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‘America’ Magazine Editor Stresses Unity

For decades, America magazine has been a favorite of Catholic liberal intellectuals. Run by Jesuits, an order known for engaging controversial issues in the church, the magazine has featured arguments on such topics as married priests and contraception.

Now the New York-based publication is shifting course, saying in an editor’s letter this month that Americans are “sickened by the toxin of ideological partisanship” and that it will stop using the words “liberal” and “conservative” to describe Catholics’ religious viewpoints. Leading this change is America’s new editor in chief, the Rev. Matt Malone, a former Massachusetts political speechwriter who was ordained last June. At 41, he is the youngest editor in the magazine’s 104 years. We spoke with Malone this week.

Q: What makes America a Jesuit magazine?

A: What’s peculiar to the Jesuits is our geography, our social political geography. The Jesuits are, in the words of Pope Benedict, called to the margins. We work at the intersection of faith and public life. We translate the world for the church and the church for the world. . . . Jesuits were the first modern urban (religious) order. (Founder Ignatius of Loyola) wanted us in the heart of the world.

Q: America has been known as a place hospitable to ideas that may challenge traditional church teaching. Now it wants to shed its reputation as liberal. Why?

A: Certainly America never called itself that or conceived of ourselves that way (as liberal). If your mission is to the margins, and at the intersection of the church and the world, by definition you live and work in tension. . . . On one hand we are deeply committed to the church in every sense, the institutional sense, the larger theological sense, we are in and of the church. At the same time, we are missioned to the boundaries. . . . Our lived commitment to the church, it’s strong. But at the same time it can’t be uncritical.

Q: You wrote in an essay this month that America will no longer use the words “liberal,” “conservative” or “moderate” when referring in a non-political sense to Catholics. Why?

A: It’s not simply that terms (in a Catholic context) like “left” and “right” are inaccurate, it’s that they are counterproductive. There’s a real unity of Catholics. Any language that would oppose one part of the body to the other is inappropriate. We’re a communion. We’re, by definition, one.

Q: How will this shift impact what you publish? Will you still publish pieces on controversial topics such as whether priests can marry, or female priests, or contraception?

A: We always tried to present multiple perspectives, but I think you’ll see an even more pronounced effort to do that. Look, if the church is the body of Christ and we are one communion, by definition as a work of the church, there can’t be an authentic Catholic voice that’s unwelcome in America. . . . When we say an “authentic” Catholic voice, we don’t mean someone baptized. When we say “faithful,” we mean someone who is engaging the tradition. . . . There are things that are fundamental, like the sanctity of human life. They aren’t up for debate in terms of their core value. How the teachings are applied with prudence, what is appropriate for the time and place when we’re living, there are number of ways to think about that.

Q: The majority of Catholics use contraception, which is against church teaching. Would you publish on that?

A: Let me give you an example that’s easier. Catholics are committed to making sure the poor are protected and empowered. What does that look like? In the past six months, we published editorials that look like the Democratic Party platform. . . . But we also published articles by Catholic thinker Stacie Beck that questioned if Catholic activists and thinkers and workers are too skeptical of markets. . . . We were a little afraid when we published that essay. But it wound up generating a conversation.

Q: What’s the general response been like from readers?

A: The feedback has been terrific. . . . If you are forced to say: “Some of my fellow Catholics think such-and-such,” instead of “Conservative Catholics think,” there’s not only a semantic shift but a spiritual shift and a theological shift.

Q: What’s it like to be a Jesuit magazine in the unprecedented period of a Jesuit papacy? Is it harder to challenge the institution?

A: Well, one difference is, the secular media are somewhat more interested in what we say and do. We’re still finding out how all this works and plays out. I have a feeling (that the way the magazine functions) won’t be dissimilar from other pontificates.