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Eight Years at Public Discourse: A Grateful Retrospective

At the end of this month, Serena Sigillito will step down from her current role as editor to a new, more auxiliary role as editor-at-large. To mark the occasion, here is collection of nine essays, one from each calendar year of her tenure at PD, that were particularly formative for her.

When I walked into the Witherspoon Institute in August of 2013 for my first day of work, I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. I had just left my PhD program in English, deciding to stop after the MA to move to Princeton and marry my now-husband, who was a graduate student there. Whenever I told friends and acquaintances down in DC that I was headed to Princeton, time and time again, they told me, “Oh, you have to work at Witherspoon!” As it happened, the managing editor at the time, Gabrielle Speach (now Girgis), was leaving the job to pursue graduate studies of her own. The pieces fell into place.

In many ways, my undergraduate education at the University of Dallas was a perfect preparation for the job. The authors of Public Discourse are a diverse and erudite bunch, but I had been given an understanding of the Western philosophical and literary tradition that allowed me to comprehend and situate their arguments within it. I had been given, in other words, a spool around which to wind the disparate threads of knowledge, as Henry Adams (or the professor with whom I read his Education, Susan Hanssen) might say. Unlike many universities today, UD didn’t train me to divorce my academic studies from my most pressing questions about how I should live my life. Instead, I learned to look to people like Aristotle and Dante as guides to help me in my perplexities.

So, although my degrees were in English, not politics or philosophy, I felt at home in the world of Public Discourse. Here, authors debate difficult questions. They cite and contextualize complex social science. They articulate nuanced interpretations of great literature. They analyze the ideological and anthropological errors of our day. But this is the important thing: none of this is a mere intellectual exercise. Our authors don’t write for us in order to beef up the publications section on their CV, rack up citations, or improve their h-index. And the Witherspoon Institute doesn’t publish PD to produce content that will go viral on social media or generate copious ad revenue.

No, the purpose of our journal is something deeper. As idealistic as it may sound, the purpose of Public Discourse is to help form our readers: to give them the intellectual stimulation they need to grow personally and engage politically as they work to build healthy family lives, strong religious communities, and a rich web of social and civic institutions in their towns and cities.

I still believe strongly in this mission. But, after eight years, the time has come for me to step back from the daily operations of Public Discourse. At the end of this month, I will transition from being editor to a new, more auxiliary role as editor-at-large. I will be handing the reins over to our very capable new managing editor, Elayne Allen. R.J. Snell will continue to lead the team as editor-in-chief.

To mark the occasion, I have gone back through the archives and created a collection of nine essays, one from each calendar year from 2013 until now. I based my criteria for selection not on what essays got the most traffic, generated the most conversation, or were the most academically rigorous. Instead, I focused on pieces that were formative or personally meaningful. Some of these pieces I have come back to time and time again, citing them in conversation and recommending them widely. Others are ones I had almost forgotten, but rediscovered with gratitude as I searched through the archives this week.

The Essays

The first is an essay by Witherspoon’s own Ana Samuel, published in December 2013, titled “Motherhood and Career: A Thrilling Tug of War.” As a newlywed with hopes of becoming a mother, I soaked up Ana’s advice. I haven’t exactly followed all of it—no domestic assistant here yet, unfortunately—but it has stayed with me. Ana writes:

I recommend that we leave aside the idea of “balancing motherhood and career.” It is not so much a balance as an incessant tug of war, a daily adjustment to the greater or lesser demands of one realm over the other. When we learn to see it as normal for these two realms to be in tension, we can focus on ways to manage that tension rather than question why it exists. It is possible to find great joy and personal fulfillment—a thrill, even—in this lifestyle, but to do so we must manage our expectations and share the lessons that we learn in practice.

Now that I am a mother myself, I know firsthand how wise this advice is. And as I’ve grown as a writer, completing a journalism fellowship on work and motherhood, I’ve seen time and again—both through interviews with other moms and in scholarly research on work-family enrichment—how necessary it is to acknowledge that these realms are in tension. The tension is fruitful, and when women bring the lessons that motherhood teaches into the workplace and into the wider world, everyone benefits. But this task is difficult, nonetheless.

Next up, from 2014, is an essay by yours truly: “Politics, Art, and Love: A Lesson from Dante,” the first I ever published. The piece drew on my undergraduate study of The Divine Comedy with Dr. Scott Crider (who, incidentally, I recently commissioned to write an absolutely outstanding long-form essay on the pedagogy of the Commedia, which you should also read). The pop-culture examples in the intro are painfully dated, but the central argument still holds true:

Just like Dante, every person has the capacity to open himself to truths that are bigger than our minds can initially fathom. We can often lose sight of the fact that the answers to political questions on abortion or marriage, for example, are based on understandings of the nature of human life and love that are just too big and too profound for us to grasp all at once. The process of changing someone’s mind on such questions will probably be slow, but it can be helped along by relationships that, in love, persistently ask others to reconsider the philosophical foundations of their beliefs.

I mentioned abortion and marriage in that piece, topics that have often appeared in our pages over the years. In 2015, Public Discourse began to give serious attention to an issue that has since exploded: the question whether or not a person can have the mind or soul of man in the body of woman, or vice versa—and how the rest of us should respond to someone who believes that he or she does.

In February of 2015, we published “The Absurdity of Transgenderism: A Stern but Necessary Critique,” by Carlos Flores. As the title indicates, the essay is not exactly gentle. It will be a more helpful read for someone struggling to decide what to do about the sudden proliferation of transgender-identifying teens, for example, than for a person who is herself struggling to love and accept her body as it is. Still, I think Flores’s observations, blunt as they are, are true. The question, according to Flores, “is whether we will make public policy and encourage social norms that reflect the truth about the human person and sexuality, or whether we will obfuscate the truth about such matters and sow the seeds of sexual confusion in future generations for years to come.”

Now that I have two young daughters, this question feels even more pressing now than it did then. I want my daughters to know that their identity as beloved daughters of God does not depend on whether or not they conform to culturally imposed stereotypes of femininity or whether they “feel like a woman.” I want them to know that they are unconditionally loved. I want them to see the uniquely female capacities of their bodies as gifts.

That leads to my selection for 2016: “Valuing Full-Time Motherhood,” by Adam Seagrave. After acknowledging the great good that has come from feminist gains allowing women to develop their intellectual capacities and participate in the professional sphere, Seagrave suggests that our culture has gone too far in the other direction, denigrating the value of what stay-at-home mothers do. This, he argues, is flat-out wrong.

The amount of good that a parent does in being present for a child is, I submit, greater than the amount of good that any CEO or world leader can accomplish through his or her work. A parent plays a significant and unique role in making a new human being—not merely in a child’s biological beginning, but in the whole course of psychological and spiritual development throughout his or her entire lifetime. . . . Simply being present for a child, and providing a good example for him or her to follow, has a more profound and intense positive effect on the world than what any politician or philanthropist can achieve.

Of course, it is possible to be present to your children while also holding down a job, especially if you are lucky enough—as I have been—to have a mother-friendly employer and the opportunity to work remotely with flexible hours. Even so, I have often felt the tug between professional responsibilities and my children’s needs. I have been guilty of turning on a TV show to keep them quiet while I take an important call or finish editing a time-critical article. That’s part of why I am dialing back my responsibilities at PD. I want to have the extra bandwidth to waste time with my children—and the margin in my life to respond to the needs of others outside my family as well. I want to be able to become an active member of our new neighborhood, parish, and school communities.

In the article I’ve selected for 2017, the feminist legal scholar Erika Bachiochi, whom I admire very much, argues for the importance of “Families, Schools, and Churches: The Building Blocks of a Healthy Social Ecology.” Bachiochi writes:

Today we need to take strong, affirmative steps to manifest far more cultural regard for the family’s essential work: to inspire and incentivize fathers to devote themselves to their families; to counter the financial and professional pressures mothers especially feel as many now seek to work while prioritizing caregiving; and to think creatively about how technology and business ingenuity can help create an economy that is on the side of child-rearing families, especially those that are struggling.

In 2018, Nathanael Blake took a more poetic approach to the topic of family life in his essay “The Romance of Ordinary Marriage.” He describes marriage as “an act of defiance against all of the difficulties of life, from the catastrophic to the mundane.” In his view, “The traditional promises that solemnize a marriage are some of the greatest assertions of human agency, and therefore of human dignity, possible. Our freedom is not realized in the possibility that we might do anything, but in doing what we have said we will do.”

This is such an appealing, heroic vision of the mundane realities of family life. Blake’s essay focuses primarily on the two individuals who choose to bind themselves to one another. But of course, none of us are isolated individuals to begin with. As Bachiochi explains, each of us exists within a complicated web of relationships—an intricate, living “social ecology” that can form us in healthy or unhealthy ways, opening some opportunities to us and foreclosing others.

In 2019, as discussions of systemic racism and active anti-racism started to pop up more and more, I started seriously grappling with the implications of this idea. I chafed against the accusation that I, as a white person, could be guilty of the sin of racism without any conscious act of the will. “Doesn’t that contradict the Church’s teaching on sin?” I asked, and theologian David Cloutier answered. He graciously responded to my query by penning an essay that has made a significant impact on my thinking: “Why Talk About ‘Structures of Sin’?

Drawing on encyclicals by Benedict XVI and John Paul II, as well as the work of sociologists Daniel K. Finn and Margaret Archer, Cloutier illuminates the relationship between social structures and individual agency. As he explains,

Finn describes social structures as systems of preexisting social positions that people occupy. Based on one’s position in the structure, each person faces a particular set of restrictions, enablements, and incentives. In other words, actions that are effortless for one person may be nearly impossible for someone occupying a different social position.

Social structures do not determine our actions. Yet, according to Finn, each of us exercises his or her freedom within preexisting constraints. People cannot simply “choose” structures: the system of social positions, with its restrictions and incentives, preexists any particular person. Yet systems can and do change over time, and they are changed precisely by the choices of individual people. Thus, while each of us faces choices with pre-structured options, we can still help change the structures—not all at once, but incrementally, over time.

This clearly has implications for questions of racial justice (which you can read more essays about here). But it also touches on these questions of social ecology, marriage, and family life. In 2020, I conducted an interview with Erika Bachiochi on “The Future of Pro-Life Feminism,” which ties together many of the themes of the articles in this collection. Here’s just one snippet, on the topic of pro-family public policy, such as maternity leave and child allowances:

I believe pro-lifers have the most cogent and coherent reasons for supporting this kind of legislation: the goods of the family and the virtues properly inculcated therein provide the very preconditions for every other public good. But our country’s current inhospitality to family life is not at all surprising, as law and policy over the past several decades have elevated the rights of the unencumbered, autonomous individual above our common and shared responsibilities to the dependent, weak, and vulnerable. Catholics are perhaps in a privileged position, by virtue of the great tradition of social teaching we’ve inherited, to stand up strongly for our common responsibilities to the vulnerable and dependent, and for those who care for them, too.

That brings us to the last essay in this collection, a 2021 essay by Lyman Stone titled “Child Allowances Reduce Abortion.” After a detailed analysis of the data we have on the effects of child allowances, Stone concludes that “The logical course forward for pro-life advocates is simple: support a child allowance like the one Romney has proposed. It is likely to reduce abortion, and also provides better treatment of marriage, ameliorating some of the effects of any possible increase in single parenthood.” As he points out, even if the Supreme Court overturns Roe—which, God willing, may happen soon—unless we address the root causes of abortion, such as economic distress, “Mail-order mifepristone will replace Planned Parenthood, and the unborn will still be unborn.”

As I step back from running the operations of PD, in addition to spending more time with my kids, my plan is to do much more writing and publishing on topics like these, building up a career as a writer. Some of those essays will be published here at Public Discourse. If you’d like to get updates about my writing elsewhere, I invite you to subscribe to my Substack newsletter.

I may not have known what I was getting into when I left academe and began work as an editor, but I’m glad I took the leap. I have gained knowledge, experience, and a rich community of friends and colleagues, for which I am deeply grateful. It has been a pleasure to serve the readers of Public Discourse as managing editor, and then as editor. I look forward to writing more for you, and to working with Elayne and RJ as they chart a new path forward. Please tune in next week, when I’ll interview Elayne about her vision for the future of PD.

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