A Chapter of 'Commonweal' History
The late Wilfrid Sheed remembers his time at the magazine
There has never been a cult of personality at Commonweal, for which, on the whole, the Lord be thanked and the saints be praised. Small magazines don’t really have room for superstars soaking up all the attention; let the readers read the whole damn thing and decide for themselves who’s good for today.
Yet sometimes, when combined with the compulsory Catholic self-effacement of the 1940s and ’50s, the anonymity around here could seem almost eerie, suggesting that the magazine wasn’t actually written by anybody at all, but was flown in by angels every week. Years could go by without a single first-person singular breaking into print, as if the Humility Police were intercepting these earthly vanities and pluralizing them all down to ciphers. On a previous anniversary, a senior editor (who shall be nameless) undertook to compare the current editors with previous ones without identifying anyone from either generation. “They’re better than ever today,” he summed up vaguely, and presumably are better still now—whoever they are.
Fortunately, though, readers have never been bound by this rubric, and I can well remember my own days as a young scofflaw in the ’50s, snatching a quick read of Commonweal from the church rack and forming my own little pantheon, from which I would now like to cull just four names, chosen because one, they still go so well together, and two, because among them they typify both the church and the magazine in the crucial years between World War II and the Second Vatican Council; and incidentally also, three, because they were all lifelong friends of mine, in spirit when not in fact, and because the last of them died just last year.
John Cogley, Jim O’Gara, Bill Clancy, and Jim Finn all came, by chance, or perhaps not, from the Midwest, two from Chicago, where Cogley and O’Gara had run a particularly swinging branch of the Catholic Worker, Finn from nearby Gary, Indiana, and Clancy from Detroit, in the heart of Michael Moore country, where the class warfare is, or was, a simple fact of life with company goons literally busting heads and auto workers holding their ground grimly.
The resulting mix of social and religious activism and curiosity and much, much more blended so well in these four men that, to my skimming eye, they became a single great writer, and I could now swear that I even met them all together at one Socratic lunch in 1962. But this surmise is rendered unlikely by one other constant of Commonweal life, namely turnovers. Then, as perhaps now, one could only afford to work at the magazine until one reached two and a half babies, or bumped into a sudden change in the rent-control laws, or just about any other surprise whatever. So at least our blood was always new and our ideas the latest, if not best.
And each editor would have to round out his own bio and self-definition with what he did afterward. Cogley, for instance, who had been from day one our sage, our genius, would naturally enough proceed variously to the ideas desk at the New York Times and to Robert Hutchins’s mega-super-think tank at Santa Barbara, while Clancy, as our most spiritual, would become a priest with Bishop John Wright’s intellectual apostolate in Pittsburgh, where, no doubt, his deep, whiskey-jar chuckle won hearts and minds right and left. And Jim Finn would also wind up doing what he liked best. In all my own talkative life, I have never met anyone who could argue as long as Jim (ideally about foreign affairs) without raising his voice or his body heat, so he became the editor of a magazine called World View, where they paid him to do just that and where he would retain his cheerful serenity and placid pugnacity right up to the end a couple of years ago. Which brings us to Jim O’Gara, who had by sustained prodigies of simple living managed to break the rule and hang around long enough to steer Commonweal cautiously through the quicksand and the quagmires of the 1960s, and back into the normal path of evolution, where we find it today.
Historians looking for a single defining battle or showdown to mark this next transition might be pleasantly surprised to learn that there actually was one of sorts, and that while it might have seemed somewhat tame by 1960s standards—we didn’t lock O’Gara in his room, or burn him in effigy, or even ask him to leave town—it was also uncommonly intense by Commonweal standards. And it went something like this.
On one nondescript Sunday morning, we, the editors, all received phone calls from one Dan Callahan, who had already become the most outspoken of our Young Turks, suggesting that we all assemble at the magazine for an open-ended review of grievances plus suggestions that would put everything out on the table once and for all. And it speaks wonders for our enthusiasm at work, if not at home, that we all seemed to turn up together almost immediately.
“What are you doing here?” O’Gara’s puzzled, slightly edgy, first words on my arrival would draw a firm line around my own tiny role in what followed—because I had no honest answer for him. As a drama critic and book editor, who was about to transfer to Esquire anyway, I wasn’t quite sure myself what I was doing there. So I mumbled something about “solidarity” when what I should have admitted was simple curiosity, because the one thing that I presumably was qualified to talk about was theater, and this was surely going to provide plenty of that as well. And fortunately it did, because as the large statements of principle inevitably gave way to smaller questions of detail, I found my mind slipping away to greener ballparks or whatever. So have we just agreed to run more stuff on Latin America, or less? And what was that about women deacons? And, more seriously, hadn’t I promised to take the kids some place today?
But the play of personalities remained riveting throughout, particularly that of O’Gara, who had always been our closest thing to an introvert but who now, sitting roughly in the middle, coping like a veritable matador with thrusts from all directions, began to reveal more about himself than any of us had ever seen before in all our accumulated years. Perhaps my own most pertinent discovery was that the man truly loved his work, and had probably been born to do it, the proof being the infallible one that he enjoyed the dull parts, the details, and was disarmingly flexible about them. “All right, why don’t we try that?” he would say to our most farfetched demands that day. A weekly magazine uses up an awful lot of ideas every year. So if a fellow editor could make any kind of case for a new one, Jim’s instinct ran toward acceptance, and curiosity, and thoughts of the big picture. “Maybe we could use this in one of our Lenten issues. It would make a nice change of pace.”
In contrast, I couldn’t help noting that Callahan seemed to have no such cruising speed, but was more a man of extremes, of large enthusiasms and exasperations that might, if acted upon, have given our whole enterprise a massive nervous breakdown, from the office staff out to our farthest subscriber in the Australian bush. Dan, it would turn out, was still one vocation away from what he was born to do, which was to pursue particular projects to the white-hot end of the line in team with his own Hastings Institute and to become in passing an indispensable national voice in matters of medical practice and ethics.
Of course, this was all subtext. We hadn’t come here to discuss who should run the place, but how, and more abstractly, with what tone and purpose. Before I had met Jim and his contemporaries at that mythical first lunch of mine, Philip Scharper of Sheed & Ward had described them all perfectly as Christian gentlemen, and I had been relieved since then to find that this did not mean that they were patsies or intellectual pacifists or even necessarily nice guys in any conventional sense. If you knew a heartless joke, or a juicy piece of gossip, go right ahead.
What it did mean was that they were scrupulously fair about everything, and this was what Callahan was fundamentally here to challenge. To be sure, back in the 1940s and ’50s, Commonweal had still needed to mind its manners and walk narrow lines as it probed for a place to stand next to the massed clerical and political power to its right.
But this was the ’60s now, and those wars were over. For a first intoxicating moment, the Vatican Council had seemed almost like a kind of death of Catholic history, which had finally empowered the whole Mystical Body to turn its full attention to the outside world, still as Catholics, but not as ones who had to go on about it.
Yet here was Commonweal still poking along as if nothing had really changed, and still accepting the verities of the cold war as well. And here was Callahan, primed on Herbert Marcuse, to propose something completely different. The new line was that if you were fair about everything, you had already taken a position about it: the middle, or if you preferred, the bourgeois one which doomed us forever to ineffectuality—a bystander at the revolution, always a referee and never a player.
Or something like that.
I recall thinking dimly that there is much to be said on both sides, but deciding clearly that O’Gara knew our audience better and sensed just how far they could be stretched this year, and knew too that he couldn’t replace it overnight with another audience as the Callahan revolution might have required. And also realizing that the meeting had become, from farthest left field, a complete success.
After which I’d just like to report that the story had a happy ending, too, because also attending that day was a young man named Peter Steinfels, who had grown up with the magazine and who understood both points of view and who, with his brilliant new bride, Peggy O’Brien Steinfels, would find some sensational new middle positions for the magazine to take that might even have suited the extreme soul of Dan Callahan.
And finally two last footnotes, one to the meeting and the other to the era. At some point in the discussion, the spotlight had beamed briefly on me. What did I want to change about the magazine? And I realized that it might be a bad moment to confess my total satisfaction, so I came up with something that sounded completely phony the moment after I said it, but which passed at the time, to wit: Since the theater had lately become so harshly realistic, shouldn’t my own language about it be allowed to keep pace? To which O’Gara replied, “Of course. You can use any language you like.”
So now, some half-century later, I finally decided to act upon this license with the explosive epithet found in this essay’s first paragraph. Not long before he died, Cogley would leave one last clue to this whole gang by becoming of all surprising things an Episcopalian—not because he had lost his mind, as James Joyce might have suggested, but because, as he explained to me, he had wanted to do so almost all his life, ever since falling in love with the very words of it, those in the Book of Common Prayer, as a young boy. And these were the words he wanted to end up with now, thereby underlining two related aspects of the magazine in his day: its rock-ribbed ecumenism at a time when that was thought virtually a sin, and its basic commitment to good writing, which I can just hear that nameless senior editor calling even more basic today. And let’s hope he would be right this time. It was a handsome legacy.