Commonweal Confronts the Century

This fat anthology is, as you might expect, deeply depressing. The material-the rise of Nazism, the Great Depression, the war in Vietnam-dictates it. But these pages are also exhilarating reading, especially, I would think, for Catholics. Whatever the catastrophe-the injustice, the evil, the breadlines, concentration camps, the unenlightening encyclical-Commonweal was there to face it, to mark the truth and consequences.

These selections from issues going back to the year of its founding, 1924, make clear why Commonweal has had influence and fame far beyond its circulation, a modest 20,000. Periodicals with ten times that number cannot claim the luster of its name, the clarity of its identity. As Peter Steinfels, a one-time editor, says in his introduction, it put into our language the term "Commonweal Catholic" which has come to mean believers who think as much as they feel about religion. The tone of the magazine is unwaveringly civil, humane, and rational.

Now somewhat archaic, the term "Commonweal Catholic" could once be applied from the bottom to the top, from the earnest, searching bookkeeper to the supreme pontiff. By my lights, Pope John XXIII, Commonweal’s hero, is certainly a "Commonweal Catholic." The present pope, John Paul II, is not, I would say, being of a more institutional cast of mind and being unrelenting in such matters as birth control. In the anthology Bernard Häring, a theologian and member of the papal birth control commission, has written a searing essay on the matter. In it, he points out the dearth of "a solid presentation from human experience...and good arguments." He says, "it is no insult at all to the Holy Spirit if we continue to express our doubts." Millions of Catholics shared his doubts and fell away from the church. It is not something you would read in a sanctioned Catholic publication, where the emphasis is apt to be on blind faith and acceptance of God’s will.

Commonweal took upon itself the daunting task of reconciling American Catholics to democratic diversity. Its editors worked the rope line between religion and politics. The election of the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, eased that tension considerably. The magazine also bravely entered the arena of Catholicism and modern culture. One of the delightful selections is drama critic Walter Kerr’s exasperation with pious Catholic kitsch in the arts. "The church in this country has permitted itself to become identified with the well-meaning second rate," Kerr writes. "It has seemed to say, ’I don’t care what the quality of the art work is, so long as its content is innocuous, or perhaps favorably disposed in our direction.’" Many Catholics who grew up in the era of aggressive mediocrity in matters cultural and educational will groan in agreement.

What art should be is the subject of a splendid defense of art as escapism by Willa Cather: "The world has a habit of being in a bad way from time to time and art has never contributed anything to help matters-except escape." Willa Cather, being a great artist, does not feel called upon to justify her every premise. She simply states her views without going through a laborious process of reasoning such as many other Commonweal contributors, those dealing with theological riddles like the gender of God, feel obliged to do. She also writes in short sentences, while others are given to more convoluted prose not conducive to easy reading.

This twentieth-century collection is replete with examples of first-class journalism right from the start. When the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, George N. Shuster, a former Commonweal managing editor, was there. He conveys, with Commonweal’s wonted restraint, "the full moral ignominy of what happened." Of Hitler’s entrance into Vienna, to the pealing of church bells, he writes, "I do not wish to judge harshly, but I doubt whether in all history there is a more shameless incident."

Budd Schulberg describes a labor priest, a Jesuit named Father John Corridan, who brought Christ to the waterfront, not by preaching, but by teaching workers’ rights that included a welfare fund and paid vacations. There is a Chicago social worker’s story of trying to bring order into the grimy lives of the poor. A mother begs him to leave the name of her dead son on the welfare rolls for another month. He does.

"This Man Has Expired" is Robert Johnson’s firsthand account of an execution, a scrupulously detailed description of the "execution team" which performs its grisly duties, one at a time. Many powerful tracts about the death penalty have been written. None has been more powerful than this.

Commonweal faced up to all the moral crises of the age: Hiroshima, abortion, Vietnam. An especially poignant, searching entry comes from John Cogley, a Commonweal familiar and pilgrim soul if ever there was one. He describes his feelings of inadequacy when faced with the ardent pacifist, Dorothy Day, who, with her friends, went to prison to protest against the H-bomb. He concludes: "There was scarcely a protest from the Catholics of America when one we call a saint was put behind bars. She protested against the destruction of mankind. Those who protest against risqué movies are given Catholic Action medals."

Commonweal is hospitable to dissenting views, and I don’t mean just from abortion activists. It gives room to Catholics out of step with the magazine’s editorial positions. In "The Everlasting Dilemma," Paul Elie seems to suffer nostalgia for the pre-Vatican II church. The council was the greatest event in the history of the modern church, but Elie notes the absence of the moral certitudes and thick Catholic culture of what he calls the "Catholic tradition." It is still available in the church after John XXIII, you just have to search harder for it.

Of John XXIII, there is, for me, disappointingly little mention. John was charisma itself. He made it clear that it is not a sin to be charming even if you are pope. He made his church a place of welcome and compassion for all God’s children. I wish Commonweal had given him more space in this admirable volume. He made Commonweal Catholics’ lives easier, at least for a while.

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: 
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Mary McGrory, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post, died in April 2004.

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