Is Commonweal Catholic?
ERRATA: The post below assumes that Charlotte Allen and I shared a similar upbringing and catechetical formation. I have since been informed that this is not the case, so that affects at least part of the analysis below. I apologize to Ms. Allen and to our readers for the error.
As noted by Grant below, Charlotte Allen has posted something of a critique of Commonweal over at the First Things blog. I want to take the discussion in a slightly different direction than the combox discussion seems to be heading.
I hope Charlotte will not mind if I deal with some of her points quickly. She questions what is distinctively Catholic about Peggy Steinfels’ views on the current conflict in Lebanon or Clayton Sinyai’s opinions about union organizing among undocumented workers. But as far as I can tell, the opinions of both authors are solidly within the Catholic mainstream. Outside the United States, the Church’s support for labor unions, migrants, and the concerns of Christians living in Arab nations is taken more or less for granted. It cannot be denied that these are issues of prudential judgment about which Catholics of good faith can differ, but it’s fair to say that Commonweal hews closer to mainstream Catholic opinion on these matters than does, say, First Things.
But these are minor points, because what I really want to address is the broader question she raises about whether Commonweal lacks a distinctively “Catholic perspective.” Here, I think, Charlotte reveals the generational divide that exists between Catholics (like Charlotte and myself) who grew up in the wake of Vatican II, and those whose formation was prior to the Council.
In my experience, the latter group of Catholics tends to have a deep and abiding sense of ecclesial identity. The “Catholic perspective” that they bring to bear is not the result of a conscious choice. It is the way that they reflexively think. Even if they are estranged from the Church, they tend to think about this estrangement in Catholic categories.
The writers and intellectuals of this generation no more needed to stamp “Catholic” on everything they wrote anymore than Flannery O’Connor needed to populate all her stories with Catholic characters to explore Catholic themes. They didn’t think this way. Their Catholicism has a taken-for-granted quality, and Commonweal was founded by—and to a great extent remains guided by—people with this kind of sensibility.
Charlotte and I (and the generations that have followed us) were raised in a very different period. Even for those raised as cradle Catholics, the sense of Catholicism as something constitutive of our identity has been attenuated. One can argue that there are positive and negative aspects of this change, but the fact that there has been a change seems inarguable. We’re more inclined to ask questions about what is distinctively Catholic because our decision to remain Catholics is more of a choice than it was for previous generations.
I teach adult Confirmation classes, which regularly brings me into contact with baptized Catholics who have received little in the way of formal catechesis. They, too, often want to know what is “distinctively Catholic.” In some cases, this has been prompted by their inability to respond to aggressive questions posed by Christians of other denominations. In other cases, it has been prompted by their inability to respond to questions posed by their own children!
I disagree with Charlotte’s suggestion that Commonweal somehow lacks a Catholic perspective. The magazine positively oozes with Catholic sensibility. But because of the deficiencies of my own formation (I was confirmed in 1980—do the math!), it took me a long time for the magazine’s distinctiveness to impress itself upon me. I often felt the writers were using terms and references that I was supposed to know, but didn’t.
So while many of us here will probably disagree with Charlotte’s conclusion, I think she is raising some questions that any of us who are writing for an educated Catholic reader need to think about.