Founded in 1924, Commonweal is the oldest independent lay-edited Catholic journal of opinion in the United States. The magazine has an ongoing interest in social justice, ecumenism, just-war teaching, liturgical renewal, women’s issues, the primacy of conscience, and the interchange between Catholicism and liberal democracy.


The Commonweal’s first issue was published in November 1924, a year after Time was first published and just a few months before The New Yorker was born.

Michael Williams

Founding editor Michael Williams was a Canadian-born journalist with a colorful past. After multiple newspaper jobs, a period in a failed Utopian commune and resettlement in California, he experienced a reconversion to Catholicism, which he later described in his The Book of the High Romance. While working for the National Catholic War Council, he conceived the idea of founding his own intellectual weekly: "How can Catholic thought, the Catholic outlook on life and the Catholic philosophy of living, as distinct from what might be called the Catholic inlook and individual religious experience, be conveyed to the mind of the whole American people?"

“How can Catholic thought, the Catholic outlook on life and the Catholic philosophy of living, as distinct from what might be called the Catholic inlook and individual religious experience, be conveyed to the mind of the whole American people?”

Williams found backing through the Calvert Associates, a group of (mostly) Catholic establishment business leaders and academics, including architect Ralph Adams Cram; Fr. Lawrason Riggs of the Washington banking family, later Catholic chaplain at Yale; and John J. Raskob, financial executive and builder of the Empire State Building. From the beginning, the magazine struggled with profitability, and required regular, sometimes urgent infusions of support. “It is,” said Thomas Woodlock of The Wall Street Journal, its first president, “an adventure, not a business enterprise.”

Further, the Calvert Associates set as their goal something more than publishing a review. They founded local gatherings of Associates to perpetuate Calvert ideals, especially religious understanding and liberty. They arranged for radio appearances by Commonweal editors and published a series of Calvert books on Catholic apologetics.

Editorial highlights

Should a Catholic Be President? (on the candidacy of Governor Al Smith) (April 13 1927)

G. K. Chesterton on Sex, from the first issue

Michael Williams covering the Scopes trial in Dayton, Tennessee (August 5 1925)

Because of its lay independence and ecumenical list of contributors, The Commonweal would shortly be known as a “liberal” Catholic weekly, but that would probably not be accurate by later standards. “It was,” wrote historian Rodger van Allen, “rather defensively and triumphalistically Catholic.” In its first weekly issue, it spoke of the Petrine Rock as that force which would resist pagan hedonism, and declared that “upon that Rock The Commonweal stands.”

From left to right: G.K. Chesterson, first edition cover and contents


Controversy over the Spanish Civil War brought a leadership transition and a circulation crisis.

In response to the Great Depression, Commonweal broadly supported the New Deal, drawing parallels between its policies and the vision of the common good in Catholic social teaching: “It is a fundamental axiom of that philosophy that social justice—the welfare of the masses of mankind—is more important than the sort of national “prosperity” which means enormous wealth and socially perilous power for a few privileged cliques and classes, and poverty or destitution, or the permanent danger of poverty and destitution, to the masses of the people.”

Managing editor George Shuster wrote regularly of the rise of Hitler and its urgent implications for every form of freedom

Managing editor George Shuster wrote regularly of the rise of Hitler and its urgent implications for every form of freedom, and urged the United States to withdraw from the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. Thanks largely to Shuster, Commonweal was prescient among U.S. magazines in warning of Naziism’s global threat. Shuster also questioned the Catholic Church’s near-unanimous support for Franco, and against communism, in the escalating Spanish Civil War. Editor Michael Williams, however, then took the magazine in a pro-Franco direction, going so far as to organize a Franco rally in Madison Square Garden in 1937. Shuster resigned, and went on to a distinguished career that included two decades as president of Hunter College in New York. Williams himself was then asked to step down as editor by the Commonweal board, both because of the rally and erratic behavior brought on by alcohol.

Editorial highlights

Recovery and Reformation on the New Deal (November 17, 1933)

Some Reflections on Spain by George Shuster (April 2, 1937)

Catholics in Germany by George Shuster (June 29, 1934)

The Ryan-Coughlin Controversy criticizing Fr. Charles Coughlin (October 23, 1936)

Houses of Hospitality by Dorothy Day (April 15, 1938)

George Shuster

After this leadership crisis, the magazine’s management and ownership changed. Control passed to Philip Burnham and Edward Skillin, two young editors (ages 27 and 34) who published their first issue in April 1938. Commonweal, they wrote, “will avoid as much as it can the assumption of a propagandistic tone—propaganda understood as being the unfairly one-sided presentation of controversial opinion, overlooking the good points of opposed views and evidence damaging to one's own.” Two months later, Commonweal’s declaration of its neutrality in the Spanish Civil War brought an immediate 20 percent decline in circulation, and added to its reputation for sometimes contradicting mainstream Catholic opinion.

From left to right: Fr. Charles Coughlin, Franco, 1938 cover


In the 1940s, editors were sharply divided about World War II, but united in their increasing support for labor and activism

Under Edward Skillin, Philip Burnham, and Henry Binsse, Commonweal in the 1940s began to “express a Catholicism no less intellectual, but more of a grass roots variety, and also more activist” than before. They supported labor movements (John Cort was a frequent contributor) and progressive action regarding race—one of the most popular articles from this period was George H. Dunne’s “The Sin of Segregation”—recognizing institutionalized racism in the Church and sharply criticizing the internment camps of World War II.

Commonweal in the 1940s began to “express a Catholicism no less intellectual, but more of a grass roots variety, and also more activist” than before.

On the matter of the war itself, the editors were initially divided between interventionism and isolationism until the attack on Pearl Harbor, torn between a desire to maintain neutrality and thus minimize any violent involvement; and, on the other hand, a moral obligation to stand up to fascism and Hitler’s atrocities. The result was a series of “bristling exchanges” in the pages of the magazine and signed editorials reflecting the split in opinions. On the topic of the atomic bomb, however, the magazine was united: such immorality was a source of American shame.

Dorothy Day

Editorial highlights

The Sin of Segregation by George H. Dunne (September 21, 1945)

Editors on Hiroshima (August 24, 1945)

Native Daughter: An Indictment of White America by a Colored Woman by Ellen Tarry (April 12, 1940)

Christmas at Dachau by Alfred Werner (December 20, 1940)


The Commonweal of the 1940s was somewhat less focused on theology than earlier or later decades, but in its religious content heavily featured the German priest Fr. H. A. Reinhold, who fled Nazi Germany and, in New York City, preached to laborers in Dorothy Day’s House of Hospitality. Dorothy Day herself wrote for the magazine, and Thomas Merton contributed poetry. All three, along with Jacques Maritain, J. F. Powers, and former editors Michael Williams and George Shuster, contributed to a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition of the magazine in 1949. 

As the 1940s drew to a close, the editorial staff shifted, and new editors replaced Burnham and Binsse: John Cogley and James O’Gara, friends from the Chicago Catholic Worker circle without the upper-crust background of the Commonweal founders. Joined by William Clancy and William Pfaff, they comprised a group described as “an Irish-Catholic intellectual Mafia, unabashed both in their liberalism and their Catholicism.”

From left to right: 25th Anniversary Issue, Thomas Merton, "The Sin of Segregation," John Cort


Opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy set The Commonweal apart from almost every Catholic publication and church leader.

As early as 1950 when Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin began his relentless campaign to identify Communist infiltration in American institutions, The Commonweal pointed out in an editorial that he seemed to be “shooting away at political records and personal reputations like a drunken sailor.” Anti-communism was both a religious and a political issue for American Catholics, however, and the Catholic hierarchy and press of the era was virtually unanimous in its support for McCarthy, and untroubled by the abusiveness of his tactics.

Editorial highlights

Catholics and Hollywood by Walter Kerr (December 19, 1952)

The Liberal Catholic by William Clancy (July 11, 1952)

Draw Your Own Conclusions by John Cogley (October 16, 1953)

Waterfront Priest by Budd Schulberg (April 3, 1953)

By 1953, McCarthy had included The Commonweal among his targets, questioning the possible Communist sympathies of an occasional writer for the magazine in the 1930s. In a letter from McCarthy ignoring Commonweal’s denials, he wrote, “I feel that you have done and are doing a tremendous disservice to the Catholic church and a great service to the Communist Party.” At the height of McCarthy’s influence, Commonweal editors James O’Gara and John Cogley were both publicly denounced in their home parishes as Communist sympathizers.

From left to right: Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn, "The 'Liberal Catholic'" by William Clancy, James O'Gara


In the 1960s, the issues of principal concern for The Commonweal were the first Catholic president, the Second Vatican Council, the rise of communism, and the war in Vietnam.

The autumn of 1960 saw the election of John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States. While the editors did not officially endorse Kennedy, his election—not merely by Catholics, but, significantly, by a significant share of the Protestant population—was “greatly encouraging” to institutions and publications like The Commonweal “that had been working for years to promote a greater engagement with American society by Catholics.” 

Hans Küng

The Commonweal was also eager to see American Catholics engage more with the institutional Church, and the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) provided the perfect opportunity for this, as the Church invited input from the laity before the council began. The council’s conclusions invited “real grounds for hope,” calling for “openness, dialogue, and discernment of the Spirit by and from all.” It was the most reported-upon religious event of the century; in the pages of the magazine, notable authors who discussed it included German theologian Hans Küng. Less encouraging was the 1968 papal encyclical, Humanae vitae, which took a hardline position against birth control despite the opinions of much of the laity and, indeed, the study commissioned by the pope himself on the matter. As the decade continued, some of the enthusiasm generated by the council began to wane.

Editorial highlights

Editorial against Vietnam (October 27, 1967)

“What has the Council Done?” by Hans Küng (January 21, 1966)

“Renewal of the Church” anticipating Vatican II, by Philip Scharper (June 8, 1962)

“Kennedy the Catholic” by John Cogley (January 10, 1964)

The Commonweal was also eager to see American Catholics engage more with the institutional Church, and the Second Vatican Council provided the perfect opportunity for this.

Throughout the decade, The Commonweal remained anticommunist, but it resisted the radical right’s reactionary impulse to recast the liberal as communist, as well as the tendency to consider the entire world as divided into two warring camps. Indeed, the magazine recognized that “even with avowedly communist countries a certain diversity or pluriformity was emerging.” While the editors in the 1950s and early 1960s supported the war in Vietnam, by late 1964, they believed a negotiated settlement as the only way out, and by 1965 praised anti-war demonstrators. As the war dragged on, the position of the magazine against escalation and the use of the nation’s resources solidified; in 1967 they advocated civil disobedience in the style of Thoreau as “the only course left” to stop the war.

From left to right: Wilfrid Sheed, an article about Vatican II, Daniel Callahan, and an interview with Jorge Luis Borges


The Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 marked the beginning of a controversy that still shapes the nation’s politics and the Church’s own priorities.

Volume XCVII No. 19

Commonweal’s editors quickly criticized the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision of January 1973, noting that before the decision, state laws represented “some consensus that life in process is life and must be protected. Now...that consensus is gone.” The editors also immediately foresaw, however, that “the anti-abortion cause will become the political tool of the right wing,” and criticized the American bishops’ response to Roe, noting that their rigid opposition to birth control gave them little credibility on other matters of morality.

In 1974, after fifty years as a weekly, Commonweal began to publish twice a month, but its ambitions remained impressive. In a New York Times interview about the magazine’s milestone anniversary, editor James O’Gara described Commonweal’s mission: “We want to see Vatican II implemented…. We’re concerned with the redistribution of wealth, a better way to choose the Pope, the limits of papal power and lay participation in all levels, including the highest. What we really want is a total reorganization of society and the church.”

We’re concerned with the redistribution of wealth, the limits of papal power and lay participation in all levels. What we really want is a total reorganization of society and the church.

The 1970s also saw the debuts of two long-time columnists whose broad scope and graceful writing helped define the Commonweal sensibility. John Garvey began to appear in the magazine in 1973, and for more than forty years wrote with spiritual insight and common sense about a wide range of moral, political, and religious questions. Abigail McCarthy, the former wife of 1972 presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and a distinguished author in her own right, wrote with special attention to women’s issues both inside and outside the Church, as well as on literature, politics, and many other topics.

Editorial highlights

"Notes From The Ungerground; Or, I Was A Fugitive From The F.B.I." by Daniel Berrigan (May 19, 1970)

"On Becoming A Catholic" by Graham Greene (September 3, 1971) 

At the end of the decade, the election of Pope John Paul II in 1978 almost immediately raised concerns in Commonweal about his style of leadership, especially his authoritarian approach to internal Church discipline and the work of theologians: “[I]nsofar as it encourages a teaching church that is not equally a learning one,” wrote the editors, “the huge promise of his papacy may go unfulfilled.”

From left to right: Abigail McCarthy, John Garvey, "Notes From The Ungerground; Or, I Was A Fugitive From The F.B.I." by Daniel Berrigan, "On Becoming A Catholic" by Graham Greene


Margaret ("Peggy") O'Brien Steinfels

Commonweal addresses the place of women in the Church—and at the magazine.

A decade after Roe, abortion continued to be a major topic of discussion in the pages of Commonweal. There was a special issue on abortion in 1981 and it was the subject of the magazine’s longest-ever feature package in 1987. The editors urged readers not to put all of their hopes in a legal remedy and, above all, never to ignore either the moral or political complexity of the issue—both of these, they understood, were “ways of evading the burden of authentic moral judgement.”

Upon James O’Gara’s retirement in 1984, Peter Steinfels succeeded him as editor; four years later, he was succeeded by Margaret (“Peggy”) O’Brien Steinfels. What had once been a male-dominated editorial staff expanded to include several female editors and frequent contributors, including poetry editors Rosemary Deen and Marie Ponsot (Deen would hold the position for forty years). During the 1980s, significant attention was paid to the position of women in the Church, including the failures of the hierarchy to embrace women after Vatican II, especially in light of the 1985 synod to evaluate the council. These concerns and others were included in a 1985 series, “Charting a Course: From the Council to the Synod.”

What had once been a male-dominated editorial staff expanded to include several female editors and frequent contributors.

Editorial highlights

"Marriage versus just living together" by Jo McGowan (March 13, 1981)

"Coming to terms with Mary" by Mary Gordon (January 15, 1982)

"America's Social Sin" by Joseph L Bernardin (September 24, 1982) 

"The Discipleship of Equals" by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza (August 9, 1985) 

The Political Dimension of Christian Love by Óscar Romero (March 26, 1982)

In the early 1980s, Edward Skillin and Commonweal’s other shareholders transferred their ownership to the nonprofit Commonweal Foundation. Skillin’s contribution to Commonweal over the years is hard to overstate: he joined the staff in 1933, became editor and a principal owner in 1938, served as publisher from 1967 to 1999, and helped put the magazine on its current path.

Rosemary Deen, 65th anniversary edition cover, Marie Ponsot, 1985 series “Charting a Course: From the Council to the Synod”


The magazine contends with the critics of liberal Catholicism, and imagines a still greater role for the laity.

Editor Peggy Steinfels pointed out that Commonweal itself might signify an institutional way forward for lay Catholics

Dedicating entire annual issues to the role of the laity throughout the 1990s, Commonweal continued to explore Vatican II’s vision for its largely lay readership. In a 1990 special issue on “Re-Generating Catholicism,” the editors reminded readers that “the future of the Catholic church is our responsibility.” Other contributors, however, noted the difficulties lay Catholics continued to face in Church structures where they had little or no real authority. Editor Peggy Steinfels, in 1993, pointed out that Commonweal itself might signify an institutional way forward for lay Catholics: “No one gave permission, and no one asked. The work was started and it continues.”

Peter Steinfels

Editorial highlights

A Theological Case for God-She, Elizabeth A. Johnson (January 29, 1993)

The Everlasting Dilemma, Paul Elie (September 27, 1991)

The Dignity of Helplessness, Rand Richards Cooper (October 25, 1996)

Justifying Torture, Gordon Marino (June 6, 1997)

Affirmative on Affirmative Action, by Don Wycliff (May 19, 1995)

Commonweal’s seventy-fifth anniversary issue in 1999 struck a more conflicted tone about the future, and highlighted the jaundiced view of liberal Catholicism taken by much of the American Church’s hierarchy. In an exchange titled “The Crisis of Liberal Catholicism,” Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George claimed that liberalism was an exhausted project and was now yielding disappointing results for the Church’s health and growth. In response, former editor Peter Steinfels argued that “if the church is to remain a healthy organism it needs the self-criticism, open inquiry, and spirit of dialogue that liberal Catholicism has provided.” Meanwhile, the magazine also published communitarian critiques of triumphalistic political liberalism by such figures as Christopher Lasch and Eugene McCarraher. Catholics, including liberal Catholics, knew better than to believe in the “end of history.”

“A Theological Case for God-She,” by Elizabeth A. Johnson, 1999 cover, Christopher Lasch, 1990 special issue


A long pontificate ends; the ‘forever war’ begins.

The September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 brought an immediate warning from the editors about where they might lead the country’s foreign policy: “Boastful unilateralism and naive isolationism,” they wrote, “now stand exposed as folly.” Throughout the decade, Commonweal would criticize the Afghan and Iraq wars that followed 9/11, and the anti-Islamic rhetoric that the “war on terrorism” helped generate.

The early years of the decade also saw sexual abuse emerge as an issue that would cause disillusionment with the Church and its leaders, and bring a crisis of credibility that continues to shape American Catholic life. In 2002, as bishops struggled to react to new revelations of abuse, Peter Steinfels wrote: “There is a terrible vacuum of leadership at the highest levels of American Catholicism…. It has been deliberately created by years of episcopal appointments and Vatican interventions.” 

Paul Baumann

One such intervention in 2005 was the firing of America magazine editor Thomas Reese, SJ, under pressure from Rome, a disruption of the Catholic press that brought immediate condemnation from Commonweal’s editors: “What gives scandal to people in the pews is the arbitrary and self-serving exercise of ecclesiastical authority.” That same year saw the death of Pope John Paul II after a twenty-seven-year reign that created both a powerful global image for Catholicism and a focus, inside the Church, on discipline and control. As the editors put it, “He gave the church the most accessible and compelling public face imaginable, yet turned a stony face toward many fellow Catholics.”

Paul Baumann succeeded Margaret O’Brien Steinfels as editor in 2003, after a decade of contributing dozens of articles and reviews as the magazine’s associate and executive editor.

“Scandal at ‘America’” by The Editors, September 2001 cover, “Lost In Translation: The Bishops, the Vatican & the English Liturgy” by John Wilkins, Cathleen Kaveny, columnist since 2002


In the face of growing polarization within the country and the Church, Commonweal reasserts its founding principle: that Catholic Christianity is compatible with liberal democracy. 

Throughout the second decade of the twenty-first century, Commonweal warned about the dangers of the American Church—and, in particular, American bishops—growing too close to the Republican Party. Responding in 2012 to the bishops’ dramatic warnings about threats to “religious liberty” posed by the Obama administration’s health-care laws, Commonweal noted that “in their simplistic rhetoric, the bishops sound more like politicians than pastors.” 

Dominic Preziosi

In an editorial on the occasion of Commonweal’s ninetieth anniversary in 2014, the editors reminded readers of the magazine’s continued commitment to what they called its “two faiths”—in Catholic Christianity, and in liberal democracy: “The church has something to learn from American democracy about institutional accountability, but Catholicism still has much to teach the modern world about justice, the limitations of individualism, and the sanctity of life.”

Dominic Preziosi succeeded Paul Baumann as editor in 2018, and in the following year Commonweal became a monthly magazine, with an expanded number of pages and a thorough redesign. By the end of the decade, print circulation had shown an increase for the first time in many years, while Commonweal’s digital readership (via its website, podcast, and social media) reached a far larger audience than at any point in its history.

2019 magazine redesign, “Two Faiths” by The Editors, 2018 staff photo
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