The National Catholic Review

A Catholic Review of the Week

A history of 'America'

America is a weekly Catholic journal of opinion that has appeared continuously since April 17, 1909. The founder was John J. Wynne, S.J. (1859-1948), who also conceived the idea of the Catholic Encyclopedia, the first volume of which appeared in 1907 under his direction. From 1892 Wynne edited a devotional Catholic monthly, The Messenger of the Sacred Heart. Determined to publish materials less devotional and more wide-ranging, so that readers might "find God in all things," he had by 1902 divided that earlier journal in two: The Messenger of the Sacred Heart, which remained the organ of the Apostleship of Prayer, and The Messenger, a Catholic magazine of more general interest. He wanted The Messenger to be yet "more solid and serious," and by 1909 the improved version appeared as America. This title was meant to show the new magazine's scope, and the subtitle "Catholic Review of the Week" specified its point of view.

From the beginning the magazine has been the work of Jesuits from across the United States, and this breadth of origin was reflected in the first editorial board, composed of Jesuits from all the U.S. provinces of the Society of Jesus then existing. Wynne himself, a peremptory if industrious character, lasted only a few months as editor of America, but the editorial formula he devised lasts to this day--editorial comment, short articles and reviews of arts and letters.

Issues and stances that have characterized the history of the publication would include the following. It promoted racial and social justice from the 1930s through the 1960s with the contributions of longtime editors like John LaFarge, S.J., and Benjamin Masse, S.J. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-38), the magazine was sympathetic to Spanish Catholics and therefore tended to support the Catholic aspects of Franco's cause, and on this issue the magazine parted company with liberal U.S. journals with which it is sometimes compared. On the other hand, America in the early 1950s, under the editorship of Robert Hartnett, S.J., criticized Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was often championed by Catholics of that day for his supposed anti-communism, and the magazine and its editor suffered for that principled stand. In the 1960s the magazine enthusiastically reported and supported Vatican Council II, and America Press Inc. published the first available English edition of council documents. Between 1960 and 1970, C. J. McNaspy, S.J., one of the associate editors, enlivened the magazine's appreciation of liturgy, music and the fine arts. A review of the magazine's history or of any given issue reveals that America strives for balance, preferring analysis to ideology. A historical example was its editorial of August 17, 1968, carefully dissenting from that part of Pope Paul VI's encyclical Humanae vitae which said all forms of artificial birth control are inherently evil.

America retains a loyal readership, especially among the hiererchy and other leaders and managers of the Catholic Church in the United States, lay and religious. During the post-Vatican II period, the editors have consistently promoted conciliar reform, but they have struck a balance between the extremes of liberal and conservative opinion in the reforming Church, acting as a bridge for Church dialogue. This opens the magazine to the criticism that it is bland or uncommitted, but it adheres to an analytical rather than crusading tone, and it consistently wins prizes from the Catholic Press Association.

The balance favored by these editors has given the magazine a reputation for temperateness that its founding editor did not always share. But such steadiness has enabled the magazine to fulfill throughout the twentieth century the vision of its founder, who wrote in the first issue: "The object, scope and character of this review are sufficiently indicated in its name--America: A Catholic Review of the Week."

Thomas H. Stahel, S.J.

From The Encyclopedia of American Catholic History