Is Commonweal Moving to the Right?

August 28, 2013 at 5:14 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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I began reading the liberal Catholic magazine, Commonweal, when I was a teenager. I remember gobbling up the latest issue in 1965 during the coffee break from my file clerk job the summer before I started college. A few years later, my best friend from college, the future theologian Margaret O’Gara, began taking me home for conversations with her father, Commonweal’s editor,  James O’Gara. I felt amazingly honored to be a “Commonweal Catholic,” committed “to a church that’s open and pluralistic,…a visible manifestation of Jesus’ presence in the world,” as O’Gara put it in his final Commonweal column in 1999.

I’ve continued reading Commonweal and sometimes subscribing to it throughout the nearly fifty years since then, finding it more analytic than The National Catholic Reporter and vastly more progressive than most other Catholic journalism.  I was even a “Commonweal Associate,” for a few years after we moved back to New York, making an annual donation and attending  Associates’ receptions. But I gave that up. Now I’m wondering whether I should let my subscription go too.

A major gripe I have with Commonweal–and have had for some time–is the pitifully low percentage of articles and reviews by women that they publish. In the August 15 issue, for example, women wrote three of the seventeen pieces, but that’s only half the story. One of the three was a one page review of a television mystery series, one was a one page “Final Word” column, and one was a half-page poem about a recipe book.  And the gender make-up of this particular issue is not, I’m sorry to say, atypical.

Now the truth is that few contemporary publications do all that well with gender equality. As Sarah Sentilles notes in the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, in 2011, “The Atlantic published 184 articles and pieces of fiction by men and 64 by women; 18 of their book reviewers were men and 8 were women; and 24 of the authors reviewed were men, compared to 12 women. Harper’s Magazine published 65 articles by men and 13 articles by women; 23 of their book reviewers were men and 10 were women; 53 of the authors reviewed were men, 19 were women. The New York Review of Books published 133 articles by men and 19 by women; 201 of their book reviewers were male and 53 were female; and they reviewed 75 male authors and only 17 female authors.”

But Commonweal is an ostensibly progressive publication in a undeniably misogynist religious tradition, Roman Catholicism. Catholic women are already stuck with an all-male priesthood, a non-inclusive language lectionary (this past Sunday’s reading from Hebrews about God disciplining sons!) and condemnation for controlling our own reproductive functions. To which Commonweal adds poems about recipe books. (And yes, I know, the magazine had a women editor, Margaret O’Brien Steinfels, for fifteen years, and currently has one female associate editor. It’s not enough!!)

I also wonder what Jim O’Gara, who started out in the Catholic Worker, would think of some of the political/economic articles in Commonweal these days. I’m thinking, for example, of  Charles R. Morris’s piece in the September 4, 2012, issue predicting with enthusiasm a U.S. economic boom based in the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.  Lots of ostensibly liberal journalism outlets do this sort of thing, of course–consider for example the PBS “ad” about how small farmers who lease their land to the natural gas industry are flourishing. But Commonweal?

Finally let me share with you my most recent perplexity about where Commonweal falls on the political spectrum, its treatment of same-sex marriage. In truth, I thought Commonweal did better on the contraceptives mandate compromise than a lot of other white male Catholic publications: “this will do,” they editorialized. And in their most recent issue, the Commonweal editors do take the U.S. bishops to task for their “overwrought predictions of moral decline and social calamity” in response to the Supreme Court’s DOMA decision–even as they wonder whether “severing the connection marriage has forged between sex, procreation, and family formation will undermine the expectations our culture places on the institution.”  Then, in the same issue,  three male, apparently white,  authors hold forth on the decision’s other problems. God forbid that an assessment by a member of a group with its own history of marriage discrimination be included in the conversation.

But what really stokes my concern about a Commonweal move to the right is a fourth piece about same-sex marriage, this one by the conservative Catholic journalist, Joseph Bottum, that appeared on the Commonweal blog page on August 23rd. In it, Bottum, once an adamant opponent of same-sex marriage, now offers a “Catholic case” for accepting it, based in pragmatism–the battle is lost, and continued opposition is alienating the young–and the fact that the traditional sacredness of marriage has been lost in any case.

There’s quite a lot that’s interesting about Bottum’s essay, as the appearance of not one, but two, commentaries on it in the New York Times suggests. What I wish to point out, however, is that Bottum, the author, is a former editor of First Things,  the neoconservative journal founded by Richard John Neuhaus, and writes regularly for the National Review and The Weekly Standard, both also conservative publications. Furthermore, one of the two Times follow-up pieces is by the conservative Catholic columnist, Ross Douthat.

The question of where someone or something falls on the political spectrum is a tricky one,  affected by many factors. It might have seemed a liberal triumph when a number of  moderates joined the American Baptist Churches after their own Southern Baptist Convention was taken over by conservatives in the 1990s.  But the change also moved the American Baptists to the right. And some conservatives clearly think Joseph Bottum has moved to the left by accepting same-sex marriage and publishing about it in Commonweal.  Me, I’m not so sure.


1 Comment »

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  1. Thank you….PatHill



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