A Brief History of Commonweal

Commonweal, founded in 1924, is the oldest independent lay Catholic journal of opinion in the United States. It was credited with helping prepare American Catholics for Vatican II and its aftermath, and current readers say Commonweal has helped them weather the sexual-abuse scandal in the church and work through questions and frustrations related to the role of women, the relationship between religion and politics, and church teachings on sexuality. 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 any ecclesiastical control or agenda, Commonweal still strives to be a truly independent voice, faithful to the great Catholic tradition but always questioning the unexamined assumptions of church and society alike. Fifty years after its founding, historian John Tracy Ellis wrote that Commonweal “was the American Catholic laity’s most ambitious undertaking, and to date it remains the most successful one.”

Since its founding the magazine has been liberal in temperament, opinionated and engaged, but tolerant in tone, prioritizing reasoned discussion over 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, and in the decades to follow Commonweal criticized American racism, the anti-Semitism of Father Charles Coughlin, and the smear tactics of Senator Joseph McCarthy; supported resistance to U.S. involvement in Vietnam; and took issue with the 1968 papal encyclical Humanae vitae but also 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, Marilynne Robinson, Luke Timothy Johnson, Terry Eagleton, Elizabeth A. Johnson, 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, and Marie Ponsot; 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-present). Skillin is a particularly strong example of Commonweal commitment, 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, and an endowment fund was inaugurated in 1994.

The internet offers new opportunities to reach the next generation of subscribers and readers. The magazine’s website and blog dotCommonweal have extended the journal’s reach to a younger, international audience and provided more opportunities and outlets for commentary. Since 2005, the Commonweal Campus Speakers Program has introduced the magazine’s editors and authors in person to groups, especially college students, here and abroad. And thanks again to the generosity of donors, the successful College Subscription Program now provides over a 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.