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On the Perpetual Virginity of America Magazine

By Diogenes ( articles ) | May 13, 2005

From the apocalyptic language, you'd think America's Fr. Reese had been burnt at the stake (instead of deployed elsewhere), that his replacement was a remote-controlled Opus Dei droid imposed by Rome (instead of Reese's own recruit as associate editor), and that America from its conception had been preserved free from all stain of sin -- whence the change of editors means The Beast is already slouching toward 56th Street to be born, etc., etc.

An overstatement.

Two instructive incidents come to mind. The September 23, 2000, issue of America ran a piece by Jesuits John Fuller and James Keenan purporting to find a new tolerance toward condom use on the part of the Holy See, based on a tendentious reading of one sentence in an article in the Osservatore Romano written by a curial official. On September 15, 2000, Ann Rodgers Melnick ran a story on this yet-to-appear article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the first line of which referred to the Vatican's "theological U-turn" on condom use. That phrase, splashed in a UPI wire service synopsis of Rodgers Melnick's synopsis of the America synopsis of the Osservatore Romano column, had instant worldwide shock value -- as it was intended to have. The Vatican official in question promptly and forcefully repudiated the claim made by America, but the damage was done. As it was intended to be.

Forward to 2002. Pre-release copies of Passionate Uncertainty, a book at once sympathetic to the U.S. Jesuits and embarrassing to their claims of well-being, are sent to reviewers. A pre-emptive campaign to trash the book is launched, including sending out "talking points" to be used when responding to inquiries. Co-author Peter McDonough gives the following account of the upshot:

John Coleman, a prominent Jesuit sociologist, emailed me with a copy of a positive review of Passionate Uncertainty that he had written, warning me that a number of Jesuits were "working over-time" to discredit the book. Tom Reese, SJ, the editor of America, had approached John about doing a review, but when John said that he liked the book, Reese spiked the review and solicited one from Sr. Katarina Schuth, whose negative review, coincidentally resembling the "talking points," soon appeared in America. All this maneuvering outraged John, so he alerted me to what was happening.

Schuth's review occasioned a laconic note by Fr. Richard Neuhaus:

One waited to see how America, the main Jesuit publication in this country, would deal with the Passionate Uncertainty. The editors assigned it to a social scientist who took issue with the authors' interviewing methodology; observed that, if one read only the statements of those who had good things to say about the Society, one would come away with a better impression of the Society; and suggested that the "inspiring" official Jesuit documents provide "a more reliable picture." There are undoubtedly problems with the McDonough-Bianchi book, as Cardinal Dulles noted, but surely one might have hoped for at least a hint of openness on the part of America to the possibility that there is a problem or two in the Society as well. In other contexts, such denial is sometimes called stonewalling

The protestations of her votaries notwithstanding, we may venture the suggestion that America, if she be a virgin, is one who is very experienced indeed.

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