The National Catholic Review
David S. Toolan

On the chilly afternoon of Nov. 30, I headed up Broadway bound for a party, the celebration of Commonweal magazine’s 75th anniversary. Arriving at Fordham-Lincoln Center’s McNally Amphitheater, I plunked myself down next to Bob Hoyt, Commonweal’s "senior writer," and Dennis O’Brien, the former president of the University of Rochester, who in his retirement has been raising money for Commonweal’s endowment. The evening would kick off with a talk by last year’s National Book Award winner, the novelist Alice McDermott (author of At Weddings and Funerals and Charming Billy). The talk, "On Being a Reluctant Catholic," was brilliantfull of feeling, wit and salty wisdom.

About 150 very cheerful "Commonweal Catholics" then moved over to the President’s Lounge of Fordham’s Lowenstein Building for cocktails and a sumptuous dinner. I found many familiar facesthe world’s most gracious host Joe O’Hare, S.J., Fordham’s president; Simon & Schuster’s executive editor Alice Mayhew; Peter Steinfels of The Times; Kay Voss of the Paraclete book store in New York; the novelist Rand Richard Cooper; Msgr. Phil Murnion of the National Pastoral Life Institute; the Commonweal columnist Sidney Callahan; and Paul Elie, a frequent contributor. Peggy Steinfels, Commonweal’s current editor in chief, toasted her staffPaul Baumann, Pat Jordan, Tina Aleman, Susanne Washburn and Tim Reidyas well as the former associate editors in the crowd: Wilfrid Sheed, John Leo, Jim Finn, Karen Sue Smith, Ray Schroth, S.J., and myself.

As I glanced about the room, I found myself searching for signs of those "exhausted" liberal Catholics whom Cardinal Francis George had recently lambasted at a Commonweal forum held in Chicago on Oct. 6 (reprinted in Commonweal, 11/19/99). On an earlier occasion the cardinal had dubbed Catholic liberalism an "exhausted project...now parasitical on a substance that no longer exists.... It no longer gives life." As Cardinal George explained at the October forum, what he had in mind by the term "liberal Catholic" was someone who understood Vatican II as a "mandate to change whatever in the church clashes with modern society.... [T]he project both for ecclesial renewal and for mission in the world takes its cues from the editorial page of The New York Times or, even worse, USA Today." In other words, liberal Catholics have traded in the "hard sayings" of the Gospel for the easily digestible fads of popular American culture.

"Good for Cardinal George," observed the always charitable Sidney Callahan, "I was glad to see him mixing it up with people." As someone who had grown up in a "Commonweal Catholic" family, however, I was insulted by the cardinal’s caricature of people like my parents (my father, a politician and trial lawyer, always had Commonweal on his library reading table), who had passed on their brand of critical faith to me, and not done a bad job of it.

Surely by no stretch of the imagination would all "Commonweal Catholics" describe themselves as "liberals." One former editor, John Leo of U.S. News & World Report, probably ranks as the nation’s foremost curmudgeon, and of the current editors, neither Paul Baumann nor Pat Jordan fits easily within the liberal camp. Still, I dare say there were plenty at Fordham that night who might own proudly to historian David O’Brien’s description of Catholic liberalism as affirming "the positive values of the culture and democratic institutions," advocating religious liberty and a vigorous lay apostolate, and supporting a public style of dialogue, mediation, compromise and gradualism.

I looked again at the crowd at Fordham this at nightpeople I knew, people I had prayed and argued with for years. Were they the morally spineless wimps who had sold out to a vacuous culture of free choice, as the cardinal implied? Or were we dealing in straw men? Sorry, I couldn’t find anyone at the celebration who fit the description.

David S. Toolan, S.J.

 

David S. Toolan, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.<BR>Archbishop of Chicago | 1/17/2007 - 9:20am
I truly regret that David S. Toolan, S.J., (Of Many Things, 1/1) was insulted because he believes I caricatured people like his parents in the talk I gave at the Chicago Commonweal Forum last Oct. 6. The paper I presented argued ideas. It should be possible to trace the history of an idea and disagree with it without being accused of insulting the person who holds it. I think many of Immanuel Kant’s central ideas were profoundly mistaken; he was still a genius and we profit from discussion with Kantians.

My argument with the Catholic “liberal project” was and is that it has run its course, as has its conservative counterpart, because the political labels distort rather than describe a church which no longer, since Vatican II, defines herself primarily as a society. There are many good ways to disagree with that argument without misrepresenting it or reducing it to personal insult. I “lambasted” no one and called nobody “exhausted”; nor did I “imply” that any of Father Toolan’s friends are “morally spineless wimps.”

I respect the “Commonweal Catholics” Father Toolan mentioned in his column and for many years have enjoyed what they write, both when I agree with their ideas and when I disagree. I might even enjoy a genuine critique of what I argued from Father Toolan, if he would care to make it. As it is, I’m sorry my talk occasioned his column; but I believe what he wrote was unfair, at least to the argument.

Cynthia Collie Fackler | 1/17/2007 - 11:03am
The first issue (1/1) of a friend’s gift subscription to America arrived at my home recently. I read it from cover to cover in order to determine objectively if my friend’s evaluation of it as a “moderate” Catholic magazine was accurate. You see, I’m a traditionalist curmudgeon, and the magazine subscription was meant to change my religious perspective.

As is my custom when reading any periodical, I immediately turned to the letters to the editor. I find they generally provide a clue to the publication’s point of view. The presence of some articulate letters challenging the liberal position posited by an article in a previous issue concerning the ordination of women was encouraging, but the necessity of that challenge raised some doubts about my friend’s characterization of your magazine.

Once I read the essay by David S. Toolan, S.J., on the inside cover, however, the warning bells really started clanging in my head. The last few words in the fifth paragraph (dialogue, mediation, compromise and gradualism) validated the concern in one letter about the latest feminist screed insisting on women deacons as the “first step” to achieving their agenda. Since the Holy See has spoken definitively on this subject, I find the continuing dissent expressed in so many Catholic (?) publications to be very disturbing, which two of the letters indicated was the tenor of the aforementioned article. What about the authority of the Holy Father? Isn’t his official teaching one of the primary foundations of Catholicism to which we all should assent?

The coup de grace was the article by David Nantais, S.J., denying the destructive nature of pop music on teenagers. Evidence to the contrary abounds for all but the obdurate, progressive liberal. Is Nantais’s thinking what David Toolan meant by liberal Catholicism “affirming the positive values of the culture”?

I must conclude that my friend, though a good person, is misguided.

Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.<BR>Archbishop of Chicago | 1/17/2007 - 9:20am
I truly regret that David S. Toolan, S.J., (Of Many Things, 1/1) was insulted because he believes I caricatured people like his parents in the talk I gave at the Chicago Commonweal Forum last Oct. 6. The paper I presented argued ideas. It should be possible to trace the history of an idea and disagree with it without being accused of insulting the person who holds it. I think many of Immanuel Kant’s central ideas were profoundly mistaken; he was still a genius and we profit from discussion with Kantians.

My argument with the Catholic “liberal project” was and is that it has run its course, as has its conservative counterpart, because the political labels distort rather than describe a church which no longer, since Vatican II, defines herself primarily as a society. There are many good ways to disagree with that argument without misrepresenting it or reducing it to personal insult. I “lambasted” no one and called nobody “exhausted”; nor did I “imply” that any of Father Toolan’s friends are “morally spineless wimps.”

I respect the “Commonweal Catholics” Father Toolan mentioned in his column and for many years have enjoyed what they write, both when I agree with their ideas and when I disagree. I might even enjoy a genuine critique of what I argued from Father Toolan, if he would care to make it. As it is, I’m sorry my talk occasioned his column; but I believe what he wrote was unfair, at least to the argument.

Cynthia Collie Fackler | 1/17/2007 - 11:03am
The first issue (1/1) of a friend’s gift subscription to America arrived at my home recently. I read it from cover to cover in order to determine objectively if my friend’s evaluation of it as a “moderate” Catholic magazine was accurate. You see, I’m a traditionalist curmudgeon, and the magazine subscription was meant to change my religious perspective.

As is my custom when reading any periodical, I immediately turned to the letters to the editor. I find they generally provide a clue to the publication’s point of view. The presence of some articulate letters challenging the liberal position posited by an article in a previous issue concerning the ordination of women was encouraging, but the necessity of that challenge raised some doubts about my friend’s characterization of your magazine.

Once I read the essay by David S. Toolan, S.J., on the inside cover, however, the warning bells really started clanging in my head. The last few words in the fifth paragraph (dialogue, mediation, compromise and gradualism) validated the concern in one letter about the latest feminist screed insisting on women deacons as the “first step” to achieving their agenda. Since the Holy See has spoken definitively on this subject, I find the continuing dissent expressed in so many Catholic (?) publications to be very disturbing, which two of the letters indicated was the tenor of the aforementioned article. What about the authority of the Holy Father? Isn’t his official teaching one of the primary foundations of Catholicism to which we all should assent?

The coup de grace was the article by David Nantais, S.J., denying the destructive nature of pop music on teenagers. Evidence to the contrary abounds for all but the obdurate, progressive liberal. Is Nantais’s thinking what David Toolan meant by liberal Catholicism “affirming the positive values of the culture”?

I must conclude that my friend, though a good person, is misguided.

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