Walking a Fine Line in U. S. Catholic
-- Martin E. Marty
“Sightings” usually draws on secular news and opinion sources as part of its mission to deal with religion in American public life. However, religious periodicals and blogs deal as much with secular life as they do with ecclesiastical themes. For years I’ve hung out with and promoted products of the Religion Newswriters Association, “seculars who ‘do’ religion,” and the various “religious” journalists who “do” secular public things.
With that in mind, this week I’m sampling an issue of a religious journal. The U.S. Catholic, a perennial prize-winner, is on my mind and in my heart, because for exactly forty years this October its publisher, the Claretians, has been publishing my fortnightly newsletter Context. This is not an advertisement, at least not an overt one, for U.S. Catholic, but instead is a visit to the pages of the October issue, to see how such a periodical negotiates life in turbulent times. Render a magazine docile, as house organs were tempted to be, and you put readers to sleep before you influence them. Make it radically critical, as some journalists think such periodicals should be, and you wake up Catholic hierarchs of certain sorts who crack the whip if they suspect experiments that might turn heretical. U. S. Catholic walks a fine line.
What prompted this week’s notice is the “Editor’s Note” by Kevin Clarke, who is saying “so long” as he is “on the verge of moving onward.” He sayeth not where, but his “pen will remain active in these pages.” His farewell is fond, as he recalls stories he wrote or edited that caused him to weep – for example, over priestly “sexual abuse,” which the magazine covered accurately and sorrowfully. He has cheered his colleagues on as they dealt with drastic social issues that the church best addresses when prompted by its critical journalists. He closes off with words of thanks to such colleagues, hoping they make a difference.
The main editorial calls on the church to find better ways to welcome Catholics who divorce. In it, managing editor Bryan Cones takes a well-deserved swipe at a nationally televised church wedding where the couple boogied down the aisle to the anti-climactic scene at the altar. Religious “family” journals have to tend to nurture; this time this one suggests how to select books for readings by children. It’s hard to make news with such articles, but if a good and well read book collection does its job, a sign above a library door at ancient Thebes speaks well: a place with books is “truly a ‘Healing Place’ of the Soul.” For grown-ups who need soul-healing there’s a profile of and interview with Esther de Waal, a strong influence on the non-glib “spirituality” front.
Geographically- and hagiographically-minded Catholics and others get taken on an extensive tour of Los Angeles street names and a visit with folks like “Saint Julian,” “Santa Clara,” “San Ysidro” and others who deserve more recognition than a mere street sign can give. Brian Doyle in “Death Comes for the Book Club” playfully takes readers on a serious author tour of who’s in and who’s out – or who should be – among readers who gather and reflect. Then there’s an agonized reflection on whether “a simple Act of Contrition” by a dying patient “can reach the ear of God.” (Conclusion: it can.)
This month in the Marty Center's Religion and Culture Web Forum, Marlene Tromp examines the ways in which narratives of communion and "the flesh," which she engages through feminist food studies and traces especially through a discussion of nineteenth-century Spiritualist mediumship, contribute to a better understanding of gender roles (and their disruption) in Victorian Spirtualism. Formal responses by Gail Turley Houston (University of New Mexico) and Daniel Sack (University of Chicago) are forthcoming.
Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.