Over the past several years I have spoken at some wonderful colleges and universities across this country—Smith, Northwestern, Christian Brothers, Stanford—through the sponsorship of Commonweal. I treasure these occasions for the chance they have given me to meet students and faculty, and to share with them my enthusiasm for Commonweal. I try to persuade younger listeners to start the habit of reading this unique journal; the older members of my audience are already persuaded. I do this gladly, convinced that American Catholicism would be improved in exact proportion to the increase in the ranks of Commonweal Catholics.

It has been, in fact, one of the joys of my life to have been associated with this publication, as a writer and speaker, for more than twenty years. From the first time I picked up a copy, in the monastic library at St. Joseph Abbey in Louisiana in the 1960s, I wanted to be the sort of writer whose work appears in Commonweal. After all, so many of my literary and spiritual heroes wrote for it: Jacques Maritain and Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan and Michael Harrington, Wilfrid Sheed and Evelyn Waugh, Dorothy Day and G. K. Chesterton and many more. These were people serious about the life of the mind and the condition of the world. They wrote passionately on war and peace, on Christian philosophy, on the hidden poor, and on art and literature as well.

Commonweal writers struck me as “Catholic” in the oldest and deepest sense of the term: they had a sensibility grounded in centuries of sacrament and spirituality. But they were not parochially Roman Catholic. Rather they engaged the pressing issues of the day with a bracing intelligence, freedom, and boldness; self-confidently Catholic, they wrote as citizens of the world. This combination of qualities has been so fundamental to Commonweal that in 1999 Patrick Jordan and Paul Baumann summed them up in the subtitle of the magazine’s seventy-fifth anniversary anthology, Commonweal Confronts the Century: Liberal Convictions, Catholic Tradition.

In my eyes, Commonweal writers represent a heritage that traces all the way back to the greatest of early Christian theologians, Origen of Alexandria, who combined an unswerving embrace of the Rule of Faith with a willingness to subject obscure or undefined elements of that faith to critical examination. Origen was great not simply because of his astonishing learning and prodigious energy, but because, having devoted his heart to the Gospel—he ultimately died following torture under persecution—he dedicated his mind to follow the path of truth wherever it might lead. He was convinced that the tension between an unfettered intelligence and a heart committed to the tradition was a creative tension; his sense of God’s grandeur made him appreciate both the necessity for truth to be embodied in specific forms and words, and the reality that truth transcends all specific embodiment.

That this heritage is so imperiled in today’s church and society makes it all the more precious. The space Commonweal (and its faithful readers) seeks to occupy is a tight one, and difficult to maintain in a world that insists we either mindlessly adhere to received teachings or recklessly reject the wisdom of the past in the name of enlightenment. In such a world the notion that one can be “liberal” in some ways while “conservative” in others seems too difficult for many to grasp. The forces of bifurcation are not unique to Catholicism. All Christian denominations find themselves split between—for lack of better terms—fundamentalists and modernists (and Judaism and Islam in their own ways are similarly divided). On issues such as the religious leadership of women or the inclusion of homosexuals, most adherents invoke the unswerving authority of Scripture or the magisterium, while a hardy minority assays the perils of theological tightrope-walking.

Meanwhile, the distance between liberals and conservatives—another inadequate but unavoidable distinction—inexorably grows, deepened by chronic misunderstanding and distrust. If the religiously liberal regard traditionalists as dumb sheep, the latter regard the former as wolves out to ravage the flock. Mutual acceptance remains difficult to find and almost impossible to sustain, and so the two groups drift ever further into a kind of ghettoized separation. Those Catholics who espouse liberal convictions, increasingly finding themselves at the margins of the tradition they want to affirm, take refuge within the academy. Even if they are not themselves academics, they are likely to feel more at home at a university Catholic Center than at the local parish. The flight of Catholic intellectuals from the clergy and the parish has led to a dismaying split, in which the academy is celebrated as the place of the intellect and the church as the repository of faith.

This division of the heart and the mind has had sorry consequences across the board, as church and university alike have severed the link between critical thinking and faith. In Catholicism, as in almost all Christian denominations today, the tradition of the learned pastor is virtually dead. Rare is the bishop or parish priest who can hazard a critical reflection in a sermon or other public setting; the protectors of Catholic orthodoxy are vigilant, ever ready to identify—and report—such heretics. On the other side, equally rare is the academic who can openly profess traditional Christian beliefs while retaining credibility as an intellectual. Hiding one’s faith, or abandoning it altogether, is increasingly the price of citizenship in the world of free inquiry. Thus, in the university department of religion, it is a matter of pride to study religion rather than to practice it; some professors of religious studies understand their mission to be the demystifying of traditional beliefs and practices among their students.

One might want to think of religious institutions of higher learning as an exception, but in fact the pressures there are often even greater. In religious colleges and seminaries, many professors of theology become expert at practicing what I think of as the “higher fundamentalism,” camouflaging a lack of genuine critical thought with an elaborate apparatus of scholarship. Behind their credentials and impressive displays of learning, they are in truth upper-level catechists who do little more than pass conventional wisdom on to the next generation. Those scholars who actually try to bring critical acumen to the tradition, or who seek to expand the conversation beyond parochial boundaries, risk being censored or suppressed: the roll call of recent decades includes Charles Curran, Roger Haight, Elizabeth Johnson, and Margaret Farley. Spirited and passionate theology cannot thrive in such a context of fearful conformity.

Meanwhile, the liberal academy itself turns out to be repressive in its own way. In the humanities especially, where free critical inquiry is the ostensible ideal, progressive dogma exercises an astonishing influence, so much so that one is hard pressed to find any diversity of political and social positions. “Political correctness” is an overused term, yet it accurately designates a complex of academic “right-thinking” that emphasizes an apocalyptic vision of climate change; the evils of tobacco (but not pot); the oppressive character of late capitalism; the malignancy of “europhallic” thought; and the embrace of all forms of human diversity except those representing religious traditions. The Chronicle of Higher Education, in fact, recently published an astonishingly ill-informed and illiberal essay (“The Great Accreditation Farce”) by an Ivy League professor calling for the disaccreditation of religious institutions such as the excellent Evangelical Wheaton College. As for politics, you’re as likely to find a Republican in an English department as you are to find a liberal Democrat in an Evangelical church.

In a recent convocation address to graduates of Harvard University, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg—a great patron of Johns Hopkins University—lamented what he perceived to be a total lack of political diversity and social thought within the contemporary academy. Here’s a case in point from my own academic home. Without question, the former speaker of the House, political theorist, and novelist Newt Gingrich is among the most accomplished of Emory University’s alumni. He is also a provocative and polarizing figure, whose worthiness for university recognition can legitimately be disputed. Yet so anathematic is he to the reigning orthodoxy that it has been virtually impossible to put his name into consideration for an honorary degree from Emory. Even to suggest that he is as worthy of consideration for such a degree as, say, the CNN reporter Christiane Amanpour (who has received one) is to invite only an embarrassed silence.

Amid such division, the ideal toward which Commonweal has striven for nearly a hundred years is more valuable today than ever. The magazine stands as evidence that authentic faith can support free inquiry; it insists, and demonstrates, that rigorous thought is not alien to religious tradition, but demanded by it. More than ever, the world needs a place where “liberal convictions” and the “Catholic tradition” are in conversation. For ninety years, Commonweal has provided such a place. It is perhaps then worth asking, in the spirit both of critical inquiry and the Catholic tradition, what those poles actually mean today, and how well Commonweal holds them in creative tension.

To begin with, what do “liberal convictions” mean for today’s Commonweal? I’m confident that most of those associated with the magazine would agree that the phrase does not entail a set of specific positions on matters liturgical, hierarchical, or political, but rather a conviction that the free engagement of serious thought from a variety of perspectives is necessary for healthy conversation. To this end the magazine should eschew the McCarthyism of the religious and political left just as vigorously as it historically opposed the religious and political McCarthyism of the right. For Commonweal truly to display “liberal convictions,” in short, it ought not to be a place where readers know what views they will find in its pages, but rather one where they can expect to engage vigorous and critical thought.

And for the most part, I think, it is. The reviews of books and films are consistently tough-minded and unpredictable. The pages of reader correspondence continue to provide sharply stated and civil exchanges. The major articles on religious issues also reveal a refreshing diversity of views and arguments. Indeed, the editors often set up symposia in which divergent views on hot-button issues can be argued within the same issue. The fact that Commonweal frequently infuriates both sides of such hot-button issues as abortion and same-sex marriage suggests a genuine independence. If there is one area where “liberal convictions” tend to lead to predictable positions, it is in the editorial pages—especially when the topic is national and international politics. Here, I think, the magazine has accepted the premise that righteousness and goodness surface more regularly among Democrats than Republicans, and that only the interventions of big government can create social justice.
And then what about the phrase “Catholic tradition”? For the first half of Commonweal’s history, the magazine’s editors and writers could address the non-Catholic world with the confidence of those who inhabited an unchanging, even unchangeable, tradition. But over the past fifty years that confidence has evaporated. The Second Vatican Council, with its long and contested aftermath, has divided Catholics over the question of what constitutes the authentic Catholic tradition, and the pages of Commonweal over these decades bear ample testimony to the ideological, moral, and political dimensions of the church’s internal struggle.

Because the reformist spirit of the council arose out of the critical inquiry of the great preconciliar theologians, who themselves experienced censorship and suppression for their efforts, it was natural for the magazine to applaud the effort to make the church more liturgically adequate, more ecumenically inclusive, and more institutionally responsive. Here “liberal convictions” corresponded exactly with what seemed to be the new shape of the “Catholic tradition.” That didn’t last. As we all know, forces within the church in recent decades have consistently sought to mitigate and even reverse the reforms of the council—and have done so with the tacit and sometimes explicit support of the Vatican. Claiming to speak in the name of the tradition, some have sought a return to a Tridentine church, which in their view means a church of absolute obedience to the magisterium, where critical thought is viewed as dangerous. In this ideological divide, Commonweal has spoken boldly of a church large enough to embrace critical thinking and appropriate change.

This is a battle about basics, where one must take sides. It is not possible for the magazine to be “fair-minded” to all positions, when one of those “positions” seeks to deny the legitimacy of any other position. If, in defense of liberalism, Commonweal has found it necessary to privilege some voices more than others, because these voices explicitly seek to maintain a universe of open conversation, the editors have nonetheless managed to include many less-than-liberal writers in its pages, and I applaud them for that. And I praise them as well for continuing to enunciate an understanding of the catholic tradition that is much older, deeper, and wider than this fray. The magazine in recent years has represented that deep tradition with its vigorous examination of Catholicism’s historical sources in Scripture, in patristic authors, and in the writings of mystics and theologians through the centuries. As it was for the council, this sense of history is the necessary precursor to helping make the church more comfortable with a diversity of expression within its unity of faith.

What more can Commonweal do to communicate even more effectively its sense of the church? Four projects particularly recommend themselves. The first is to bring back the voices of such early reformers as Wycliffe, Huss, and Marsilius of Padua: agents for change whose powerful arguments issued from within the heart of the Catholic tradition. The point is not that Marsilius’s Defensor Pacis (1324) was correct in every respect concerning the role of the state, but that his call for a limitation to papal power and for the authority of general councils preceded Luther by almost two centuries. The point is not that John Wycliffe (1330–84) was right in his doctrine of the sacraments or his attempt to locate all authority in Scripture, but that his views anticipated truths taken up six hundred years later by Vatican II. These are, or should be, our heroes; they demonstrate that Catholicism in the deepest sense is semper reformanda.

The second project is to investigate empathically the views of those who seek a return to a Tridentine church. What are the values they see as having been lost? What forms might best embody those values? Such questions suit a magazine that consistently shows a capacity for catholic inclusiveness by offering generous readings of positions hostile to its own. Like few other forums, Commonweal can create conversation among disputants through historically and theologically informed analysis.
The third thing Commonweal can do to represent the Catholic tradition more comprehensively is to devote greater attention to the demands of discipleship in the broadest sense: the moral entailments of the Gospel, the shape of piety, the call to holiness. One way to do this is to engage with the prophetic lives of the saints of the past. Another is to elicit personal reflections on the path of sanctity from among the magazine’s gifted and deeply committed writers.

Finally, although Commonweal correctly refuses to identify the Catholic tradition primarily with the Vatican or the papacy, like all media it gives more attention to the church’s central authority than it does to the many manifestations of the tradition in parishes, monasteries, and convents. A lay Catholic journal, it would seem, ought to celebrate and illuminate what is precisely lay in the tradition. One of my favorite Commonweal pieces was the collection of “liturgical reports” concerning the actual experience of the Eucharist, contributed by writers in parishes across the country. More such reports might help shift attention from a Catholicism that is defined by the Vatican to the Catholicism that lives vibrantly—or not so vibrantly—in parishes, convents, seminaries, and social ministries.

No, I am not running for editor. I am instead deeply grateful for the ways in which the editors of this precious magazine, past and present, have negotiated the difficult position of being at once liberal in conviction and Catholic in commitment. I am glad to be a contributor to Commonweal’s pages and to speak in its name. There is no other sobriquet I value quite so much as that of being a Commonweal Catholic.

Published in the October 24, 2014 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. Among his many books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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