Seventy-five years!

Journals of opinion come in all shapes and sizes, and in varying degrees of persuasiveness. Readers pick up some to be consoled and reassured, others to be provoked, and still others to find ammunition for political or ideological battles. And then there is the excitement of encountering a new writer, a genuinely new perspective, or even a good old idea decked out in unexpected but pleasing new attire. Throughout its seventy-five year history, Commonweal has, with varying degrees of success, performed all of these services for its readership-plus, we hope, providing that hard-to-define something more that forges a permanent bond between a magazine and its audience. In this, our seventy-fifth anniversary issue, we hope we have given readers a little (in some cases, there’s actually quite a lot) of everything above.

It has been the magazine’s custom, in marking chronological milestones, to rehearse the rationale and purposes of the enterprise’s founders (see, "From the Archives" on page 6) and succeeding editors. Since its inception, Commonweal has been careful to declare itself "not the organ of any political party, or of any single school of economic or social theory." It has resolutely disclaimed a role as "an authoritative or authorized mouthpiece of the Catholic church." Instead of advancing an ideological program or institutional interest, the magazine has tried to develop an "approach," a way of bringing Catholic convictions, reasoned reflection, and, above all, fair-mindedness in argument to the assessment of the issues of the day. The issues of the day are many. In a manner of speaking, the magazine’s subject matter has always stretched from Rome to California, and beyond. And despite disappointment, we haven’t given up on either California or Rome (pace Richard John Neuhaus, page 16). Simply put, "The Commonweal has not backed away from American life and culture, which it hopes to influence," wrote the editors in marking the magazine’s twenty-fifth birthday.

The current editors continue to endorse that description of the magazine’s purpose and function. An important part of that engagement has been the promotion of human dignity for all and the pursuit of social justice. Even in flush times, that fight is far from won. We also hope this journal expresses some of the good humor, unabashed curiosity, and simple joy in life that any incarnational faith worth its gospel salt should possess in plenty. The publication of fresh, honest writing, whether it is about the movies, a new novel or TV show, or even the small revelatory incidents of everyday life, is one way to testify to that incarnational faith. Ideally, this is a magazine that reaches from the Vatican archives on Pius XII to the Brooklyn Museum to the plight of Albanian Kosovars and to a great many other nooks and crannies.

Much of this hefty anniversary issue is taken up with a familiar quandary. Both Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George and former Commonweal editor Peter Steinfels analyze the strengths and weaknesses of that venerable hybrid, "liberal" Catholicism. We see the authors’ approaches as complementary rather than antagonistic, although there is no disguising a fundamental divergence of views on some aspects of the question.

The ideas that congregate around the often slippery term "liberal Catholicism" (see, John Noonan, page 40) have been a preoccupation of this journal for much of its history. Cardinal George warns that important aspects of liberal culture are inimical to Catholicism and especially to the formation of a distinctive Catholic sensibility and vision. There is a measure of truth in such warnings. But there is also a strain in the cardinal’s remarks that strongly suggests Catholicism has already absorbed all that is postive about modernity. That assertion seems less self-evident, at least to us.

Precisely these questions are the subject of philosopher Charles Taylor’s new book, A Catholic Modernity? (Oxford). Taylor, like George, mounts a devastating critique of modernity’s denial of transcendence, and especially of the room such a denial creates for explicitly antihumanistic philosophies, such as eugenics and Social Darwinism. Taylor is also acute in his deconstruction of the philosophy of atomistic individualism that often dominates our political and moral debates. But he is more positive than the cardinal in his valuation of modernity’s moral resources, especially liberal culture’s regard for individual rights and dedication to human well-being. "My feelings are divided, complex," Taylor confesses, describing how he, as a Catholic intellectual, responds to a modern world that combines high moral aspirations with a disregard bordering on contempt for Catholicism and religious faith.

Taylor reminds us that secular humanism has brought universal human rights to the forefront of the world’s moral agenda in a way the church never could. As a consequence, he resists arguments that "condemn or affirm modernity en bloc." Moreover, he argues that a church that has rightly, if tardily, embraced the secular humanistic demand for human rights cannot somehow bypass modern culture in now championing those rights. In the final analysis, liberalism’s real moral accomplishments justify its equally real moral risks."Better, I would argue," Taylor writes, that Catholics "gradually find our voice from within the achievements of modernity."

That precisely is the task Commonweal has been committed to for seventy-five years. There is much work still to be done. As we begin the next quarter of a century, we want to thank the authors, readers, and generous benefactors who have allowed us to keep trying to get that voice right.

Published in the 1999-11-19 issue: 
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