebration of the Latin Mass since Benedict XVI’s document was promulgated, but it has also been, sadly, a source of growing and occasionally heated division among some Catholics. At least in the United States, some Catholics now speak of “Traditional Latin Mass parishes,” as if in opposition to “Vatican II parishes.” That does not bode well for unity.

Aug. 3—Do not give religious exemptions for Covid vaccines, New York archdiocese tells its priests, Michael J. O’Loughlin:

​​“Pope Francis has made it very clear that it is morally acceptable to take any of the vaccines and said we have the moral responsibility to get vaccinated,” reads a July 30 memo that the Archdiocese of New York confirms that it sent to its priests.

Sept. 14—John Mulaney has fallen off his nice-guy pedestal—and he might have something to teach the Catholic Church, Jim McDermott, S.J.:

When the church or church leaders diverge from their personas, backlash is going to happen—and that’s useful.

Sept. 21—Pope Francis responds to attacks from EWTN, other church critics: ‘They are the work of the devil,’ Gerard O’Connell:

Pope Francis remarked, “There is, for example, a large Catholic television channel that has no hesitation in continually speaking ill of the pope.” He said: “I personally deserve attacks and insults because I am a sinner, but the church does not deserve them. They are the work of the devil. I have also said this to some of them.”

Sept. 23—Pope Francis is making space for LGBT people in the church—with limits. And it’s a huge step forward, James Martin, S.J.:

During earlier in-flight press conferences, Francis said that L.G.B.T. people should never be kicked out of families and that Jesus would never say “Go away from me” to a gay person. As with much of his pastoral approach overall, his outreach to L.G.B.T. people can be characterized by the word “accompaniment.”

Sept. 30—Explainer: The story behind Pope Francis’ beef with EWTN, Colleen Dulle:

[EWTN anchor Raymond] Arroyo is also regularly joined on air by a group that calls itself “The Papal Posse”—New York priest the Rev. Gerald Murray, a former U.S. Navy chaplain and canon lawyer, and Robert Royal, a Catholic author who founded the D.C. think tank the Faith and Reason Institute and the blog “The Catholic Thing”—that riffs on one another’s criticisms of the pope and has given uncritical interviews to anti-Francis guests like Steve Bannon, who argued on air that his own populist politics better represent Catholic social teaching than Pope Francis does.

Oct. 6—I love Pope Francis. But his criticism of EWTN disturbs me as a journalist, J.D. Long-García:

To be sure, Francis does not seem to be interfering with the inner workings of a Catholic television network. But he is using his influence in an undeniable way. Are some of us letting the comments slide simply because we like this pope so much?

Oct. 9—‘There is no need to create another church, but to create a different church,’ Francis says before synod, Gerard O’Connell:

This is Francis’ fourth synod—after the synods on the family, youth and Amazonia—but is perhaps the most important of all as he envisages it as the path to a profound renewal and transformation of the Catholic Church worldwide…

Oct. 16—Pope Francis’ 9 commandments for a just economy, Gerard O’Connell:

As a way to address the dire economic straits of so many people in the world and guarantee basic human dignity, and after consulting many specialists in the field, Francis called for “a basic income or salary so that everyone in the world may have access to the most basic necessities of life.”
“It is right to fight for a humane distribution of these resources, and it is up to governments to establish tax and redistribution schemes so that the wealth of one part of society is shared fairly, but without imposing an unbearable burden, especially upon the middle class,” the pope said.

Nov. 18—We all love Zillow browsing. But there’s a dark side to the real estate app, John W. Miller:

…the Zillow misadventure also clarifies a broader dysfunction in the economy and a moral problem. In “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis defended the right to private property but observed that it “can only be considered a secondary natural right, derived from the principle of the universal destination of created goods.” As Francis observed, “it often happens that secondary rights displace primary and overriding rights, in practice making them irrelevant.”
Housing is one of the most important goods that must be “universally destined.” 

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