With this issue America begins its 100th year of publication, rounding out a century of service to Catholic intellectual life in the United States. Writing in the inaugural issue, dated April 17, 1909, the magazine’s founding editor, John J. Wynne, S.J., wrote that “the object, scope and character of this review are sufficiently indicated in its name....” Father Wynne made clear the magazine’s American sensibility as activist as well as intellectual.
He cited the advice of Cardinal John Henry Newman to the founders of The Month (1854-2001), the journal of the British Jesuits. Cardinal Newman counseled the need of “a periodical which would induce Catholics to take an intelligent interest in public affairs and not live as a class apart from their fellows of other beliefs.” Then he explained: “We are of a people who respect belief but who value action more.”
Father Wynne continued, “We are going through a period when the most salutary influences of religion are needed to safeguard the very life and liberty and equal rights of the individual, to maintain the home, to foster honesty and sobriety, and to inculcate reverence for authority, and for the most sacred institutions, civil as well as ecclesiastical. We are more responsible than our non-Catholic fellow citizens for the welfare of thousands of immigrants of our own religion who come to us weekly, and for their amalgamation into the national life. We are responsible also for much of the ignorance of religious truth and for the prejudices which still prevail to a great extent, because satisfied as we are of the security of our own position, we do not take the pains to explain it to others or to dispel their erroneous views.”
Father Wynne’s assessment of the American Catholic character was astute, from the identification of its activist bent to the failure of ghetto Catholicism to explain itself to the wider world.
In the intervening 100 years, American Catholics have emerged from that ghetto; and the interaction of religion and politics is as vigorous as ever. Despite the disaffections noted in a recent editorial (3/17), American Catholics retain a lively attachment to the church. At the same time, the educational levels and professional status of the laity have grown enormously, and laypeople play a growing part in running parishes. Nationally, the church’s defense of immigrants is once more a neuralgic political issue, and the influx of immigrants from Latin America and Asia is informing its pastoral practice.
In 1909 the United States was just beginning its ascendency as a world power. Since then the magazine has offered editorial comment on six wars in which this nation has had a direct role. America also participated in debates over the Spanish Civil War, the cold war and McCarthyism, birth control, the Contra and other proxy wars in Central America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the sexual abuse scandal.
In the coming months, we will revisit some of those exchanges as part of our centennial observance. More important, we will look ahead in this election year to a new chapter in American history in a series of articles, under the title “A Closer Look,” addressing public policy issues—from climate change to rebuilding the national infrastructure and rethinking national security.
As a writer and editor in the digital age, I still appreciate Father Wynne’s complex, flowing sentences. Changes in English style from the Edwardian cadences of America ’s first editor to the brevity and directness of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style , on which I was trained, are the least of the changes that have marked the magazine’s evolution over the last 100 years. I sometimes say that I will be the last of America ’s editors of the print age. The next editor in chief will have to be trained in the new media, more attuned than I am to the busy, visual, interactive world of electronic communications.
Ten years ago the print edition itself began to take on a new look, with color photos and illustrations. Today our Web site is replete with podcasts, slide shows and video clips; and in the course of this anniversary year, the print edition of the magazine will undergo a redesign that will no doubt reflect the growing influence of the Web. These changes in media and formatting are signs that America will be entering its second century with renewed energy and imagination.
Listen to a roundtable discussion  of America ’s centennial featuring Fr. Christiansen, James Martin, S.J., and James T. Keane, S.J..