I like Commonweal Catholics, even though I don’t always agree with them. They’re smart, they’re often very funny, and several have been very good friends to me. At the top of my list is Luke Timothy Johnson. He’s liberal enough in the Commonweal fashion: a laicized priest now married (fine by me) who believes in women’s ordination and some sort of Church recognition of gay unions (not so fine by me)¯but he’s also the best and most readable New Testament scholar in America, combining vast learning with fervent Christological orthodoxy and an eye for the faddish and ridiculous in his field. His The Real Jesus should be required reading for anyone who thinks that “The Gospel of Judas” belongs up there with the Big Four, or that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a thing going that the Church covered up for two thousand years.
But there are other interesting Commonweal Catholics. Grant Gallicho and Peter Nixon are terrific writers and patient people: I recently edited their lively debate on the future of liberal Catholicism for Beliefnet without a hitch. I worked for John T. Noonan for a year, and we got on like gangbusters. Paul Baumann’s a great guy, although we haven’t communicated a whole lot since I wrote a not entirely kind review of Peter Steinfels’ last book for the Wall Street Journal —just as I was trying to persuade Paul to publish another of my book reviews in Commonweal (bad timing—that was the end of that!). And Peter and Peggy Steinfels . . . sigh. They can be exasperating, but they do hold the line on abortion.
So why, if I’m charmed by Commonweal Catholics, why do I find Commonweal the magazine, well, mostly a snooze? Let’s pay a visit to its website to see why. “Commonweal: A Review of Religion, Politics and Culture,” it says. No mention of the word Catholic , although everyone knows that Commonweal is a Catholic magazine.
The lead story in this biweekly issue: ” Unions and Immigrants: No Longer Enemies ” by Clayton Sinyai. Zzzzzz—do I really want to read an article about labor groups and undocumented aliens in the construction trades singing, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” OK, click. Sinyai turns out to be an official in the Laborers Union trying to organize them—so it is understandable that he doesn’t wish to tackle such thorny questions as, How can the rights of American workers, all granted under American labor law, apply to people who not only aren’t Americans but shouldn’t even be here? The word Catholic does not appear at all in Sinyai’s article, although nearly 100 percent of Hispanic immigrants are Catholics.
Click again: Margaret O’Brien Steinfels writing ” Can We Say No to a Friend? ” The “we” is America, and the “friend” is Israel. Steinfels is none too friendly to our “friend.” Hamas bombings in Gaza seem to be all Israel’s fault, and Israel also keeps resorting “to brute military force” in Lebanon. I’d like to know what else besides “brute military force” would work to get Hezbollah off Israel’s northern border. Again, the word Catholic does not appear in the piece, even though it’s our Holy Land.
It’s all like that. Richard Alleva’s fine movie reviews do not bring a particularly Catholic perspective to bear. Not a single one of the five books under review deals with Christianity. Indeed, only three articles in the entire issue involve Catholic or Christian themes: a column by Eastern Orthodox priest John Garvey on suffering and death, an editorial wondering when the Democrats will start taking Catholics’ religious and moral concerns seriously, and a piece by Notre Dame professor Cathleen Kaveny confidently predicting that the Catholic Church will eventually change some of its doctrines (a very ” Commonweal Catholic” view!). But the main interests of Commonweal ‘s contributors are resolutely secular: contemporary art and Bush’s war against terrorism.
None of this fare is badly written, but if I want to read a critique of Israel, or an account of a labor organizer’s hopes and dreams, or yet another Bush-bash, or a review of A Prairie Home Companion , there are numerous secular magazines and newspapers to which I can turn—indeed most of the secular magazines and newspapers out there, most of which offer livelier graphics (and sometimes snappier prose) than Commonweal . What is all this material doing in a Catholic magazine in the absence of any links to Catholic teaching or Catholic culture or a Catholic ethos?
The Catholic media are in generally sorry shape these days, and even the literate Catholics don’t buy Catholic books or subscribe to Catholic periodicals. Commonweal Catholics, who are supposed to be hip and sophisticated, complain that that’s because most of the Catholic media’s offerings aren’t sufficiently challenging. So why doesn’t Commonweal , their flagship magazine, rise to the occasion instead of tagging along behind the secular media and serving up warmed-over versions of the secular media’s views?
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