A Brief History of Commonweal

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.

1950s

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

1960s

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

1970s

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