A quiet heroism

James O'Gara, R.I.P.

It was gratifying that both the Washington Post (October 27) and the New York Times (November 1) published significant obituaries taking note of the death, on October 22, of James O’Gara, eighty-five, and sketching Jim’s thirty-two years as managing editor and editor of Commonweal.

The obituaries highlighted dramatic confrontations: Jim declaring that the entire staff would publicly resign rather than muzzle Commonweal’s opposition to Senator Joseph McCarthy, as one of the magazine’s then owners was urging. Jim rebuffing FBI agents threatening a subpoena if the magazine did not turn over material about Daniel Berrigan.

Such dramatic confrontations may have shown Jim’s mettle, but they do not really capture the character and achievement of a man who, at least in his demeanor, was decidedly undramatic and nonconfrontational, a man whose heroism was found not in those relatively rare challenges but in the harder heroism of week-by-week, year-by-year, manuscript-by-manuscript, page-by-page intellectual journalism. Jim’s was the heroism of St. Sisyphus, not St. Prometheus.

Jim was a laborer on behalf of the truth, sometimes on behalf of the stinging, brutal, blood-drenched truth, but far more often of the grayer, messier, less obvious truths, upon which faith and hope and human happiness can no less depend. If the editorials, articles, and columns that he wrote began in flashes of inspiration or...

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.