Not an Editorial

This space, usually reserved for vigorous opinion on politics, ecclesial and civil, will just this once be given over to saying something vigorous about the importance of editorial opinion and journals of opinion. Such magazines, Commonweal included, give voice—often contrary voice—to ideas, opinions, suspicions, and possibilities that a lot of people wish would just go away. (Complaints about our publishing Avery Dulles’s broadside on the CTSA remind us just how annoyed some people can get; ditto, our efforts to argue that no position on Iraqi-U.S. relations could claim the moral high ground.) Editorials, columns, personal essays, criticism, reviews—contrary opinion and constructive criticism are crucial to the vitality of any society and all institutions: American politics as well as the Catholic church; the Congress as well as the president; Protestants, mainline and evangelical; Hollywood; Broadway; and yes, the CTSA and Saddam Hussein.

So too, journals of opinion need critical scrutiny, for it is motley crews that keep them going. For example, in a realm marked by radical underfunding, the new publisher of the American Spectator, Terry Eastland, has been embarrassed to find that $1.8 million was expended by the Spectator’s staff in digging up dirt about Bill Clinton. What a colossal waste of money! Presumably Eastland would agree as he makes the rounds of donors.

Time too takes its toll. Magazines "have a natural life span connected to the society in which they live," writes William Pfaff elsewhere in this issue (page 16). He laments the downward trajectory of the New Yorker, "a product of a certain America, parochial in its way, but very sure of itself, and sure of its identity, which by the 1980s, was dissolving under pressures of cultural ideology and social divisions."

Time and money: all magazines face these challenges, now heightened by easy access to the Internet and the Web (thank God, computers cannot be read in the bathtub, where real readers prefer magazines ten to one). Nonetheless, each of us—Commonweal, America, the Christian Century, the New Republic, the Nation, First Things, the New York Review of Books, Sojourners, etc.—must meet the challenges and continue the conversation that we carry on with our readers.

For our part, that has been a two-way conversation between Catholicism and American culture, which has gone on for over seven decades. As an independent journal edited by Roman Catholic lay people, Commonweal has never pretended to speak for the church, but only for ourselves and for the wide range of thinkers, Catholic and non-Catholic, who write for us. In the decades before Vatican II, when Catholicism remained officially ambivalent about the principle of church-state separation, it was necessary to defend the autonomy of the temporal realm and the role of the lay person’s practical expertise in making the prudential judgments involved in the application of any religious conviction to very particular circumstances. Today, matters have shifted considerably in both church and culture, and yet that two-way conversation continues on different topics with different voices. The back and forth of that conversation, its very contrariness, helps sift through ideas good and bad, ferret out the sublime without overlooking the ridiculous, and distinguish the doable from the impossible (which perhaps should be undertaken anyway). All of this helps to construct and maintain a shared world view. This conversation is vital to how we understand the world, what we think, and the actions or inactions we finally carry out.

No surprise that such contraries make fluctuating fortunes the lot of all, even the well heeled. If magazines do have a natural life span, we hope it is a very long one; we’re up for another seven decades. Our experience, we think, is proof that magazines can stay on message while reshaping that message to changing times, needs, and readers. New designs, new writers, new perspectives help—and sometimes too, new editors. James Wall of the Christian Century will retire soon as editor while continuing his column at the ecumenical weekly. He reports there are a number of good candidates ready and willing to succeed him. George Hunt, S.J., of America has announced his resignation (offering a typically deft and witty account of his requested departure while promising a tell-all memoir. We make two bets: He will soon have a book contract! The next editor will be Tom Reese, S.J.). Bravo to both Wall and Hunt for their long-running performances and for staying on message. Good luck, Tom.

All of this is to say that in our opinion, journals of opinion are the greatest idea since sliced whole wheat bread. Eat it. It’s good for you. And your children.

Published in the 1998-05-08 issue: 
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