John Deedy, R.I.P.

On March 28, John Deedy, managing editor of Commonweal from 1967 to 1978, died at age eighty-two. Jack came to Commonweal at a tense moment and in delicate circumstances. The magazine was still riding high on the wave of postconciliar energy. The staff, however, was divided, not by politics or theology or ideology, but by personality and generation as well as the question of whether the magazine should look primarily to the secular or to the Catholic world as its chief point of reference.

Much of this story is told in Rodger Van Allen’s history, The Commonweal and American Catholicism. Unlike the internal bloodlettings suffered by many political and corporate teams, Commonweal’s differences were pursued in a way that would make the Marquis of Queensbury look like a brawler. But Jack’s hiring, without consultation among the whole staff, threatened to add a spark to a combustible atmosphere.

That never happened. It was impossible not to like Jack. He added sparks, but of a different sort. Professional skill, to be sure, for Jack was the product of a long career in journalism, first as teenage stringer for the Worcester Telegram and the Boston Post, then freelancer in Ireland and France following his World War II military service, and finally editor of diocesan papers in Worcester and Pittsburgh who had covered three session of Vatican II.

Then there was sheer energy. Office life benefited from the two books he wrote and one he edited during his tenure at Commonweal. (Jack’s lifetime output added up to twenty-three such volumes.) His Literary Places: A Guided Pilgrimage, New York and New England reflected a devotion to great writers nurtured at College of the Holy Cross and, on the G.I. Bill, at Trinity College, Dublin. His later book, Auden as Didymus (1993), delved into the columns that W. H. Auden wrote for Commonweal in the 1940s under the pen name of Didymus (the Good Thief). Jack also wrote for Catholic journals in France, Italy, and Britain as well as for the Nation, the New Republic, the Critic, and other magazines here. For a while, he even managed a radio program.

Still, the spark that counted most was the tireless yet inveterately cheerful way he went about trying to expose and undo the world’s-and the church’s-follies.

Jack was a man graced with kindness but not, to all appearances, plagued by doubts or ambiguities. His “News & Views,” a page of quick and pointed items, ran inside the cover of every issue of Commonweal. He almost certainly didn’t intend it, but the column’s placement and his own deft touch made it in some ways the face of the magazine during the late 1960s and for much of the 1970s. His politics were liberal, of the kind running from the New Deal to the Great Society. His sympathies were with rebels and underdogs. If you ever bumped up against the authorities in a good cause, he was the guy you wanted on your jury.

In 1968, a year after Jack arrived at Commonweal, liberal Catholics were dealt a double blow, Humanae vitae and the bitter divisions among Democrats over Vietnam. “These were exciting but hardly triumphant years for an editor at Commonweal,” the magazine noted in an editorial bidding Jack farewell. “American liberalism was fragmenting, postconciliar optimism evaporating. Through it all, John Deedy carried on in a style that matched militancy with good humor, a zeal for combat with personal gentleness, and a refusal to take it all too seriously.” May he rest in peace.

Published in the 2006-04-21 issue: 

Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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