When John C. Cort, the writer, editor, activist, husband of sixty years and father of ten, and self-proclaimed Christian socialist died last month in Massachusetts at the age of ninety-two, his family included in the Mass program an illustration of John as Don Quixote. The image had appeared in the January 1991 El Ciervo, the Spanish equivalent of Commonweal published in Barcelona, and it captured John’s idealism, his tenacity and devotion to justice, and his ability to take a self-deprecating swipe at himself.
In 1936, John heard Dorothy Day speak in Boston, and it changed his life. A recent Harvard graduate and convert to Catholicism, he moved to New York to join the Catholic Worker but never completely bought the movement’s party line, particularly its agrarianism and anarchism. The following year he branched out, helping to found the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists (ACTU). For decades thereafter, he tirelessly applied the papal social encyclicals by assisting and organizing workers and by editing ACTU’s paper, The Labor Leader. He began writing for Commonweal in 1939, and joined the editorial staff in 1943, serving in one capacity or another until 1959. Historian Rodger Van Allen has written that John was part of a subtle but substantive shift that took place at the journal during that period: it was no less intellectual but it became more issues-oriented and activist. John contributed nearly four hundred articles, editorials, columns, and reviews to Commonweal (including pieces on labor, family, race relations, music, his work with the Peace Corps, running for political office, the liturgy, baseball, and bird watching). His last piece (“Organizing the Faithful,” September 9, 2005) was a report on the need to reform parish structures in the wake of the clergy sexual-abuse scandal.
John had a booming voice that used to reverberate in the Commonweal offices, and a sharp, analytical reporter’s mind which he used to scrutinize others (he debated William F. Buckley Jr., interviewed John F. Kennedy and Jimmy Hoffa, and challenged Cardinal Francis Spellman), and even to turn on himself. His Dreadful Conversions: The Making of a Catholic Socialist (Fordham) is both a memoir of his far-ranging experiences, including his long struggle with tuberculosis, and a history of Catholic social teaching, particularly how it has fared in the American crucible.
Pius XI concluded his landmark Quadragesimo anno (On Reconstructing the Social Order, 1931) with this appeal: “Let all men of good will...strive according to the talent, powers, and position of each to contribute something to the Christian reconstruction of human society.” John Cort not only loved to quote that phrase, he embodied it.