This past Sunday the world saw the passing of Joe Cunneen, by any standards a great twentieth century American Catholic. Together with his wife Sally and Bill Birmingham, Joe published Cross Currents for half a century. Yes, I said half a century, fifty years to be precise. In that time he was principally responsible for bringing to the American Catholic audience some of the best writings of continental European theologians, before and after Vatican II. Rahner and Küng and Congar and Schillebeeckx and many, many others appeared in the pages of “the mag.”
The excuse for including a note on Joe in the Verdicts column is that for all the greatness of the achievement of Cross Currents Joe was much more. He was a great Francophile, indeed had met his wife Sally in Paris just after the end of the Second World War and always remained especially interested in things French. When his time at Cross Currents came to an end and it became the house journal of the Association for Religion and the Intellectual Life—a worthy journal but very different from the one he had edited—he moved on to become the movie critic of The National Catholic Reporter, wrote a fine book on the films of Robert Bresson and also began to promote the writing of the French priest and novelist Jean Sulivan.
Anyone who knew Joe will surely agree that his personal intellectual accomplishments were second to his capacity for friendship and his enormous enthusiasm for ideas. To receive a letter from him was always an experience. If the syntax strained the bounds of acceptability, it showed that there was no doubt that here was a mind in ferment, frustrated by the restrictions of the printed word. Here below I am including the official obituary, but it is to be hoped that there will be more appreciations published of Joe’s immense contribution to the intellectual vigor of American Catholicism. May he rest in peace alongside Sally, his extraordinary and unforgettable wife and colleague.
“Joseph E. Cunneen, an editor, writer, and teacher on religion, literature, and film, died in his sleep on Sunday at age 89. In 1950, he and his wife, Sally Cunneen, founded Cross Currents, an international ecumenical quarterly that would introduce American readers to such European Catholic thinkers as Emmanuel Mounier and Teilhard de Chardin who would influence the Second Vatican Council. During his 48 years as co-editor, Cross Currents provided a forum for authors such as Hans Kung, Edward Schillebeeckx, Raimundo Panikkar, and Thomas Berry on contemporary religious issues such as feminism, environmentalism, and interfaith dialog.
“For two decades a film critic for the National Catholic Reporter, Cunneen particularly examined how spirituality was shown in film. His scholarship included studies of filmmakers Bresson, Kieslowski, Rohmer, and Tarkovsky and translations of the novels of Jean Sulivan. He contributed numerous articles to Commonweal, America, Esprit, Midstream, and The Nation. Born in New York City to attorney John Cunneen and teacher Mary Beha Cunneen, he attended Xavier High School and the College of the Holy Cross before serving in the 101st Combat Engineers during WW II. After graduate studies at Catholic University, he taught at Fordham, the College of New Rochelle, St. Peter’s College, Baruch, and Mercy College.
“His partner in life, love, and scholarship was his wife of 60 years, Sally McDevitt Cunneen. After Sally’s death of cancer in 2009, Joe’s health declined. He leaves behind three sons, Michael, Peter, and Paul; one grandson, Sean; and many devoted friends.”