A Brief History of Commonweal

Founded in 1924, Commonweal is the oldest independent lay-edited Catholic journal of opinion in the United States. The magazine has an ongoing interest in social justice, ecumenism, just-war teaching, liturgical renewal, women’s issues, the primacy of conscience, and the interchange between Catholicism and liberal democracy.

Founded as a weekly review by Michael Williams (1877-1950) and the Calvert Associates, The Commonweal (as it was known until 1965) was modeled on the New Republic and the Nation but “expressive of the Catholic note” in covering literature, the arts, religion, society, and politics. It staked a claim for Catholic principles and perspective in American life, and for laypeople’s voices within the church. Free of ecclesiastical control and without a specific  agenda, Commonweal still strives to be a truly independent voice, faithful to the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition but always questioning the unexamined assumptions of both church and society.

Since its founding, the magazine has been liberal in temperament, opinionated and engaged, but tolerant in tone, prioritizing reasoned discussion over dogmatic sectarianism. It has never shrunk, however, from taking strong and controversial positions, going back to its neutral stance on the Spanish Civil War in 1938, when circulation plummeted by 20 percent. The editors condemned the firebombing of Dresden and the use of atomic weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. In the decades that followed, Commonweal drew critical attention to racism in America, the anti-Semitism of Father Charles Coughlin, and the smear tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy; it supported resistance to U.S. involvement in Vietnam; and it took issue with both the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae vitae and the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Today the magazine maintains prolife convictions while being critical of single-issue abortion politics, and provides a space for marginalized voices in the church.

Commonweal has published the writing of François Mauriac, Georges Bernanos, Hannah Arendt, G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, Jacques Maritain, Dorothy Day, Graham Greene, Emmanuel Mounier, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Thomas Merton, Wilfrid Sheed, Paul Ramsey, Joseph Bernardin, Abigail McCarthy, Christopher Lasch, Walter Kerr, Kenneth Woodward, Marilynne Robinson, Luke Timothy Johnson, Terry Eagleton, Elizabeth A. Johnson, Rowan Williams, Ross Douthat, Paul Griffiths, Gary Gutting, Peter Steinfels, Jack Miles, Sarah Ruden, and Andrew Bacevich. It has printed the short fiction of Evelyn Waugh, J. F. Powers, Alice McDermott, and Valerie Sayers; the poetry of W. H. Auden, Robert Lowell, Theodore Roethke, John Updike, Les Murray, John Berryman, Danielle Chapman, Marie Ponsot, Timothy Murphy, and Christian Wiman; and the artwork of Jean Charlot, Rita Corbin, Fritz Eichenberg, and Emil Antonucci.

Commonweal inspires dedication and devotion among its readers and subscribers, not to mention its long-serving editors: Michael Williams (1924-38); Edward S. Skillin (1938-67); James O’Gara (1967-84); Peter Steinfels (1984-88); Margaret O’Brien Steinfels (1988-2002); and Paul Baumann (2003-2018), upon whose retirement Dominic Preziosi was named editor (2018-present). Skillin himself is a particularly strong example of commitment to Commonweal, having been part of the staff from 1933 to his death in 2000 (as publisher, he transferred ownership to the nonprofit Commonweal Foundation in 1982).

Part of the price of independence has been the magazine’s periodic ostracism from various church and political circles and, like most “little” magazines, a degree of financial precariousness. The Commonweal Associates, established in the 1960s, have met the magazine’s annual revenue shortfall through generous donor gifts. A permanent endowment fund was inaugurated in 1994, and continues to grow.

Commonweal’s website and social media presence have extended the magazine’s reach to a younger, international readership while helping develop the next generation of contributors. The Commonweal Podcast, which debuted in 2018, has brought the ideas that animate Commonweal’s work to a wide audience of listeners. Thanks again to the generosity of donors, the College Subscription Program now provides over one thousand free subscriptions to college and graduate students each year. With the support of its readers, Commonweal will continue to be a venue for informed discussion and an intelligent, open, committed, and critical arbiter of American life and Catholic thought and practice.