Beginning with founding editor Michael Williams (1924-38), Commonweal has enjoyed a great deal of continuity at the top of the masthead. Perhaps most remarkable in this regard was Edward S. Skillin, who joined the staff in 1933, bought the magazine in 1938, and remained as editor and then publisher until 1998. James O’Gara, who succeeded Skillin, served as managing editor and then editor from 1952 to 1984. A similar dedication to the magazine has been a large part of the lives of former editors Peter Steinfels and Margaret O’Brien Steinfels.
The Steinfelses’ association with Commonweal goes back forty-five years to when Peter, a graduate student at Columbia University, first arrived as an editorial assistant. Appointed executive editor in 1978 and editor in 1984, he was followed by Peggy, who served as editor from 1988 to 2002. On the eighty-fifth anniversary of Commonweal’s founding, we thought it appropriate to take advantage of the Steinfelses’ long institutional memory to discuss the history and future of the magazine. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation with the editors.
Paul Baumann: Let’s begin with how you see the future of the magazine.
Margaret O’Brien Steinfels: Splendid, it’s splendid.
PB: Of course, but...the challenges that we face are well known. We have an older readership...
MOS: They are living longer and longer.
PB: They are living longer and longer, and that’s good, that’s very good. We want them to live forever.
Peter Steinfels: Unless Obama puts a stop to that. [Laughter.]
PB: We are determined that there will be a future for this sort of a magazine, for journals of opinion, but we’re not exactly sure what that will look like. We know Commonweal has to become much more of a presence on the Internet. We also know that we can’t just reproduce the magazine on the Web site. We’re eager to hear what you might think about this.
MOS: Well, one thing that is different from the time when I arrived at the magazine is the presence of younger editors and writers. The average age of the editors must be half of what it was. Some combination of internships and the college-subscription program must have had some impact on young people knowing about Commonweal in a way they might not have. Now how to actually get younger readers? That’s a different question. Do you track how the college program works and whether it turns up subscribers?
PB: I think giving free subscriptions to college students is a long-term investment. That’s how we see it. Matt, Mollie, jump in here with any questions. Grant?
Grant Gallicho: Well, let’s talk about the audience. I am more pessimistic about the longevity of a Commonweal readership. I’m not just speaking of our readers who are aging, but just in general, the kind of reader who would pay for a magazine like Commonweal. That’s something that worries me.
MOS: You mean people who can read.
GG: People who can read, and people who want to read what Commonweal publishes.
PS: My guess is that there is a future. Demographically and religiously, a potential group of Commonweal readers is going to be there, and is even growing, and has grown. The practical problem is whether they want to pay for a magazine—whether they want to pay for any magazine, whether print journalism is going to continue. People with a religious sense, a sense that they are Christians, Catholic Christians, trying to work that identity out in relationship to everything else that they do and are concerned about—it seems to me this is in fact a large and growing group. Historically, that sense of Catholic identity was worked out in the framework of a Catholic subculture or “ghetto” that no longer exists. Now, it’s going to be worked out without that supportive buffer, more in relationship to the surrounding world, in relationship to questions about how we together construct what it means to be Catholic.
MOS: The big difference, it seems to me, is that the subculture provided a vehicle for everything: where you went to church, who you knew, who you married, what you read, where you went to college. Now that’s gone. Catholics have to consciously work out what they are going to choose in life. My feeling is that people are getting more serious about this, and understand how complicated a task it is. Catholic colleges and universities are working at these things; Commonweal has to work at it, too.
PB: Commonweal has to work more on its sense of its Catholic identity?
MOS: Commonweal has to work on how it is going to attract people whose Catholic identity is only half-formed.
Paul Baumann: What do you make of the familiar critique that younger folks who are invested in Catholicism enough to be able to make their way through an issue of Commonweal and find it interesting are overwhelmingly much more conservative?
MOS: I don’t know. My impression is that Catholics are all over the place. They’re more conservative, they’re more liberal, they’re more radical, they’re more everything because they are no longer contained within the subculture’s definition of what it is to be a Catholic, both religiously and, if you will, sociologically. Many younger Catholics just try out things. They have different influences. If one of their parents isn’t Catholic, or their parents are only nominally practicing, obviously the kind of attachment you feel to the church through your upbringing is tenuous. But I don’t think that’s impossible to deal with. I just think a certain amount of imagination and creativity is needed.
PS: I think that the emergence of young, more conservative Catholics is a reality. Numerically, that group is a minority, and there is a much larger group that is still... Well, let me back up. I think there are basically four categories of Catholics middle-aged and younger. One consists of fundamentalist Catholics who want something, whether it’s the pope or particular texts or certain forms of ritual, that can be relied upon to provide their identity. For them, these things are not to be challenged; they’re to be taken literally. It may not be Scripture; it may be papal documents or other things. Then there is a neoconservative group that is much more questioning and intellectually adventurous, but whose identity is very much defined over against the secular liberal culture. And then there is a very large liberal group that has a Christian and Catholic commitment, but they are not willing to isolate themselves. They think that the secular liberal world—partly because of its Christian roots—has got a lot of good things in it. They want to be engaged with the culture and in conversation with it, not just in battle with it. They are not going to form their Catholic identity over against the secular culture. The fourth group is a more radical and political group that forms an identity largely around very personal, radical social-justice commitments.
I think that the third group is probably the Commonweal group of the future, merging into the fourth group. Will they read a whole magazine? Some will. Frankly, I’m not sure print magazines will continue. Tom Reese [former editor of America] thinks we’re all soon going to be reading magazines on an advanced version of the Kindle. No more worries about paper and printing and postage costs. People will continue to read journals of opinion that way. And then things from the magazine will get parceled out digitally. Commonweal may exist virtually in all sorts of little bits and pieces here and there.
PB: You say “bits and pieces here and there.” But it seems to me the term often used to describe magazines like Commonweal is that they are intellectual and political “gatekeepers.” Do you see that role continuing?
PS: Yes, I do. There will be a need for gatekeeping and, although I’m hesitant to use the term, “branding.” You still will be the gatekeepers. You’re not gatekeeping in the sense that once there was a limited number of weekly and biweekly journals. Now there are a million blogs. But gatekeeping will still have a function. Articles will still have your brand and your approval, and in that sense an article ought to represent something, it ought to indicate a certain quality.
PB: Yes, I was very pleased to read the other day that even Wikipedia is thinking of bringing on more editors. Grant, does that make any sense to you? Are you still pessimistic? How pessimistic?
GG: Well, I’m pretty pessimistic, just because I see the question as intimately bound up with the question of what the future of the church is going to look like.
PB: Now you’re really being pessimistic.
GG: Peter, I think those quadrants that you describe are very accurate, but as I said, it’s the longevity of the third quadrant [Catholics comfortable with the larger secular culture] that I’m most worried about. I’m not sure about the fourth group as potential readers, either. I’m worried that we don’t have in place institutional structures that respond to the questions of the third group. And yes, they come, they’re baptized, they come to RCIA, they bring their kids back when they want them to receive sacraments. But this is something parish priests struggle with constantly: How do you get this group that’s more loosely attached to the institutional church to reclaim that bond? It’s hard for me to see why the third group would read us. We publish a lot on institutional church issues. That’s right in our wheelhouse, in addition to a lot of other subjects. Why would the third group, without strengthening its bonds to the institutional church, read Commonweal? I know that’s a dark question.
PS: I think that’s a good question, and it may raise questions about what Commonweal should be publishing and discussing. I share Grant’s worries. Commonweal’s readership is always going to be a minority. I’m not very optimistic about the overall trajectory of the Catholic Church in the United States. But still, when you have 70 million people to start with...
PB: You can still find 20,000 subscribers! [Laughter.]
PS: And you can still provide something that is extremely important and valuable and life-shaping. That, it seems to me, is the ambition Commonweal must have. But I do wonder about whether questions about economics and justice may have to be addressed more without necessarily being linked to Benedict XVI’s encyclical, for example. I also wonder if the magazine should devote more space to the history and aesthetics of the church, to elements of the church that make it often very attractive to people who are searching religiously. In the past, Commonweal has not dealt with that side of things as much because, on the one hand, it was intellectual and cerebral and, on the other hand, such matters were dealt with by the subculture, which the magazine could take for granted as part of its readership’s background.
MOS: It’s not just that the Catholic subculture has disappeared, but the Protestant über-culture has disappeared as well. One of the reasons it was easy for Catholics to exist in America and flourish is that it was essentially a religious culture. But the mainline Protestants who formed that culture are going the way of the dodo bird.
PB: Do we have that on tape?
MOS: Look at the data. Protestants’ capacity for self-destruction, especially the Mainline, is enormous. So the Catholic community today exists in the context of a larger culture that is also in worse shape than it was. Not everywhere, of course. How to be a religion in a culture that is increasingly not religious is a very complex sociological and psychological problem.
Paul Baumann: Matt, what do you think of this analysis of the future audience of Commonweal? Does this make sense to you?
Matthew Boudway: It makes sense. I’m not sure that I have a very definite opinion on the matter, but I have the intuition I guess that to sustain its readership Commonweal will have to appeal to more kinds of Catholic readers. I don’t know about the taxonomy of the four basic groups Peter described, but I do think the definition of “Commonweal Catholic” is flexible and changing, and it’s partly a question of our editorial self-understanding. But it’s also a question of what kind of culture we are responding to in the readership, and of who will be interested enough in theological and ecclesial questions to pore over a magazine like ours in the future. I don’t know. I think the activist group, to use Peter’s scheme, are natural Commonweal readers in some ways, or have been, except that they’re maybe not interested in reading a long magazine twice a month. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not, but the activists who do so much good for the church are not always also intellectuals or readers or people who think that’s a good use of their time. I think there does need to be, and not only for the health of Commonweal, but for the health of the American church, more gates between what Peter described as the neoconservatives and liberal Catholics. Right now I think it’s too hard for people who find themselves in the neoconservative group to understand the concerns of the people in the liberal group, because there’s such a clearly defined and vigorously enforced frontier between these groups, partly for political reasons, partly for cultural reasons. But I also think that sociologically there is something to the idea of a “high-tension culture.” People who come to the church as converts, and people who stay in the church, or come back to the church, are often there because, while they may not be entirely unhappy with secular culture, they see something distinct about Catholic culture. Even when the church is in free communication with the larger American culture, there’s something in Catholicism that they don’t find elsewhere. And if they don’t feel that way, then it’s unlikely that they will be there, because it requires too much energy, too many sacrifices, too much commitment. If there’s nothing in Catholic Christianity for an American that he or she can’t find elsewhere in the culture, then why bother?
PB: Part of that is an empirical question, right? How many Catholics are like that versus how many Catholics are more comfortable with the larger culture?
MB: Right, it is an empirical question.
PB: Peter’s assumption is that the neoconservative group is still a relatively small number of Catholics.
PS: Well, yes. I think that the fundamentalists and neoconservatives, although growing in influence, are in fact a relatively small group. I mean, I have to be very careful. I have to rethink that, but regardless of their exact numbers, in steering an enterprise like Commonweal, you don’t have to do everything for everybody. I’m taken by Matt’s point about the activist group. I think that’s very true. I also think that there are in the activist group people who are readers, but basically—and this goes back to an analysis I did many years ago about styles of different publications in the Catholic world—basically they want to read stories. The National Catholic Reporter deals with all of these matters as stories. It tells stories of good people who are doing good things. It does not usually engage in analysis. There’s an important place for stories in whatever Commonweal offers, but I think that you would want to do something in terms of systematic analysis that other people are not doing. But I agree completely with Matt’s point. The Catholic dimension of this is crucial, central.
MB: I don’t know about stories, but I would like to hear maybe descriptions of the people who were here when Peter and Peggy arrived in 1964. Some of the personalities that made Commonweal what it was.
Paul Baumann: Was Dan Callahan [associate editor, executive editor 1961-68] the biggest personality in the office when you first arrived?
PS: My first day on the job, Richard Gilman, who had been the drama critic and book editor, was clearing off his desk and leaving. He was going to be replaced by Wilfrid Sheed [literary editor 1967-69]. And of course Gilman went on to be the drama critic at Newsweek. The office was essentially Edward Skillin and Jim O’Gara, and then the younger group-Dan, John Leo [associate editor 1963-67], Wilfrid, and me. I didn’t work a full schedule because I was still doing graduate work at Columbia. Dan, John, and Wilfrid had a little triangle in the office. It was constant banter. John was the most voluble, Wilfrid the wittiest, Dan got the most work done. But come to think of it, the wit was enough all around to leave me intimidated, and I don’t know how we ever got so much work done. There was particular nuttiness about baseball, which I would never be able to appreciate.
PB: Some things never change!
PS: Jim O’Gara was the—
MOS: Steadfast. A “We have to get the magazine out” kind of guy.
PS: Edward Skillin and Jim of course kept regular bankers’ hours, went home and didn’t stay in the city and go out to any parties.
MOS: There were many more parties then than there seem to be now. There was this other world of former Commonweal editors, like Jim Finn [associate editor 1955-61] and Bill Clancy [assistant editor, associate editor 1952-55], and...
PS: Richard Horchler [associate editor 1957-62] was around, also Ned Arnold [assistant editor 1961-62], Philip Sharper [associate editor 1955-57]. You would meet them whenever Alice Mayhew [contributor and board member] had a party in her apartment in the West Village on Charles Street.
PB: My sense was that Commonweal was much more integrated into the world of magazines; the writers knew other writers at other magazines.
PS: I suspect that’s true, and that’s an interesting phenomenon.
MOS: It was also in contact—I keep thinking of Michael Harrington [author of The Other America] as partly the vehicle for this—with lefty splinter groups and/or moderate left groups. The Catholic Worker was part of that world, as well.
PB: And what about Edward?
PS: When I started work at the magazine in 1964, Edward was still involved directly in the editorial process. He was writing editorials. He always participated in the discussions of manuscripts and voted on them as they were circulated. At some point he dropped out of the editorial process, although he continued to be one of the world’s great proofreaders. Mainly he handled the whole business side of the magazine. Jim O’Gara left that pretty much to Edward, except when Edward would come with the yellow pad to say...
PB and MOS: “We’re running out of money.”
PS: Then we would have a couple of meetings where last year’s yellow legal pad would be the basis for making decisions about what direct-mail efforts we would make to get new subscribers and what ones he had to cut back on, and so on. Before my time there, Edward and Jim had some real differences over the contraception issue with Dan and, I guess, John Leo. That was long before Humanae vitae or the Second Vatican Council. The practical issue had to do with publishing some of the first articles raising theological questions about contraception. Commonweal was somewhat behind other publications in discussing this. Edward was more conservative in ecclesiastical matters. He was more pacifist and radical in political matters, “Franciscan,” we would say.
PB: When you first got to Commonweal, Peter, what were the things people were obsessing about?
PS: The beginning of my first tenure [1964-72] was exciting because it was in the middle of the council. The magazine was financially on the edge as always, but there was a feeling that lots of positive things were happening. First of all, there were constant reports from the council, and debates in the magazine about what the council was actually doing. Then there were a lot of the issues raised by the council but not really dealt with by the bishops and therefore taken up in the council’s wake. For example, in 1965 we had a whole issue devoted to the ordination of women. Looking back, I’m surprised at certain things that were taken on much earlier in the sixties than I had thought. For example, there were a number of articles on the church and homosexuality. And of course the other big thing, which I have to say was more of my interest at the time, was the war in Vietnam.
PB: And the magazine hadn’t yet come out against the war?
PS: The magazine had been very skeptical (going back to the post-World War II period) of the French and then the United States intervention in Vietnam. At the same time, we published a sympathetic portrayal of the Vietnamese anti-Communist refugees by Graham Greene. Basically Commonweal was opposed to the intervention, but uncertain about how to reduce the U.S. presence without increasing the suffering and bloodshed there. Contrary to a lot of later stereotypes about anti-Vietnam War intellectuals, there was a great deal of struggle about that. To some extent we accepted the domino-theory analysis or at least did not dismiss it. Certainly there was worry about the bloodbath that might follow U.S. withdrawal. We zigged and we zagged about various kinds of efforts to reach a negotiated settlement. For a long time, very much in the way that people understood the Commonweal tradition, we stayed away from actually condemning the war in outright moral terms. Instead, we opposed or favored specific military or diplomatic developments on the grounds of political prudence, which of course had a moral dimension, but one that we tended to leave unstated. But in 1966 we wrote an editorial saying bluntly that this was an unjust war, one that didn’t meet the standards of just-war morality. There was also a lot of writing about the failure of the bishops to speak out against the war. There was a lot published by the staff: William Shannon [regular contributor and columnist], who went on to be an editorial writer at the New York Times and then ambassador to Ireland, was very much a supporter of American policy, and William Pfaff [assistant editor and associate editor, 1949-55, and now a columnist] was very much a critic of it.
PB: And still is!
PS: ...And still is. We devoted almost a whole issue, for example, to a lengthy report and analysis by Pfaff (who had gone to Vietnam) arguing why it was wrong to be there. These exchanges constituted a strong but very civil debate that occupied a lot of the magazine’s energy. The other big issue of course was civil rights, but the staff was much more of one mind about that. Things were different later in the sixties when the initial civil-rights movement broke down into the Black Power movement and then various other things, like the splintering of the student-led New Left into militant and violent groups. This provoked a discussion of the legacy of the civil-rights movement.
Paul Baumann: From what I understand, the magazine reached the height of its circulation in the late sixties. Its circulation climbed to 40,000 during the council. But you mentioned that the magazine was in a pretty precarious financial position during your first tenure here. At any point did you have a sense that your sails were full?
PS: Well, as you know, you can have a growing circulation and still go broke. [Laughter.] Before 1968 there was a sense that things were going well, and it was not until the early ’70s that the circulation actually peaked and then began to decline. Thanks to the council, barriers had dissolved around certain ecumenical issues. As a result there was a discussion (which is dealt with in Rodger Van Allen’s history, The Commonweal and American Catholics) of whether the magazine should actually try to merge with the Christian Century or something like that, where it would minimize its specifically Catholic identity for a larger Christian identity. Dan Callahan was interested in doing that. I think Dan also thought it would shake up the journalistic energies of the magazine.
MOS: The thing to remember, because I had to face it when I got here in ’88, was that it was unclear that anyone ever knew how much money Commonweal actually did or didn’t have, because the mechanism for knowing that was a yellow pad that Edward kept. And as far as I know, as long as he’d been in charge, that’s how it worked.
PB: And when was a budget introduced, a formal budget?
PS: Peggy did it. One other important thing to remember is that probably my major concern and contribution when I returned to the magazine in 1978 was to turn Commonweal into a nonprofit. Because we were, at least since the magazine was reorganized in the 1930s, a for-profit corporation, it was not really possible to apply to foundations for grants, or raise funds from larger donors. One condition of my return to the magazine in 1978 was that we would pursue the nonprofit question. It took a lot of pro bono work by lawyers from Sherman and Sterling to manage the whole thing, but we did become a nonprofit in 1984.
Patrick Jordan: You said something before about the early ’70s and the eventual decline in circulation.
PS: Right. Well, you know ’68 was a watershed year, what with Humanae vitae, the disastrous situation with the war in Vietnam, the mess within the Democratic Party and the Democratic convention in Chicago...
PB: The assassinations...
PS: The assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and then finally Nixon’s victory in the election. It was a bad year for liberals. I think you can trace a sharp decline in the circulation of liberal journals like the New Republic and the Nation after ’68. With Commonweal, if you add the Humanae vitae factor and discouragement about the post-Vatican II period, it had a double effect. There was a lag, of course. Circulation continued to grow for awhile. But the momentum of the 1960s and the conciliar years was broken and things deteriorated.
PJ: Was the decline specific to Commonweal?
PS: No, it wasn’t. I think the National Catholic Reporter went through the same thing. I think you could see it in America’s circulation, as well.
Mollie Wilson O’Reilly: Did the editors have more contact with the hierarchy in the ’60s? We have very little.
PS: You’re in the tradition. They had zilch contact with the hierarchy. There was a sense that it was best to keep your distance, which dated back to [New York’s] Cardinal Francis Spellman and the McCarthy period, but probably even to the late 1930s and the magazine’s dissent from the widespread Catholic support for Franco during the Spanish Civil War. In the 1920s there had been in fact more contact.
MOS: There was some contact during the 1980s, particularly surrounding the pastoral letters on war and peace and the economy. Archbishop Rembert Weakland and Cardinal Joseph Bernadin were certainly figures whose work everyone at Commonweal felt very sympathetic to. Fr. Bryan Hehir, an adviser to the bishops, was a columnist for many years. Msgr. George Higgins, the “labor priest,” was a supporter of the magazine.
PS: I started going to the bishops’ conference meetings in Washington in the early eighties, mainly because of the discussion of the pastoral letters. That was the first time a Commonweal editor had done that as far as I know.
MOS: But it didn’t last, not to worry.
PJ: The moral theologian and economist Msgr. John Ryan and the 1919 declaration “Bishops’ Program of Social Reconstruction,” which he wrote, were part of the impetus for the founding of Commonweal. Ryan was actually a member of the early Commonweal thing.
PS: There were a number of prominent clergy who were part of the early Commonweal. T. Lawrason Riggs, chaplain at Yale, was the most prominent. He came from the Riggs banking family in Washington. Riggs’s money helped get the magazine going. There were a number of such members of the clergy involved. It wasn’t as though it was a lay/clergy divide by any means. But the notion of socially or institutionally meeting with the bishops, I think was another matter.
I have one other story about the finances. I once got a direct-mail consultant and promoter to come and look over Commonweal’s situation. His conclusion was total astonishment that the magazine managed to be all that it was with such a tiny little staff working on this kind of budget. He was dumbfounded and had no advice. [Laughter.]
GG: He was never the same.
Paul Baumann: Did the Roe decision loom large immediately?
PS: I was not on the staff in ’73, when the Court decision was made. Earlier, however, we debated the various efforts to reform statutes barring access to abortion in Hawaii, Michigan, New York, and California. Those discussions were conducted against the background of the magazine’s opposition to abortion, which did not really elicit any objection except when a pregnancy endangered the mother’s life. Dan Callahan started out to write a short book about abortion and morality. He ended up taking a leave from the magazine, traveling in Europe, doing all kinds of research, writing a long book about it, and coming to a much more prochoice position than he had when he began the project. But that was not really an internal Commonweal discussion. There was something else in the background of the magazine’s discussion about abortion—the history of the church’s frustrating and futile fight against lifting contraception bans in various states. Given that history, the debate at the magazine was about whether, in view of public opinion, especially about extreme cases, it might be better to reform the existing, pretty total bans on access to abortion. The sentiment was split, but even then my recollection is that it was generally negative. If you look at the editorial after Roe, it’s a very strong dissent.
PB: Yes it is.
PS: After that, it was more of a focus on what to do about the changed situation. Remember the context. It was post-Humanae vitae, and at a time when the bishops were still doing nothing about the war in Vietnam. Both those factors, I think, discouraged the magazine from very actively joining with the right-to-life movement, which rather quickly took on a strong conservative, even right-wing character. In the 1970s, Commonweal held to its antiabortion position, but on a fair number of occasions the editors or contributors took issue with the particular strategies of either the bishops’ conference or abortion opponents.
PB: Peter, you wrote the first book about the neoconservatives, which was published in 1978. Did you have a sense that they were going to become as influential within the church, at least within elite church opinion, as they became? How did that faction play off against the bishops in the pastoral letters? How did that evolve?
PS: No, I didn’t have that sense. At that time Michael Novak was a regular columnist in Commonweal, and Richard John Neuhaus was a contributor of a number of articles, including one on abortion that won the Catholic Press Association award for the best article of the year. I recognized their swing politically in a more conservative direction, but I was not as struck by their potential influence or even by the extent of their feelings in terms of church matters. Even now I wonder if there had not been that political dimension to their positions—their hawkish foreign policy positions and support for Reagan’s domestic agenda—whether the divide, say, between Commonweal and First Things, would have ever been so great. Apart from the politics, there were and are a lot of shared viewpoints, primarily an unhappiness with a certain kind of reflexively secular culture. When Neuhaus published The Naked Public Square , I was going around giving talks about religion in the media or lack of same. I was saying more or less the same thing that Neuhaus was saying, so in terms of the cultural critique there was a considerable overlap.
PB: What about the internal church politics?
PS: Well, from ’82 on you begin to have Novak and others in the role of the designated opposition to the bishops’ pastoral letters.
MOS: You can’t leave out the whole Latin America, Central America fight, which was partly an internal Catholic fight.
PS: Right. And I’m not forgetting Neuhaus’s campaign against the National Council of Churches and the founding by him and others of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. But I think it was really with the neocons’ emergence as critics of the bishops’ conference and then their contacts and influence in Rome that made the division more of an intra-Catholic one and gave it an edge that I did not anticipate. Remember, it was not until 1990 that Richard became a Catholic.
Paul Baumann: So Peggy, when you became editor in 1988, how did you see the principal challenges facing the magazine, editorially and otherwise?
MOS: Well, it took me a little while to get into the swing of writing an editorial every other Sunday night! But obviously I was surprised and delighted to be asked. Still, the whole nepotism question was very clearly lurking there in the background.
PB: You have seen the July issue of Commonweal with two of my children in it?
MOS: Did I see Sarah?
PB: Sarah did the cover.
MOS: Oh, I didn’t know that.
PB: Nepotism is not a dirty word here. [Laughter.]
PS: Let me say a word about the nepotism issue. When I decided to take the offer of the New York Times, I presented a proposal to the very small board of the Commonweal Foundation about how they might go about choosing another editor. I suggested a search process and had a long list of possible candidates, which for obvious fear of nepotism did not include Peggy’s name.
MOS: All right, it must have been just the Chicago connection. [Laughter.]
PS: Jim O’Gara, who of course was from Chicago, said it would look very silly if we went through a long and complicated search procedure and contacted lots of people without having first made a decision about “someone.” He didn’t name the someone that he wanted to talk to, and that was what happened.
PB: That someone was then the editor of Church magazine.
MOS: Yes. I had been doing magazines my whole adult life, so it wasn’t as if I didn’t know how to do this sort of thing. Every two weeks, of course, has a different rhythm than a quarterly or a bimonthly. I don’t know if it was the first summer I was here or the second, when Edward walked in with his yellow pad and said, “Well, I don’t think we are going to be able pay anybody for October,” and I thought, “Oh my God.” I think that was the first time I appreciated the real fiscal situation of the magazine. After having a few heart attacks, I got on the phone and called a bunch of people and said, “Send money.” Some people did. Then I sat down with Edward and we went over everything. It became clear there was a cash-flow problem. It was also clear that if we postponed by a few months paying the pension or some other large bill, we could squeak by. So the immediate crisis passed. But I really became fixed on the idea that the business uncertainties had to be remedied. That was one issue; the other was that throughout my time there were a succession of production changes that we had to grapple with. When I came in 1988, the magazine was still, as far as I recall, produced on a linotype machine. It was printed on newsprint. As time went on, of course, we had to shift to computers, not only for editorial work but to do our own typesetting. There were many transitions on the production end involving money and computers. The technical production side of publishing was always on the verge of yet another change. Add to that: Emil Antonucci [artist and graphic designer], who was great, took us through two redesigns of the magazine while I was here.
The other big change was the magazine’s nonprofit status; it was now possible to get money from foundations. We were able to hold a few conferences and put out special issues of the magazine. Every other year or so we had enough money to be able to do something extra. Aside from that, the editorial topics were the usual: Israel, foreign policy, the presidency, abortion. Looking back, I see that abortion policy eventually became an internal church fight. Mario Cuomo wrote a very long letter to us when he was New York’s governor as a result of an editorial criticizing his position on abortion. It was a very civil debate, but it was a sign of the direction I think this has gone. Catholic public officials are not going to toe whatever the bishops think is the line that should be drawn in the sand. Nor would Commonweal support public denunciations of politicians by some bishops, or the banning of people from Communion. We didn’t want the church to go there. Looking back, the other thing I am struck by was the number of editorials we wrote about Israel, the Palestinians, and the Oslo Accords. We were forever hopeful that something positive would happen. How can it get any worse? How can it not get resolved? Yet, apparently some things never do get resolved.
PB: Well, I’m not sure we’ve resolved anything this afternoon, but it has been great fun. Thank you both.