Strike 3?

Another Day, Another Angry Letter
The Commonweal Christmas card

Over the years, I have received my fair share of intemperate letters. One hesitates to respond, let alone to respond in kind. Within reason, readers have a right to blow off steam. Many of these writers accuse Commonweal, absurdly, of being pro-abortion. Others, just as obtusely, indict us for being anti-Catholic, often with the added advice to get out and find a home in the Episcopal Church, or some other “failing” Protestant denomination. I recently received an especially aggrieved missive warning that, for my failings, I already had “2 strikes” against me. The author began by stating, as most such letter writers do, that his comments were not for publication. He just wanted me to know about his growing disappointment with Commonweal. I will defer to his wishes. I will not publish his letter, but out of respect for his opinions I will respond to it.

The author was particularly incensed by a solicitation for Commonweal’s American Catholic in the Public Square Award, which will be given to Sr. Carol Keehan, president of the Catholic Health Association, this October in New York City. Because of the price of tickets and tables the average person cannot afford to come to the dinner, the writer complained. That is true. That Sr. Keehan is a very deserving recipient of this award is something that we are proud to announce—but not only announce. The dinner to honor her is also a fundraiser. Held every two years, the event is designed to attract and engage potentially philanthropic-minded supporters of the magazine and increase Commonweal’s visibility. I’m not ashamed to say that we need the money. We really do. (Attendance at the dinner for Commonweal editors and staff is subsidized.) We do other events that are quite affordable. We also put out a magazine that costs twice what we charge for it! But I suspect that despite his complaints about the costs, his real objection to the dinner is our honoring of Sr. Keehan, who broke with the U. S. bishops and supported the passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. In that light, I was not surprised when my irritable correspondent ended his opening salvo by charging me with the sort of “liberal elitism” that supposedly doomed “Hillary’s” campaign.

He went on to complain about Commonweal’s Christmas card, judging it “disrespectful” and “insulting,” an “abomination” that revealed how “isolated from normality” Commonweal is. This came as something of a surprise, since we thought the card, a depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary by the Christian artist Alfonse Borysewicz, was striking and beautiful. My correspondent thought its somewhat abstract design a defacement of Mary. When it comes to art, of course, opinions differ, but the card, while not a stereotypical rendering, was hardly disrespectful, let alone insulting.

The letter writer is right about one thing; I did not and still do not fully understand Trump’s so-called populist appeal.

In his concluding paragraph, the letter writer gets to the heart of his discontent. Commonweal is too critical of Trump. He claims not to have voted for Trump, but neither would he stoop to vote for “Hillary.” More to the point, he could appreciate Trump’s populist appeal, something an “elitist” like yours truly “would never understand.”

Well, the letter writer is right about one thing; I did not and still do not fully understand Trump’s so-called populist appeal. And as one calamity after another piles up in the White House, I suspect a good many people who did vote for Trump are asking themselves how they could have been taken in by such a transparent fraud. Talk about being isolated from normality! Hatred of Clinton or of “liberalism” was no excuse for allowing this man to become president. Any complacency about Trump is a grave sin of omission. As an editor, when it comes to politics I have been hesitant to draw lines in the sand, but now is the time to draw one. I’m sorry my correspondent doesn’t understand that.

I am often puzzled when Commonweal is accused of being “elitist.” If Commonweal has any influence among the movers and shakers it is almost certainly hard-earned and indirect, achieved through our influence among a dedicated community of thoughtful Catholics and other readers concerned about the relationship between faith and public life. I have never been to Aspen or Davos. Despite my petitions, Bill and Melinda Gates never call. No politician has asked for my advice. Another definition of “elitist,” of course, is a belief in rule or domination by an elite. Whatever their populist rhetoric, it is clear that Trump and the Republican Party are committed to rule by the upper ranks of wealth and corporate power. They assure us that the rich are so very much smarter, so very much more productive than we are. Commonweal has long opposed such rule from above, either by the wealthy or by technocratic or bureaucratic experts. Yes, we ardently believe in the good that government can do, because we believe in democracy. That used to be a populist idea.

Published in the February 23, 2018 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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