April 20, 2009
One Hundred Years of America
— Martin E. Marty
It is not hard to sight what I am sighting for Sightings this week, since its shiny gold "100 Years" cover is almost blinding. I am speaking of the centennial issue of America, one of the magazines on which many of us depend for comment on both Catholicism and a wider world. Fattened up by advertisements placed by religious orders and firms which appeal to Catholic interests- remember them?-and many letters of greetings from presidents and pope, this April13th issue boasts ninety-two pages. Since this column is not in the business of peddling, I'll move on quickly from complimenting the general appearance, to an attempt to locate this weekly among religious information sources in American religious history.
One could write America's history as Book I, 1908-1958 and Book II, 1959-2009, since there is such a breach in content and intentions around 1958. The centennial issue highlights the best of the new paradigm. First off, two of the seven features are by women. Let me stress: Women were not foreign to the old America, but their appearances were very exceptional. Now they are exceptional in a different set of ways, as is clear to anyone who reads, first, the famed Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., trading on her Dead Man Walking, with its prison interest, as she describes how she got her call to service. The other is by Sister Elizabeth Johnson, also C.S.J., a theologian who is radical in the best senses of the term and, in reach and scope, cosmic. I use that word not for hyperbole, but to describe her expansive view of Christian faith, which she spells out "An Earthy Christology," and which ought to cause us earthbound drudges to gasp. Catholic poets might have written in such language in 1908, but theologians, less likely.
Charles R. Morris provides a history of the first fifty years. You might think you would have to have been there, but, no, he puts you there, without condescension, in the midst of that much more provincial church. Protestants would have called it "sectarian" (big sect!). Morris shows how alert to their surroundings these Jesuit editors were. Timothy Radcliffe is assigned to look at the church to come, which he sees as inheritor of the mixed blessings of the Enlightenment. This at a time when one can select out of the Enlightenment mix what might renew and refresh the church. Some of his envisionings strike me as too hopeful, but every one hundred years editors ought to be allowed to breed hope
The editors also lighten the issue with a humbling "Oops!" admissions article by James T. Keane. He acknowledges gross missteps, like the editors' long-term support of Franco's Spain. That was more than an "Oops." Jim McDermott presides over a set of reminiscences by editors and staff. My non-staff reminiscences would point to the drastically different world at the magazine's mid-point, the beginning of the pontificate of John XXIII. As a bottom-rung editor at The Christian Century I often got invited to join my seniors at conferences attended and led also by those mysterious (and, we'd been taught, evil) Jesuits. Before that time our Protestant magazine could blithely haul out linguistic artillery and fire the word "Jesuitical!" whenever we wanted to scare the Sunday School kids. "Jesuitical" meant the conniving, beguiling, malicious agency of "the papal minions." I don't think we knew then and I don't know now what a minion is.
However, as we learned to know each other, our hopes and fears, our common enemies and new friendships, across the divided lines of Catholic/Protestant, Christian/Jew, and all the rest, we got to experience change, and to see America as an agent thereof. Congratulations are in order and come with enthusiasm-and hope.
The centennial issue of America is online at http://americamagazine.org/content/current-issue.cfm?issueid=693.
Martin E. Marty's biography, current projects, upcoming events, publications, and contact information can be found at www.illuminos.com.