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.