A Word from the Editor

How I got here & why I stayed

I began subscribing to Commonweal and submitted my first article to the magazine as a student at Yale Divinity School twenty-three years ago. That piece was about the official "visit" of two or three Catholic bishops to the somewhat anomalous contingent of Catholic students there. Naturally, the article was rejected. But I did get a two-page letter from Peter Steinfels, then executive editor, discussing the piece and encouraging me to submit other articles. Looking back after years of sifting thousands of submissions to this magazine, I can’t imagine how Peter found the time to write such a gracious letter, but it did the trick. I was hooked. After some high school teaching and a stint as a newspaper editorial writer, I finally weaseled my way onto the Commonweal staff.

Despite my two years at Yale and my debt to outstanding teachers there such as biblical scholar Luke Timothy Johnson and the liturgist Aidan Kavanagh O.S.B., my Catholic intellect has largely been formed in the daily business of putting out this magazine. I was in junior high school during the Second Vatican Council, and am a beneficiary of neither parochial school nor Catholic higher education. In fact, I will be the first editor at the top of the masthead in thirty-six years who has not been disciplined in the classroom by Chicago nuns or educated by the Jesuits at that city’s principal Catholic university. Before I came to work at Commonweal, much of what I imagined Catholic intellectual life to be followed from an obsession with G. K. Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh, not Gaudium et spes or Lumen gentium.

It’s been a real education. Under the tutelage of the Steinfelses, Peggy and Peter, Managing Editor Patrick Jordan, and former Senior Writer Bob Hoyt, I was introduced to the finer points of theological and ecclesiological dispute, to the complicated relationship of political liberalism and Catholic conviction, to Dorothy Day and the even more complicated relationship of just-war theory and Catholic pacifism, to the church’s modern social teaching and the art and science of reading papal encyclicals. The late Dave Toolan, S.J., whose book review editor job I inherited, found a place for me to stay with the West Side Jesuit Community when for years moving my family close to the city proved financially impossible. He was a good neighbor. And Associate Editor Daria Donnelly has shown me the courage and humor of an indefatigable Catholic faith in the face of grievous adversity. I will do my best to live up to the legacy of all of these people.

Following in Peggy Steinfels’s footsteps is a daunting prospect, but also an exciting one. Peggy has been a demanding editor, a passionate interlocutor, and a friend. In short, an invaluable mentor.

Peggy knew exactly what she wanted in the magazine. No sentimentality (except, perhaps, about Chicago). No special pleading for religion in general and especially for Catholicism. An absolute skepticism toward every article submitted and every argument advanced, with no deference to the powerful or the intellectual bigwig. Everyone gets edited. An imperturbable conviction that nothing Catholicism holds to be true contradicts reason. No adjectives. (Well, almost no adjectives.) An abiding suspicion of worldly success, prestige, or praise (especially of the sort I’m indulging in here). And most important of all, she wanted a magazine that reflected a sense of the sharpness and perspective Catholicism can give to our moral intelligence. A magazine animated by the conviction that the moral content of our lives must have a recognizable, even beautiful, but never static shape.

Several people have asked me how my "vision" of the magazine will differ from Peggy’s or what changes I hope to make. Inevitably there will be some change in tone and emphasis. Also, a long-postponed graphic redesign of the magazine is likely. But for the most part, I plan to see how the editor’s visor fits before thinking about rearranging any of the furniture. I suspect that if there will be any pronounced difference, it will be my shamelessness in asking Commonweal supporters to put their money where their hearts and religious convictions are. The magazine has made remarkable financial progress under Peggy’s direction, but we are still, relatively speaking, desperately poor. (Is there no Catholic Lilly heiress longing to drop $100 million on this little magazine?) I am convinced that Commonweal is vital to the flourishing of the American Catholic Church, and to the universal church as well. Indeed, I think a magazine like this-anchored in a Catholic incarnational sensibility and animated by a democratic ethos-has a crucial role to play in the larger intellectual, religious, and political conversation. But people blessed with the talent and intelligence to make that argument heard-and this magazine noticed-no longer spring up unbidden from the working-class Catholic parish. Living in or around New York City is expensive. Efforts to increase the magazine’s circulation are expensive.

Thanks to many writers and editors, living and dead, Commonweal has a voice in Catholic and secular affairs that resonates far beyond the magazine’s actual circulation. But the cohesive American Catholic community of the last century is gone. Truth be told, far too many in our natural audience of educated, intellectually engaged Catholics do not even know the magazine exists; a new audience will have to be wooed and cultivated. I will need the help of every Commonweal supporter to keep this remarkable enterprise alive. I will do everything I can to be worthy of that support.

Published in the 2003-01-17 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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