Even longtime readers of America may be unaware of the origins of this periodical. It was born in April 1909, during the worst days of the anti-Modernist crusade in the Catholic Church. Hysterical paranoia ran rampant, and Catholic intellectuals and writers were one after another accused of heresy by anonymous sources in Rome. This witch hunt extended to American Catholic journalism as well, with the result that in 1908 a well-regarded journal published from the New York archdiocesan seminary at Dunwoodie, N.Y., The New York Review, was forced to cease publication just three years after it began because of alleged Modernist infiltration.
Earlier pressure had come from Pope Leo XIII’s denunciation in Testem Benevolentiae (1899) of “Americanism,” the label for a vague amalgam of “heresies” that included separation of church and state, freedom of speech, ecumenism and the belief that democracy was universally applicable to all cultures. The primary target was Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-86), a Catholic intellectual who had promoted engagement between the nation and the church and suggested that each had much to learn from the other. He is remembered today as the founder of the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, the Paulists.
In light of this papal opprobrium and repressive atmosphere, it was with a certain courage (or naïveté) that the editors chose the name America over other popular suggestions, including The Witness, Truth, Old and New, and Word and Work. “True to its name and to its character as a Catholic review,” said the magazine’s founder and first editor, John J. Wynne, S.J., in 1909, “America will be cosmopolitan not only in contents but also in spirit.”
Wynne enjoyed widespread popularity as a writer and lecturer, and was later well known in Catholic circles for his in-depth study of the church and his work as an editor of The Catholic Encyclopedia. While he was editor, certain Jesuits in Rome protested the repeated silencings of Catholic intellectuals and journals on charges of Modernism under Pope Pius X, with the result that the Jesuits for a time lost much of their influence with the Vatican bureaucracy.
Indeed, the noted historian Roger Aubert has claimed that Pius X was so incensed at the supposed disloyalty of Jesuit periodicals that he was prepared to intervene in the internal governance of the Jesuits to replace Francis X. Wernz, S.J., as head of the Society of Jesus. The almost simultaneous deaths of both men prevented such an unprecedented intervention.
A primary reason America survived its first decade of publication and has continued for almost a century, without suffering the fate of The New York Review and other journals, was the intervention of the newly elected Pope Benedict XV in 1914. In Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum, the first encyclical of his short reign, Benedict attempted to put an end to the paranoia about “enemies within,” the alleged pressing danger which allowed legions of anonymous complainants to destroy the intellectual efforts and reputations of the sons and daughters of the church in the name of a supposed orthodoxy. Benedict XV’s words were a clarion call to the young America, and many an editor took them to heart in the following years:
“As regards matters in which without harm to faith or discipline--in the absence of any authoritative intervention of the Apostolic See--there is room for divergent opinions, it is clearly the right of everyone to express and defend his own opinion. But in such discussions no expressions should be used which might constitute serious breaches of charity; let each one freely defend his own opinion, but let it be done with due moderation, so that no one should consider himself entitled to affix on those who merely do not agree with his ideas the stigma of disloyalty to faith or to discipline.”
These words saved America then; may they be remembered by its supporters and detractors alike today. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., editor of America from 1998 to 2005, epitomized both their letter and their spirit. We remain in his debt for his service to the people of God.