During the the year I spent at Commonweal right after college, I was (among other things) the magazine’s one-person customer-service department. In this role, I was constantly reminded that Commonweal is a vibrant catalyst of conversation—and even conversion, of a sort. Looking back, I can see that the most successful issues of the magazine were the ones that left my voicemail and e-mail inbox brimming with a variety of positive and negative responses from our passionate readership.
On one end of the spectrum were the Commonweal faithful. This core of cheerleaders always let me know that they had read the latest issue from cover to cover, and were eager to offer kudos for a particular article, or sometimes for all of them. It was their intellectual and theological manna, and they could not wait to thank us. The worst thing that could happen to these subscribers was that the postal service had lost or mangled the most recent issue, forcing them to wait a few more days for us to send a replacement.
Receiving these plaudits and passing them on to the rest of the staff was one of the easiest and most enjoyable parts of my job, but there was often more critical feedback as well. Commonweal’s independence has never failed to generate both praise and ire, and during my brief tenure in the front office, I was routinely exposed to both. In one of my first weeks on staff, a gentleman called not only to cancel his subscription but to upbraid me for what sounded like years of grievances against the magazine—if he wasn’t reading from a carefully prepared and annotated list, it sure sounded that way. Before finally hanging up, he added that he would be renewing his subscriptions to “real” Catholic magazines, and strongly suggested the editorial staff turn to those journals for a little guidance.
Another morning, I fielded a call from an animated reader who was appalled by the image of Karl Marx on the cover of the latest issue (“Was Marx Right?” April 8, 2011). He found the decision to put Marx on the cover a travesty given the historical and intellectual conflict between Catholicism and “atheistic” communism. He was quite articulate and had lots of arguments. As the most junior person on staff, alone at an early hour in the office, and without even having finished my first cup of coffee, I stumbled, stuttered, and barely managed to inform him that someone better qualified—and better composed, I thought—would get back to him.
My secret hope was that the editor who returned the call later that morning would rebut the caller’s arguments in a conclusive way. But instead of a fiery exchange, I was told later that the follow-up discussion had been mutually enlightening. The aggrieved reader had even accepted an offer to write a response to the cover story (by literary critic Terry Eagleton) in the Commonweal tradition of “continuing the conversation.” I was a bit disappointed by the lack of fireworks. But while the more controversial articles published by the magazine sometimes made my job uncomfortable, the passionate objections of some readers were the best indicators that Commonweal remained true to its mission. As an independent lay-led enterprise, the magazine is at its best, I believe, when it’s committed to dialogue and civil exchange rather than predictable polemics. At a time when the Catholic Church and the larger culture are thought to be increasingly at odds, Commonweal helps build bridges between the two. Mutual isolation is not really an option. So, please keep those letters, phone calls, and e-mails of dissent, despair, and congratulations coming.
From our 90th Anniversary feature "Formative Years," in which we asked a number of our former staff members (along with our current marketing coordinator) to write about their responsibilities at Commonweal, what they learned while working here, and about their hopes for the future of the magazine. See all of their contributions here.