Commonweal–Indicator of Catholic Cultural Change, 1920s-1970s

Catholic periodicals blossomed in the first half of the twentieth century in the United States.  Allen Sinclair Will of Columbia University’s School of Journalism praised the “vigor” of Catholic journals in 1930, noting that the best Catholic editors were those who brought with them their skills first learned at secular presses.  The Catholic journals of opinion in the 1920s, such as Commonweal, seemed similar in quality and intent to their English counterparts.  The first issue of Commonweal, dated November 12, 1924, gives one a good insight into the Catholic culture of the day.  Coming out of the ghetto with pressure from the so-called Progressives, almost all of them elite Protestants, to “yank the hyphen out of hyphenated Americans,” Catholics attempted to demonstrate their pro-American sentiment while remaining true to the historic teachings of the Church.  The opening article of the first issue asked Calvin Coolidge, just recently elected to a full term as president, to embrace the “Good, the True, and the Beautiful” and the One who makes all things possible.  “Religion is at once the foundation and the only sure guarantee of the highest forms of civilization and culture,” the editors wrote.  If one, and especially the president of the United States, would only recognize and submit to these truths, we “cannot engulf ourselves in that overweening pride of self, that colossal ego of the would-be superman and supernation which is the conspicuous moral disease of the world today and of the very essence of its unrule and turmoil.”  The first issue featured pieces by G.K. Chesterton and Hoffman Nickerson, incorporating poetry and various articles on culture, history, theology, and philosophy.

As with the English and European Catholic journals in what Christopher Dawson identified as the “Age of Propaganda”, American Catholic journals found themselves fighting and responding to the same pressures.  A examination of the development of two eminent periodicals from the 1950s through the 1960s and 1970s—Commonweal and Jubilee—reveals interesting responses to such pressures.  In addition to dealing with the apotheosis of the ideologues, entrenched in their statist regimes, and to witnessing a vast change in America’s role in the world, these two journals dealt with the cultural earthquakes of the 1960s and the aftermath of Vatican II.  While America, dating back to 1909, had merely flirted with becoming nothing but an organ of the mainstream Democratic party, Commonweal went much further than America, and became, by the 1970s, merely a Catholic voice for the extreme left wing of the Democratic party.  Going further, however, than even Commonweal, Jubilee succumbed to the pressures of the 1960s and, after Vatican II, embraced radicalism just prior to the magazine’s own death.

In the 1950s, Commonweal remained much like it had been in the 1920s, a highly intelligent and respectable Catholic journal of opinion.  Well edited, each issue of Commonweal offered some critical examination of western and American culture and politics.  To take a year at random, say 1956, one finds an impressive range of scholars writing on a variety of interesting topics and from a number of different schools of thought: Christopher Dawson on ideologies; Walker Percy on Southern Stoicism; Michael Harrington on communism; Thomas Molnar on education; and William Shannon on politics.  Fritz Wilhelmsen, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and Dom Bede Griffiths also contributed to Commonweal’s success 1956.  The magazine analyzed current issues with intelligent and diverse voices and imaginations.

A decade later, one finds Commonweal still interesting, but less so.  To be sure, some truly impressive intellects still wrote for the magazine: Gabriel Marcel, E.I. Watkin, Martin Marty, Thomas Merton, Zbigniew Brzezinksi, Daniel Moynihan, and the then up-and-coming scholar Walter Dean Burnham.  Despite this impressive list, the magazine seems drier and more predictable.  James O’Gara, the future editor of Commonweal, strangely claimed that his personality had prevented him from embracing extremism in advocating reforms in the Church and the world.  “I do not pride myself on the fact.  We can, of course, only act according to our light, but in this matter I must confess to moments of self-doubt; there are times when I fear that those who are called ‘extremists,’ those who will not settle for less than perfection right now, may be right after all.”  This one article summed up Commonweal very well in the mid to late 1960s.  In that tumultuous decade, the magazine must have seemed somewhat lukewarm, neither this nor that, as the intellectuals in and out of the Church had begun to radicalize.  Equally revealing, O’Gara was ready for a change, and he would take Commonweal with him.  Only a month after O’Gara’s confession, Leslie Dewart claimed in the pages of Commonweal that “the formal dissociation of priesthood and religious celibacy is a vital need suggested by every dogmatic and pastoral orientation taken already by the Church.  One can only hope that we will follow through, and that we will continue to move ahead—without further delays, pauses or reverses such as we experienced during the 19th century—along the very lines that have guided our evolution since Pentecost.”  Somehow, Dewart was sure, the Holy Spirit desired married priests as well, and Commonweal willingly published his private revelations.  Clearly, Commonweal was flirting with significant change.

Under O’Gara’s editorial direction, Commonweal a decade later appeared  to be little more than the Catholic voice of the leftist most part of the Democratic party.  Again, fine authors, such as Michael Harrington, Robert L. Wilkin, George Tavard, and Avery Dulles, wrote for the magazine.  The 1976 presidential campaign issue featured a debate between Russell Kirk, reluctantly defending Gerald Ford, and Richard J. Neuhaus, vigorously embracing Jimmy Carter.  A few interesting articles appeared here or there, such as one on T.S. Eliot.  But, articles on culture and literature were rare.  Politics predominated.  Not surprisingly, Commonweal’s main concerns were nuclear power, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the Cold War.  In the March 26, 1976, issue, John C. Cort argued that any one who accepted the papal encyclicals since “Rerum Novarum” should embrace socialism.  Sounding very much like Rudolph Steiner and the heretical anthroposophists, Father Tissa Balasuriya claimed that the human race, under God’s guidance, had evolved in its consciousness and self awareness.  Consequently, “since the modern world has advanced to a point in which the more enlightened persons recognize woman as a human person with rights equal to those of a man, then this is a criterion for judging the Scriptures and the tradition of the church, rather than vice versa.”  In conclusion, Balasuriya wrote, “The church has to grow and once again learn from the world.”  One can readily imagine St. Augustine’s reaction to such an argument.

Perhaps most offensively, Leo Friedmann and Stephen Philip Kramer offered their thoughts on “The Myth of Soviet Aggression” in the June 4, 1976, issue, at the height of Brezhnev’s brutal reign.  With the Soviet prison camps thriving throughout eastern Europe, the Russian proxy states on various continents, and in the Soviet Union itself and with Solzhenitsyn’s three-volume Gulag recently published, these two Commonweal authors had the audacity to claim that Soviet “planning is responsible for the emergence of an apparatus of management and engineering skills which is one of [their] main achievements.”  This, admitted Friedmann and Kramer, had led to problems in other areas of the Russian economy.  “It is the overwhelming allocation of resources to weaponry and space technology which has disorganized the overall industrial structure, has limited scientific manpower in other areas, which has left agriculture an underdeveloped area, and the peasantry a backward social stratum.”  The fault, then, the authors claimed, as not with the Soviets, who only wanted to manage their economy and keep a stable social order.  Instead, one should blame the Americans for the problems in the Soviet Union.  The “aggression” of the Americans gave the Soviets an excuse to build up their military at the expensive of other sectors of the economy.  “The Soviet Union stands to gain more from our follies than from its own strength.”  Considering the absolutely dehumanizing policies of the Soviets as well as the glorious events of 1989, it would be hard to find a more wrong-headed and dangerous view expressed in either a Catholic or mainstream periodical.

[Tomorrow, Jubilee and America]




  • Bruce

    Commonweal is not a Catholic publication.

    • Ken

      “Independent journal of religion, politics and culture edited by lay Catholics.”- from their website.

  • Davide

    Interesting and informative. Thank you Brad



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