In this age of the Internet and the blogosphere, magazines of all sizes and prejudices are having a hard time surviving. The print era is drawing to a close, or so enthusiasts for the “wired world” keep telling us. Still, it came as a shock to learn that Crisis, the twenty-five-year-old conservative Catholic monthly, has ceased publication, and will now be available only on the Web.
Crisis was founded by neoconservative theologian (and former Commonweal associate editor-at-large) Michael Novak and Notre Dame philosopher Ralph McInerny. According to McInerny, the mission of the magazine was to “engage America and Commonweal frontally.” That antagonism was rarely hidden, with the magazine’s revulsion toward “liberals” often more passionate than its love of the truth. Condemning Catholic “dissenters” and the bishops who allegedly refused to silence or punish them was one of the magazine’s driving ambitions. Questioning the church’s teachings on economic justice and war, especially the policy statements of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was another. Novak and McInerny turned Crisis over to former Fordham philosophy professor Deal Hudson in 1995. Under Hudson, who exulted in his role as an adviser on Catholic voters to President George W. Bush and Karl Rove, Crisis became less intellectual and even more partisan, relentlessly attacking “pro-abortion” Catholic politicians while defending Bush’s stem-cell research compromise and questioning even the Vatican’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Hudson’s advice to Rove was to target frequent churchgoing Catholics in the Midwest with alarmist messages about same-sex marriage and other culture-war issues. It worked. Many credit Bush’s winning the Catholic swing vote in Ohio for securing his re-election.
Hudson resigned as editor and publisher of Crisis in 2004 in the wake of revelations about a sexual scandal that led to his departure from Fordham. Under Hudson’s editorship—and one imagines thanks to the Republican Party’s direct-mail lists—circulation rose dramatically, at one point exceeding thirty thousand. According to the current editor Brian Saint-Paul, rising postage and printing costs, declining circulation, and difficulty raising money are the reasons for ending the print edition of the magazine.
Crisis was predictable, and often extravagantly belligerent, eager to juxtapose “faithful Catholics” with, well, most Catholics. A typical example was an article denouncing journalists such as the Washington Post’s E. J. Dionne as “Catholics in Name Only.” It described former Commonweal executive editor and columnist John Cogley as “odious,” “hysterical,” “virulently tendentious,” and “idiotic.” In fact, Cogley was the very soul of fair-mindedness, a writer who went out of his way to concede the good will, faithfulness, and intelligence of those with whom he disagreed.
It has long been the practice of writers and editors at magazines like Crisis to proclaim smugly the imminent demise of “liberal Catholicism.” As Deal Hudson put it, “Dissenting and left-leaning Catholic publishing...will continue to wither away.... The leadership of in-name-only Catholics is crumbling, and a new generation has set a new agenda.”
Liberal Catholicism, and liberal Catholic magazines, are not without their problems, and Commonweal tries not to hide or minimize them. The task of handing on the faith in an often hostile culture is daunting. Assimilating what is of undeniable value in secular modernity’s embrace of religious pluralism, freedom of conscience, individual autonomy, and the equal dignity of men and women requires genuine discernment. Still, claims about the death of liberal Catholicism are premature. The ad hominem attacks one often found in Crisis—the glib assumption that every “liberal” Catholic secretly longs for the destruction of the hierarchical church—deserve a decent burial. “Why call for dialogue about teachings that the church says cannot be changed?” Hudson wrote in a good summary of his magazine’s core conviction. “A call for dialogue on settled issues is itself a symptom of dissent.”
Yet “faithful Catholics” do in fact disagree about church teaching regarding contraception, the ordination of women, and the nature of the papacy, among other things. History, especially the history of the Second Vatican Council, tells us that disagreement is often the work of the Holy Spirit. “Perhaps one of the lessons we have learnt since the cruel way in which the Modernists were treated a century ago,” writes Fergus Kerr in Twentieth-Century Catholic Theologians (Blackwell), “is that we have to live with some quite deep divisions and intractable rifts within the Catholic Church, over morals and liturgy especially.” R. Scott Appleby’s article on the hundredth anniversary of the condemnation of the American Modernists (page 12) is a useful reminder of why open and respectful disagreement is always better than its suppression. After all, change doesn’t always mean crisis.