Anniversary Wishes from Charlotte Allen

There are so many obvious errors and wild generalizations in Charlotte Allen’s comment on Luke Johnson’s piece in our anniversary issue ("The Commonweal Catholic") that I confess to the sneaking suspicion that she may not have read Commonweal as closely over the past eight years as her critique of the magazine pretends. In fact, I’m not sure she’s ever read the magazine carefully (perhaps she only reads the table of contents). She pines for the pre-Vatican II Commonweal of her youth, lamenting the disappearance of its “spritely” graphics in today’s allegedly duller, more secular pages. Now Charlotte, Commonweal has never had spritely graphics! That is one tradition we cannot be accused of abandoning. And what might Allen, who longs for the days when Commonweal didn’t recycle “whatever the [liberal] secular media try to push,” have made of the magazine’s endorsement of Adlai Stevenson, or of John Cogley’s and James O’Gara’s praise for John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism? And when it came to church reform, the magazine was keenly interested in the Nouvelle Theologie and the Liturgical Movement. A less tendentious examination of the magazine’s history will reveal that the Commonweal editors of yore had a few dangerously liberal proclivities of their own.  

Allen begins her comment by announcing that she is hated by everyone at Commonweal. I don’t know what led her to this belief, but I can assure her that no one here has any reason to hate Charlotte Allen (one of our editors even worked for her once, and remembers her with some affection). But I admit that her scattershot and inexact criticism of Commonweal can be exasperating. Neither do we, as Allen claims, “detest” First Things or think of that journal as our “arch-rival or ideological bugaboo.” In fact, I just appeared on a panel with First Things editor R.R. Reno, and as best I can tell neither of us evinced any animus toward the other. It was all very distressingly kumbaya.

As it happens, I have written for First Things, and Reno has written for Commonweal. For First Things to be a bugaboo, it would have to be an object of obsession and exaggerated fear for us. On the contrary, I like to think of Commonweal as the place where former editors of First Things come to work or publish once they’ve seen the error of their ways. Our door is always open, and we hope that migration will only increase in the future. Could Charlotte Allen, a regular contributor to the Weekly Standard, be next to cross that unguarded border?

Do we play catch-up with the “progressive secular wing of the Democratic Party”? Specifics would be helpful here. As Luke Johnson pointed out, Commonweal remains outside that political tent when it comes to abortion rights and same-sex marriage—and, I would add, the HHS contraception mandate. We think of ourselves as resisting the moral libertarianism of the left and the economic libertarianism of the right. Or as Luke Johnson put it, “one can be ‘liberal’ in some ways while ‘conservative’ in others.” Do we think, to coin a phrase, that government is the solution or the problem? That, too, depends on the issue.    

Allen complains that we are constantly publishing articles dissenting from the church’s teachings about contraception, IVF, and the ordination of women. For better or worse, we have not published an article on women’s ordination in an eon. We have revisited the questions surrounding Humanae Vitae on rare occasions, but when we do we often include a piece defending the teaching. I honestly can’t remember the last time we ran something on IVF, but what I do remember is that Commonweal has raised questions about the procedure.   

Allen claims that our editorials leave the impression that if you vote Republican “you’re not a good Catholic.” I am not aware of any editorial that has even hinted at such an absurd notion. I suspect the problem for Allen is that Commonweal thinks government should play a larger role when it comes to problems of economic opportunity and inequality, and she does not. Fair enough. The pre-Vatican II Commonweal of her youth, however, was rather notorious for its endorsement of government action to help the poor and more equitably share the benefits of prosperity. It was also, for that matter, well known for its skepticism about the fascist General Franco and the red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy, both popular Catholic causes. If Allen has been reading Commonweal, she has somehow failed to comprehend one of the magazine’s fundamental convictions. From the very beginning, Commonweal has insisted that Catholics need not agree with one another when it comes to politics or temporal affairs more generally, and that it would be worrisome if they did. The suspicion that Commonweal wants to excommunicate Catholic Republicans is Allen’s bugaboo, not ours.

Allen also implies that Commonweal has a low opinion of the intelligence and theological acumen of conservatives such as Joseph Ratzinger and contributors to First Things. That sort of name-calling is bad journalism and bad manners, and we scrupulously avoid it. Besides, who could possibly believe it? What we have objected to are the procedures and some of the condemnations issued by the CDF under Ratzinger’s stewardship, and some of the vitriol First Things has from time to time directed at those with whom it disagrees.

I could go on, but life is short and magazine deadlines as unreformable as Charlotte Allen imagines the church’s teachings to be. In closing perhaps we can agree on at least one thing. As Allen correctly notes, Commonweal’s movie and book reviews really are “terrific.” Now perhaps she should try reading the rest of the magazine. It won’t bite.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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